The rich, the poor and the future of the earth: equity in a constrained world

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Overconsumption, Not Population, Is Key To Global Environment Crisis

Poor people should not be blamed for the global environmental crisis in the face of overconsumption by the world’s middle classes, says a new Christian Aid report. ‘Sometimes the implication seems to be that it is high birth rates in developing countries, rather than overconsumption by rich people, which is the main cause of climate change and other global environmental crises, said Dr Alison Doig, Christian Aid’s Senior Adviser on Sustainable Development. ‘This would be a dangerous misconception, because it diverts attention from where it is desperately needed, which is reining in the runaway consumption of the world’s wealthy and middle classes and transforming their economies to make them sustainable and fair. ‘At present, over-consumption is draining the planet at a terrifying rate and making it increasingly inhospitable to everyone but especially the poorest people, who are most affected by the state of the natural environment.’ Christian Aid believes that fertility rates are an important dimension of global development and that people should have effective choices over the number of children they have, which many millions currently do not. It also believes that development organisations should do more to help secure such choices. However, it sees reproductive health as an important goal in its own right, rather than primarily as a means of protecting the environment.

Dr Doig is the lead author of a new Christian Aid report, Equity in a Constrained World, which highlights some of the dramatic differences between rich and poor people’s use of scare resources, such as water and the atmosphere’s ability to absorb the gases causing climate change.
For instance, the average American uses 176 gallons of water a day while the average African family uses just 5 gallons. And while the average person in the UK emits 10.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year, in the world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Sudan), the average is just 1.7 million tonnes a year.
Inequality in a Constrained World says that overall, the wealthiest 20 per cent of the world’s population consume 80 per cent of resources such as water and land. By contrast, the poorest 20 cent do not have enough to meet their basic needs - and account for just 1.3 per cent of global resource consumption.

The report also warns that the global economy is currently driving the environmental crisis and pushing the poorest people into ever more precarious locations and lives. ‘Increasingly, what we are seeing is a ‘natural resource grab’ by wealthy countries, richer people within developing countries and private sector companies,’ it says. ‘They are taking control of fresh water, forests, fish, minerals and fossil fuels, all of which they treat as commodities. This is having devastating impacts on poor people and the planet.’ In addition, the report acknowledges that population growth in poor countries is damaging many local environmental resources, including fresh water, trees and topsoil and that this in turn makes survival even harder for the poorest people.

Equity in a Constrained World argues for a more sustainable future in which the world’s wealthy and middle classes take up a smaller, fairer share of its precious resources while the poorest take more.
Such a transformation should be led by high-income countries, which should take domestic action to reduce their environmental footprints and support poorer countries to pursue low-carbon, resource-efficient development. In addition, countries should ensure that whatever system succeeds the Millennium Development Goals has sustainability and equity at its heart.