Environment & Urbanization

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The new Trump index: how much does one individual threaten the planet?

David Satterthwaite
01 Dec 2016

An index from 2001 needs updating to reflect how policies championed by US President-elect Trump threaten global ecological sustainability.

A poster advertises Donald Trump's appearance at a

Back in 2001, we suggested the world needed an index to assess how each person is contributing to ecological unsustainability. We also suggested that Donald Trump's contribution, reflecting high-income groups enjoying high-consumption lifestyles, be used as a reference point. 

The focus on Trump would make clear just how much such lifestyles are eroding ecological unsustainability.

The original text for the Trump Index is taken from Environmental problems in an urbanizing world (Jorge E Hardoy, Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, Earthscan Publications, London, 2001) and is set out below.  

The index suggests that in 2001, Trump's single contribution to ecological unsustainability was comparable to several million low income urban dwellers in Mumbai. But now the index needs revising to account for the policies and practices that Trump will (or says he will) implement as US President.  

The Trump Index for Assessing the Differentials in Individuals Contributions to Ecological Unsustainability

It is not so much each persons' level of resource use and waste generation that defines their contribution to ecological unsustainability, but the level of use of particular resources and the level of generation of particular wastes. 

An accurate index for measuring each person's individual contribution to ecological unsustainability would need to take this into account. For instance, for food consumption, it is not so much the quantity of food eaten but the ecological costs of producing and delivering it – including the amount of land and the quantity of energy and ecologically damaging chemicals used to do so. 

For resource use in general, an accurate index of contributions to ecological unsustainability would need to measure the extent to which each person's consumption were products from ecosystems that were being degraded or threatened by over-exploitation or products whose fabrication had serious ecological implications. 

For waste generation, it would need to reflect the large differences in the ecological impact of different wastes – for instance taking due note of those wastes which contribute most to ecological damage or disruption of global systems. Many low income households in Africa, Asia and Latin America would hardly figure at all on waste generation as they generate so little waste (in part because of low consumption levels, in part because of high levels of re-use or recycling) and most of the waste they do generate is biodegradable.

If data were available to construct an accurate index for assessing each person's contribution to ecological unsustainability, we suspect that the differentials it would show would greatly reinforce the point that it is the high consumption lifestyles of most high income and many middle income groups and the production systems that serve (and stimulate) their demands that threatens ecological sustainability. 

Perhaps careful research into the consumption and waste generation pattern of one prominent individual over the last 10 years might serve to initiate the use of this index – and Donald Trump would make an interesting example, hence the suggested name for such an index. 

One wonders how the use of ecologically damaging resources and generation of ecologically damaging wastes that arise from his lifestyle over the last 10 years would compare with those of low-income urban dwellers in (for instance) India over the same period. One Trump's contribution to ecological unsustainability being comparable to that of many millions of low-income Indian urban dwellers?  

Presidential postscript

When the above text was published, surely no one (except perhaps the man himself) had any idea that Trump would become US President. Now, in light of the policies and practices he intends to introduce, his potential contribution to global ecological unsustainability is magnified immeasurably. 

Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and thus from the Paris Agreement. This could undermine the long, difficult process and hard-won global pact to get the world's governments to commit to concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change; just as most governments are reducing the use of coal to generate electricity, Trump is championing its return.

Trump intends to cut taxes, buoying up the lifestyles of the wealthiest, most powerful, high-consuming individuals. But what do these individuals do to promote and support local, national and global measures to increase or decrease the drivers of global warming? 

The 2001 Trump index needs to be updated to assess this.

Protecting biodiversity, reducing deforestation and controlling the use of dangerous persistent pollutants are further issues crucial to ecological sustainability.

How will future populations and generations view Trump's hand in this as the person whose policies sabotaged much-needed greenhouse gas emission reduction and measures to stem the rapid degradation of the earth's natural resources and systems? 

How will all this play out in global politics? And what will it mean for the tens or even hundreds of millions whose homes, lives and livelihoods will have been devastated because of the policies and practices championed by President-elect Trump?

David Satterthwaite (david.satterthwaite@iied.org) is a senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group and visiting professor at the Development Planning Unit, University College London. 

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