Food for Thought: How Rich Countries Exploit the Resources of Poorer Ones - and Get Away With It

The world’s rich countries contend that they are using their natural resources much more efficiently. That may be true, but their exploitation of the resources of the rest of the world is also growing.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Over the past several years, the world's wealthy countries have found a convenient way of dealing with the argument that they are responsible for the depletion of the world's resources. The governments of these countries, as well as organizations working on their behalf, regularly release reports proving that they have learned how to make more efficient use of raw materials and, in the process, have reduced the extent of their exploitation of natural resources.

But a study published this month by the Proceedings of the American National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that such claims of efficiency should be met with skepticism.

It is true that wealthy nations make more efficient use of resources within their own territories, but they also increasingly exploit the resources of the rest of the world in the form of raw materials used to make the products they import. The new study, conducted by researchers from Australia, Japan, Canada and Norway, looked at the ‘raw material footprint" of 186 countries between 1990 and 2008, by examining the flow of raw materials needed to supply demand in specific countries.

Up to now, it has been the practice in the rich countries to measure their use of natural resources by monitoring the consumption of raw materials within the country. The calculation has also included imported goods, after deducting exports. What had been missing, however, and has been included in the new study, is the real extent of exploitation of raw materials in other countries that provided the materials for these imports and exports. According to the researchers, in 2008, about 40 percent of all of the raw materials consumed around the world were used to manufacture exported goods - some 70 billion tons of raw material, all told. And the amounts used for the manufacture of products imported by the rich countries far exceeded the contents of the products these wealthy nations ultimately purchased in the form of imports.

The most obvious example is metal, which is imported in bulk in its purer form, rather than as ore from which the importing countries then have to extract the metal themselves. Another example is the industrial raising of livestock, which is then imported by the wealthy nations. These industries cause huge environmental damage in the exporting countries, but it is not apparent from the products themselves. The environmental impact in the exporting countries includes the use of open areas for raising animal feed as well as large-scale use of water resources.

During the year 2008, China was the largest exporter of raw materials (notably of construction materials). The United States was the world's largest importer of the materials that year, followed by Japan, Britain and China itself (which makes the Chinese at the same time a leading supplier of raw materials and a major consumer of them). And the situation in Australia is similar.

The researchers' results for the per capital flow of materials in the countries in the study show that the average Australian consumed the most, at 35 tons, followed by the United States, Japan and Britain. By comparison, the per capita figure for the average citizen of India is a 7th of Australia's. And the more a country's economy shifts to a post-industrial stage, the more its dependence on imports grows, in the process gobbling up other countries' resources. The researchers estimated that a 10 percent growth in a country's gross national product leads to a 6 percent growth in the flow of materials.

According to the study's findings, it can be expected that within four decades, the world's nine billion people will need 270 billion tons of raw material a year. That assumes that the goal is to provide a standard of living around the world comparable to that prevailing today in the countries that are members of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which include Israel.

According to another study conducted by researchers from Switzerland and Norway and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the global ecological footprint measured by per capital use of land will grow by 70 percent in the coming four decades. This projected growth in consumption of raw materials and the exploitation of land will put an impossible strain on the world's resources. The problem is that currently it is difficult to find political support for steps that would bring about a real improvement in the exploitation of resources, particularly in the wealthy countries. That was apparent in last week’s parliamentary election in Australia. One of the reasons that the conservatives prevailed was public skittishness over a carbon tax pushed by the Labor government. Such a tax would reduce greenhouse gases and as a practical matter bring about the more efficient use of energy resources.

There are economists and scientists who think improved technology will make it possible to both maintain a consumer culture and protect the environment, but many researchers take exception to this view, noting that the pace at which resources are being harmed far exceeds the capacity to renew them. In recent years, plans have been developed for the world's rich countries to provide funding to developing countries in exchange for the preservation of forests in the poorer nations. That doesn't go far enough, if consumption continues to rise in other places, scientists say. From their standpoint, exploitation of natural resources must be considerably curbed and an economic model based on savings and efficiency measures developed, so that a rise in standards of living doesn't come at the expense of the environment.

At some point, the Swiss and Norwegian researchers say, we will have to halt the growth in our ecological footprint. There is no other way to protect biodiversity and ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Livestock farming is a major drain on natural resources.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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