Limits and Inequity

I’ve been thinking about the world’s problems and how they’re directly related to resource and externality limits and inequity because we live on a finite planet. Specifically, whether there are limits to the stuff we can take from nature or a limit to how much we can pollute. And if there are limits, how do we distribute them fairly?

If 100 gallons of water flow from a river per day, and each person needs 1 gallon a day to survive, there would be a problem if more than 100 people lived near the river. It would also be unfair if someone in a village of 100 consumed 5 gallons. On top of that, we cannot forget to add biodiversity into our example, like if there are fish that depend on water in the river or deer that also need water to drink—things we don’t usually take into account.

This concept of a sustainable resource limit applies to nearly everything in our physical world: land, wood, sand, minerals, metals, wildlife, pet trade species, fish stocks, plants, succulents, etc. The fundamental concept is simple. If we remove at a rate faster than what is regenerated, eventually the resource will run out. But sometimes it is not that simple; the limit may be indirect or entangled with other resource limits. Take our river example from above. Let’s pretend a village depends on an aquatic vegetable that requires 50 gallons of water flow per day. Then the limit for water consumption is not 100 gallons per day, but 50. Furthermore, note that not all of these resources have limits that have been surpassed or will be reached in the near future. It may also be impossible to determine a “hard” limit in many cases. If the river flows at 1000 gallons per day, and the village of 100 is growing at a constant rate of any percentage, eventually that limit will be reached.

Today, many communities and wildlife suffer from lack of water. Seven states and parts of Mexico rely on the Colorado River, which has been significantly impacted by recent drought. Unfortunately, the states have been in disagreement on how to cut and divide the water fairly, which is resulting in further depletion of water resources.

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Similarly, there are limits to negative externalities. Certain things produce undesirable outcomes for people or biodiversity. An obvious one is pollution. Pollution released into the environment can accumulate to the point in which its negative effects significantly prevent an ecosystem from functioning the way it should at a local level or a global level. Other types of negative externalities include human activities and the effect of anthropogenic objects in an environment. Examples include driving cars, rapid urbanization, or constructing fences and walls, which have lesser known but significant impacts on global biodiversity.

Let’s pretend the total sustainable global greenhouse gas emissions is 5 billion tons a year instead of the current 40 billion tons that is emitted. Divide the 5 billion by the number of people on the planet (8 billion) to get 0.63 tons. Then, it would only be equally fair if everyone was allowed to emit 0.63 tons instead of the 16 tons that the average American emits (or several thousand tons for many top 0.1 percenters). 

Obviously the most publicized pollution limit issue that we are facing today is climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions. But aside from carbon emissions, there are many other types of pollution which have their own limits that we don’t really address like plastic pollution, PFAS compounds (forever chemicals), water, light, sound, aircraft contrails, space debris, and many more. Many of these we barely understand, such as the effects of microplastic accumulating on the ocean floor or electromagnetic radiation on certain species. 

In regards to pollution, there are two important equity issues. First is how much each person should be allowed to pollute within that sustainable limit. If there is a limit to the amount of pollution we can emit globally, then it is only right if we, as a total population, emit an amount that is equal or under that level. Does this mean it would be unfair for someone to emit more than their equal share? And second, how do we address inequity in regards to the existing (and future) people, plants, or animals that suffer disproportionately from the negative effects of exceeding pollution limits? Pollution does not always affect the ones who cause them.

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These are ideas we should be discussing today because they are a direct cause of the majority of the world’s most pressing problems from the ecological (climate change, habitat degradation, biodiversity loss) to the social (wealth inequality, social unrest, conflicts). Here are some questions we should be asking:

  • How do we determine what externalities need to be controlled or limited? For example, global climate change, but not sensory pollution (light and sound).
  • What is the sustainable limit? Specifically, what is an acceptable amount taken from nature? Or an acceptable amount of pollution released into the environment? The ideal level may not be at its limit.
  • How do we fairly distribute a resource or externality within its limit? What level of inequality is acceptable?
  • What rights do plants, fungi, and animals have within the context of these issues?
  • How can we rebuild society to better manage these sustainable limit issues over the long run? For instance, prevent global climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions in the first place? What policies or systems do we need to implement?

Our global economy is structured on the unlimited pursuit of producing goods and services for our own pleasure. But that is a dangerously misguided way of reality. We live in a finite world in which resources are limited, and each of our activities has consequences of their own. This is not saying that we need to eliminate all our belongings and return to a primitive state of living, but rather that we need to reexamine and transition our society within the context of finite resources and limits if we want to preserve life on this planet.

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