Socioeconomic Equity: A Critical Element in Sustainability
Gretchen C. Daily & Paul R. Ehrlich (Feb, 1995)

There seems to be little doubt that a fairer world could be a more sustainable world. To see that, one need only consider the North South tensions generated in the course of negotiating international agreements for protecting the ozone layer and curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. The current income gap between developed and less-developed nations rightly makes the latter suspicious of rich, overconsuming countries preaching resource constraints to the poor. Yet humanity's only chance of creating a sustainable civilization depends on global cooperation. The scale of the human enterprise must be adjusted so that the size of the human population falls once again within Earth's carrying capacity -- a number of people that, with given technologies and patterns of resource consumption, can be supported without damaging the future ability of life-support systems to sustain people (1, 2).

In order to accomplish that, nations eventually would need to agree to regulate rates of utilization of both natural resources and of the natural sinks that absorb effluents (3). Each nation would also have to accept limits on the resource flows that it can command--so many gallons of water will be extracted from rivers with international basins, so many cubic meters of lumber and tons of oil imported, etc. All trade agreements must be designed to allow for differences in environmental regulations without penalizing strong controls. Similarly, each nation must pledge to control environmentally-damaging emissions that have transborder impacts. All nations should agree on a global cap on carbon dioxide and other key greenhouse emissions--and on each nation's share of that total, designed to permit reasonable development of the poorest. Implicit in those pledges, of course, will be limits on reproduction and per capita consumption.

Much of this may seem to be an impossibility today, and it may be an impossibility in the future. But the only alternatives to making and complying with such agreements is to court disaster by permitting a continuation of the present headlong race to destroy Earth's life-support systems. When disaster loomed as the ozone hole was discovered, the nations of the world managed to pull themselves together and negotiate a ban on the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (4). And the 1992 and 1994 United Nations Conferences on Environment, Population, and Development, as well as the environmental discussions associated with the NAFTA and GATT negotiations show that the world can move in this direction, if slowly. We can only hope that realization that the scale of the human enterprise represents a general threat to the sustainability of civilization will soon be widespread. When enough people grasp the basic human predicament, leaders will be faced with the most serious and difficult negotiations in history; and if the record of the ozone negotiations and those on greenhouse gas emissions are any guide, issues of international equity will be a major stumbling block.

One conclusion we draw from this is that a substantial narrowing of the rich-poor gap is likely to be required as a key element of any negotiations to reduce the scale of the human enterprise. Poor nations have little incentive to cooperate in maintaining the lifestyles of the rich while they remain mired in poverty. The outline of a plan for how the gap might be closed has been developed by Professor John P. Holdren, of the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California, Berkeley (5) His proposal for the next 100 years is based mainly on maximizing the efficiency of energy use. In his scenario, poor nations would develop fast enough to increase their per-capita energy use by 2% per year between 1990 and 2025, doubling it from 1.0 to 2.0 kW. Simultaneously, rich nations would strive to reduce their per-capita use by 2% annually through increased efficiency, dropping their use per person from 7.5 to 3.8 kW (while maintaining or increasing benefits).

Population increase in rich nations, from 1990 to 2025, is expected to be some 15%, and developing nations will increase by about 65%. Then, in the remainder of the next century, both rich and poor nations would converge on an average per-person energy use of 3 kW, thus, essentially eliminating international inequity. Meanwhile, the world population peak size of 10 billion people would be reached around 2100 (6) then a slow decline would begin. When the peak is reached, total energy use would be 10 billion x 3 kW, or 30 TW. Holdren's scenario is summarized in the following table:

Holdren's scenario assumes that population size can be limited to 10 billion; but with sufficient effort and luck, growth might be stopped at somewhat less than that. The scenario also assumes that a high standard of living can be achieved with a per-capita rate of energy use of only one fourth to one third of that now seen in the US. This assumption seems reasonable based on technologies already in hand. It might involve, for example, redevelopment of the United States into a society built around people rather than automobiles, so that virtually everyone would eventually be able to walk or bicycle to work. Such a change might seem disastrous to those who think GNP must grow, no matter what, but it would be highly beneficial for the quality of life.

Indeed, depending on assumptions made about total energy use in the future--which technologies supply what fraction and for how long -- efficiency itself could make available 10 to 40 TW by 2050. Holdren's scenario depends on increased efficiency "supplying" some 45 TW by 2100 -- the difference between the scenario's 30 TW and the 75 TW that would be required to give 10 billion people a lifestyle resembling that of the rich in the 1990s, fueled by 1990 technologies requiring 7.5 kW per capita.

Even with all that efficiency, of course, Holdren's scenario yields a total energy use more than twice that of 1990, a situation that would still produce catastrophic environmental impacts, unless the mix of energy technologies were substantially altered from today's.

Fortunately, that the mix must be changed is already widely recognized by policy analysts (7), if not by decision makers. The main thrusts behind this recognition are the clear limits to readily accessible supplies of petroleum and natural gas, and increasing public opposition to unacceptable environmental risks and tradeoffs (such as oil spills in fragile coastal or polar areas or the sacrifice of prime farmland to stripmine coal).

So achieving international equity as a major step towards the negotiations necessary to create a sustainable global society is possible biophysically, and it could in theory be accomplished while increasing the health and satisfaction of citizens of both rich and poor nations. Needless to say, whether the sociopolitical will can be mobilized soon enough to accomplish it in time is a more difficult issue.

An additional key question is what the impact of increasing equity might be on the overall nutritional carrying capacity of the planet (8). Perhaps more critically, how would equity affect the ability of our global civilization to adjust its fertility patterns to stay within that capacity? (9). Equity can be analyzed at many different levels: Between age groups and genders within households; between households; between ethnic groups and regions; and between nations. All of these tend to be complicated and involve problems of scale; industrial development can cause increased urban-rural differences while increasing international equity, for example. In what follows, we give just a brief sampling of these issues.

Within households, differences in the treatment of the sexes have large and obvious influences on fertility. Greater relative access to education and, especially, to economic opportunities for women is generally associated with lower total fertility rates (TFRs; roughly, completed family size). In many cases, women are forced to depend on children as household/agricultural helpers or as claims on men's incomes, and view them as investment goods. Once women have the opportunity to get jobs, children take on the role of consumer durables, and "compete" with TVs, automobiles, and the like for expenditures. This reversal in incentives for having children leads to smaller families. Some studies also indicate that increasing equity between age groups may help lower fertility. If security in old age can be guaranteed, young people will feel less need to have large families to assure the survival of sons to support them when they are old.

Gender-based inequity may also limit carrying capacity in various ways. For example, women in many poor countries do most of the farm labor, and they also disproportionately bear responsibility for housework, childrearing, and obtaining fuelwood and water. The time and care available for coaxing higher yields from farm plots may be restricted by those other burdens. Furthermore, critical as they are to food production in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, women suffer a relative lack of access to farm credit, agricultural extension services, material inputs to farm productivity, and hired labor. In addition, women are seldom given an equal voice in decision making relative to natural resources (e.g forested watersheds) that are crucial to maintaining agricultural production.

Equity between households also influences both fertility and agricultural production. For instance, in one area of Bangladesh where the inequity of landholding had greatly increased, the average family had roughly two children more than in a comparable area in India where there had been substantial land reform. Land reform also can increase agricultural productivity. For most crops, family farming is more efficient than large plantations. Intimate knowledge and care by farmers are required to maximize yields under different edaphic and microclimatic conditions -- treatments often need to be tailored to single fields, and animals frequently require individual attention.

Increasing equity between regions should also help to lower birth rates. In China, urban areas now provide better education, food and fuel availability, medical services, housing, and, above all, better job opportunities. Birth rates are also lower in urban areas, where the one-child family policy is better established than in rural areas. This urban-rural pattern is widespread in poor countries; shrinking the gap in services and opportunities between city and countryside should help to lower national TFRs.

Urban-rural inequity affects carrying capacity in complex ways. Government policies in poor nations often amount to looting the agricultural sector to support industrial development and to placate urban throngs with cheap food. As a result, an absence of credit, farm inputs, adequate storage facilities, locally-based agricultural research, farm-to-market roads, and other rural infrastructure block the achievement of sustainable increases in crop yields and overall production. On the other hand, reducing urban-rural inequity would most likely increase consumption, which in turn, would have negative effects on carrying capacity.

The international rich-poor gap also is a source of high fertility among the poor. The observed negative correlation between the per-capita GNP of nations and their TFRs led some observers two decades ago to conclude that "development is the best contraceptive." It certainly can be a good one when it works through such proximate mechanisms as provision of education and employment for women, modernization of attitudes, and availability of contraceptives. The main problem with development (in the classic mode) as a contraceptive is implicit in the Holdren scenario. Earth could not sustainably support even today's 5.6 billion people if everyone lived the consumptive lifestyle of rich nations. Population limitation by development of that kind would eventually amount to population limitation by raising death rates,

Finally, trade relations between rich and poor nations also clearly have large (if mostly unanalyzed) impacts on carrying capacity. Persistent hunger in the majority of poor countries, many of which supply cash crops to the rich, are ample testimony to this. So are unsustainable exports of timber (at prices far below social costs) by poor countries to the rich. Of course, we have barely scratched the surface of an extremely complex subject in this synopsis. Our most important conclusions are:

- In general, increasing equity at any level will tend both to increase carrying capacity and decrease fertility.

- A critical exception to this would be an attempt to increase equity by raising consumption everywhere to the per-capita level now seen in industrialized nations.

Fortunately, the quality of life in rich countries could be substantially improved while their consumption of resources and assaults on Earth's life-support systems were reduced. This would allow the gap between rich and poor nations to be closed, ending inequity at that level (10, 11). Over all, it is crucial to find ways to reduce the scale of the human enterprise to a level where, despite the expected incompetence of leaders and governments (12), even largescale ecological "mistakes" will not bring civilization to an end. Those who are struggling today to increase equity in various ways can be pleased that their efforts are probably helping humanity towards that goal (13).

References and Notes

1. Daily, G. and Ehrlich, P. 1992. Population, sustainability, and carrying capacity. BioScience 42.

2. Holdren, I., Daily, G., and Ehrlich, P.R. 1994. The Meaning of Sustainability: Biogeophysical Aspects. United Nations Univ., New York. (In press).

3. Through various possible mechanisms; these i. a large and rapidly expanding literature on this topic, especially now in ecological economics.

4. Benedick, R.E 1991. Ozone Diplomacy. Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA.

5. Holdren, I. 1992. The transition to costlier energy. In: Energy Transitions. Schipper, L and Meyers S. (eds). Stockholm Environmental Institute, Stockholm, & version of which appeared as "Energy in transition," in Scientific American, September, 1990.

6. This is the number Holdren origin&fly used in his scenario which assumed strenuous efforts at population limitation; United Nations projections now suggest that number may now be passed in the middle of the century. Precise numbers in scenarios depend heavily on how nations are classified into rich and poor, but the basic thrust of Holdren's argument holds with any reasonable division.

7. Johansson, T., Kelly, H., Reddy, A. and Williams, R. 1993 Renewable Energy Island Press, Washington,

8. That is, we will restrict ourselves here to the sustainable production of food, and not attempt to assess other aspects of carrying capacity. This topic is covered in detail in Ehrlich, P., Ehrlich, A. and Daily, G. 1995. The Stork and the Plow, Putnam, Press, New York, NY (In press).

9. Daily, G. and Ehrlich, P. 1994. Socioeconomic equity sustainability, and Earth's carrying capacity. Ecological Applications. What follows is based on that work which should be consulted for much more detail and further documentation. (In press).

10. Holdren J.P. 1991. Population and the energy problem. Population Environ. 12 231-255.

11. Ehrlich, P. and Ehrlich A. 1991. Healing the Planet. Addison Wesley, New York.

12. The "fog of politics"--see, Ehrlich, P. 1994. Ecological economics and the carrying capacity of Earth. In: Investing in Natural Capital, Jansson, A.M. et al. (eds). Island Press, Washington, DC p. 38-56

13. We thank the W. Alton Jones Foundation and Pete and Helen Bing for the support of this research. Gretchen C. Daily is a Winslow/Heinz Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

Gretchen C. Daily Energy and Resources Group University of California Berkeley, CA USA

Anne H. and Paul R. Ehrlich Dept. of Biological Sciences Stanford University Stanford, CA USA


[From Ambio Vol. 24 No 1, Feb. 1995]