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Fairness In a Fragile World

On the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Johannesburg summit this August and September offers an occasion for reviewing the fate of “sustainable development” in the age of globalization. Preliminary documents show that the official summit will fail to see a contradiction between globalization and sustainability, so it is up to civil society to provide a critical perspective.

Against this background, a group of 16 activists, intellectuals, and managers, brought together by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, has produced an agenda for equity and ecology, titled The Jo'Burg Memo. The group, which includes Tewolde Eghziaber, Paul Hawken, Hazel Henderson, Ashok Khosla, and Anita Roddick, developed what may be the most comprehensive policy statement for Johannesburg from a civil society perspective. In what follows, some arguments from the Memo are highlighted.

Fairness first
Southern countries—foremost the host country, South Africa—intend Johannesburg to be a development rather than an environment summit. This is understandable, given the systematic neglect of equity and fairness in world politics. Yet it would be a regression of sorts, a retreat from Rio, if this were to result in further neglect of the biosphere.

Our Memorandum argues that there can be no poverty eradication without a healthy environment. Moreover, an environmental strategy is indispensable for moving beyond the hegemonic shadow of the North, leapfrogging beyond fossil-based development patterns that are now historically obsolete.

Most of our arguments turn around one core question: What does fairness mean within a finite environmental space? The basic answer is fairly straightforward. On the one hand, fairness calls for enlarging the livelihood rights of the poor, while, on the other hand, it calls for cutting back the claims of the rich to resources. The interests of local communities in maintaining their livelihoods often collide with the interests of urban classes and corporations to expand consumption and profits. These resource conflicts will not be eased unless the economically well-off on the globe move toward resource-efficient patterns of production and consumption.

Ecology and equity
At the official summit in Johannesburg,poverty eradication will be highlighted, and the environment will be sidelined. The Memo makes the case against the conventional wisdom that poverty eradication is at odds with environmental care. On the contrary, it argues, livelihoods cannot be maintained unless access to land, seeds, forests, grasslands, fishing grounds, and water is secured. Moreover, pollution of air, soils, water, and food chronically undermines the physical health of the poor, in particular in cities. Environmental protection, therefore, is not a contradiction to poverty elimination, but its condition. With regard to the poor, there will be no equity without ecology. But also the reverse is true, given that resource conservation is best guaranteed by stronger community rights: there will be no ecology without equity.

At the official summit, it will be commonplace to speak about poverty alleviation, and taboo to speak about wealth alleviation. But the two cannot be separated. After all, the global environmental space is unequally divided; obtaining more resource rights for the low-consumers in the world implies reducing the resource claims of over-consumers in North and South. The affluent will have to move towards resource-light lifestyles. It is not just a matter of going for higher resource efficiency, solar materials or a new understanding of wealth; it is a matter of justice as well. If the majority of world citizens is to get their fair share of the natural patrimony, the consumer classes will have to learn to live gracefully without the surplus of environmental space they have occupied so far.

Indeed, neither the climate convention nor the biodiversity convention are just moves toward environmental protection; they both address the fair distribution of wealth as well.

It is very likely that in Johannesburg the sustainability agenda is going to be subordinated to the WTO agenda. In contrast, the Memo points out that international trade regimes must foster sustainability and fairness, not just economic efficiency. What is needed is not free trade, but fair trade.

In any governance scheme for ecology and equity, emphasis must be placed on the protection of the most vulnerable ones. For this reason, the Memo suggests a framework convention on the resource rights of local communities that would consolidate the rights of the inhabitants of resource-rich areas whose livelihoods are threatened by mining, oil, logging, and other extractive industries. Indeed, in this era of globalization, one of the central tasks of governments is securing equitable resources for all inhabitants on Earth.

Johannesburg will be measured against the hope of a flourishing life for all people. For with the emergence of biophysical limits, sustainability has become a cornerstone of human rights and world citizenship.


Wolfgang Sachs, author, teacher, and senior fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate Change, Environment, and Energy, coordinated the group that developed The Jo'burg Memo. It can be found at www.joburgmemo.org.

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