Ecological Scarcity, Poverty and Development

The Triple Crisis Blog is pleased to welcome Edward B. Barbier, John S. Bugas Professor of Economics at the University of Wyoming, as a regular blogger.

In my recent book, Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Scarcity, I have argued that the world is entering a new era, the “Age of Ecological Scarcity”. The main development challenge of this era is the implications for global poverty. Exacerbating the problem is that, compared to past eras in human history, economic growth through exploiting abundant “frontiers” of land and natural resources will no longer be the means to improve the livelihoods of the poorest human populations.

Global ecosystems and freshwater sources are clearly endangered by current patterns of economic development. Over the past 50 years, ecosystems have been modified more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. The result has been a considerable decline in the economic benefits provided by ecosystems. According to theMillennium Ecosystem Assessment, approximately 60% of the major global ecosystem services have been degraded or used unsustainably, including freshwater, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.

Poor people in developing countries will be most affected by the continuing loss of these critical ecological services worldwide. The rural poor in developing regions tend to be clustered in areas of ecologically fragile land, which are already prone to degradation, water stress and poor soils. In addition, by 2019, half of the developing world will be in cities, and by 2050, 5.33 billion people, or 67% of the population in developing countries, will inhabit urban areas. This brisk pace of urbanization means that the growing populations in the cities will be confronted with increased congestion and pollution and rising energy, water and raw material demands. Although such environmental problems are similar to those faced by industrialized countries, the pace and scale of urban population growth in developing countries are likely to lead to more severe and acute health and welfare impacts.

As in the case of climate change, the link between ecological scarcity and poverty is well-established for some of the most critical environmental problems. For example, for the world’s poor, global water scarcity manifests itself as a water poverty problem. One in five people in the developing world lacks access to sufficient clean water, and about half the developing world’s population, 2.6 billion people, do not have access to basic sanitation. More than 660 million of the people without sanitation live on less than US$2 a day, and more than 385 million on less than US$1 a day. If worldwide economic development fails to tackle the emerging problem of global water scarcity, or if it makes the problem worse, then more and more of the world’s poor will be unable to afford improved access to clean water and sanitation.

Given the disproportionate impacts on the world poor of increasing ecological scarcity, the claim that perpetuating the same pattern of global economic growth will reduce poverty significantly is questionable. Although from 1981 to 2005 the number of extreme poor fell globally by slightly over 500 million, from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion, it may be more difficult to make further inroads on reducing poverty simply through growing the world economy without addressing its underlying structural problems. One problem is the number of extreme poor keeps growing due to demographic trends. By 2015, there will be nearly 1 billion people living on less than US$1 a day and almost 3 billion living on less than US$2 a day. Improving the livelihoods of these populations may be an intractable problem unless their vulnerability to ecological scarcity is reduced. One reason is where many of the poor are located and how they survive. In general, about twice as many poor people live in rural than in urban areas in the developing world. Well over 600 million of the rural poor currently live on lands prone to degradation and water stress, and in upland areas, forest systems and drylands that are vulnerable to climatic and ecological disruptions.

A global economic development strategy that does not also address directly the problems of energy and water poverty, climate change and ecological risks will have little impact on improving the livelihoods of many of the world’s poor. Ecological scarcity is not an environmental issue; it is a growing development challenge for the 21st century.