Visitors take in an art installation titled “Crystal Cloud” on a terraced rice field in La Pan Tan commune, Yen Bai province, Vietnam, on May 22. The project by two landscape designers, featuring around 58,000 crystal beads, has bought different opinions from the public as people are concerned it may harm the natural scenery. Photo: EPA-EFE
Outside In
by David Dodwell
Outside In
by David Dodwell

Vietnam, the unlikely poster child for a sustainable lifestyle

David Dodwell says although research links countries with high social progress to a resource-heavy lifestyle, there are exceptions. The urgent task before us is to redress the imbalance between what we want and what we can afford – by cutting down on waste for starters

It seems we are making great progress in lifting people out of poverty, giving them better education and improved health care – but only by consuming resources at a rate that punishes the planet. 

fascinating piece of research by a team at Leeds University in  Britain, examining the performance of around 150 countries worldwide in terms of their social progress, and the unsustainable damage they are inflicting on the environment, shows a dreadful link. We simply don’t seem to be able to improve people’s livelihoods without using more resources than the planet can afford. 
No one is doing well – except, improbably,  Vietnam. Worst of all is the  United States, which is one of five countries that are exceeding their “quota” of resource use or environmental harm by every one of the seven criteria measured by the team led by Daniel O’Neill, who leads the Economics and Policy for Sustainability Research Group at the University of Leeds. 
The team took 11 measures of social progress – life satisfaction, years of healthy life, nutrition, sanitation, sufficient income, access to energy, education, social support, democratic rights, income inequality and employment rates – and found huge progress not just among the rich Western economies, but also among large numbers of still relatively disadvantaged countries. Surprisingly, countries like  the Philippines India and  South Africa seem to have made poor progress. 
Source: “A Good Life for all within Planetary Boundaries”, Daniel O’Neill et al, in Nature Sustainability, Vol 1, February 2018, and
But map all those high-achieving countries in terms of their planetary footprint, and this progress seems to have come at a very high price. Taking seven effects on limited global resources – the amount of materials a country uses, its land and ocean exploitation, crop and forest losses, freshwater use, nitrogen discharges, phosphorous discharges, and carbon dioxide emissions – the team discovered that the only countries living within the limits of sustainability were poor countries that have made poor social progress. Countries like  Bangladesh and Malawi – and yes, the Philippines, India and  Indonesia

From the chart, you will see a seemingly inexorable shift from the left to the unsustainable right. Even Germany only manages to stay within sustainability limits by two of the seven measures – crop and forest losses, and freshwater use. 

A woman in a mermaid suit swims during a press preview of a mermaids show at Manila Ocean Park, on May 24. The Philippines did not do well in its indicators on social progress, but its global resource footprint is also correspondingly light. This begs the question: do societies have to remain poor to live within the bounds of sustainability? Photo: EPA-EFE

If our future is going to be sustainable, it looks like we have to stay impoverished, or find some way of moving towards the top left hand corner of the chart. 

The story the research reveals is widely recognised – except in “flat Earth” parts of the US that do not buy the facts on global resource depletion and climate harm. In a bit of a platitude, study leader O’Neill points to a solution: “Wealthy nations can consume less, with no loss in quality of life.”

The Manhattan skyline is seen outside a window on the 68th floor of 3 World Trade Center building in New York, during a press tour on May 22. The building is slated to open on June 6. The US is one of five countries that are exceeding their “quota” of resource use or environmental harm by every one of the seven criteria measured by the research team. Photo: Bloomberg 

Look to work by the likes of the Copenhagen-based team at the Technical University of Denmark. Their project, “The World Counts”, shows with alarming clarity the disequilibrium that is pushing the world’s resources to the brink. At current demand for resources, “we are only good for a global population of 2 billion”, the team calculates. Pity we have a world population past 7.2 billion and heading towards 11 billion. 

The team puts an emphasis on three precariously depleting resources – water, oil and forests. Without specifically flagging the  Cape Town drinking water crisis, it notes that only 2.5 per cent of the world’s water is freshwater, with 70 per cent of this frozen as ice. Of this precarious 0.75 per cent, intensive agriculture is consuming 70 per cent, and industry a further 20 per cent. That leaves less than 0.1 per cent available for us to drink – and much of this is polluted. Expect more Cape Town crises in future. 

On oil, it notes that the International Energy Agency calculates that oil provides over 40 per cent of all the energy we use, with supplies for no more than 25 more years. It also notes that 18 million acres of forest are being destroyed every year, with half of the world’s original forest cover now gone.

Women collect water at a public tap in a poor residential neighborhood in Bangalore, India. India’s Silicon Valley is bracing for yet another thirsty summer. Taps are running dry and the lakes that once nurtured the southern city of Bangalore and its nearly 10 million residents are either parched or fetid with toxic effluents. Much like Cape Town in South Africa, Bangalore’s water woes have been in the making for some time, with years of unplanned urbanisation, rapid population growth and poor management of water resources. Photo: AP 

We read of this often, and still do little to redress the balance. 

Our Western “hyperconsumptive” culture – now being enthusiastically emulated in countries like China and India as people move out of poverty – is making things worse. Read Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff and you will discover that the US accounts for 5 per cent of world population, but 30 per cent of resource use, and 30 per cent of waste. If US consumption patterns were applied to the world, we would need the resources of between three and five Earths. 

It seems we are not just a world of compulsive consumers, but also a world of compulsive wasters. Food discarded every year in the US and the UK alone would meet the nutritional needs of 1.5 billion people, Leonard notes.

The troubling news is that we are overusing available planetary resources at a prodigious rate, putting our future gravely in jeopardy. The good news is that our wastefulness is so egregious that there is massive scope to cut back on resource use if we can muster the will. 

But with the singular and unexplained exception of Vietnam, there is no present evidence that any one of us are moving up into that top left corner of the chart. It needs to start soon. 

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: What a wasteful world