Despite accounting for only a small percentage of the world's population, rich nations have a long history of over-extracting raw materials from the planet, and a new study highlights just how excessive and harmful this pattern of plunder really is.
In an analysis looking back over almost 50 years of natural resource extraction across the world, researchers found the United States and high-income countries in the European Union drove the lion's share of global excess resource use beyond thresholds of environmental sustainability.
"The results show that wealthy nations bear the overwhelming responsibility for global ecological breakdown, and therefore owe an ecological debt to the rest of the world," explains economic anthropologist Jason Hickel from Spain's Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
"These nations need to take the lead in making radical reductions in their resource use to avoid further degradation, which will likely require transformative post-growth and degrowth approaches."
In a previous study, Hickel attempted to quantify responsibility for the climate crisis at the national level, by analyzing how much countries across the world exceeded their fair share of a safe threshold of carbon dioxide emissions.
In the new work, Hickel and fellow researchers applied the same kind of methodology to resource extraction, which is broadly considered to be a key starting point for where environmental degradation begins.
"Global material use has increased markedly over the past half century, to the point where, as of 2017, the world economy is consuming over 90 billion tonnes of materials per year," the team writes in the new paper.
"However, not all nations are equally responsible for this trend; some nations use substantially more resources per capita than others."
To identify where countries fall in terms of over-extraction responsibility, the team developed a "sustainability corridor", representing a safe or sustainable global limit for annual resource extraction (measured in billions of tonnes, or gigatonnes) for the period 1970 to 2017, then calculated how much nations over- or under-shot that threshold each year based on their population size.
The results show that almost 2.5 trillion tonnes of materials were extracted and used globally in the study period, with close to half of that amount (1.1 trillion tonnes) being in excess of the safe, sustainable corridor.
High-income countries (per World Bank classifications) were collectively responsible for 74 percent of that excess use, despite representing only 16 percent of the global population.
This excess resource exploitation was led by the US (which was responsible for 27 percent of the excess), and followed by EU countries and the UK, which together accounted for 25 percent of global excess resource use.
An interactive website developed by the researchers lets you easily explore the results of the analysis, comparing individual countries (such as China, which accounted for 15 percent of the excess), or wealth level categories of countries (which reveals lower-middle income and low-income countries never ever breached their fair share of resource use in the period, unlike high income and upper-middle income nations).
Aside from highlighting the global inequality of resource over-exploitation, the results also make clear that consumption of raw materials needs to sharply decline if the world is to have any chance of addressing ecological crises.
"High-income nations need to urgently scale down aggregate resource use to sustainable levels," the authors of the study write. "On average, resource use needs to decline by at least 70 percent to reach the sustainable range."
According to Hickel, it's a question that might require some reframing what the global economy really ought to be.
"The 'economy' is our material relationship with each other and with the rest of the living world," he tweeted shortly after the study came out.
"We have to decide whether we want that relationship to be based on extraction and exploitation, or on reciprocity and care."
The findings are reported in The Lancet Planetary Health.