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A tale of two crises


There are really two crises of the environment. For the majority in the developed world, there is an environmental crisis of ‘too much’ – too much consumption of raw materials; too much pollution of air, earth and water; too much waste of non-renewable resources; too much packaging, noise and stress.

This year alone, over 500 million metric tons of iron ore and two million metric tons of oil will be taken from the earth’s finite stocks; 200 million tons of industrial waste will be poured into the rivers and one million tons of oil will be smeared on the seas; 6,000 new chemicals and 400,000 tons of pollutants will be introduced into the environment; 200,000 cars will be abandoned on the streets and 60 billion metal bottle caps will be thrown away.

The consequences of ‘too much’ are already beginning to weigh heavily on the industrialized world. Resource problems are reflected in political and economic conflict; low-level pollutants are becoming a serious hazard to health; obesity has been promoted to the rank of major killer; noise is one of many new factors contributing to stress; and increased consumption seems to be exacerbating social tensions. When Barbara Ward says ‘There are limits to the amounts of material goods which man can absorb – it does not benefit us to consume more and more if the result is an ever increasing need for tranquilizers and mental hospitals’ and Aurelio Pecei adds that ‘there are reasons to believe that these limits have been surpassed’, they are not indulging in idle talk. Every year in Britain alone, £11 million of tranquilizers are dispensed and half the hospital beds in Europe and North America are now occupied by the mentally ill.

For the majority in the developing world on the other hand, the environmental crisis is a crisis of ‘too little’ – too little food and fertile soil; too little clean water and safe sanitation; too little energy to meet every day needs; too little adequate housing and too little employment to invest in environmental improvements at either social or personal levels.

The consequences of ‘too little’ are even weightier. Lack of food means that 450 million people, according to the FAO, are ‘actually starving’; water-borne diseases kill an estimated 25,000 people per day; and a guessed-at 100 million people are forced to become squatters.

When one group of people suffers from ‘too much’ and another group from ‘too little’, whether it be within or between countries, it does not take a degree in economics to suggest a broad solution. It cannot be framed in fewer words than Shakespeare’s – ‘So distribution should undo excess and each man have enough.’

It is in this way that the problem of the environment is inseparable from the problem of development and the need for a fairer distribution of the earth’s resources.

Put in today’s jargon, the environmental problem is one of ‘inner and outer limits’ – how to meet the inner limits of basic human needs for all people without transgressing the outer limits of the environment’s tolerance. That framing of the question also points down the path towards redistribution – it is ‘too much’ which threatens to step over the outer limits of the environment and ‘too little’ which already does step over the inner limits of basic human survival needs for millions of people alive today. Again, the now fashionable problem of inner and outer limits was summed up 30 years ago by Mahatma Gandhi when he said simply ‘The earth has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.’

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