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How Much is Enough?

Christiane Grefe | 17.06.2005 14:14 | Ecology | World

"The world has enough for everyone's need, not for everyone's greed." The fear of the further spread of the western lifestyle and economic mode with frequent flier rebates is at the center of political debates. Life without resource-intensive lifestyles should be encouraged.


“Fair Future,” an ecological study of the Wuppertal Institute, urges the just distribution of the earth’s resources

by Christiane Grefe

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT, 24/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed.” Mahatma Gandhi identified the central dilemma of the future that is intensifying. This is true independent of whether consumption criticism is dead and buried or Red-Green coalitions declare it superfluous.

A diverse group of scholars at the renowned Wuppertal Institute for the Environment, Climate and Energy is provoked by the explosive problem of distributing finite resources and the related questions: Can the growing tension between ecology and justice be solved in a world of inequality? How can purchasing one goal with the abandonment of others be prevented? The report continues the goal of the study “Future-Friendly Germany” that has been widely discussed for years.

The old industrial nations are by far the greatest “omnivores,” the authors emphasize. Wolfgang Sachs and his colleague Tilman Santarius are sociologists and theologians recently appointed to the Club of Rome on account of their worldwide engagement for sustainability. The pressure of the increasing demand of the growth giants China and India and other threshold countries on the raw material- and agricultural markets is already unmistakable. The fear of the further spread of the western lifestyle and economic mode with frequent flier rebates and sugar peas enjoyed all year round is at the center of political debates. What must happen so the systems of the biosphere do not capsize? How can peace be maintained or realized worldwide when the oil price increases, water becomes scarce in many places endangering existence, the soil exhausted and eroded and climate change threatening humanity?

The Wuppertal report declares categorically: “It is high time to test the prosperity model of the industrial modern age. More justice in this world cannot be reached at the consumption level of industrial countries.” “Either the majority of the world remains excluded from prosperity or the prosperity model must be redesigned so everyone can share in prosperity without making the planet inhospitable.”

This discovery is not new but is repressed again and again. Explaining it again in a thicket of data and formulating it intelligibly is hardly superfluous as long as political steps have still not been taken.

The Wuppertalians first dissolve the “old rule of thumb” (Wolfgang Sachs) according to which a quarter of the world’s population seize three quarters of the resources whether in moving concrete material, mineral raw materials, atmosphere, water or arable land. They estimate that the biosphere is already 20 percent overused and limited in its regenerative capacity. They soberly describe the “illusion of the rich countries” who fool themselves and others with integral ecological economics while often only shifting their environmental costs. They describe the “self-poisoning” of the developing nations in their often-vain “catch-up race.”

In “Fair Future” one can look up where the streams of processed goods flow, namely from one industrial country to another industrial country (despite all free trade areas) and how the trade order supports this injustice. Sachs and his fellow authors show that the framing conditions of economic globalization do not lead automatically to more justice but rather deepen the “hierarchization of global areas and societies.”

Thus the distribution- and trade structures leave the resource-rich and prosperity-deprived regions the same as always. These regions then pay dearly for the environmental damages left behind by the lifestyle of the rich. This conflict is less and less a conflict of North against South. Geography, development and power are less and less equal. “The lifestyle of the North over the earth spreads in resource traffic,” the “Fair Future” report declares. “Their branches in the South compete for the global environmental space.”

The authors summarize these processes. A “transnational consumer class” has arisen from Sao Paulo to Peking whose living standard even in the particular countries is at the expense of “superfluous majorities” – superfluous in any case for the global capitalist trade. Limitation of noxious car emissions is on the agenda in distribution debates and climate negotiations as the “choice between human rights and prosperity rights.” The Wuppertalians develop “models of resource justice” to reach the goal of a “democratic cosmopolitan ecology”: human rights, participatory justice, fair trade and damage compensation. They identify prerequisites for”prosperity consistent with justice” with a solar energy supply at the center.

They end the absurd academic conflict between efficiency, consistency and sufficiency. “Withdrawal from excessive consumption” and conversion to a “resource-light” lifestyle can only be achieved with reduced consumption, nature-friendly technologies and “orientation in quality of life instead of quantity of goods.” This is true for the material streams also connected with the energy system. Finally, the Wuppertalians design “agreements for fairness and ecology” that include reform proposals for the World Trade Organization WTO (to be integrated in the UN system), protective rights for local communities and multilateral “citizen duties” for businesses.

The study “Fair Future” appears at the right moment. In a few weeks, this year’s conference marathon will begin. Its stations are the G8-summit at the beginning of July, the conference of the United Nations on UN reform and millennium goals in September and the ministerial conference of the WTO in December as the final round of development. These are all key meetings in the global battle against poverty and environmental destruction.

Conversion of well-meaning goals is still the decisive hurdle for a change of course in the resource crisis as experience with past mammoth conferences from Rio to Johannesburg has shown. The greatest weakness of the book is that it does not clearly say how governments and interest-groups contribute to the blockade or show coalitions of actors in politics, the economy and society that can tackle the challenges.

“Threshold countries should be given options for a satisfactory life without a resource-intensive lifestyle.” Leapfrogging past the industrial nations, they could organize their development in an efficient, solar and decentralized way from the first – as an avant-garde in the South. But what authorities in these countries see this? Isn’t the powerful “transnational consumer class” more intent on copying the consumer model that eliminates gases, liquid manure and electronic rubbish?

The “Fair Future” report largely trusts the global institutions. However a deeper discussion about the limits of democracy and efficiency is missing. What proposals on what political planes are realistic, solvable and adequate to problems? Where must the freedom for local and national decisions be guaranteed with all necessity of international agreements? Many things must change so Europeans are transformed from divers of great waste to “world-political missionaries” for ecology and justice as the authors urge.

The mildness of formulations that hardly corresponds to the rigor of analysis is sometimes irritating as when the “great conflict of the future” is emphasized instead of resource wars. Presumably the public should not hear Cassandra’s cry, prophesies of doom or gloomy prediction. However this resistance and the attempt to repress it are part of that culture of p4rosperity that should be “on trial” alongside the hardware of economic conditions and technological systems.

What is “orientation in quality of life instead of quantity of goods”? How much is enough? Where do needs end? Where does greed begin? A society decides the question raised by Gandhi in its values, styles, examples and models of success. The Wuppertalians only touch these cultural aspects and, recalling the Kantian ethic, summon the “transnational consumer class” in the North and South to overdue self-examination. As Aristotle said, “the greatest injustices start from those who seek excess, not from those in distress. One does not become a tyrant to avoid freezing.”

Fair Future. The Wuppertal Report. Limited Resources and Global Justice, ed. By Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, 2005

Christiane Grefe
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