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A fair share in environmental space
by Adèle Meijer

Discussion of a concept by which assessing earth's natural resources can be used to recommend consumption patterns which ensure sustainable development as well just distribution of resources world wide. 


Environmental groups have developed plans for a sustainable economy based on the principle of sharing. They may well serve to reorganize our economic system into a system of trade by barter with a just distribution and sustainable production. They also show what sharing actually means in terms of levels of consumption.

Economic growth is one of the characteristics of the present market- orientated economy. Without growth of its returns an industry’s stocks are not considered to be an interesting investment: only the highest revenues are good enough. The returns of a country’s industries are the basis for the value of its currency. Companies without admittance to the stock market list are also compelled to increase their production because of mechanisms inherent in the market that cause profits to fall. Economic growth also largely dictates the policies of (Western) governments: a moderate increase of wages, a decrease of taxes and resulting cutbacks in education or health services are supposed to foster it as are the financing of projects developing the infrastructure. For governments in the South, the IMF dictates for economic growth are more severe: devaluation of the currencies, abolition of subsidies on food, and drastic cutbacks on education or health services.

Growth and consumption

This goad of growth stimulates wasteful western-style consumption that threatens the ecological and life-support systems of the planet. Developed countries are the main culprits. Their one billion inhabitants — about 20 per cent of the world population — use 80 per cent of the fossil fuels, metals, wood, minerals and other resources that are extracted every year.

The one billion inhabitants of the developed countries — about 20 per cent of the world population — use 80 per cent of the fossil fuels, metals, wood, minerals and other resources that are extracted every year.

Despite increasing the efficiency with which these resources are used, their overall consumption is still growing. Pollution has been cut in some developed countries. But pollution and landscape destruction are growing in the countries where the resources are extracted or produced. If the developing countries come to consume in the same wasteful manner as the developed countries, global resource use will increase eightfold while the population only doubles. This would exceed the ecological limits by 600 per cent.

The ‘alternative’ of the developing countries remaining poor would, with the same doubling of world population, add just a quarter to global resource consumption. This ‘alternative’, however, is both inhumane and unrealistic: many developing countries are on course to realize a similar level of affluence to the USA and Europe. China, with its billion inhabitants, is a case in point. Economic growth in China has been around 10 per cent per year since 1980. It is expected that car ownership in China will reach today’s UK level by 2020. This will mean 400 million more cars. With conventional technology, this would almost double iron ore consumption, as well as massively increasing landscape destruction, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. When developing countries succeed in growing economically, the scarcity of resources is a time-bomb presaging (civil) wars and destruction of the planet.

Sustainable economy

In 1992 a Dutch environmental group published a research project in which universities and specialized research institutes had participated and which was subsidized by the Dutch Government and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. It was the first description of the possible implications of a sustainable economy and society for the Netherlands. In 1995 the same approach was used by the Wuppertal Institute for developing a similar sustainable economy for the whole of Europe. After its publication, 30 European countries followed with their national plans.

The basic concept of these studies is the concept of "the fair share in environmental space." Environmental space is the total global amount of energy, non-renewable resources, agricultural land and forests that we can use without causing irreversible environmental damage or depriving future generations of the resources they will need. The amount of environmental space is limited: we have only one Earth. For example, there is a limit to the area of land we can put sustainably into agricultural production, or only so much timber we can fell each year without depleting our forests.

The principles of equity and social justice are reflected in the calculation of the "fair shares in environmental space". These are worked out by dividing the sustainable global availability of energy and resources by the expected world population for a given target year (seven billion in 2010). In these terms, achieving sustainability means that each country consumes more or less the same amount of natural resources relative to its population size. The calculations of the fair shares of different resources are worked out for the measures that have to be taken to ensure sustainable production in various scenarios. In this way the North could create room for sustainable development in the South. The most drastic cuts concern the use of aluminum, fossil fuels and the consumption of meat.

Reducing meat consumption

Application of the fair share concept in agriculture would mean that Europe reduces its imported agricultural products by half. Since most of these are used for feeding animals, cuts in the consumption of meat would have to be made by 66 per cent. This means 54 grammes of meat and 290 grammes of dairy products per person per day. In order to achieve this target the following measures should be taken in Europe:

  • complete reorientation of agriculture to organic farming methods
  • preservation and giving back to nature of 10 per cent of the total amount of land
  • no more imports of cattle fodder by 2010 and restriction of the supplementary acreage of other food land to 59 per cent of the present acreage
  • a halt before the year 2010 to farming on soil that is now degraded.

In 1996 the Canadians William Rees and Matthis Wackernagel published Our Ecological Footprint. Based on the same principle of the ‘fair earth share’, the ecological footprint is a representation of the appropriation of fossil energy, food land, forest products and built- up environment by a person, country, city, product or service. The various resources are expressed in hectares of land. This method of representation is simpler and more expressive but a less specific instrument for a better management of our planet.

Calculating economic needs

The concept of the fair share in environmental space is more than a gadget for environmental groups: it can also serve to develop index figures for the management of the planet in an economic-political sense. It can be used to calculate the needs and surpluses of a country, and to regulate its production — without the rigidity of the planning systems of the former socialist countries — by means of assigning quotas. When it comes to the agricultural production of milk, assigning quotas is already common practice in the Netherlands and elsewhere. 

The European production of steel has also been subjected to quotas for some time. Taken one step further, the concept of a fair share in environmental space could be developed into a method for bringing market forces under control. It could be used to redefine a country’s assets and turn a country’s debt into a thing of the past. This would be far more realistic than expressing a country’s economic status in a GNP that leaves out environmental costs and unpaid work (half of all work done). In fact, it can be used to change the cycle of money-product-money into product-money-product, into the sophisticated process of trade by barter that was predicted by Benjamin Creme to replace the present chaotic economic system (Share International February 1984). The UN Commission for Sustainable Development has already taken a first step and has asked each of the member states to develop, before 2002, a national strategy for sustainable development.

From the July/August 1998 issue of Share International.


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005