Sustainability and Social Justice: Do the Math

Luxury, beauty, exquisite consumer goods, but at what cost?

Most people I talk to support 'sustainability' and 'social justice' goals. Ecology teaches us that we need to frame these human aspirations in relation to the biological capacity of the Earth, the energy, and the resources that support our burgeoning populations and economies.

As human society sets out to achieve ecological sustainability and social justice on Earth, we face two serious challenges. Firstly, humanity already over-consumes the biological capacity of the planet. And secondly, humanity suffers from a vast gap between rich and poor.

Free-market fundamentalists claim we'll close this gap and restore the planet by growing our economies, perhaps with 'green' jobs - but this business-as-usual approach fails to account for ecological reality.

Do the math

According to data compiled by the UN, the Global Footprint Network, and Dr. William Rees at the University of British Columbia, total human consumption already exceeds the Earth's capacity by 30 per cent. This is known as biological 'overshoot'. The UN estimates that most natural services to human societies - forests, fish, fresh water and clean air - decline annually. As human population and consumption grow, our collective overshoot increases.

Meanwhile, the wealthy 15 per cent use about 85 per cent of the resources - the total energy and materials - the 'stuff' - that Earth provides. The 'wealthy' includes anyone who has a home, job, transport, access to education, hot showers, convenient fuel and food every day: people in the so-called 'developed' world. If you have those things, you live among the wealthy 15 per cent who use most of the world's resources.

There is more to social change than the biophysical numbers, but any serious ecologist or justice advocate needs to know how resource overshoot limits our choices to achieve sustainability and social equality. Let's do the math.

Nature's rules

Start with these facts:

1. Total human consumption = 130% of the Earth's capacity
2. The rich 15% use 85% of the stuff, and the poor 85% use 15% of the stuff

If we define the sustainable, equitable consumption per person as '1 unit' of stuff, the facts above mean that an average 100 people use 130 units. To be sustainable, the total consumption of 100 people needs to be 100 units of stuff. And to achieve social justice, each person would use 1 unit. But of course, that's not how our world works.

Total human consumption of 100 average people equals 130, not 100, and since the rich 15 use 85% of everything, they use 110 units (130 X 85%). The poor 85, meanwhile, use the other 20 units of stuff.


The average rich person uses 110/15      =     7.333 units of stuff
The average poor person uses 20/85      =     0.235 units of stuff

How are we doing? Not too well. The average person in the developed nations consumes 30 times more than the average person among the working poor, dispossessed, and starving multitudes. And meanwhile, we're already using more energy and materials than the Earth can annually supply.

So, if we want a world of ecological sustainability and social justice we must face some difficult facts. To start with, humanity must consume less stuff.

We must reduce the total human consumption for 100 average people from 130 to 100, and then, we must share those 100 units of stuff that the Earth can provide.

If we were able to achieve that, then everyone would simply use 1 unit, the ecologically-sound, socially-equitable amount of energy and materials. As we know, in our current situation, we consume more than the Earth's capacity and the rich take almost everything.

Another way to understand this is to imagine humanity as a family of seven people, that earns $100,000 per year but spends $130,000, and one member of the family alone spends $110,000.

Dysfunctional? Yes.

Sustainable? No.

Reality bites

By these figures, we see that to achieve sustainability and social justice, the rich would have to consume about 1/7 of what they currently consume. If that happened, the world's poor could increase their consumption by about 4 times.

That's the straightforward, biological and physical reality we now face.

Under our current economic system, achieving sustainability and social justice might appear impossible. However, using less and sharing represent nothing more than common decency, the sort of behaviour we supposedly teach our children.

We hear from our alleged leaders, of course, that this is politically and logistically impractical. So, instead, we labour under the delusion that we'll make the world 'equitable' by growing all the economies until the poor, developing countries achieve greater wealth. We'll make our economies 'sustainable' by creating 'green' products, hybrid cars, and renewable energy.

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