Monday, August 13, 2012

Population and Sustainability in an Unequal World

June’s Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development left environmentalists little to cheer about. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, called the meeting “a failure of epic proportions.” And Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin said the conference “may produce one lasting legacy: convincing people it’s not worth holding global summits.”

For those who care about population and sustainability, the meeting was especially disappointing. Despite advocacy efforts by scientists and NGOs from around the world, including a high-profile lead-up report by the UK’s Royal Society, the outcome document failed to recognize the environmental implications of population dynamics and to connect the dots between demography, reproductive health, and sustainable development.

How did this happen? The reasons are many, but here, I’ll focus on one that is fundamental to the global stalemate on environmental issues in general and to population and environment issues in particular: inequality.

The Gap

Around the world, there is a vast – and widening – gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” A 2008 study by the UN University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research found that the richest one percent of adults now own 40 percent of global assets. The bottom half of humanity, in contrast, owns barely one percent of all wealth.

This appalling gap in wealth is matched by disparities in environmental impact: The relatively affluent citizens of industrialized countries consume a far greater share of the planet’s resources and emit a greater quantity of waste than their counterparts in the developing world. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of an average American, we would need five planets to support everyone.

These disparities, and the injustice they represent, are a major obstacle to global consensus and action on environmental problems. Take climate change; because industrialized countries have historically contributed the lion’s share of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, those countries lack the moral authority to call for reductions elsewhere. And developing countries, which are struggling to lift their people from abject poverty, reasonably fear that emissions limits will stunt their development. More