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Reconceptualising human needs, equity and wellbeing in the context of global sustainability

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posted on 28.02.2017, 03:50 authored by Read, Paul Anthony
The integrity of the planet is under threat by growing populations of people living under vastly inequitable conditions. Achieving global equity based on historical notions of prosperity threatens human survival by the year 2100. This puts intergenerational equity in direct conflict with international equity, creating a paradox within the original definition of sustainability. On top of this, there is public and political resistance to the climate science. Is any kind of balance between people and planet ever going to be possible? This work lays out the main issues and explores an approach based on human needs. Within the definition of global sustainability, it uses a simplified adaptation of established econometric and psychometric techniques to compare curves at the frontier of life expectancy as a proxy of human survival needs. The methods deliberately err on the side of empirical simplicity to remain easily understood, replicable and falsifiable - a characteristic needed to enhance multidisciplinary and public collaboration on rapidly accelerating threats to human sustainability. Six exploratory studies are presented using publicly available data from the United Nations (UN), World Bank (WB) and New Economics Foundation (NEF), which cover up to 200 countries and 250 years of time series. The first tests the proposed methods against a basic need like food consumption, showing that the method captures an appropriate metabolic boundary that is stable across half a century and produces a bell-curve that matches results within countries. The second uses the same methods to confirm similar boundaries for life expectancy and life satisfaction. Results match previous studies, especially with reference to the Easterlin Paradox and Set-Point Theory. This suggests development might have reached an optimum beyond which further planetary exploitation offers little or no gain to human outputs; it might also mean the UN Human Development Index (UN-HDI) and even the NEF Happy Planet Index (NEF-HPI) could be inherently unsustainable. The third applies the methods of the NEF-HPI itself to newly available data for age and gender to show this metric is unrepresentative of children. So using the alternative methods explored in this work moves away from pursuing an all-encompassing composite index in search of a more policy-relevant dashboard of sustainable human needs. To this end, the fourth study tests the stability and reliability of the proposed methods across many more available metrics at different times over the past decade. Whether a candidate ‘need’ consistently displays a bell-shaped curve has important implications for sustainability in the long run as it suggests redistribution might achieve global equity where nobody loses and everybody gains – a non-monetary form of Pareto efficiency. The fifth study bypasses candidate needs and directly applies the method to human life expectancy and carbon emissions over the past half-century. The results produce a stable bell-curve where the optimal target for carbon emissions is always more moderate and sustainable, identifying the first human centred target of Contraction and Convergence. The sixth and final study explores whether the methods properly predict known targets by returning to food consumption. A host of tests are made in this study to explore the limitations of the methods – issues like data density, outliers, whether targets might be inflated, variable intercepts and causality, not all of which are resolved. The methods explored mostly produce appropriate targets for different biological, socioeconomic and psychosocial metrics, the broad trend being that some countries are ‘over-developed’. They also help explain why more sustainable countries have been tracking on high human outcomes with relatively meagre input for decades – countries like Costa Rica, Malta, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Japan. These countries offer implications for balancing international and intergenerational equity, without which global negotiations on climate change and sustainability will continue to stall. "Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children" Kenyan Proverb


Principal supervisor

Janet Robin Stanley

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Monash Sustainability Institute

Campus location



Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences