Sunday, April 15, 2012

Global warming and social sustainability

The logo for this series on global warming

What does global warming have to do with social sustainability? This is the question I want to deal with this time in this series on global warming. It is not an easy question to answer, but I will try to do so as simply as I can. Again, I deny any claim to be an authority in this area. Through this series, I only want to do what I can to protect the environment and to reduce global warming by discussing this crucial issue.

Social sustainability is one aspect of sustainability or sustainable development. (See also my earlier post: Social sustainability is a much disputed concept and is not easy to define. Basically it involves the idea that future generations should have the same or greater access to (social) resources as the current generation ("inter-generational equity"), while there should also be equal access to these resources within that generation ("intra-generational equity").

In other words, my grandchildren, whom I have written about in earlier post, should not have to pay the price for the resources that my generation has squandered; nor should wealthy people in Europe or North America be allowed to usurp resources that the poor in Africa, for example, are only paid a pittance.

Social resources include certain basic human rights, among which -- especially pertinent to the issue of global warming -- are rights to environmental services within the local ecology. Human rights too are much disputed and are not universally acknowledged, and thus many rights are never positivized in law. Many governments pay only token lip service to even the most basic first-generation human rights, much less those rights that were proposed later, such as education and health. The environment, unfortunately, will probably be found at the bottom of most of these lists. The world sorely needs an environmental bill of rights.

I want to avoid the technicalities of many of the definitions of social sustainability that I have read, and thus I will only list several of the dimensions that scholars have noted:
  • Equity - the community provides equitable opportunities and outcomes for all its members, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community;
  • Diversity - the community promotes and encourages diversity;
  • Interconnected/Social cohesion - the community provides processes and structures that promote connectedness both within and outside the community;
  • Quality of life - the community ensures that basic needs are met and fosters a good quality of life for all members at every level (e.g. health, housing, education, employment, safety);
  • Democracy and governance - the community provides democratic processes and creates open and accountable governance structures;
  • Maturity - individual members of the community accept responsibility for consistent growth and improvement.
I will not be able to discuss all these dimensions in this post., but the first, equity, is very important. Equity and poverty are closely related. But both of them have social, economic, and environmental aspects. The three pillars, the economic, social and environmental, that we have discovered before are again evident. As the chart below shows, there are many ways to picture sustainability and these three pillars:

Equity is often linked to sustainability, because highly skewed or unfair distributions of income and social benefits are less likely to be acceptable or lasting in the long run. In addition, inequity also lies at the root of many environmental problems.

Social and economic equity deserves our attention, because of the disproportionately greater environmental damages that are suffered by disadvantaged group, such as the poor. Thus poverty alleviation efforts should also address the degraded environmental and social conditions facing the poor.

Some scholars have argued that the poor, who rely more directly on natural resources, are often good environmental managers; the rich leave a more harmful environmental footprint through their consumption. Moreover, the poor, although more numerous, consume far less than the rich and thus cause less damage to the environment than do the rich on a per capita basis. Their footprint is thus smaller.

The poor are frequently victims of both pollution and resource degradation that is usually caused by the rich. That is a gross inequity. At the same time, the landless poor are sometimes forced to encroach on fragile lands, thus eventually degrading their own environment. Human and natural resources ought to be seen as complementary. Attitudes towards the environment and patterns of economic activity are very important.

Inequality and economic growth are also inversely connected, as the following chart indicates:

I selected equity because poverty is often associated with it. I see it every day in the Gambia where tourists spend more at a beach side resort daily than some Gambians earn in an entire year. While it it true that these tourists provide work for many people, the benefit to the Gambian economy does not reflect the increased cost of living and the prostitution that is endemic in the area where I am currently living. I could also list the carbon footprint of the planes that fly in and out day and night. These will have to suffice.

I could produce a similar analysis of the other dimensions as well, but equity is especially important because of the social, economic, and environmental costs that accrue as a result of the gross inequities that are visible in every society today. Moreover, these inequities are growing, not diminishing. Inequality in the United States has increased to the extent that the gap between the rich and poor is larger now than at time since 1928, and is greater than that of any other industrialized nation.

Although a little dated by now, the following chart shows the share of global income going to the richest 20% and the poorest 20% of the world 's population; this trend has not changed appreciably in the two decades since 1992. 

              Year    Share of Richest 20%    Share of Poorest 20%    Ratio of Richest to Poorest
              1960                   70.2%                               2.3%                                30 to 1
              1970                   73.9%                               2.3%                                32 to 1
              1980                   76.3%                               1.7%                                45 to 1
              1989                   82.7%                               1.4%                                59 to 1
    Source: United Nations, Human Development Report 1992
In the G20 chart below, it is apparent that the US shows a slight improvement after 2000, but the world's major economies all indicate increasing inequality, especially, Russia, China, and Japan. This inequality must diminish if the environment is to improve. The growing inequality will only increase global warming. It is an inequity that needs to be corrected.

The rich are indeed getting richer, while the poor seem unable to get out of the poverty trap. Yet when the poor do manage to become wealthier, as is happening in countries like China, economists have discovered that the environment eventually does benefit; this hopeful sign is known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. 

The curve shows a U-shaped relationship exists between per capita income (GDP) and the quality of the environment. Measures of the quality of the environment do indeed fall during the initial stages of economic growth, but this trend turns around at about $5,000 per capita GDP, with some measures of environmental damage showing improvement from $8,000 onwards. 

This curve does not contradict what I wrote about the poor having a smaller and less harmful ecological footprint than the rich. This curve examines the entire economy of a country. Countries like Russia are in serious trouble; environmental disasters are just waiting to happen. Chernobyl is perhaps the most well known example, but there are many more. I taught in Russia for many years and continue to stay abreast of developments there. The major cities seem prosperous, but poverty is never far away.

By current global standards, such high per capita incomes seem unattainable. The trend at the moment seems to contradict such progress. Yet equity remains an important though elusive goal if we are really sincere in wanting to reduce global warming.

Equity must not be measured only in economic terms; it is above all social: people want to be accepted with fairness as full and equal members of the human race and treated with dignity and respect. The Bible clearly teaches that the entire human race is created in the image of God; thus no one should be treated as inferior. According to a poster I saw decades ago, "God doesn't create junk."

And God wants us to take good care of his creation. I will return to this topic in the last post in the series in which I will examine ecological theology. God gave the creature that he made in his own image an enormous responsibility: among other things, for taking care of the environment. Thus this responsibility must not be misused in any way. Equity and global warming are both included in this divine mandate.

There is much more that could be said about the topic of social sustainability. Our cities, for example, have become havens for the fast growing global population of the world; the poor especially are flocking there seeking new opportunities. But how can these cities remain sustainable? Many are asking this question, as I discovered, but it will have to stay unanswered for the moment, since I have run out of room.

Equity with its associated poverty was enough to occupy us this time. Global warming is a serious threat and we must be prepared to fight it with every tool at our disposal; social sustainability is an important one.

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