Our problem isn’t growth. Our problem is inequality.
I recently found myself using one of those ecological footprint calculators on the internet. As a vegan who cycles to work, recycles religiously, refuses to take short-haul flights, wears secondhand clothes, and through being follicly challenged doesn’t require either shampoo or conditioner, I was shocked to find that my lifestyle still requires three Earths. That is, if everyone on Earth were to live like me, we would need three Earths to sustain us. It got me to thinking about the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, that I hear so much about. According to the latest estimated figures reported in the Sustainable Development Report, or SDR, for 2023, the highest performing country is Finland who achieved a Sustainable Development Index score of 86.8. Hat’s off to Finland!
So, you might be wondering what got me checking my ecological footprint? Or maybe not! Either way, this summer has brought a cavalcade of disasters one after the other, with Southern Europe alternating between fire and floods, North America ditto, and now tens of thousands may have perished in Libyan floods. Add to this mix the report about the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) possibly shutting down completely by 2025 and you get a sense that we may have entered into uncharted territory. Our overlords seem intent on growing the economy at the expense everything and everyone else, so I figured I would have to try and limit the individual damage I cause instead. One of my personal solutions is to insulate my home to make my energy use more efficient. We’ll get to this later.
It is easy to pass tests when you cheat.
Digging a little further I found that out of the 17 SDGs, Finland had achieved three (green), faced challenges with nine (yellow), faced significant challenges with a further two (orange), and faced major challenges with the remaining three (red). If this is the best performing country, what of the worst? I downloaded the data and scrolled down the list to the bottom only to find that propping up the list in 166th place was South Sudan—which according to Human Rights Watch—faced “violence, hunger, and stark challenges” in 2022. According to the report, most goals face major challenges, and the only goal that South Sudan has achieved is Climate Action. How can South Sudan achieve what Finland cannot?
Could it be because Nordic Finland doesn’t have enough sun to transition away from fossil fuels? Apparently not, Finland’s long summer days compensate perfectly for the loss of sunlight in winter, so much so that Finland is able to harness as much of the sun’s rays as Central Europe. So why can’t Finland achieve what the South Sudanese can? The answer is something that we in the West don’t like to admit. We would prefer to be blinded by the obvious. To face the truth would make us extremely uncomfortable at best, and complicit in genocide at worst. The reason for Finland’s inability to meet its Climate Action goal is because it largely exports its emissions. I can say this even as the Finnish Economy Minister Mika Lintilä projects that Finland will be energy self-sufficient by 2024. The SDR refers to this outsourcing as “CO₂ emissions embodied in imported goods and services.” Finland’s imports account for 47.6% of its GDP. This contrasts with 30.1% globally. This piqued my curiosity so I downloaded a dataset from footprintnetwork.org. This dataset included national per-capita-GDP (PCGDP) and the number of Earths that would be needed if all 8.1 billion humans lived in the same way. The results were fascinating.
Of the top twenty SDGI countries, Finland (86.8) beats out its Scandinavian neighbors Sweden (86), and Denmark (85.7), but Denmark tops the Earth consuming league by consuming 4.8 planets worth of resources. This is just shy of the United States, which consumes 4.9 planets worth of resources and sits down in 39th place in the SDGI league. Of this top 20, not a single country consumes the amount of resources that could be sustained by a global population of 8.1 billion. The average number of Earths consumed by this exclusive list of resource vampires is 3.45. Compare this to the lowest 10 consumers who would need on average just 0.68 Earths to sustain the global population at their consumption levels. So what is driving this huge difference between the highest and lowest consumers?
The major driving factor appears to be per-capita GDP. When looking at the highest 20 consumers on the SDGI, the average per-capita GDP is $41,470. Look to the bottom of the list, and the average per-capita GDP is just $1,704. When you filter the list for nations that consume resources sustainably (one Earth or less), only three countries achieve sustainability with more than $10,000: Tunisia ($10,535), Jordan ($10,159), and Egypt ($12,786). The average per-capita GDP of those countries which consume their fair share is a paltry $3,829. Of the top 20 countries on the SDGI, Croatia has the lowest per-capita GDP with $31,007, but Croatians consume two and a half planets worth of resources. This shouldn’t really surprise us as it is well documented that higher GDP correlates with higher consumption, which correlates with higher resource use. According to these results, it would seem that the maximum per-capita GDP that would enable us to live sustainably is $12,786. Can we imagine the changes necessary for those of us in the West to shrink our economies by this much?
Incredibly, many of the richest countries on Earth cannot meet the SDG of ending poverty. If we cannot end poverty in some of the largest economies like the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan, what hope is there if we are to shrink our economies by up to six times to consume sustainably? Even those nations—like Canada, Russia, China, and France—that have apparently succeeded in ending poverty still do not provide their citizens with good health and well-being, which should surely be the ultimate aim. Likewise with poverty, when looking at the SDG of ending hunger, the results are illuminating. In the rich nations of the Global North where absolute hunger is thought to have all but ended—nearly all countries are either facing significant or major challenges when it comes to obesity (BMI >30). New research links this obesity epidemic, not necessarily with overeating, but on a prevalence of “cheap, high energy-dense, ultra-processed foods high in fat and sugar.” Whether in the richest nations on Earth, or the poorest, the case remains the same: Poor people cannot afford access to good quality food, and all around the world hunger is driven by inequality—both domestically and internationally. Add to this the proliferation of food banks in the U.S. and Europe, and it is arguable whether hunger has truly been solved, even in the richest nations on Earth.
Even if we scrap GDP and focus on the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), which includes life expectancy, education, and economic measures, according to the U.N. themselves, “no country has achieved a very high HDI value without contributing heavily to pressures driving dangerous planetary change.”
Let’s call this what it is—cheating, or “Clever accounting and creative PR” as Greta Thunberg termed it. It is easy to pass tests when you cheat. It should be easy to provide adequate nutrition, ensure zero poverty, clean water, quality education, and decent work and economic growth if we are plundering resources from poorer countries in a wholly unsustainable manner. So far though, not a single country has been able to do it sustainably, and it appears to be a mirage to even try. The ecomodernists will argue that human ingenuity will solve the crises we face by increasing efficiency through technology, but the Jevons Paradox suggests otherwise. This paradox finds that when governments and businesses attempt to reduce consumption by increasing efficiency, the opposite actually occurs. As our bills go down, we consume more. Why? Because we can. So, if I insulate my home as the footprint calculator suggests, the paradox implies I will simply increase my energy use elsewhere because I have saved money on my energy bills through insulation.
Our problem isn’t growth—it’s inequality. Just as shopping carts of the Global North need to shrink in order that the Global South can achieve an acceptable standard of living, we have to admit that we cannot grow our economies infinitely. In fact, we need to accept that in order for all humans to thrive in a sustainable manner that allows for our children to live safely, countries with the highest GDP and resource use need to shrink in order that those with the lowest GDP and resource use can increase their health and well-being and meet us in the middle.
For those of us in the richer nations, we need growth like an alcoholic needs beer; sadly, our economic system demands it. Even if we transition to renewable sources of energy, we must use more energy because we must have growth at all costs. This is why, even as we add more and more gigawatts of renewable energy every year, our use of fossil fuels continues to increase, not decrease. Without an end to our outdated and even more outlandish economic system, we will continue to destroy our planet, all in the name of D. Let’s just drop it and focus on S and G, before it is too late.