Environmental Justice, Ecological Debt and Environmental Space: a framework for change?

Environmental Justice, Ecological Debt and Environmental Space: a framework for change?

What is the political framework for environmental campaigning in Australia? Is it just about sustainable land management, cleaner production, the need to protect our last remaining old growth forests? Or is it also something else – about justice, solidarity and our place in the world? (2004)

published in chain reaction #92, summer 2004-5
Environmental Justice, Ecological Debt and Environmental Space: a framework for change?

What is the political framework for environmental campaigning in Australia? Is it just about sustainable land management, cleaner production, the need to protect our last remaining old growth forests? Or is it also something else – about justice, solidarity and our place in the world?

In the early 21st century, it appears that corporate-defined concepts dominate much of the debate around ‘sustainability’. If we want this to change, we will have to reclaim the debate with more radical ideas; like ecological debt, environmental space and environmental justice. We introduce these underlying concepts as a framework that can help inform any environmental activism, from local restoration work to international campaigning.


There is considerable debate about what a sustainable future might look like. This has lead Friends of the Earth to use the concept of ‘environmental space with equity’, based on the understanding that all people have a right to equal access to resources. The idea of environmental space is simple, yet radical in its implications. It tells us something we all know – that there are limits to the rate at which we can exploit the Earth’s resources, and that we must make substantial cuts in resource use in countries like Australia if we are to share fairly with other parts of the world.

Environmental Space is the total global amount of environmental resources, such as energy, non-renewable raw materials, agricultural land, forests and their carbon absorption capacity, that humankind can use without reducing the access of future generations to the same. Environmental Space is limited and broadly quantifiable. However, to be truly fair, any equitable distribution of resources needs to take both past and future into account: by ‘past’ we mean the historical legacy of colonialism, which has meant that a small proportion of the world’s population (the ‘North’: the USA, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia) has consumed, and continues to consume, an entirely disproportionate proportion of the world’s resources (we are around 23 per cent of the human population, consuming around 80 per cent of resources). This has created the ecological debt. By ‘future’ we mean the fact that human generations will come after us and there is an onus on us to leave the world in at least as good condition as it was when we arrived on it. We also need to leave space for non-human nature, for other species, to flourish and continue to evolve.

The North lives, to a large degree, from land which is ‘appropriated’ from elsewhere in the world. Land set aside for food production, fibre and other materials, ends up as exports to the North. For instance, the people of the Netherlands use the ecological functions of an area of land which is 15 times larger than their country to meet their material needs. Australia obviously has a more complex ecological debt because of the fact that it exports so much food and raw materials. While there is considerable support for the cancellation of economic debt (through initiatives like the Jubilee campaign), there is, as yet, very little debate about the enormous debt owed by the North to the South.

Each person in the world has the same right (although no obligation) to use an equal amount of global environmental space: that is, a fair share of the Earth’s resources. There is no reason why people from the countries of the North should have more access to the Earth’s natural resources than those from the South. Apart from being unfairly distributed, current levels of resource consumption (including the use of the atmosphere for absorbing CO2 emissions) are far beyond the Earth’s capacities, and have been for at least 30 years (1). The key implication of the equity principle is that the use of resources in rich countries must be cut back significantly, whereas in many developing countries there is scope to increase resource use to ensure a dignified life for all.

How would environmental space ‘work’?

Environmental space with equity is inherently focussed on justice. It is not just a tool for measuring impacts. ‘Fair shares’ are worked out by dividing the sustainable global availability of key resources such as energy or productive land by the expected world population at a given target year. Nations can then set practical targets for either increasing or reducing their consumption of each resource (2). In these terms, achieving sustainability means that each country uses more-or-less the same amount of natural resources relative to its population size.

As long as rich nations continue to over consume, the people of the developing countries can also claim that right. But if the peoples of the South exercise this right and achieve similar absolute consumption levels, then world consumption will exceed environmental limits even further than at present. A fundamental element in achieving equitable resource distribution is to acknowledgement there are limits to the Earth’s resources.


Environmental Justice, Ecological Debt and Sustainability: a new alliance?


In recent years, two fundamental concepts have helped renew the debate about the transition towards sustainability, thus allowing greater interconnection between the social and environmental movements. These are environmental justice and ecological debt.

The concept of environmental justice emerged from the struggles of African American communities in the United States. Informed by their experiences in the civil rights battles of the ’60s, people began to notice at first intuitively and then later more systematically that the most polluting and environmentally damaging industries were concentrated in predominantly Black, Native, and Latino regions and neighbourhoods. Such environmental racism illustrated the correlation between social and environmental inequality, causing the most marginalised sectors of society to receive a disproportionate share of the environmental impact created by the socio-economic system. Although it was the economically dominant classes that were largely responsible for this impact, they were largely protected from the degradation that came with their consumption. Waste and other threats from industrial processes were released to the collective space, for instance, the atmosphere, and those areas occupied by the non Anglo-Saxon and working class sectors of society.


Previously, movements concerned about human rights and those focussed on conservation were largely occupying parallel but separate political spaces. Use of the term environmental justice allowed the environmental debate to be framed in terms of rights and justice and not solely in terms of conservation. The central premise was that all people are equally entitled to a healthy environment, and that any structure or process that deliberately targeted the most disadvantaged populations for environmental risk and degradation was unfair. Such degradation, where unavoidable, should be distributed equally through all sectors of society. In this way, the movement against environmental destruction and degradation evolved and increasingly became an arena for the struggle for democracy and the affirming of universal human rights.

Environmental Justice is necessary for socio-environmental sustainability

Although the concept of environmental justice originated in the United States, it has been adopted and redefined by social movements all around the planet. It has an extraordinary potential for politically renewing environmentalism and making it more relevant to the struggle for social transformation. Struggles for agrarian and urban reform, for the promotion of a “policy of dignity” (which implies, for example, a basic ‘basket’ of food, water, shelter, energy, and green spaces), the fight to defend the collective space against the encroachment of privatisation: all these efforts gain a much more explicit and coherent environmental context when seen through the ‘lens’ of environmental justice. The defence of the environment, in acquiring stronger social perspectives finds itself part of, rather than separate to, the movements for justice.

Ecological debt and development

The concept of ecological debt was launched by parts of the Latin American environmental movement of the 80’s as a way of critiquing the discussion around the financial, or external debt. The basic idea was that the marginalisation of humanity that was happening in terms of inequitable consumption and the degradation of the Earth’s natural resources could not be treated independently of the ecological inequalities inherent in and developed by the global systems of the last few centuries, which in turn lead to some countries being financially indebted to others. A small minority of high consumers are concentrated in the countries whose financial institutions are the financial debt creditors, yet they are ecological debtors to the rest of the world’s population. The explanation for this has two components. Firstly, the majority of this inequity is the historical result of colonialism and imperialism, which generated a legacy of disproportionate consumption of the Earth’s human and natural resources in favour of certain regions, to the detriment of others. In and of itself, this liability already constitutes a debt, even though its details are not easily quantified.

Secondly, the disparity of consumption patterns in the contemporary world results in a small part of the population occupying a disproportional amount of the planet’s environmental space, producing, for example, the global warming which threatens the rest of the human population, especially the poorest communities who are least to blame for this problem. In this sense, the ecological debt is not only a legacy from the past but also, an ethical deficiency that expands daily.


It is not difficult to perceive the political potential of the alliance of these two concepts. After all, the ecological debt is created by the effects of preserving an unjust global environmental situation, where a minority has appropriated the majority of the Earth’s resources and exports the negative consequences of planetary degradation to the poor majority. Environmental injustice at the global and national levels generate internal and international ecological debts which must then be paid off in some way. The concept of environmental injustice critically analyses the roots of contemporary environmental unsustainability at its various levels and ties it to the over-consumption caused by the unfair and disproportionate appropriation of the basic materials for survival. The concept of ecological debt puts forward the ethical imperative that this injustice must be faced and overcome, given that it is only the payment of that political and moral debt that will enable human development in every region of the planet that is just, balanced, and sustainable. Global unsustainability is thus confronted by promoting environmental justice and the political and financial repayment of the ecological debt.

To be sustainable, we must equitably redistribute the planet’s resources. To do this, it is essential to identify patterns of consumption and production that are environmentally sustainable and appropriate to the balanced and equitable development of humanity as a whole. This implies the need for ethical personal consumption and the creation of a set of guidelines for ethical and sustainable consumption patterns. This could work as a great incentive to promote sustainable technologies and practices. To put Gandhi’s famous quote in a modern context: ‘the Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.’

Adapted from materials produced by Friends of the Earth Europe and the Workgroup on a Solidarity Socio-Economy (WSSE).



For further information on environmental space, see:



For further information on ecological debt, see:
ENRED (the European Network for the recognition of the Ecological Debt);

Ecological debt campaign (Ecuador)


Christian Aid (UK)



(1)see the Living Planet report: http://www.panda.org/livingplanet/

(2) for details on how environmental space can be quantified, see:



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