How Much Nature Do We Have? How Much Do We Use? Mathis Wackernagel | TEDxSanFrancisco

We could bicycle and roller skate on the highways, we could roam through the city freely and safely, we had a great time.

And it took another 20 years until heads of state got together in Rio in 1992 to say maybe we should do something about that. And they came up with this idea of sustainable development. They weren’t yet too sure what it meant.

And it took another 20 years – a day to remember: 25th of September 2015 – where 193 heads of state with the Pope got together and said, “Here, let’s launch the largest plan ever for sustainable development,” the Sustainable Development Goals. They span over 17 domains and have about 169 targets.

And so really, for the first time in history, actually, we have moved beyond just human rights. Now the new dream is human rights, but the bigger one, called sustainable development, that’s the official dream of humanity.

Now what exactly do they mean with sustainable development?

If you cruise the web you will find hundreds of definitions, some of them deliberately vague because people don’t want to be [hangible]. But the essence is very simple, these two words: sustainable development.

Development is the short hand of policy geeks to say, “We all want to have great lives.” “We all want to have great lives.” But if all want to have great lives, why do we say sustainable? Because we recognize the budget constraint that there’s only one planet.

So that’s really the essence, how can we all live well within the means of one planet? And really if I had a big wish, I wish all universities, all research institutions, all parliaments, all White Houses around the world, on their doorway they would say, “How can we all live well within the means of one planet?”

That’s the most profound, overarching, mother-of-all-research questions that we still don’t know about, and we need talent to find out.

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But once we define it, we can start to measure it, and that’s going to be the core of my gift to you, I hope.

When we say how can we measure sustainable development, let’s start with development. How do we measure that? It’s not that easy, but the United Nations came up with a very simple index, recognizing that people, yes, they do like income. So they say, yes, income’s one piece, but not only.

People also like to have long, healthy lives. So the second pillar is longevity. They say, “we want to have long lives.”

And then they added a third pillar recognizing that in order to cooperate well, to work well together, to participate actively, we need to have access to education, we need to be able to read and write, be able to communicate with each other. So they have this index that goes from 0 to 1, and 0.7 would be the threshold to high human development – that’s on your right.

So that’s the development part.

But then the sustainable part. The question: How many resources does it take to support this kind of development? How much planet does it take? And for that, we have the Ecological Footprint. But it’s not just how much it takes, but also how much we have.

So there’s this horizontal line that shows how much capacity is available per person. That’s this number, 1.7. What does it mean? Very easy. You may remember from high school that we live on a round, spherical planet, and it is 40,000 kilometers to go once around the planet.

And with a bit of geometry you can calculate the surface of this planet. And then you look at the map, and you recognize not every part of the surface is highly productive. There’re the deep oceans, the ice fields, the deserts, not very productive.

But a quarter is highly productive: forests, grazing land, marine areas, you just add them all up, there are about 12 billion hectares of ecological productive space. And we are 7.3 billion people, so you have an easy division.

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And what you see is 1.7 global hectares, average hectares per person, exist on this planet.

Now, one little detail: How many species are we? One. And there may be up to a hundred million wild species out there that also like to eat, wine and dine.

So maybe this budget needs to be shared to some extent, maybe we don’t want to use the entire budget for ourselves, maybe. But still we have these two lines that define high human development, and we want to be under that budget.

This gives us this box, this box where on average we would want to be to have great lives within an amount of resources that is available over the long run.

Really, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it in Silicon Valley – it’s an invitation to think inside the box. You may wonder where do countries lie, and I won’t lie to you, I will show you the cloud in colors, color coded by continents, and what does this cloud tell us? Two things: One is, there’s this trend, it seems like the more higher development there is, the more we use resources.

But also what is extremely interesting at any level of development, the spread of resource demand is quite high. That means there’s no physical law in itself that dictates how many resources are needed for a certain level of development, so there’s a lot of spread possible.

And people may say, “Oh, is it hard to get into the box?” Maybe it is hard, but what’s the alternative? And that’s why I admire particularly research initiatives that try to find out how we can get into this box.

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