Sustainability versus poverty eradication – the false dichotomy

Whenever climate change or, more recently, the planetary boundaries are being discussed in the development community you will hear about the fear that the fight against poverty may be forgotten because of the ‘climate craze’ and when poverty is on the agenda of environmental organisations concerns will be voiced that the last remaining nature reserves are being sacrificed for development purposes. All too often there appears to only be the choice between either poverty eradication or environmental protection. Two aspects have caused this misguided perception and are keeping it alive: the separation and silo mentality of both communities and the tangible damage which developmental and environmental policies have caused to each other in the past.

Where does the strict separation between both sectors come from? Development cooperation started after the World War II, at a time when environmental concerns had not yet reached the level of public attention they have today. ICSOs such as Oxfam and CARE broadened their approach from humanitarian assistance to development policies, governments created development ministries and agencies which focused on delivering aid, scientists started research into social and economic aspects of development cooperation and journalists specialised in this field. Decades later when the pollution of rivers and beaches, increasing incidences of smog in the cities and the damage to forests and lakes by acid rain became a major concern in industrialised countries, a totally separate environmental infrastructure was created. Once again specialist CSOs, ministries, agencies, scientists and journalists emerged, mostly focussing on environmental protection in their local or national context and usually leaving social concerns out of their considerations. It took about another decade until environmental destruction in developing countries had reached an extent to which it could no longer be ignored, and the development community started to include environmental protection in their approaches. At the same time the environmental community learned that in order to succeed they needed to take note of social concerns when devising their projects. But still today, both sectors are neatly separated and regard each other with a degree of distrust and defensiveness.

In the past, many of the projects of both camps have indeed been harmful to the other sector. I still remember a film I watched when I was a child: a German professor was working hard to save the Serengeti as a national park, protecting its animals and keeping people and their cattle out. In one sequence local herdsmen were shooting arrows at the professor’s plane, and I can still recall the indignation with which the professor pointed at an arrow which stuck in one of the wings. On the other end, development projects like clearing ‘the bush’ in order to make arable land available to the poor or drilling deeper and deeper wells in order to secure a water supply for an increasing number of people and their animals often created irreversible damage to the environment. Meanwhile both sectors have learned that such one-dimensional projects are not feasible. But they have still a long way to go towards balancing environmental and social aspects in their policies and programmes.

However, much of the mutual suspicion is unwarranted and harmful. Oxfam rightly points out that eradicating extreme poverty does not have to lead to major additional stress on the planetary boundaries: “Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 per cent of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1 per cent of the current global food supply. (…) Bringing electricity to the 19 per cent of the world’s population who currently lack it could be achieved with less than a 1 per cent increase in global CO2 emissions. (…) Ending income poverty for the 21 per cent of the global population who live on less than $ 1.25 a day would require just 0.2 per cent of global income.” Kate Raworth, the author of the Oxfam paper goes on to point out that “the biggest source of planetary-boundary stress today is excessive resource consumption by roughly the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world’s population” and provides the following examples: “Around 50 per cent of global carbon emissions are generated by just 11 per cent of people; (…) 57 per cent of global income is in the hands of just 10 per cent of people; (…) 33 per cent of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for people in the EU – just 7 per cent of the world’s population. Adding to the pressure created by the world’s wealthiest consumers is a growing global ‘middle class’, aspiring to emulate today’s high-income lifestyles. By 2030, global demand for water is expected to rise by 30 per cent, and demand for food and energy both by 50 per cent.”37

Based on these findings, Oxfam proposes to complement the concept of planetary boundaries with a concept of social boundaries. The circle originally proposed by Johan Rockström and his colleagues beyond which there is no sustainability turns into a ring – or, as Oxfam calls it, a doughnut – in the centre of which there is no social justice. Only within the doughnut is there a safe and just space for humanity.


Source: Kate Raworth, A safe and just space for humanity. Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Paper 2012.
Reproduced with the permission of Oxfam GB, Oxfam House, John Smith Drive, Cowley, Oxford OX4 2JY, UK
Oxfam GB does not necessarily endorse any text or activities that accompany the material.

If we look at this ring against our review of inequality we can say that a large segment of humanity lives in the centre of the ring, deprived of essential human rights and threatened by poverty; while another significant section, the affluent part of humanity, lives outside the ring, consuming much more than their sustainable share of the world’s resources; while a third, and possibly the smallest part of humanity, lives within the safe and just space the ring indicates. This picture sets out a double agenda for our own and the next few generations: bringing those in the unjust centre of the ring and those at the unsustainable periphery into the safe and just space for humanity inside the doughnut. If we succeed this means at the same time that we will quite dramatically reduce inequality. If we would add an ‘inequality vector’ to our picture this would start at the very centre of the ring where today the poorest of the poor are living and reach far beyond the outer limits of the ring to where the most affluent of the rich are living. But once humanity manages to stay within the doughnut our inequality vector would only reach from the inner limit of the ring which Oxfam calls ‘social foundation’ to the outer limit called ‘environmental ceiling’.

The political discussion about this and other models has only just begun, and it will, no doubt, be conducted with a lot of emotions between those who still believe that ‘business as usual’ is an option and those who find it impossible to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence which requires system change. But the military worldwide, which is much more sober about the facts, is busy preparing for a situation where countries and people start fighting over scarce resources. For all of the leading armies the challenge of planetary boundaries is now a key factor in their strategic plans. No doubt with the growing scarcity of resources their distribution will become a more conflictive issue. The growing incidence of land and water grabs indicate that the fight for these vital resources has already begun. To date the track record of the rich part of humanity is not very impressive as far as foregoing luxuries for the benefit of the poor is concerned. With a total population of up to 11 billion people, a much larger part of whom will expect to lead middle class lives, and not enough resources available to fulfil these dreams, distribution both within and between countries will become a highly conflictive matter. As the price of scarce resources increases inequality will become more dramatic, and as the gap between rich and poor widens the fight for access to resources will become more violent.

Will we end up divided into small gated and heavily guarded affluent communities defending their privileges at all cost and a desperate and violent majority or will we find ways to distribute shrinking resources to a growing number of people in a fair and peaceful way? To achieve the latter would require a just distribution of resources under three aspects: interpersonal justice based on the universality of human rights, international justice which allocates resources fairly between different countries and intergenerational justice, meaning that we observe the principle of sustainability, leaving a comparable level of resources to future generations. If we fail to secure justice at all of these three levels inequality will bring major disruption globally.