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The Jo'burg Memo


Wolfgang Sachs et al

African Village, painting by Carol Mangiagalli

African Village, painting by Carol Mangiagalli

Equity can no longer be separated from ecology.

from Resurgence issue 214



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THE UN CONFERENCE on Environment and Development in Rio 1992 launched 'sustainable development' as a new name for progress. The idea caught on worldwide, but the results thus far have been mixed. After ten years, in August 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg will be an occasion for reflection and reassessment.

Brought together by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a group of sixteen independent activists, intellectuals and managers have produced a Memorandum which suggests an agenda for equity and ecology for the decade to come. It is neither a political platform nor an expert study, but a 'memorandum' in the true sense of the word. It attempts to state what should be kept in mind, given that Johannesburg is unlikely to rise above trivialities. Some members of the group, including its co-ordinator, Wolfgang Sachs, are well known to readers of this magazine, including among others Tewolde Eghziaber, Paul Hawken, Hazel Henderson, Ashok Khosla, Anita Roddick and Christine von Weizsäcker. The following text is an extract from Part Two, entitled 'The Johannesburg Agenda'.The South - and in particular South Africa - intends to transform Johannesburg into a development summit rather than an environment summit. While Rio was considered to be dominated by the North, it is hoped that Johannesburg will be the Summit for the South. Indeed, the conference title 'World Summit for Sustainable Development' clearly reflects the intention to elevate 'development' on the political agenda. This, in our view, is justified, given the systematic neglect of the equity agenda in world politics.

Yet we believe that focusing on a development agenda as if the worldwide crisis of nature did not exist would signify sliding back behind Rio. It would be a regression of sorts, a roll-back in the growing sensibility towards the finiteness of the natural world. And it would be a disservice to the South, since equity can no longer be separated from ecology. Instead, fulfilling the ambition of Rio requires the effective response to the demand for equity arising from the South, but in a manner which takes full account of the bio-physical limits of the Earth. Some claim that humanity faces a choice between human misery and natural catastrophe. This choice is false. We are convinced that human misery can be eliminated without catalysing natural catastrophes. Conversely, natural catastrophes can indeed be avoided without condemning people to a life of misery. Getting ready to meet this challenge requires revisiting the technologies, the institutions and the world-views that dominate the globe today. Johannesburg can forge a new beginning.

Shrug off copycat development

Partly through imposition, partly through attraction, the Northern development model has shaped Southern desires, offering tangible examples not only of a different, but of a supposedly better life. Where countries want to go, what they strive to become, has most often not emerged naturally from their respective history and traditions, but has been forged by emulation of the Northern model. In this way, dignity has been identified with becoming modern, and international equity has been conceived as catching up with the developed countries.

The times of copycat development are over. Not because emulation of the North has not produced the desired results, but because the development model of the North is historically obsolete. Up until the environmental crisis broke, one could still attribute a certain degree of superiority to the technological civilisation which had emerged on both sides of the northern Atlantic in the last quarter of the twentieth century. But it has become obvious that many of its glorious achievements are actually optical illusions in disguise. They essentially consist in transferring power from nature to man, leaving nature degraded and depleted in the process. Although it was just a minority of the world population which fed off nature for just a couple of generations, the feast is quickly coming to an end.

A dramatic situation has now emerged. At present, the world consumes more resources than nature can regenerate. Calculations suggest that human activities have exceeded the biosphere's capacity since the mid-1970s. Since then, ecological overshoot has become the distinguishing mark of human history. In 1997, the overshoot amounted to 30% of the Earth's carrying capacity, or even to 40-50% if the needs of other living beings are taken into account. The global fossil-fuel bonanza is mainly responsible for the quandary of conventional development, which presently only offers the uncomfortable choice between social injustice and biospherical disruption. If, for instance, the present average carbon emissions per capita in the industrial world were extrapolated to all countries, the atmosphere would have to absorb five times more emissions than it can take - without even counting the expected increase in population. In other words, if all the countries of the globe followed the industrial model, five planets would be required to provide the carbon sinks needed by economic development. As humanity is left with just one, such an equity approach would become the mother of all disasters.

Consequently, there is no escape from the conclusion that the world's growing population cannot attain a Western standard of living by following conventional paths to development. The resources required are too vast, too expensive, and too damaging to local and global ecosystems. However, as probably never before in history, there is an opportunity to turn 'underdevelopment' into a blessing. At the historical juncture where fossil-fuel dependency drives industrial societies into an impasse, economies that once were seen as lagging behind suddenly find themselves in a favourable position. Not yet fully locked into an old-style model of industrialisation, they have the prospect of leapfrogging into a post-fossil-fuel age.

Reduce the footprint of the rich

Without ecology there will be no equity in the world. Otherwise, the biosphere will be thrown into turbulence. The insight that the globally available environmental space is finite, albeit within flexible boundaries, has added a new dimension to justice. The quest for greater justice has, from time immemorial, required us to contain the use of power in society, but now it also requires us to contain the use of nature. The powerful have to yield both political and environmental space to the powerless, if justice is to have a chance.

Power determines who occupies how much of the environmental space. Neither all nations nor all citizens use equal shares. On the contrary, the environmental space is divided in a highly unfair manner. It still holds true that about 20% of the world population consumes 70-80% of the world's resources. It is those 20% who eat 45% of all the meat and fish, consume 68% of all electricity and 84% of all the paper, and own 87% of all the automobiles. Above all, it is the industrialised countries which tap into the heritage of nature to an excessive extent; they draw on the environment far beyond their national boundaries. Their ecological footprint is larger - and in some cases very much larger - than their own territories, with a great deal of the resources and sinks they utilise squandered from other countries.

However, especially when it comes to resource consumption, the conventional distinction between North and South is misleading. It obscures the fact that the dividing line in today's world, if there is any, is not primarily running between Northern and Southern societies, but right across all of these societies. The major rift appears to be between the globalised rich and the localised poor. It separates the global consumer class, on the one side, from the social majority outside the global circuits, on the other.

This global middle class is made up of the majority of citizens in the North, along with a varying number of elites in the South, with about four-fifths of it found in North America, Western as well as Eastern Europe, and Japan. A fifth of it can be found dispersed throughout the South. Its overall size equals roughly that 20% of the world population which has direct access to an automobile. In all countries, an invisible border separates the fast from the slow, the connected from the unconnected, the rich from the poor. There is a global North as there is a global South; this reality thus disappears in the conventional terms of 'North' and 'South'.

The corporate-driven consumer classes, in the North as well as in the South, have the power to bring the bulk of the world's marketed natural resources into their service. Due to their purchasing power, they are able to command the resource flows, which fuel their commodity-intensive patterns of production and consumption. In attracting resources, their geographical reach is both global and national. On the global level, a network of resource flows, generally organised by transnational corporations, extends like a spider's web across the planet, pulling energy and materials towards the high-consumption zones. On the national level, the urban-based middle classes succeed equally in capturing resources to their benefit, thanks to patterns of ownership, subsidies, and superior demand.

As a consequence, the more affluent groups in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India, China or Russia use about as much energy and materials as their counterparts in the industrialised world, which, however, implies a level five to ten times higher than the average consumption in these countries.

Reduction of the ecological footprint of the consumer classes around the world is not just a matter of ecology, but also a matter of equity. Though trade in resources may help economically, it is deleterious ecologically, since the excessive use of environmental space withdraws resources from the social majority in the world, constraining their capacity to enhance their lives and to move towards a brighter future. More so, wealth on the one side is at times co-responsible for poverty on the other.

Time and again, the consumer classes shield themselves against environmental harm by leaving noise, dirt, and the ugliness of the industrial hinterland on the doorsteps of less advantaged groups. Moreover, resources are not simply out there waiting to be extracted; they often are where people reside and they are used by people to sustain their livelihoods. As the consumer class corners resources through the global reach of corporations, it contributes to the marginalisation of that third of the world population which derives its livelihood directly from free access to land, water and forests.Ensuring livelihood rights

In contrast to Rio, the Johannesburg Summit will concentrate on poverty eradication. While everybody agrees that poverty elimination is to have its due priority, opinions are sharply divided as soon as the key question is asked: poverty eradication, yes, but by whom?

The first answer highlights the role of investors, transnational companies, and economic planners, emphasising that the reduction of poverty will be the result of higher and broader economic growth. Since growth, in this view, is triggered by export to urban, or, better, foreign markets, the most important ingredients of a poverty reduction strategy are capital investments, factories, irrigation systems, transportation networks, and marketing outlets.

Moreover, greater purchasing power cannot be mobilised unless free access to Northern consumer markets is secured. In this perspective, only the integration of the most productive agricultural sectors into the world market can provide a steady flow of income and investment, which in turn may stimulate further growth. In brief, poverty would be overcome through more globalisation.

The second response - which we favour - looks to the poor themselves and recognises them as actors who shape their lives even under conditions of hardship and destitution. In this view, poverty derives from a deficit of power rather than a lack of money. Far from being needy persons awaiting provisions, the poor must be seen as citizens who are constrained by a lack of rights, entitlements, salaries, and political leverage. Any attempt, therefore, to mitigate poverty will have to be centred on a reinforcement of rights and opportunities. This is in particular true for women who are often legally marginalised. In many places, they have no access to tenure, income and influence, despite the fact that they carry most of the burden of everyday life and often have to sustain families by themselves. For women or men, a basic rights strategy, rather than a basic needs strategy, may help to overcome the constraints to self-organisation. In the countryside, conflicts will often turn around rights to land, access to water, forests and undestroyed habitats, confronting landowners and state administrations. In the city, conflicts will focus on rights to housing, to unpolluted water, to running a business, or to self-administration, confronting city officials, health departments, police, or power cliques.

Unless there are shifts in power patterns - subtle ones or sweeping ones - the poor will almost always lack the security and the resources needed for a decent existence. Boosting economic growth is less important than securing livelihoods for the impoverished. Since economic growth often fails to trickle down, there is no point in sacrificing people's lives in the present for speculative gains in the future. Instead, it is crucial to empower them for a dignified life here and now.

Therefore, it is important to promote sustainable livelihoods. But productive ecosystems are core assets for sustainable livelihoods, since grasslands, forests, fields and rivers can be valuable sources of sustenance. This is the main reason why livelihood-centred strategies of poverty removal coincide with the interest in environmental protection. Ecology is thus essential for ensuring decent livelihoods in society. Securing community rights to natural resources is therefore a hallmark of livelihood politics. However, strengthening the rights of local communities means weakening the claims of distant income earners and consumers. Thus the direct or indirect demand of the corporate-driven middle classes for easily available and cheap resources will have to be checked, since the interest of middle classes in expanding consumption and of corporations in profit expansion often collides with the interest of communities in securing their livelihoods. These resource conflicts will not be resolved unless the economically well-off make the transition towards resource-light patterns of production and consumption.

Leapfrog into the solar age

An answer, we suggest, is to move quickly out of an industrial economy wasteful of both nature and population, and head for a regenerative economy mindful of resources and in need of people. An economy that is based on the assumption that there are 'free goods' in the world - pure water, clean air, hydrocarbon combustion, virgin forests, veins of minerals - will favour large-scale, energy- and materials-intensive production methods, and labour will remain marginalised. In contrast, if an economy discourages profligate resource use and privileges non-fossil resources, a decentralised and smaller-scale production pattern requiring more labour and intelligence is likely to prosper. Rather than laying off people, greater gains can come from laying off wasted kilowatt-hours, barrels of oil, and pulp from old-growth forests. People will in part have to substitute for natural resources: such an economy, evolving with a minimum input of nature, will have to rely much more on the strength, the skill, and the knowledge of people. Indeed, it will be post-industrial in the true sense of the word: finding new balances between hardware, biological productivity, and human intelligence.

This is even more so when it comes to changing the resource base altogether, from fossil-based to solar-based energies and materials. Apart from the obvious environmental benefits, the point here is that fossil resources usually imply long supply chains, which in turn imply long chains of value creation. Because there is usually so much geographical distance between the extraction of the resource and its final use, including a variety of intermediate steps of processing and refining, opportunities for profit and employment are spread out as well. Most countries and localities, finding themselves at the downstream end of the chain, are strangled by the high cost of fuel and resources imported from abroad. They pay, but most gains and jobs arise elsewhere. However, a change in resource base would turn this logic around.

Reliance on photovoltaic, wind, small hydro power, and bio-mass of all sorts implies much shorter supply chains, not just for the resource, but often also for the conversion technology involved. As a result, income and jobs would largely stay at the local or regional level, recycling money in local economies. Furthermore, as sunshine and bio-mass are geographically diffused, they lend themselves to decentralised structures of production and use, unlike fossil resources which are concentrated in a few places, giving rise to centralised large-scale structures. The industrial pattern of squandering nature instead of cherishing people would be reversed; a solar economy holds the prospect of both including people and saving resources.

Southern countries have the opportunity to leapfrog into a solar economy. In fact, it would be self-defeating for them, in terms of livelihoods and in terms of the environment, to go through the same stages of industrial evolution as the Northern countries did. Investment in infrastructure such as light rail systems, decentralised energy production, public transport, grey-water sewage, locally adapted housing, regionalised food systems and transport-light urban settings could set a country on the road towards cleaner, less costly, and more equitable development patterns. This perspective holds true in many respects; in addition, it represents a unique chance for achieving greater economic independence, decades after political independence has been accomplished. Southern or Eastern countries that ignore leapfrogging into the solar age do so at their own peril. o

The Jo'burg Memo is a collaboration of sixteen authors and activists including Wolfgang Sachs, Hazel Henderson and Paul Hawken.The whole Jo'burg Memo can be downloaded at

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