September 2019

Global environmental change: towards a world of winners and losers

When we take on questions related to global environmental change and its consequences for the development of our society, it is usual to do so from a planetary perspective. Thus, we often receive messages that the average temperature of the Earth has risen by between 0.8 and 1.2 °C since pre-industrial levels, or that the rate of loss of biodiversity is now between 100 and 1,000 times more than those known from the fossil register, or that we already need 1.6 planets to sustain our current model of production and consumption according to the well-known ecological footprint.

But we should ask ourselves whether we are all equally responsible for this process of ecological deterioration in which we are immersed, and whether if we all suffer its consequences equally. For example, have all the planet’s inhabitants got the same ecological footprint? The answer is clearly no. And the underlying message is that global data tends to hide the huge differences between different geographical areas of the planet. Thus, in a world coloured according to the per capita ecological footprint of each country, it is striking that an inhabitant of the USA needs 8.1 global hectares to sustain his/her level of consumption and waste generation, while someone in Cameroon, for example, needs only 1.4 hectares (six times less). As a closer reference, an average inhabitant of our country would currently have an ecological footprint of 4 global hectares. When we go into these figures to analyse whose responsibility the planet’s deterioration is, we find that only four countries (China, the US, India and Russia) are responsible for half the ecological footprint of all mankind.

Poverty constitutes the other side of the coin of this unsustainable model. One in five Inhabitants of the planet currently live in extreme poverty, and almost half of mankind survive on less than two dollars a day. And, as occurs with the ecological footprint, poverty is also unequally distributed around different areas of the planet, concentrated in the global South, particularly the more rural areas, where three quarters of world poverty is concentrated. The world map of access to basic healthcare services again shows us the bipolar world we inhabit, with over 2 million people having no access to basic services, basically in the southern hemisphere

We therefore live in two opposing worlds: the global North of high income, low population growth and an ever-increasing ecological footprint, and the global South typified by low income, rapid population growth and per capita ecological footprint with a downward trend.

Now if we distance ourselves a little from the North-South perspective and zoom in on the real inequalities which exist in society, we will again see that we live in an unbearably unjust world; a world in which the richest 20% of the population owns 86 % of the wealth whereas the poorest 20% owns only 1.3% of the same; a world where 34 million people (a mere 0.7% of the world’s population) hog almost half the existing wealth.

Frequently, these huge social differences have ecological roots which are clearly reflected in what is known, since the advent of Political Ecology, as “ecological-distribution conflicts”. This kind of conflict, together with the social inequalities they cause, can be seen on different space and time scales. There follow some examples.

A conflict at global level could be that generated by the industrial model of the North, linked to large-scale greenhouse gas emissions which are the main cause of increased global temperatures. This industrial model is causing the glacial ice to disappear in the higher regions of the Andes in Peru and Bolivia, which means that some communities of alpaca breeders already have serious shortages of water and grazing land in the summer. An example of conflict at a regional level would be the transformation of large tracts of the Brazilian Amazonian rainforest into slash and burn agriculture which leads to a fall in the evapo-transpiration and serious drought in areas which are quite far away and in different neighbouring countries. Finally, at local level, the transformation of large areas of mangrove swamps in Central America to build tanks for the industrial production of prawns generates currency for the country from exports, but leads to a dramatic fall in seafood production with negative effects on the daily lives of local fishermen.

To sum up, we live in a world of winners and losers, a world of developed societies versus crushed societies. And understanding this ecological-distribution injustice is essential for starting a true transition towards sustainability, towards a world where everybody can live well without continuing to degrade the planet’s vital support systems, on which our well-being and that of future generations depends.

José A. González, Mateo Aguado and César A. López are researchers at the Laboratorio de Socioecosistemas at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, whose website offers access to many works and reports. The image which illustrates this work of the month was provided by Bernardo Salce, a human ecologist who uses photography as a tool for highlighting cultural diversity, illustrating stories of resilience and promoting socio-environmental justice. Bernardo Salce —currently living in San Diego (California, USA)— has contributed to the Virtual Museum of Human Ecology in 2019 with his temporary exhibition “Different Realities, Shared Challenges: a look at cultures and world socio-environmental problems”.