PCDForum Column #53,  Release Date June 25, 1993

by Manus van Brakel and Maria Buitenkamp

The Northern environmental movement, by focusing only on “protecting the environment,” actually prolongs the ecological predicament. We must go beyond dwelling on protection to address the underlying reality that the main obstacle to sustainability is overproduction and over-consumption in wealthy countries.

How can social movements in the North develop strategies which lead to changing production and consumption patterns and which also offer Northern consumers the prospect of high quality lifestyles? Working towards this goal, Friends of the Earth Netherlands (FOE) launched an Action Plan for a “Sustainable Netherlands” to demonstrate that even after adopting consumption behaviors that allow equitable distribution of the world’s natural resources, northern consumers will still enjoy an acceptable quality of life.

The Action Plan quantifies the consequences of sustainability based on a concept of ‘environmental space:’ the overall quantity of environmental resources available to the world at large on a sustainable basis. In other words, the rates at which the planet’s energy, fresh water, land, fisheries, forestry, pollution and waste disposal, and other resources can be used without decreasing their availability to future generations. Based on the value premise that every world citizen has a right to an equitable portion of the earth’s available ‘environmental space,’ FOE calculated the per person share for the Netherlands in the year 2010, when the world population will reach 7 billion. Here are some of the results:

  • The CO2 space per person from fossil fuel use in the Netherlands needs to be reduced from the current 12 tons per year to 4 tons by 2010, and down to 1.7 tons by 2030.
  • The ‘fresh water space’ of drinking water (calculated regionally, not by worldwide availability) for the Netherlands will have to be reduced by at least 40% or from 130 liters per person per day to 80 liters.
  • Per person cropland use will have to be reduced from .45 hectares (ha.) to .25 ha., .19 ha. of which is needed for a basic food package. This will leave .06 ha. for nonfood production, such as cotton, and ‘luxury products’ such as coffee, beer, and wine.
  • World per capita rangeland use for production of meat and dairy products will have been reduced from .61 ha. to .44 ha. due to overgrazing. The remaining lands might provide a sustainable meat supply of about 60 grams per person per day compared to the current Netherlands average of 190 grams.
  • Timber usage must be reduced by 60% for the Netherlands, from 1.1m3 to .4m3 per person, including wood used for paper.
  • No harmful substances such as organic chlorine will be allowed, and the use of finite resources will be severely limited in the case of aluminum, to two kilos per year compared to today’s 12 kilos.

It will not be easy for the Dutch public, or others accustomed to unrestrained consumption to accept these limits. It is important to note, however, that there is a difference between per capita environmental space and per capita consumption. To the extent that production and consumption are organized to get the greatest use of every unit of available environmental resources extracted for human use comfortable levels of consumption are possible without consequential environmental damage.

The first rule is that nothing must be discarded. Everything must be reusable, recyclable or repairable. Take paper consumption as an example. Currently 37% of the paper used in the Netherlands is recycled. By increasing recycling to 75% and increasing the efficiency of paper production a reduction of 75% can be achieved in environmental space used with no reduction in actual paper use. Likewise, radios, televisions, washing machines can be designed to be more durable and energy efficient without use of harmful materials and to facilitate complete recycling of their material content at the end of their useful service life.

Armed with this hopeful scenario for a sustainable adjustment of northern economies, the environmental movement must set out to mobilize the citizens of industrial society for necessary action. A first step is to recognize that attempting to make the policies of the IMF, the World Bank and GATT “environmentally friendly” cannot address the root causes of environmental threats until the growth-model myth to which these institutions are committed is abandoned and the necessity of redistributing environment space is acknowledged. Under this alternative, Southern countries would export less, reducing pressure on natural resources and giving more access to these resources to their own poor. Production for the basic needs of all people would take precedence over luxury production.

The key to developing such perspectives lies in the North, and this is the task to which Northern environmental activists must devote themselves. Activists from the South and from Eastern Europe must constantly challenge them to do so.

Manus van Brakel and Maria Buitenkamp are with Friends of the Earth, Milieudefensie, Damrak 26, 1012 LJ Amsterdam, Netherlands, Fax (31-20) 627-5287. This column was prepared and distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum based on their Action Plan “Sustainable Netherlands.” An English version of the report will be available in summer 1993.

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