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

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

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.

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.

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.

I just want to mention two: One from foggy, cold London, and the other one from hot and dry Abu Dhabi.

The one in London, is driven by an organization called Bioregional. They said we need to find out how we can have one-planet living. And they started the development for about 40 households where people could have better lives than the UK on average, and at the same time, would fit within what one planet can provide.

And they succeeded with having great lives, people love to live there. It’s called BedZED. Their footprint is substantially lower than what the UK uses, but not yet at 1.7. And so they’re now trying with 10 more communities around the world, one in Sonoma county, quite an interesting initiative.

Another one in Abu Dhabi called Masdar. There, it’s actually government sponsored; they know in the long run, somehow we have to live on this planet. They said we have to look at the city’s scale. Can we build an entire city that operates on few resources, and people can have a great life, even in a harsh climate like in Abu Dhabi?

And they have started first elements of the city, and it’s still far away from their goal. But they also have coupled it with one of the most prestigious research institutions in Abu Dhabi to really find out: can they get there?

And if these two experiments haven’t really gotten there, it’s not really their problem, it’s really our problem that we have been able to do that worldwide because as a worldwide average, can we move ourselves into this box?

Having the metric, what’s the conclusion for us? And I would like to give you just three.

The first one, very simple: measure. There’s an old saying: you can manage what you measure. Now we can measure sustainable development. If you don’t know how much footprint you use compared to how much biocapacity you have, it’s a bit like flying a plane without a fuel gauge – gets a bit dangerous after a few hours in the air.

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