Could we ever get to the point where everyone on Earth has their needs met without wrecking the planet? It's a big, complicated question, but it might have a simple, depressing answer.
A new paper claims humanity can't currently reach a list of 11 social progress benchmarks for all 7 billion-plus human beings without using more natural resources than the Earth can provide.
Other studies claim if everyone on Earth lived like, say, an average American, we'd need four Earths worth of resources. But those studies have measured material wealth. This one looks at basic needs.
It's part of a new trend in research to put concrete numbers to big questions. Over the past decade, scientists have tried to calculate exactly how much deforestation, species extinction, climate change and other effects the Earth can sustainably endure.
At the same time, other scientists have realized we need to use a certain level of resources to reach benchmarks on basic human needs. Those include physical necessities, like sanitation and nutrition, as well as more qualitative ones, like education, equality and life satisfaction.
Ideally, there would be some wiggle room: We could use enough resources to meet those needs but not so many that we overtax the planet.
But that wiggle room might not exist. According to the new study, no countries come anywhere close to reaching those benchmarks without dramatically overspending resources; the two seem to almost go hand in hand.
And while it might be possible to be efficient enough to meet physical needs, the paper says to meet the quality-of-life benchmarks — like equality, education and others — we'd need to use resources at between two and six times what the Earth can provide in the long run.
The study itself is pretty pessimistic about meeting this challenge, and it's likely only going to get more difficult: The U.N. estimates we'll add more than 2 billion people to the planet by 2050.