what does it mean? What exactly does sustainability mean to us as individuals? What can we do to become more responsible? Do we all need to do the same thing? What should we do first, save the environment or eradicate poverty? What comes first, our health or the Earth’s? Difficult questions never have easy answers - so the ancients say!
SC is an issue in a continuing state of evolution and the answers are rarely black and white. Nevertheless, there are a number of basic elements that make up the whole picture: what follows is an overview of the topics and challenges.
If we continue our current patterns of consumption, the future will not be bright. At the moment, estimates show that our planet is losing an area of fertile land about the size of Ireland every year as a result of overgrazing and deforestation. How long can this go on for?
equally responsible? The more we damage the environment, the more we put ourselves and future generations at risk. The planet’s health is our health. Everyday 50 plant species become extinct. How many is that per week, per month, per year? Scientists believe that plants hold the key to finding cures for many diseases. So each lost species not only causes irreparable damage to the ecosystem, but is also a lost opportunity for our future development.
Figures from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) show that the average world citizen requires 2.3 hectares (one hectare is equal to the size of a soccer field) to produce what he consumes every year and then to have a place to dump what’s left over. That’s 40% more than is sustainable.
So, are we all equally responsible then? No, not really. If you’re Italian, for instance, you need 8 times this area, if you are American, it is 18 times more. And if you’re Bangladeshi, it is one third. This also tells us that the distribution of consumption is seriously out of balance.
unequal distribution: the world’s 20% richest people consume nearly 75% of the planet’s natural resources. Think about it: the USA makes up 6% of the planet’s population but consumes a staggering 30% of its resources. The wealth of the world’s 225 richest individuals equals the annual income of the bottom 47% of the world’s population, or 2.5 billion people.
Talking about distribution, many people think that the planet is not producing enough to feed its population. Wrong. Unequal distribution of food is the main reason why there are 800 million undernourished people in the world today. In cruel contrast, a British report published in 2000 revealed an estimated UK£400 million (about US$571 million) worth of food ends up - wasted!- in landfills or incinerators every year. To add insult to injury, a recent US government study showed that more than a quarter of all food produced there doesn’t get eaten.
to sum up… the facts underline that SC is not just an environmental issue but one that promotes a dignified standard of living for everyone.
Putting priorities into perspective…
basic education for all ($6 billion) versus cosmetics in the U.S. ($8 billion)
water and sanitation for all ($9 billion) versus ice cream in Europe ($11 billion)
basic health and nutrition ($13 billion) versus pet foods in Europe and USA ($17 billion)
reproductive health for all women ($12 billion) versus perfumes in Europe and the USA ($12 billion)
source: Human Development Report 1998, “Consumption for human development” [www.undp.org/hdro/1998/98]