Our Fair Share

Getting specific about "environmental space"

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 38
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

In an effort to strike a balance between the resource use of the North and the South – and in the process help ensure a sustainable future – the Dutch chapter of Friends of the Earth has proposed quantifying the amount of resources that each of the planet’s citizens can sustainably consume. Soon, FOE’s US chapter will release per-person consumption targets for Americans. This excerpt is from "Sustainable Netherlands," an FOE Action Plan.

The northern environmental movement, by focusing only on protecting the environment, actually prolongs the ecological predicament. We must go beyond dwelling on protection to address the underlying reality that the main obstacle to sustainability is overproduction and overconsumption in wealthy countries.

How can social movements in the North develop strategies that lead to changing production and consumption patterns and also offer Northern consumers the prospect of high-quality lifestyles?

Working towards this goal, Friends of the Earth Netherlands launched an Action Plan for a Sustainable Netherlands to demonstrate that, even after adopting consumption behaviors that allow equitable distribution of the world’s natural resources, northern consumers will still enjoy an acceptable quality of life.

The Action Plan quantifies the consequences of sustainability based on a concept of environmental space: the overall quantity of environmental resources available to the world at large on a sustainable basis. In other words, the rates at which the planet’s energy, fresh water, land, fisheries, forestry, pollution rights, and waste disposal, and other resources can be used without decreasing their availability to future generations.

Based on the premise that every world citizen has a right to an equitable portion of the Earth’s available environmental space, FOE calculated the per person share for the Netherlands in the year 2010, when the world population is expected to reach 7 billion. Here are some of the results:

  • The CO2 space per person from fossil fuel use in the Netherlands needs to be reduced from the current 12 tons per year to 4 tons by 2010, and down to 1.7 tons by 2030.

  • The fresh water space (calculated regionally, not by worldwide availability) for the Netherlands will have to be reduced by at least 40 percent, or from 130 liters per person per day to 80 liters.

  • Per person cropland use will have to be reduced from 0.45 hectares to 0.25 hectares, 0.19 of which is needed for a basic food package. This will leave 0.06 hectares for non-food production, such as cotton, and luxury products such as coffee, beer, and wine.

  • World per capita rangeland use for production of meat and dairy products will have been reduced from 0.61 hectares to 0.44 hectares due to overgrazing. The remaining lands might provide a sustainable meat supply of about 60 grams per person per day, compared to the current average of 190 grams.

  • Timber usage must be reduced by 60 percent for the Netherlands, from 1.1 cubic-meters to 0.4 cubic-meters per person, including wood used for paper.

  • No harmful substances such as organic chlorine will be allowed, and the use of finite resources will be severely limited – in the case of aluminum, to 2 kilos per year compared to today’s 12 kilos.

It will not be easy for the Dutch public, or others accustomed to unrestrained consumption, to accept these limits. It is important to note, however, that there is a difference between per capita environmental space and per capita consumption. To the extent that production and consumption are organized to get the greatest use of every unit of available environmental resources extracted for human use, comfortable levels of consumption are possible without consequential environ-mental damage.

The first rule is that nothing must be discarded. Everything must be reusable, recyclable, or repairable. Take paper consumption as an example. Currently, 37 percent of the paper used in the Netherlands is recycled. By increasing recycling to 75 percent and increasing the efficiency of paper production, a reduction of 75 percent can be achieved in environmental space used with no reduction in actual paper use.

Likewise, radios, televisions, washing machines, and other electrically driven appliances can be designed to be more durable and energy efficient without use of harmful materials, and to facilitate complete recycling of their material content at the end of their useful service life.

Armed with this hopeful scenario for a sustainable adjustment of northern economies, the environmental movement must set out to mobilize the citizens of industrial society for necessary action. We first must recognize that attempting to make the policies of the IMF, the World Bank, and GATT environmentally friendly cannot address the root causes of environmental threats.

These institutions first must abandon the growth-model myth to which they are committed and acknowledge the necessity of redistributing environmental space. Under this alternative, southern countries would export less, reducing pressure on natural resources and giving more access to these resources to their own poor. Production for the basic needs of all people then would take precedence over luxury-item production.

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