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The First World, now known as the developed, industrialized, or Western world, are terms used to describe countries that have collectively attained a good standard of living, a high per capita gross national product and a strongly diversified technology base. The United Nations (UN) state that “developed countries tend to have high gross domestic products, high literacy rates, minimal spread of poverty, and are technologically advanced.”
Standard of living describes the quality and quantity of goods and services available to people in any given country. It is generally measured by real (i.e., inflation adjusted) income per person, and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country is defined as the total value of final goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a year, regardless of ownership. Neither standard of living nor GDP are the same as “quality of life,” which takes into account a variety of other factors that determine social well being such as recreation, safety, cultural diversity, social life, mental health, and environmental quality issues. The UN Human Development Index (HDI), identifies countries with an HDI measurement of over .8 as falling within the developed world category. Categories within the HDI include life expectancy, poverty, literacy, and healthcare.
According to the UN, Economic Division countries-including Japan, Canada, the United States, Australia and most countries in the European Union-are First World countries. While statistical analyses can be useful in differentiating between the social and economic status and welfare of nations, the term First World-like Third World-is essentially a political term that has many other connotations attached to its use.
The term was first used after the end of World War II, when the parties to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pacts became known as the western and eastern blocs. Many countries did not fit into either category, with the remaining often referred to as belonging to the Third World. The countries belonging to the First and Third Worlds have changed with the political times, and today, the terms developing or First World are often derided for being too Western and paternalistic in focus, presuming superiority by one group of nations over others.
This does not hide the fact that inhabitants of First World countries do enjoy a substantially higher standard of living than do those living in the Third World. The socio-economic advantage that the First World has gained over the Third World has come at a significant environmental cost. Raven notes that “there is an important linkage between such factors as human population density, rate of growth, consumption and the choice of particular technologies on the one hand, and the state of the environment on the other.”
Approximately 25 percent of the world’s people reside within developed countries, yet consume 80 percent of the world’s nonfuel minerals. The United States, while comprising only five percent of the world’s population, consumes up to 30 percent of the worlds resources. Environmental impacts from the consumption of resources by the First World is having a major impact on the world’s environment and climate with most of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases being those countries in the developed world. Australia, for example, has the highest emissions of climate changing gases by any country on a per capita basis, and they are equal to six times more than those emitted by China. For context, Australia’s population is 20 million, whereas China’s is 1.3 billion.
The impact of high consumption of the Earth’s resources by the developed world is being felt more acutely in the environments of the developing world. Consumer demand in Japan for timber has resulted in the deforestation of parts of southeast Asia, while in East Africa, forests have been cleared to grow tea, coffee and other cash crops for export to Europe. In South America, the pampas grasslands have been cleared in favor of serving the market for meat in Europe and North America.
High consumerism levels in the First World have created a major non-organic waste problem compared to that of the Third World. The Atlas for Population and the Environment notes that more than 500 million tons of waste is generated each year in the First World, of which some 30 percent are mineral wastes, 20 percent industrial, 40 percent agricultural and 5 percent municipal. By contrast, research has identified that throughout the developing regions of the world, such as Indonesia or India, 73-96 percent of local waste consists of food and biodegradable material. The importance of the link between affluence and waste is further highlighted by the fact that a 40 percent increase in GDP of countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been accompanied by a similar increase in waste generation.
Given the global nature of our economy and the global reach of environmental issues such as climate change, significant equity challenges exist for the rights of developing countries to also provide for their citizens a similar lifestyle to that enjoyed by people in developed nations. The challenge is how to support these rights, while minimizing the major environmental impact this will cause. Estimates show that if all of the world’s people attained the standard of living comparable to that in the United States, three more planets-comparable to earth-would be needed to support them. This is clearly not an option.
The impact of globalization has meant that now, more than ever, we live in an interdependent world connected by mutual need for natural resources, through the relations of a global economy and the movement of people across countries. This need has been partially recognized in meetings such as the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the development of the Millennium Goals, and the formation of many international institutions that attempt to address the conjuncture of population, technology and environment in both the developed and developing worlds. Such institutions include the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the UN Development Program, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and formation of international environment groups such as World Wildlife Fund or Friends of the Earth, who focus on the equitable relationship between people and the environment.
- Baumert and J. Pershing, “Climate Data Insights and Observations,” (Pew Centre, 2004);
- P. Harrison and F. Pearce, Atlas of Population and the Environment, (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2001);
- T. Panayotou, “Globalization and the Environment,” Environment and Development Paper 1 (Harvard University, 2000);
- World Resources Institute, World Resources 1998-99 (Oxford University Press, 1998).