4. Equity: Living with Ourselves

The metaphor of the car and the cliff goes some way to capture the sense, felt by many people, that there is something seriously amiss with the way the world works. But it is a poor model of the twenty-first century in a variety of ways. One of the most important is that it suggests that global problems will affect everybody equally: that the whole of humankind, and indeed the whole biosphere, is headed for the cliff at the same rate. This is a very 1970s neo-Malthusian view, and it disregards political economy.

On a scale of decades and centuries, different people have very different chances of protecting themselves from disaster, just as they do today. The human impacts of future global environmental change will not be uniform, for the earth is a profoundly divided place. Life chances depend on who you are. This is already true, but if environmental goods become more scarce, wealth and power will increasingly distinguish the haves and have-nots, and those who live and those who do not.

The world is profoundly unequal, despite (and sometimes because of) half a century of formal ‘development’ efforts. The idea of development as a process in which economies ‘take off’ like airliners for a high life in the skies was popular in the early development decades following the end of the Second World War.43 But the hope that such development might create a world where all countries are experiencing economic growth and gains in quality of life (let alone all people in those countries) proved an illusion.

Decades of development projects and plans have brought a mix of success and failure, but poor countries have been running up a down escalator. At the end of the twentieth century, after five decades of formal development efforts, low-income countries had less than 10% of the world's gross national product (GNP) of US$28,862.2 trillion. This figure fell to less than 2% if India and China were excluded.44 Poverty remains a critical global issue (Table 4.1).

‘inequality has increased over the past decade’

Table 4.1 Global poverty

  • Over one billion people survive on less than US$1 per day. Seventy per cent live in rural areas where they are highly dependent on ecosystem services.

  • Inequality has increased over the past decade. During the 1990s, 21 countries experienced declines in their rankings in the Human Development Index (HDI).

  • Over 850 million people were undernourished in 2000–02, up 37 million from the period 1997–99.

  • Per capita food production has declined in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Over one billion people still lack access to improved water supplies, and more than 2.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation.

  • Water scarcity affects 1–2 billion people worldwide.

  • Global improvements in levels of poverty are skewed by rapid economic growth in India and China; poverty elsewhere (especially in sub-Saharan Africa) is profound and persistent.

Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (see note 11).

Inequality and poverty have profound implications for the way different people view the prospect of global environmental crisis, and how they will be able to cope with it. If there are risks to future human welfare, and countervailing risks in changing the way we live on earth, the choice will look very different to people in different positions (Box 4.1).

The Brundtland Report quite rightly tied the definition of sustainable development to equity both within and between generations, between the poor and the rich today (intra-generational equity), and between people today and those who will live in the future (inter-generational equity). Addressing these together is a profound challenge. When you do not have the first, it is hard to marshal support to address the second.

Box 4.1 Life views

Video clip 2: Interviews to camera.

Gulfstream G450 Jet, Atlantic: “To be honest I don't understand environmentalists. They are always moaning about the state of the world, but they don't do anything to make it better. My company employs 200,000 people worldwide, creating jobs, spreading prosperity. We have a really effective environmental division, and external appraisal of our environmental performance. We have completely dealt with the old pollution problems: we have closed the old plants and built new ones. In the process we have moved production to China and Malaysia, where we contribute to double-digit economic growth. We don't have any problems recruiting people to work in our plants, and there is a clear and efficient regulatory environment. Where am I going now? To meet my kids, in our flat in Paris. From there we head to the Maldives for a week's diving. Then they will go to our Long Island house for the summer, while I go on to Shanghai and Tokyo. I guess I am in the air three or four days most weeks. That's what it takes to keep the world economy going. Do I worry about my kids? No, not really. Of course, they have to get into the right university, then maybe law school and then they will be ready for a corporate career. But, no, I think they'll be fine.”

Yunwa village, Sahel: “We are suffering here. The rains of my father's time have gone and never come back. We do not know what to expect from one year to the next. Our well dries up, our children go hungry. The government no longer brings fertiliser or pesticides. Our crop is small because the rains are short and the birds eat it. Our lot has always been hard, but now the rains have changed we cannot survive here. Yet we cannot go. Where can we go? Everywhere is the same, our whole country is crying. The world has forgotten us. I fear for my children. Hana wani, hanà kâi.”45

Kissinger Drive, Prettyville: “We get together every Tuesday, just a group of us young mothers, while our kids are in school. The SUVs almost block the street, but there is lots of room here in the house. Our little ones watch TV upstairs, and we just talk – about our families, shopping, holiday plans, that kind of stuff. We went to Whistler skiing last winter, to Disneyland at Easter, and in the summer I think we'll do Costa Rica again. There are some amazing national parks there, and great beach hotels. And everything is so cheap. Of course we have to think about our financial future – Hank's job seems secure now that the oilsands are opening up again, especially with all the trouble in the Middle East, but you never know. Companies get taken over all the time. We take the environment really seriously. The new air conditioning we just had fitted on the house is really energy-efficient, and we are going to shift to a new car with a turbodiesel engine, which Hank says is much better for the environment. We have just bought a composting bin for the back yard. The kids? Oh, I guess they'll want to travel, but in the end I think they'll come back and live just like we do.”

Dharavi slum, Mumbai: “I live here with my mother and my brothers and sisters. Our house is made of polythene sheet and flattened cans. My mother is sick and has no work, so we go out and pick out things on the garbage dumps that we can sell for recycling. They need metals, plastics, cardboard, batteries, paper and electrical parts. On a good day I earn 100 rupees and we can all eat. We have to buy our water from a man who comes with a barrel. He takes it from the public supply somewhere far from here. My mother came from Jharkhand, where she lived in a village, but the forest department chased them away. When I am grown up, I want to live in a real house with running water and a light you can switch on when it gets dark, and I want to go to work on a bus. I want my children to learn to read. Even my daughters. Maybe they will grow up to make computers, or go to the moon.”

In September 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit agreed eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with 18 targets and 48 indicators as yardsticks for measuring improvements in people's lives. And the good news is that there has been substantial progress in poverty reduction.46 The number of people living on less than US$1 a day in developing countries fell by more than 260 million between 1990 and 2004.

But those poverty gains have been concentrated in Asia, especially China. Indeed, if China is excluded, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day actually increased between 1981 and 2004, growing from 836 million to 841 million.47 While the proportion of the population in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than US$1 a day dropped from 47% in 1990 to 41% in 2004, the absolute number of poor people continued to increase, rising by almost 60 million over the same period.48

At the global level, the fundamental MDG of halving the proportion of poor people is still attainable, with a projected fall from 29% to 10% between 1990 and 2015. But many countries are likely not to achieve this, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where average poverty rates remain above 40%, and the World Bank expresses concerns about widening inequalities between regions. In some countries and regions, inequality is worsening, as poor people lack the opportunities to benefit from economic expansion, and fail to do so.49

Income poverty is only part of the equation. With it go many other forms of deprivation, for example, in Amartya Sen's vision of development, loss of individual political, economic and social freedom.50 Poverty is complex and multi-dimensional, with cultural, social and spiritual as well as material dimensions.51 It is not an abstract economic problem, but it ‘means living as a bed-ridden person with typhoid and diarrhoea – with no water or fuelwood for basic needs and dignity’.52 This very human reality has even been recognised by the bean counters of the World Bank: Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not being able to go to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.53

More than 10 million children in developing countries die before the age of five every year, mostly from diseases that can be prevented. Child mortality has declined in every global region since 1990, but progress has been slow: only 35 countries are on track to meet the MDG of reducing mortality in children under five years of age by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015. Progress is worst in sub-Saharan Africa, where mortality rates are driven up by AIDS, malaria and malnutrition.54

The twenty-first century has started with significant and persistent shortfalls in sustainable human wellbeing.55 John Holdren defines ‘sustainable wellbeing’ as ‘pursuing sustainable development to achieve wellbeing...as well as converting to a sustainable basis the maintenance of wellbeing where it already exists but is being provided by unsustainable means’ (p. 424). The shortfalls in the achievement of sustainable wellbeing that he identifies are shown in Table 4.1.

‘shortfalls in sustainable human wellbeing’

Table 4.1 Shortfalls in the achievement of sustainable wellbeing

Poverty: afflicting 2.5 billion people who live on less than US$2 per day, plus many millions more who have much more but cannot afford many of the ingredients of a decent existence in the more prosperous settings where they live.
Preventable disease: keeps infant and child mortality high and life expectancy low, especially among the very poor.
Impoverishment of the environment: progressive erosion of the environmental underpinnings of wellbeing in the qualities of air, water, soil, biota and climate.
Pervasiveness of organized violence: well over 100 armed conflicts since the Second World War (almost all in the South; loss of life tens of millions) and the global rise of terrorism.
Oppression of human rights: in other ways (for the above are also forms of oppression); denying people their dignity, liberty, security, capacity to shape their own destinies.
Wastage of human potential: resulting from all the foregoing, and the despair and apathy that accompany them, from shortfalls in education and loss of cultural diversity.
Non-use, ineffective use and misuse of science and technology: including both intentional misuse (e.g., the design and deployment of weapons) and inadvertent (e.g., in side-effects of broad-spectrum insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics).
Maldistribution of consumption and investment (between rich and poor, between military and civilian activities, between consumption and investment (too much consumption, too little investment).
Incompetence, mismanagement and corruption: pervasive in industrialized and developing countries.
Continuing population growth: not the sole cause of problems, but makes problems harder to solve.
Ignorance, apathy and denial: lack of exposure to information and lack of conviction or optimism to act on it.

Source: Holdren (2008).

The challenge of sustainability is profound. It engages not just the familiar concerns of global environmental change and poverty alleviation, but issues that go to the heart of the way the global economy and industrialized and developing country societies work. It demands challenges to the lifestyles of many who, if not rich in their own country, are rich by global standards. George Monbiot writes of the threat of climate change: ‘if the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won't change by one iota the way they live’.56

A transition to sustainability demands serious changes in the way humans do business with each other and with the earth, and it does so in the face of a fractured, unequal world. It's a tough call.

‘the challenge of sustainability is profound’

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