Should we limit the use of resources?

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Here’s the conundrum: so far, more resource use means higher GDP, but we are running out of global resources.  Here at WRF2011, it is widely agreed that we need to cut consumption of resources, but  can we tell people to limit resource use if that means they take a corresponding hit economically? In a nutshell, should we limit the use of resources?


Strip Mining, Stephen Codrington, 2005

Plenary Session 1 asked this question. The panel had views from both sides of the coin:  large resource consumers (the EU) and large resource exporters (Africa, Sri Lanka). Most panelists agreed that in addition to asking people to self-limit, resource prices should be raised through fair pricing, the thought being that higher prices would lead to more sustainable consumption.

Jaqueline McGlade from EU Environment asserted that with technology and open sharing of knowledge, we can reach higher resource efficiency.  She unveiled the platform Eye on Earth, which seeks to make satellite and environmental data easily accessible to all.  She argued that resources use will naturally decrease if we assimilate pollution costs into pricing.

Katherina Reiche, the Parliamentary State Secretary of Germany’s Ministry of Environment, spoke via video message.  In response to the question, she noted Earth’s seven billion people expect access to world resources. How, then, can we demand limitations on use, she asked.  She expects that resources pricing will naturally go up as we finish off all easily accessed mining points.  Her solutions included encouraging closed cycle management of materials through policy incentives for industry.

Professor of Sustainable Development at Manchester University and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Mohan Munasinghe had the most controversial solution.  He argued that just like poor countries have the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), rich countries should have Millennium Consumption Goals (MCGs). The concept of MCGs acknowledges that rich countries’ resource consumption has mostly driven the extraordinary global resource depletion. The richest half billion people are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. At the current consumption rate, we will need two earths’ worth of resources by 2030, he continued. Unless we change dramatically, our grandchildren will pay the consequences,  he said poignantly.

Mark Swilling, a professor at the School of Public Leadership, University of Stellenbosch, followed with a presentation on Africa’s development challenges.  He noted that there are growing resource problems from 1) the rise of the BRIC countries 2) another urbanization wave, especially in the developing world and 3) the global tension of competing national political frameworks.  Africa’s specific problems are that 86 percent of its exports are primary resources.  These resources, by and large, are not priced fairly.  Their prices are insufficient for African investments in infrastructure, human capital and environmental restoration.  He argues that limiting resource use should come from fair trade prices, resource efficient infrastructure, and re-thinking technology. He asked why South Africa is building of two of the largest coal plants in the world, when peak coal was hit in 2007 (estimated).  To develop, Africa, he concluded, needs to three things: climate change adaptation, an agricultural revolution with fertilizers, and resource efficient investments.

Prof. Mark Swilling on Africa


So how do we enact all of these ideas? Governments can follow Germany’s policy leadership, businesses can voluntary adopt MCGs or more sustainable resource use, and the global system could adopt fair trade pricing for resources.  These are giant steps, but some businesses, like Patagonia, Coca-cola, and SAP, have attempted more transparency and are moving towards closed-loop systems.  Fair trade pricing is now a familiar idea in most developed countries, especially with coffee and food products.  Another necessary step is rethinking how we measure success – is GDP really the best way? Or can we move towards Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, or reach some sort of ‘happy’ medium between the two?

2 thoughts on “Should we limit the use of resources?

  1. One question underpinning this debate is how much do we care about future generations? Assume we care about the welfare of future generations as much as we care about our own. We might anticipate that technological progress will allow higher standards of living for future generations, all else equal. Why not, then, take a bit more for ourselves since some imminent discoveries will undoubtedly enrich the lives of our children? Of course, then we get into the sticky business of estimating exactly how much better off future world citizens will be based on some unforeseeable advances in human knowledge. Perhaps the [ethical?] safest thing to do is imagine that technology is no better in the future than it is today and to put as much weight on the well being of our descendants as we do on our own.

    • That would definitely be the safest. It’s interesting to think that people disagree on this point. If I didn’t care about future generations, how could you convince me to? It’s an interesting exercise in who’s right and who should set policy. You’re also right to bring up the whole future technology aspect. My response to people who argue that point is that all technology requires raw material inputs. Some we have not been able to replace easily, and some raw materials may never have adequate substitutions in technological applications. Copper, for example, which is used for wiring and gadgets, can be replaced with aluminum, theoretically, but the barriers for using it in these applications are many. Copper is easy to join together by smelting, aluminum must be pressed, which is a problem in tiny spaces. When it comes down to it, we cannot have technology without raw resources.

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