Planetary environmental and social justice boundaries

Is there a conflict between trying to resolve environmental issues and bringing the worst-off in the world out of poverty, i.e., between sustainability and sustainable development? A common critique of the green movement is that they are hindering world economic growth which will ultimately bring about prosperity for all. Worse, the movement is formed from the middle classes of the developed world who already have enough, but wish to deny others the same advantages.

The position is of course more complex than this for numerous reasons. A helpful Oxfam paper by Kate Raworth discusses this. See also the commentary by George Monbiot.

The general ideas aren’t new, but what is is her way of presenting how they fit together: a safe doughnut space for humanity with the outer boundary being the Planetary Boundaries of Rockstrom et al, and the inner boundary being the Rio development goals. Breaching either the outer or inner boundaries will cause or continue deprivation for the poorest in the world. (Seeing them as hard boundaries is probably not helpful: this is just a conceptual model.)

The conclusion is then for an appropriately considered middle way between unrestricted economic growth and shutdown, and for growth to be targetted where it is needed, because the doughnut is relatively thin. This is a challenge, as Monbiot notes:

The politically easy way to tackle poverty is to try to raise the living standards of the poor while doing nothing to curb the consumption of the rich. This is the strategy almost all governments follow. It is a formula for environmental disaster, which, in turn, spreads poverty and deprivation. As Oxfam’s paper says, social justice is impossible without “far greater global equity in the use of natural resources, with the greatest reductions coming from the world’s richest consumers”.

As noted in the comments below (which are mostly well worth reading, unlike many Guardian CiF threads) we still have to work out how to make global social justice politically acceptable.


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