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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Ecological Footprints

Air Date: Week of November 9, 2007

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Mathis Wackernagel (Photo: Global Footprint Network)

A new study by Global Footprint Network compares the ecological footprints of 93 nations across the globe- and finds that Cuba is the only one developing sustainably. Global Footprint Network Director Mathis Wackernagel tells host Bruce Gellerman why Cuba tops the list.


GELLERMAN: Sustainable development is one of the Holy Grails of the environmental movement, even though there's no general agreement on what the term actually means. But there’s a new definition of sustainable development, devised by researchers at Global Footprint Network. That’s an international nonprofit organization dedicated to creating tools for sustainable living. In a paper published in Ecological Economics, they've identified which countries are measuring up. And the results may surprise you.

Mathis Wackernagel is the executive director of Global Footprint Network. Welcome to Living on Earth.

WACKERNAGEL: It’s wonderful to be with you.

GELLERMAN: So what is sustainable development?

WACKERNAGEL: Sustainable development, we would say, is one of the most specific policy concepts around. Essentially it has two parts; one is development, the other one is the sustainable. Let’s start with the development. Development can be measured with the United Nations human development index, which summarizes three key components that make good lives possible. One is to have long lives. The other one is to have access to education and literacy. And the third one is to have access to some minimum income. However, we call it sustainable development because there’s only one planet. So we have to provide this development within the means of one planet. And that’s what we can measure with the ecological footprint.

GELLERMAN: So as we advance we can’t be eating our seed corn because future generations won’t be able to advance?

WACKERNAGEL: That’s exactly right. So, essentially we claim let’s live on the income rather than dipping into our assets.

GELLERMAN: So you looked at what—93 countries on the sustainable development index. How many countries are measuring up?

WACKERNAGEL: Among all the 90 countries we looked at, we only found one country that meets both minimum criteria, which doesn’t mean that they are necessarily sustainable but they are providing long lives and high education and minimum income without using more than what is available globally worldwide per person. And this country is called Cuba.

GELLERMAN: Cuba? That’s a surprise.

Mathis Wackernagel (Photo: Global Footprint Network)

WACKERNAGEL: To be totally honest, Cuba would probably like to have a larger footprint; it would like to have access to more resources. They were forced to be much more resource efficient than they probably would like to be because of the trade embargo they’re under and so their footprint has shrunk a little bit since, in particular the Soviet Union collapsed back in the early 90s. However, they have still been able to maintain high human development in terms of still increasing longevity and maintaining very high access to educational success.

GELLERMAN: I was in Cuba soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and things were terrible there. I mean, people were really suffering. There was no gas for cars. People were pulling cars down the street with horses. I went back a few years ago and things had dramatically improved. One of the things that I found was that they were doing sustainable agriculture. They weren’t using inputs like pesticides and chemicals because they couldn’t afford them. And other things had improved but they had suffered mightily.

WACKERNAGEL: Yes. If we say Cuba meets the sustainable development criteria, we don’t say that’s the nirvana, the most beautiful life you could imagine. I mean, actually, I have quite a large footprint and that makes my life quite comfortable as it is. But it’s a contradiction I totally acknowledge, but if everybody lived like me, it would take about five planets. We don’t have five planets. So, it’s like a budget question. We have to be creative and find out how can we have the best outcomes recognizing there’s a budget limitation?

GELLERMAN: What country was number two behind Cuba?

WACKERNAGEL: Many of the Caribbean nations and Latin American nations are pretty close to the quotient—the sustainability quotient, which is defined by low footprint and high human development.

GELLERMAN: What about the United States?

WACKERNAGEL: The United States may be one of the countries furthest away from the box. The United States has one of the largest footprints per person worldwide and it would take about six planets like Planet Earth to support the world population if everybody assumed current American consumption patterns.

GELLERMAN: If Cuba is the only nation that measures up according to your sustainability development index, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the planet.

WACKERNAGEL: The sustainable development challenge probably is the defining challenge of the 21st century: will we be able to provide well-being within the means of one Planet Earth, or not? If not, we’ll be seeing more and more collapses around the world. We have seen them now in, let’s say Haiti, with very severe resource constraints and extreme social misery implications. What we saw in Rwanda and Darfur right now is a kind of manifestation of the resource crunch leading to quite tragic human breakdowns. However, there’s another path and I believe, a much more attractive one, which the World Wildlife Fund calls ‘one planet living.’ And the idea is: how can we live well within one planet?

GELLERMAN: What about my life? Can I live an American lifestyle and yet have a sustainable lifestyle? Or are the two incompatible?

WACKERNAGEL: Right now, infrastructure how it’s built in the United States makes it very hard to live very low-footprint lifestyles. We can dramatically reduce our individual footprints. Can we get to one-planet living on our own and still kind of participate in mainstream society? Probably, that’s still a bit of a challenge. But there are big decisions that you make in our life. We call that ‘slow things first.’ We should look at the stocks that we invest in—are they putting us in a better place or are they traps? These big decisions that we make in our lives—how many offspring we have, for example, what kind of housing we buy into, and what kind of cars we buy if we depend on car transportation—majorly determine resource consumption for the next decades to come. It just shows that building infrastructure right and making sure we have attractive, well-functioning, resource-efficient, high-performing cities is really the key to the future.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. Wackernagel, thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time.

WACKERNAGEL: It’s wonderful being with you. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Mathis Wackernagel is executive director of Global Footprint Network.



Global Footprint Network

"Measuring Sustainable Development Nation by Nation" in Ecological Economics


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