Who’s putting pressure on the planet?

There’s no doubt that this planet is under pressure – but where is that pressure coming from? Who or what has driven three planetary boundaries to be breached, and caused the stress to be rising on many others?

This 9 minute video dives into the extraordinary inequalities of resource use – within and between countries – that lie behind the story of humanity’s pressure at the global scale. Focusing on nitrogen pollution, freshwater use, climate change, and land use change, it starts to reveal who is putting pressure on the planet.

Did you know:

• Thanks to nitrogen fertilizer run off from America’s agricultural heartlands, there is a deadzone the size of Massachussetts in the Gulf of Mexico.

• If Europe turned vegetarian, its nitrogen pollution would fall by 70% (OK, some people say they would miss the parma ham, but you get the point)

• The UK imports two thirds of the water it uses – mostly in agricultural products – and some of it comes from countries that face water stress or that are home to communities facing water poverty.

• The average Qatari produces the same greenhouse gas emissions as 3 Americans, 11 Mexicans or 80 Ghanaians.

• In the UK, the richest 10% of people produce twice the CO2 emissions of the poorest 10%. In Sweden, it’s four times as much. In China, 18 times.

• China’s land footprint per person is one fifth of America’s – and America’s is one sixth of Australia’s.

Fascinating stuff. But there’s not nearly enough accurate and disaggregated data available at the moment on how unequal and how concentrated humanity’s use of natural resources is, either within or between countries. This will surely change over the next decade, as the pressure to create equitable governance of the planet’s resources (at every scale, local to global) drives demand for more information on who is using what. And that information will be measured in ‘natural metrics’ such as water, nitrogen, land, and carbon footprints per person. In fact I’ll bet that the extremes of resource-use inequalities within and between countries will come to be seen to be as important as income inequalities. And if this gradual shift towards assessing development pathways in natural metrics plays a part in widening policy-making attention beyond monetary metrics, that’ll be no bad thing.

Many thanks to Lisa Dittmar for researching and producing this video with me.

3 thoughts on “Who’s putting pressure on the planet?

  1. BrianM
    10 January 2013 at 00:50

    Kate, I very much like your doughnut, and your explanation of it. There is, however, one major problem in my view. You place energy in a group with a host of other items. However, in reality, energy is the foundation of everything else. All those other things, all the social structure, all the wealth, the food, the water cycles, the jobs, everything is dependent upon energy. What we call civilization is what human beings have done (for good or ill) with surplus energy beyond that which is necessary for survival. I think your doughnut would be more accurate and useful if it correctly placed energy at the center of the doughnut.

    Bottom line is that your doughnut has great potential, but as it exists it simply furthers the dangerous illusion that energy is somehow like any other commodity. Energy is absolutely unique and it is absolutely required, not just for all of the higher-level things we aspire to for our civilization, but for life itself. How about spinning the design to put energy where it belongs, at the center of the doughnut?

    1. Kate Raworth
      10 January 2013 at 11:00

      Brian, thanks, that’s a great comment and I very much agree with the spirit of what you point out. It goes back to Georgescu-Roegen’s critique of traditional economics for ignoring thermodynamics and entropy. Any economic model that doesn’t recognise the fundamental energy flows and laws of our planet is inadequate. At the same time, in the social foundation, by energy I intended to mean access to household energy sevices such as electricity and clean cooking facilities – so this is just one subset of the total energy use that you are talking about, and of course that wider sense of energy underpins (to a greater or lesser extent) every other dimension of the social foundation. I wonder if the way to accommodate both of these points is to use two different words to describe the different meanings (or scope) of energy that we are using here. I’m also in touch with researchers at IIASA who are doing national energy analyses of the kind you allude to and we are thinking of seeing what happens if you use the social foundation as an entry point for that. But let me have a think, and I may well be in touch! Many thanks, Kate