Fair shares in environmental space?

4.5/25 is the most dangerous statistic on the planet. It reveals a bloated truth, that the U.S. with just 4.5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the world’s resources. This cannot and will not continue as India, China, Brazil, Russia etc make their increasing demands on global resources. A starting point for a global discussion on how to allocate resources more fairly in a world of limits comes from a policy tool developed by German economist Horst Siebert in 1982, which was popularized in Europe in the early 1990s and promoted by Friends of the Earth Netherlands as part of its ‘Action Plan Sustainable Netherlands’ and Friends of the Earth Europe’s ‘Sustainable Europe Campaign’. The tool has helped influence national policy in the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. It is the concept of environmental space. The word comes from the Dutch milieugebruiks – ruimte (literally environmental utilization space).

The environmental space “implies equal rights to resource consumption for all peoples of the world within the carrying capacity of the planet” (Friends of the Earth International). It is the sustainable rate at which we can use key resources that make up 90% of the resources upon which our civilization depends (e.g. fossil fuels, water, timber, steel, aluminum, cement, foodstuffs and land) without precipitating irreversible damage to our ecosystems, or depriving future generations of access to these resources. In other words, as in the diagram above, it is that sustainable consumption space between the minimum resource use needed to ensure a basic quality of life and human dignity (the dignity floor), and the maximum use of the Earth’s resources without living beyond nature’s capacity and depleting ecological stocks (the profligacy ceiling). It is interesting to note that we define a human right to a minimum existence around the dignity floor at $1 per day, but we’ve never, to my knowledge defined maxima, the wealth level above which individuals should not go.

This tool is like a similar tool, the ecological footprint only it does not aggregate resources into a single land area based index like the footprint does, rather it considers each separate resource mentioned above. It is based on issues of justice and equity because an individual’s sustainable consumption goal, his or her environmental space target is reached by dividing the global environmental space for each resource among the world’s population, based on a population forecast of 10 billion in 2050 (although the UN predicts slightly less than this). This will give an individual fair share, a per capita resource allocation, which should then be multiplied by the forecast population of a given country in 2050 to give the national fair share (although a city might also want to think about this too?). While we do not know the precise global amount of each resource, we know enough to be able to set precautionary targets.

The U.S., if it calculated its environmental space entitlements (and guess what, it hasn’t!), would have a huge sustainability gap (the difference between what it currently consumes and what it’s entitlement should be if it consumed its fair share). It would have to drastically reduce its consumption whereas India and China, for example with their larger populations, would get a larger share. This is an inter and intra-generationally (as well as inter- and intra-nationally) equitable, or fair shares distribution of the world’s resources which would move us toward the goal of one planet living.

Duncan McLaren (2003:22) argues that environmental space “can underpin the emerging concept of just sustainability” and it can “suggest how sustainable development policies can explicitly incorporate equity concerns” (34). He argues that for the just sustainability activist, environmental space offers “a foundation for global campaigns which can unite poor and excluded communities in North and South, rather than dividing them, and similarly unite environmental and social campaigners” (34). This potential of the environmental space tool to unite the green agenda/green movement(s) of the global North and the brown agenda/anti-poverty movements(s) of the global South is critical in building an international agenda for just sustainability. Alas, despite the increasing usage of the ‘ecological footprint’ in the U.S., interest in and usage of the ‘environmental space’ concept by either U.S. policy makers wishing to guide policy, U.S. academics, or U.S. activists wishing to link with campaigners abroad has been virtually non-existent.

Buhrs (2004:431), an academic based in New Zealand argues that: “the importance of the notion of environmental space lies in three things: first, that it reintroduces the idea of limits at a time when, politically, the notion of limits has been pushed into the background; second, that it provides a basis for operationalizing the concept of sustainability in concrete, measurable terms; third, that it casts the notion of limits in a form that highlights distributional and equity issues”.

While I think the concept of environmental space has real potential to help us begin a global conversation on a fairer sharing of the world’s finite resources, there are problems. The very name hints that its main concern is based around the environment and environmental resources, when just sustainability is about integrating social, economic and environmental issues. In other words, just sustainability is about the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems. This conception of sustainability focuses equally on four conditions: improving our quality of life and well-being; on meeting the needs of both present and future generations; on justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome and on the need for us to live within ecosystem limits (one planet living)

One could say that the social and economic aspects of environmental space are that it is about the third sustainability condition: equitable and just distribution of environmental resources.

However, as Buhrs (2004:433) argues, and I agree: “although the ecological and resource dimensions are essential for any operationalization of sustainability, there is also a social dimension that is much harder to define, quantify and operationalize.”

He continues by arguing that indices with a social or well-being focus, such as the Human Development Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator or the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, while useful, are difficult to translate “into more or less specific goals or targets, alongside those for [environmental] resources and sinks” (433). This is I think, a challenge, but it is also a tremendous opportunity. I think a research agenda could be built around characterizing, designing and operationalizing a composite sustainability space or community space entitlement with specific goals and targets, which attempts to define a floor and ceiling to not only environmental resources and sinks as in the idea of environmental space, but to the essential social and economic entitlements too.

Clearly, these issues of fair shares, per capita resource allocation, sustainable consumption and sustainability space or community space are of pivotal importance to a just sustainability. Let me think more about what this might look like. You can help too……….


Buhrs, T. (2004) Sharing Environmental Space: The Role of Law, Economics and Politics. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. Vol. 47 No. 3. pp. 429-447.

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