7. Commit to Justice and Equity


A key difficulty in addressing a sustainability agenda is the way that structures of inequality and power limit space for dialogue and alternative solutions. Issues of justice and human rights are central to any effective transition to global sustainability. Integrating equity into debate demands a focus on justice and dialogue with civil society. To bring about a transition to sustainability, the environmental and conservation movement must make a serious commitment to justice: effectively, the current concern for sustainable development needs to be replaced with a new and broader concern for ‘environmental sustainability and justice’. This must embrace both the familiar concerns for intra-generational justice (justice for the poor now) and inter-generational justice (justice for those yet unborn). David Orr suggests the principle that ‘no human being has the right to diminish the life and wellbeing of another and no generation has the right to inflict harm on generations to come’.77 Security and wellbeing are both rooted in issues of justice at a global scale. Sustainability is the path that allows humanity as a whole to maintain and extend quality of life through diversity of life.

‘climate change needs to be very directly linked to the issue of poverty’

Addressing poverty-environment linkages

A significant amount of effort is going into the integration of policies to protect the environment and reduce poverty. Thus the Poverty and Environment Partnership is an informal network of development agencies which addresses key poverty-environment issues within the framework of international efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.78 Much has been done to set up safety nets for the poor (for example food aid against hunger, emergency health treatment of killer diseases, disaster relief). The challenge of delivering sustainable livelihoods remains to be met – especially livelihoods that deliver real freedoms and do not simply pass environmental degradation on to someone else or the next generation.

Yet global environmental concern does not always take account of poverty concerns. There is a worrying tendency in international environmental debates to use arguments about efficiency to impose sustainability policies on the poor. Cost-effectiveness too often trumps questions of justice, whether in plans to control the way local people use forests or to promote the growing of biofuels. Thus enthusiasm for REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation)79 is partly driven by arguments that it is simply cheaper to reduce carbon loss from developing world forests and farmlands than by interfering with the high-value economies (and lifestyles) of developed countries. Although carbon market payments offer the potential to develop income for rural people and address climate change at the same time, there are questions of justice if the world's poor are paid the low going rate for carbon to deal with the consequences of a world economy that so strongly favours the rich.

Climate change needs to be very directly linked to the issue of poverty. Actions to tackle global climate change will not be uniform in their impacts. Responses to climate change (e.g., the balance between mitigation and adaptation or the workings of global carbon markets) therefore also have justice implications.

Beyond ‘environment for development’

Developed countries do not provide good models for a transition to sustainability: they are the least sustainable on earth. Their levels of consumption are the chief drivers of anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity loss; their economies draw poor communities in the developing world into systems of production and exchange, but even where they generate wealth they do not stimulate equity. Very often they indirectly drive environmental degradation. The Western drive against poverty and for development is formulaic: a transition to sustainability must involve listening to voices (many of them voices of the poor in the developing world, others voices of environmental and social groups in the North) saying ‘wait, the future can be different’.

‘the future can be different’

Development in the twentieth century has everywhere involved trying to tie the poor into the world economy, with the effect that they become dependent upon it, and exposed to its unequal patterns of exchange and its temporal and spatial vicissitudes.

High quality of life and high scores on measures of human development are not necessarily associated with high GDP per capita: Cuba offers an interesting challenge to the notion that rich countries show the way towards sustainability. An analysis by Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network of ecological footprints of 93 nations over the last 30 years shows Cuba alone on the path to sustainability.80

There are hard questions to be asked of the opulent North about basic needs, in the light of sophisticated high-consumption lifestyles. Maslow's ‘hierarchy of human needs’81 is taken to suggest that only material needs are basic, yet measures of happiness and life satisfaction in developed economies are flatlining even as the economy, carbon consumption and material wealth continue to grow.82

Assumptions about the need for high levels of material wealth of the kind pursued since the Second World War in Western consumer society may not be necessary for happiness and welfare. The poor have the right to enjoy material wealth – but financial wealth, or quantity of dollars per day, is not the only metric relevant to plotting an equitable, sustainable and happy future. Maybe it is not even the most important metric. Cultural and spiritual wealth are rarely measured, but are critically important to human welfare. The position of indigenous peoples with respect to mainstream global developmentalist thinking is a particularly urgent political issue.

Addressing population in the twenty-first century

Absolute levels of global population, and more urgently rates of population growth remain important issues for the human future on earth. Rapid population growth (and ageing populations due to falling growth) make many problems harder to tackle. It will be much harder to effect a transition to sustainability with a stable global population of 12 billion rather than nine billion; harder still with 15 billion. As population issues re-emerge it is vital to avoid the crude anthropophobic responses that characterized neo-Malthusian environmentalism in the 1970s. It is gross consumption not gross numbers that drives biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. We must understand the factors which drive the demographic transition, and recognise why people make the reproductive decisions that they do, and engage with human aspirations. The environmental movement must be clever about reproductive health and human rights, or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of earlier decades.

Recognising alternative environmentalisms

The global environmental movement is diverse. A number of commentators have pointed out differences between the ‘environmentalism of the rich’ and the ‘environmentalism of the poor’, with the former dominated by concerns about the natural environment, and the latter focusing on environmental justice.83

‘local identity... indigenous values... livelihoods’

Organizations dedicated to environmental justice include the US environmental justice movement, and many others across the developing world (for example OilWatch,84 Mines and Communities,85 International Rivers,86 the Mangrove Action Project (MAP),87 and the World Forest Movement).88 Thus, in India, Toxics Link89 denounces the exports of ships for dismantling on the coast of Gujarat, and the export of electronic waste from rich to poor countries. Or, to take another example, La Via Campesina90 is a world network of peasant organizations which recognises that modern agriculture is less energy-efficient than traditional agriculture, using more chemical pollutants and simplifying biodiversity by placing little value on the many varieties of seeds that have co-evolved over thousands of years through peasant farming.

Such organizations combine livelihood, social, economic and environmental issues, with a strong emphasis on issues of extraction and pollution. In many instances they draw strongly on a sense of local identity (indigenous rights and indigenous values such as the sacredness of the land and the water) but they also connect easily with the politics of the left. They tend to position themselves in opposition to corporate power, and often to the militaristic or coercive forces of the state. Indeed these organizations have often been formed explicitly to oppose annexation of land, forests and water, or restrictions on rights by governments or business corporations. They are often in the forefront of environmental conflicts at the ‘commodity frontiers’ of oil, mineral extraction, defending biodiversity and their own livelihood.

The mainstream environmental movement is not currently reaching out effectively to organizations that represent self-mobilized expressions of environmentalism in this way. If we are to make a transition to sustainability we have to allow these movements and the people they represent to come into the forefront of planning – which means finding a place for them in the sustainability mainstream alongside the powerful thinkers and brokers that steer it.

All this does not imply that poor people are always on the side of conservation and environmental improvement, which would be patently untrue. What it means is that in many environmental conflicts of resource extraction or of pollution, the local poor people (indigenous and non-indigenous) are often on the side of conservation not so much because they are self-conscious environmentalists but because of their livelihood needs and their cultural and spiritual values.

The challenge of addressing social justice

The world movements for environmental justice are a strong force for sustainability. Issues of justice are absolutely central to debate about transitions to sustainability, because this must address the responsibilities of both the world's rich (wherever they live) and the poor. The poor have a right to energy and to carbon sinks (the oceans, and the atmosphere as a temporary reservoir), and also to other means of achieving high quality of life. To allow this, wealthy people, particularly in the industrialized countries in USA and Europe must reduce their energy use and change consumption patterns. Both affluence and poverty are linked to the environment: affluenza and povertitis are both terminal diseases.91 Tackling ecological footprints in the North is an issue of global justice, and essential to a transition to sustainability.

Large parts of both the environmental/conservation and development movements are closely allied to mainstream multilateral and bilateral organizations. The problems associated with the size of the sustainability industry were discussed in Chapter 5. The mainstream environmental movement is currently trying to pursue a transition to sustainability through partnerships between corporations and governments. In doing so, it increases the gap with popular movements.

‘can we reach in both directions effectively?’

Too often, environmentalists seem to believe that sustainability can be delivered from above, by the same institutions and mindsets that created the problem in the first place. A commitment to justice and equity is easy to formulate on paper, but deeply challenging to achieve in practice. If those who would promote a transition to sustainability get into bed with the powerful to have more influence, they risk marginalizing the poor. As we reach out with one hand to corporations and the wealthy consumers of the developed world, what happens to the other hand? Can we reach in both directions effectively? How can the environmental movement engage with the social justice movement? On what terms would they engage? Can the mainstream environmental movement join with the energy of the grassroots justice movement, or do structures and the need for funds tie their hands?

There are areas of common interest between environmental and justice movements, and many examples of collaboration. One is the debate on large dams, where the World Commission on Dams was successful ten years ago in bringing conservationist organizations, industry, and environmental justice groups together.92 Another is the growing debate on biofuels, where conservationists worried about deforestation find common ground with organizations representing poor people who fear loss of land, food or work with biofuel production. A third example is the conversion of mangroves to shrimp aquaculture. This brings environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, and often involves de facto privatization of communal fishing grounds: both the poor and biodiversity lose out. Environmental justice NGOs like MAP campaign against the injustice of such transformations, and conservation organizations like WWF against their environmental impacts.

There are also areas of dispute between the established environmental and conservation movement and the wider environmental justice movement. Controversies include protected areas and human rights, the vested interests of the North and the needs of the South, the feminist and women's movements and the mainstream approaches to sustainability, and the question of population growth. Conservation and justice organizations may adopt different strategies. Thus the WWF Standards for Sustainable Agriculture sets out standards for mangrove management which groups like MAP reject. None of these controversies present insuperable challenges, but they are complex and intractable. They must be addressed with urgency and tackled with great care. Social movements will be suspicious but are open to engagement.

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