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Study: Humanity will need to make some drastic changes to keep the 'good life' going

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Out of roughly 150 countries studied, only three -- Austria, Germany and the Netherlands -- currently provide their citizens with all 11 items on the list. An additional seven -- Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Japan and Sweden -- offer 10 out of 11. The United States achieves nine, as does Canada.

But none of them is close to doing so sustainably. Indeed, none of them meets more than two of the seven requirements set out for environmental sustainability.

The United States doesn't meet any of them -- and misses some "by a wide margin," O'Neill said. America's per-capita CO2 emissions are 13 times higher than the sustainable level, its phosphorus use is eight times higher and its nitrogen use is seven times higher. As if that's not bad enough, its ecological and material footprints are both four times above sustainable levels.

At the other end of the spectrum are 35 countries where life is pretty miserable. Of the 11 necessities for a good life, these countries provided either none or just one.

In general, the more social benefits available in a country, the more likely that country is living beyond its environmental means. The reverse is true as well -- countries that operate sustainably tend to offer fewer social benefits.

Perhaps the country that strikes the best balance is Vietnam, the researchers said. Though it meets only six of 11 social goals, it meets every sustainability goal but one. Vietnam's sole environmental transgression is that it emits too much carbon dioxide to keep the planet from warming by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the goal set forth in the Paris Agreement.

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By the same measures, the country with the worst balance is Swaziland. This nation is as environmentally unsustainable as China, South Korea and the United Kingdom, missing five out of seven goals. And yet, despite using so many natural resources, it fails to give its citizens even one of the 11 necessary components of a good life, the researchers found.

All around the world, countries are doing a pretty poor job of living sustainably. Two-thirds of them emit too much CO2, and more than half use too much nitrogen and phosphorus. In addition, 56 percent of countries are using their land in an unsustainable way.

Only 16 countries in the analysis met all seven environmental goals.

Although the overall picture may look grim, the researchers saw some hopeful signs. For example, there were a few countries that managed to score well for education and life satisfaction while keeping their CO2 emissions way below the global median level (that is, the point at which half the countries were emitting more and half were emitting less).

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