Sociological notes: Justice is about changing the rich

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The Independent Culture
SINCE THE Second World War "development" has been many things, but it has always contained the hope that the countries of the South will finally move out of a long period of humiliation and get on a footing of equality with the industrialised countries. International equity has been recast as catching up with the rich countries, with the quest for great justice in the world being firmly welded to the idea of economic development. However, in a world beset with environmental risks it has now become obsolete to turn the desire for justice into a demand for even more accelerated growth, since the environmental space available for humanity is finite and in some respects already overstretched. In these circumstances, it becomes, therefore, vital to de-link the concept of justice from the idea of development.

Certainly, "development" contains a noble hope whose roots reach back to the first half of the 19th century, the founding period of socialist thinking. Impressed by the rapid advances of technology, socialists assumed that there is a minimum level of technological progress without which equality can never be achieved. Consequently, progressives of all sorts have worked for spreading progress in order to uplift the poor. This assumption proves dangerously one-sided. For it is now becoming clear that there is also a ceiling to nature-intensive development beyond which equity cannot be achieved. Chemical agriculture, the automobile society or meat- based nutrition are cases in point. These levels of development are structurally oligarchic; they cannot be generalised across the world without putting the lives of everybody in jeopardy. Given that the 20 per cent who enjoy the highest income of the population lay claim to 85 per cent of the planet's timber, 75 per cent of its metals and 70 per cent of its energy, there is no way that their lifestyle can serve as the imagined standard of equity for all. Therefore, the commitment to social justice takes on a new colour: it requires putting the rich on the spot.

Conventional developing thinking implicitly defines equality as a problem of the poor. Developmentalist perception of the gap which separates the rich from the poor is as a deficit of the powerless. They launch themselves into raising the living standards of the poor towards the level of the rich. However, with the emergence of biophysical limits to growth, the original classical notions of justice which were devised in an age which recognised the finite nature of reality rather than assuming the possibility of indefinite growth, acquire new relevance: justice is about changing the rich and not about changing the poor.

After all, the northern consumer class occupies the available environmental space to an excessive extent. Northern economies weigh heavily on nature and other peoples; it is this weight which has to be reduced. For they are not entitled to take more than nature can stand and other countries can legitimately claim. Industrialised countries, if they aspire to become good global neighbours, will have to bring down their resource consumption by a factor of 10 within the next 50 years. This enormous challenge will amount to a civilisational transition of sorts. But sufficiency was the hallmark of justice before the dreams of infinity took over; it is about to become the axis around which any post-developmentalist notion of justice will revolve. The less powerful countries need more environmental space to flourish, and cheerful restraint on the part of the opulent countries is the condition for both intra-generational and inter-generational equity. From now on, justice is about taking less rather than giving more.

Wolfgang Sachs is editor of `Greening the North: a post-industrial blueprint for ecology and equity' (Zed Books, pounds 14.95)