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December 12, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #8: Social Equity and Environmental Policy
Most contemporary definitions of sustainability incorporate key principles from a 1987 report (commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report) by the World Commission on Environment and Development. In addition to the notion that sustainability necessarily involves a commitment to intergenerational equity, the Brundtland Report emphasizes the interdependence of environmental quality, social equity, and economic policies. International documents since the Brundtland Report have also linked income inequality and environmental degradation. For example, economic policies designed to mitigate poverty by increasing the production of goods may result in the overuse of natural resources, leading to an eventual decline in both natural resources and income levels. Today, examples of this relationship appear in the climate-change context. For instance, as the climate changes, some populations are forced to use ecologically fragile land for agricultural purposes. The decline in land quality further contributes to income inequality, and the agricultural practices further degrade the land.
This link between poverty and the environment may sometimes be empirically accurate, but it may not be true in all cases. For example, it may be the case that people with fewer economic resources tend to conserve the resources they have; they may be better at using less and recycling the waste they generate.
If, however, we assume that this link is empirically true often enough—or that environmental policies simply should incorporate concerns of social equity—then the next question is how should governments at every level understand the relationship between income inequality and the environment for purposes of policy making. Even if we assume that the physical sustainability of the environment is a condition for social equity (or vice versa), we still need to define what social equity is in order to design policies that further it. In doing so, we necessarily identify who we think the winners and losers of environmental policies should be.
So, what exactly is social equity and what does it require in the context of environmental policy making? In the United States, the environmental justice movement has long stressed that social equity requires the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, an approach now reflected in U.S. law and policy. The idea that social equity necessarily involves the distribution of something is relatively straightforward, but the idea of fairness is less clear. How, for example, can environmental policies fairly distribute carbon emissions worldwide?
Resolution of this question requires a distributive rule that reflects a normative principle of equality. Theories of social justice supply various options. In the international context, policy makers could decide to allocate emissions equally, granting governments a per capita share. Or, policy-makers could adopt a prioritarian rule that would grant the least advantaged societies a greater share than they would receive on a per capita basis to ensure that the economic losses incurred by these societies are relatively less than those incurred by more well-off societies. Another possibility is to ensure that all societies are guaranteed a level of emissions that will continue to meet their basic needs however defined.
Deciding what social equity requires raises other questions as well. Some questions help identify how far considerations of equity extend. For example, should policy-makers consider the effects of climate change on both humans and nonhuman animals? Should they consider the effects on those outside their political borders? What about the consequences for future generations? Other questions involve the nature of the decision-making process. Should policy-makers attempt to create a fair process for environmental decision-making or simply attempt to reach fair results? In other words, do we evaluate the fairness of a particular decision by looking at how it was made (e.g., by evaluating levels of citizen participation and governmental transparency) or by assessing the consequences of the policy (e.g., by evaluating actual impacts to the environment and income inequality)?
Current definitions of sustainability address a few of these questions. As noted above, definitions of sustainability require consideration of a policy’s effect on future generations. In emphasizing the need to reduce poverty while protecting the environment, these definitions also appear to be consequentialist, or result-oriented—although proponents of environmental justice certainly recognize the need to incorporate democratic values into decision-making processes. The apparent resolution of these questions highlights an important tension in environmental policy-making, particularly in democratic societies. Liberal theories of justice often emphasize the importance of fair decision-making processes, rather than fair results, and resist adopting a particular conception of the good. On the other hand, definitions of sustainability contemplate results that are fair both in the present and in the future, and they appear to adopt a vision of the good that connects human welfare to environmental conditions.
Questions of social justice do not have easy answers, but we cannot ignore them. The international community apparently accepts the idea that social equity should be part of environmental decision-making. To make this a reality, we need to focus on how this can and should be done.-- Shannon M. Roesler
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