The global economy is overshooting sustainable levels of material resource use by a factor of two, driving ecosystem damage and ecological breakdown. Not everyone is responsible for this crisis. It is being caused overwhelmingly by excess resource use in high-income countries.
This graph shows global use of material resources over the past century, including metals, minerals, construction materials, fossil fuels and biomass. Industrial ecologists indicate that resource use should not exceed 50 billion tons per year, as a general guardrail.1 This boundary was exceeded in the late 1990s, and resource use has accelerated since then. This is a problem, because excess resource use is a major driver of ecological pressures, accounting for over 90% of biodiversity loss and other ecosystem damages.2
But not everyone is responsible for causing this crisis. Recent research finds that high-income economies are responsible for the vast majority of excess resource use.3 Through the early 2000s, they accounted for over 90% of cumulative excess resources use.
This problem has clear colonial dimensions. More than half of the excess resource use in rich countries is net-appropriated from the global South (see our entry on drain from the South).4 This means that the ecological impacts of excess resource use in rich countries are mostly offshored or "externalized" to the global South, where the damage occurs.
Over the period since 1970, high-income economies have used on average 24 tons of materials per person per year, which is more than three times over the maximum boundary.
Crucially, not all residents of rich countries are responsible for this overshoot. Richer individuals consume much more than working-class people, including mansions and SUVs (the same dynamic we see in the case of emissions). But these high levels of resource use are also the effect of resource-intensive provisioning systems (private cars instead of public transit, corporate food systems instead of sustainable agriculture, etc) and an economic system that is organized around maximizing corporate profits, which gives rise to practices like intensive advertising and planned obsolescence.
Meanwhile, lower-income countries remain well within sustainable levels. In most cases, they actually need to increase resource use in order to build the infrastructure required for human development.
This graph shows which regions are responsible for the excess resource use that is driving ecological breakdown. The USA is responsible for 27%. The USA, Europe and the other high-income countries (represented in red here) are together responsible for 76%.
The method used here is conservative, as it does not allow years of resource "undershoot" to compensate for years of overshoot. If we do allow for this, then the responsibility of the global South decreases while that of the high-income nations increases further.
This graph shows the change in responsibility for cumulative excess resource use over time. The global North countries remain the main overshooters, but China has increasingly contributed to the problem since the early 2000s, primarily due to rapid infrastructural build-up.
This map shows the same data represented geographically. The countries in green, including most of Africa and South Asia, are still within their fair-share of the sustainable boundary.
This table shows cumulative excess resource use by country, without accounting for population size.
The majority of excess resource use in the global North is net appropriated from the territories of the global South.4 The result is that Southern communities face extraordinary pressure from extractivist industries. Resistance movements are often suppressed with violence. This map shows where land and environmental defenders have been killed since 2012. Six people have been killed in the core states. 1,734 have been killed in the periphery, primarily in Central and South America, as well as the DRC and India.
Notes and references
1. Bringezu, S. (2015). Possible target corridor for sustainable use of global material resources. Resources, 4(1), 25-54.
2. Steinmann, Z. J., Schipper, A. M., Hauck, M., Giljum, S., Wernet, G., & Huijbregts, M. A. (2017). Resource footprints are good proxies of environmental damage. Environmental science & technology, 51(11), 6360-6366. Oberle, B., Bringezu, S., Hatfield-Dodds, S., Hellweg, S., Schandl, H., Clement, J., ... & Zhu, B. (2019). Global resources outlook 2019: natural resources for the future we want.
3. Hickel, J., O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., & Zoomkawala, H. (2022). National responsibility for ecological breakdown: a fair-shares assessment of resource use, 1970–2017. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6(4), e342-e349.
4. Hickel, J., Dorninger, C., Wieland, H., & Suwandi, I. (2022). Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: drain from the global south through unequal exchange, 1990–2015. Global Environmental Change, 73, 102467.