Oct. 19, 2011

Countries vie for resources in 'global auction,' says new Rhodes professor

We live in a world where natural resources are growing increasingly scarce. So why do most governments fail to take resource scarcity into account when making economic decisions, asked Mathis Wackernagel, a sustainability advocate, Oct. 18 in Uris Auditorium.

The talk marked Wackernagel's first visit to campus as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor.

Wackernagel's main source of evidence for his assertion is the Ecological Footprint, a science-based tool he helped create. The tool tracks demand on natural resources by country to clearly depict who is using what and how much is left. Members of the audience received a pocket-sized version that could be unfolded to reveal a list of nations organized by their ecological footprint, from the United Arab Emirates at the top to the tiny Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste at the bottom.

"Swiss pocketknives can cut pretty well through Swiss cheese," Wackernagel said. "But this pocketknife," he held up the list, "can cut through baloney" (he credited his wife with coming up with the joke).

Puns aside, the footprint is intended to provide a simple visual explanation of an issue many people do not understand.

"People will say, this sustainability thing, it's so complicated," Wackernagel said. "I'll say it's actually quite simple: We use more than what we have."

It's all about capacity, he said. "If you look at the map, you can see that some countries have far more capacity than they use. Countries have a national self-interest in aggressively addressing biocapacity constraints. If they have a biocapacity deficit, that self-interest is overwhelming."

Although some nations do recognize this self-interest -- Wackernagel cited China as one example -- most do not. This failure can have drastic implications.

"Republics like Kazakhstan that have quite a low GDP -- their energy consumption is more than their GDP," he said.

Wackernagel called the past a "factory world" and the present a "global auction."

"I call it the factory world because in the past, you want to buy more cars, the factory makes more cars; the more cars you buy, the more cars [that are] built," he said. The global auction, he explained, stems from the idea that "We are one global community with one economy, all drawing on -- and bidding for -- the same resources."

Yet the world refuses to recognize the serious economic implications of resource scarcity, he said.

"Like President Clinton said, 'it's biocapacity, stupid.' Blindness costs lives, and we miss enormous opportunities," Wackernagel said.

Wackernagel has served as director of the Sustainability Program at Redefining Progress in Oakland, Calif., and the Centro de Estudios para la Sustentabilidad in Xalapa, Mexico.

Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.