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72% of the world population live in countries faced with a precarious situation. These countries both (1) run a biological resource deficit (where demand for biological resources exceeds regeneration) and (2) generate less than world-average income, limiting their ability to purchase resources from elsewhere. These findings were released in “The Importance of Resource Security for Poverty Eradication,” a recent paper by Global Footprint Network staff and collaborators in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The premise is simple: countries that consume more than can be produced domestically and have less than world-average income are particularly exposed to resource insecurity. Since every person needs biological resources for all their basic functions such as food, water, shelter, clothing, and energy to operate things, this double constraint becomes a major threat.

The threat is amplified by global overshoot. Humanity already demands more from nature each year than the planet’s ecosystems can regenerate. As resource depletion becomes more acute, competition for those resources will become fiercer. The rapid depletion is already taking its toll, as evident through a litany of environmental challenges including excessive amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, freshwater shortages, and deforestation.

The double resource challenge is not new. Common sense would conclude that we all need resources to operate. Moreover, operating our economy in the present by using the natural capital needed to regenerate future resources is self-defeating.

Economic development strategies fail to adequately address double resource challenge

Nevertheless, current economic development theory and practice seem to feed into this self-defeating pattern. The pervasive view on economic development and resource use is still rooted in a colonialist mentality of extracting or exploiting, based on the assumption that there is always more elsewhere. This approach is maintained in the name of improving wellbeing, theorized back when humanity’s resource metabolism still fit within planetary limits.

This emphasizes pathways that end up making populations even more resource dependent. Meanwhile, global overshoot keeps growing – only interrupted by disaster-induced contractions as the one experienced with COVID-19.

Examples of ineffective development strategies abound. Economists lament about shrinking populations as it might reduce economic activities. The World Bank continues to support policies that are largely driven by GDP. Germany continues to push for completing a new pipeline for natural gas from Russia, directing investment towards fossil fuel infrastructure, while it is obvious that we need to move out of fossil fuel use more rapidly than most can imagine. The UK wants to open a coal mine in Cumbria – while also hosting COP26.

Some may argue that calls for “climate proofing” development have become more prominent over the last decade. These calls have had little impact because they portray the resource challenge, which the climate problem ultimately is, as a conditionality, something extra added to the already difficult task list of providing for education, health, public safety, etc. In reality, making development last needs far more than “climate proofing”. It requires approaches that massively reduce overall resource dependence while increasing wellbeing.

Addressing wellbeing and the double resource challenge

How? Pretty simple. And different from the dominant development practice today, whether it is countries’ own development policies, or international development efforts directed by high-income countries intended for low-income populations. On the supply side, lasting development requires investing in the resilience and productivity of biological capital. On the demand side, it requires finding ways to satisfy human needs through far less resource-demanding options which we divide into four main areas:

  • How we build cities. The way cities are shaped and managed determines how we live – compact, integrated cities with resource-efficient infrastructure and little need for mobility, beyond walking and bicycling, are the most future proof–and increasingly most valuable–cities.
  • How we power ourselves. Here the arguments are best understood. Coal power vs. solar makes a huge difference. We also need ways to balance out mismatch between supply and demand, including storage, and incentives to shift power demands to times of power abundance.
  • How we feed ourselves. Already, food occupies about half the planet’s regenerative capacity. We cannot as easily cut calories per person, but rather the composition of our diets. We can also eliminate some of our food waste (currently close to 40% of all the food produced in the world, according to the FAO).
  • How many we are. The more we are, the less planet there is per person. Encouraging smaller families has vast social and economic benefits, and over time, cumulatively, enormous ecological advantages.

To be sure, some development efforts already point in this direction. There are projects to electrify rural areas through the solar revolution; initiatives to help small-holders retain more of the value add of the value chain which they deliver by having more control over their land, their harvest and the timing of selling their products. But these initiatives are still outweighed by large-scale traditional infrastructure projects, blind to the need for accelerating the demographic transition and radically dematerializing human needs. The evidence of the insufficient development strategies are obvious: overshoot keeps growing and the percentage of those in countries with biological resource deficit and less than world average income keeps growing as well.

This is not fate. It is a misguided development policy which is not informed by the physical reality of our planet. Such practice is anti-poor and dangerous because it forces people to live off depletion, which cannot last. It puts social progress at risk. The impacts of good and bad choices are measurable and another future is possible. What are we waiting for?

To maintain progress and eradicate poverty, countries need either sufficient natural resources within their country to match their ecological footprint, or money to competitively buy what they need on markets abroad. When neither of these two conditions are met, countries may end up in an ecological poverty trap — a situation in which the country’s natural resources are insufficient to provide enough food, fibres, building materials and CO2 sequestration, among other factors.

Many thanks to authors Mathis Wackernagel1, Laurel Hanscom1, Priyangi Jayasinghe2, David Lin1, Adeline Murthy1, Evan Neill3, and Peter Raven4. Wackernagel originated the research idea, contributed to research design, and lead the write-up of the paper. Lin, Hanscom, and Murthy participated in the research design, research execution, and write-up. Neill performed analysis. Raven and Jayasinghe contributed to research design and write-up.

1           Global Footprint Network, 1528 Webster Street, Suite 11, Oakland, CA 94612, USA; corresponding author mathis.wackernagel@footprintnetwork.org
2           Munasinghe Institute for Development, 10/1 De Fonseka Place, Colombo 5, Sri Lanka
3           Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Rd, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
4           Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, Missouri 63110, USA