A Western lifestyle has long been the preserve of a small minority. Today, with the growth of so-called “emerging countries,” a burgeoning middle class is beginning to aspire to the same quality of life and the same levels of comfort. By communicating an idealized image of what is aptly termed the consumer society, television and cinema only serve to feed such aspirations.
Clearly, this is good news for hundreds of millions of people escaping destitution. But Western countries can only maintain their current standards of living if most of the rest of the planet continues to live in poverty: the planet cannot support everyone in the world following a Western lifestyle. This has been demonstrated by an indicator known as the ecological footprint, which measures the demands placed by an individual (or a group) on the planet’s ecosystems by means of a single parameter—that of the surface area utilized: the land occupied by buildings, the agricultural lands required for food, the area of ocean used for fishing, the land used for producing materials, and the amount of energy consumed, etc. Interpreted as the equivalent surface area, the ecological footprint allows us to compare world consumption with planetary resources.
If we divide the total extent of the planet’s usable surface by the number of people in the world, we obtain the figure of approximately 4.4 acres (1.8 hectares) per human being. An American, however, “consumes” an average of 23.2 acres (9.4 hectares) and a European 11.8 acres (4.8 hectares). If the entire population of the world lived like the USA, we would need six planets. Applying the European model, we would need three planets, even though a large section of the population has a footprint that is lower than 2.4 acres (1 hectare). Humanity’s footprint exceeds the capacity of our planet to regenerate itself and to absorb pollution by about 30%. And this global footprint is increasing each year.
The problem that faces us today, therefore, is how to ensure a decent standard of living for every human being without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. This is the definition of sustainable development. And what sustainable development requires is a profound change in our social and political thinking, in the West, and in the rest of the world.