Sustainability and Inequality

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As a member of UNEP’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management (IPSRM), I have found myself engaged in interesting debates on the relationship between sustainability solutions and inequality. It seems that this is a neglected issue in many of the big international scientific assessments going on, in particular the 5th Assessment process of the IPCC and the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystem Biodiversity). It was also underplayed in Millenium Ecosystem Assessment and the International Assessment of Agriculture Science Technology and Development. Prof Richard Norgaard from University of California is also a IPSRM member and involved in the IPCC and TEEB processes. He and I have been engaging on these issues. Below is a contribution I made to the discussion where I have articulated a position on inequality – a position that he responded to very supportively, but also acknowledgeing that this would not be a consensus view…

“With the regard to the three points below, I would add a fourth that needs to get made, namely that global inequality is not only bad for those who suffer most, but also for those who benefit most. For example, as I tried to argue during the open session, the graduate decline in the real prices of resources is not a natural function of market transactions, but has only been possible because of the systematic oppression of people in developing countries, firstly through colonialism and then post-colonial relationships that were often forcibly engineered by Western governments. Towards the end of 2008 (shortly before the Santa Barbara meeting) the EU put out a directive calling on EU member states to do all they can using their positions in multi-lateral institutions to keep the prices for primary resources from rising. This came as the number of failed states and resource wars has steadily increased over the last several years. UNEP’s recent report on conflict and environmental resources makes a similar point. In a recent book on failed states, two former World Bank officials have estimated that 2 billion people are now governed by failed states. As Lester Brown asked in his Plan B2.0 – how many people must be governed by failed states before we can say our civilisation has collapsed. I believe Stern was right when he argued that the poor will suffer “earliest and most” even they have “contributed least” to global warming – replace global warming with resource depletion and one has a nice summary of the situation. In short, my fourth point would be about poverty and the resource curse. (I have copied Kevin Urama into this and look forward to his comments.)

As far the “living lightly” versus “life is about consuming” argument, again this reminds of the debate about footprinting. Footprint reduction – or “living lightly” – works for a society of over-consumers. But not for a society where the majority live in poverty – sure, in such societies there is always an elite of over-consumers and they need to be challenged to “live lightly”. But for the rest, “starvation is life without consuming” and this problem is getting worse. Asking these people to “live lightly” obviously makes no sense. But what does make sense is to argue that a decent lifestyle does not necessarily equate to building malls in seas of poverty, or high carbon infrastructures which use up resources that could otherwise be used on poverty, or aspiring to consume to be like privileged people when in reality very few can afford it. In short, leapfrogging over the phase of industrial modernity will be critical”.