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Social justice and solar equity

“El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta” (Socialism will only arrive by bike) —José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende (from Illich, Energy & Equity, 1973)

What is the relationship between social justice and resource sustainability? Many authors have tackled this subject from many directions, including Illich (1973), and O’Riordan (1976). In the developed world, freedom includes emancipation from nature, where freedom does not occur until we escape our limits. The spiritual is separate from the material, and energetic limits are not a consideration. Adequate society means that everyone else attains the first world countries’ level of development (Mies & Shiva, 1993).

Various authors have attempted to categorize environmental ethical thought. In a recent issue of Green European Journal, Boulanger included a useful figure adapted from Hopwood, Mellor & O’Brien (2005) that places various groups within a framework of two different criteria; how focused are we on the importance of equality versus our orientation towards environmental concerns? The implied question Boulanger is asking is, what are the proper politics for a world that is reaching its limits, and where do your values fit within this spectrum? Is this the best way to view the issue of social justice, and is the diagram inclusive enough in considering our limits? Can we have our equality cake and our environment too?

Boulanger, from Hopwood, Sept. 2012 Green European Journal

Boulanger, from Hopwood, Sept. 2012 Green European Journal

Origins of social justice

Social justice as an ethical right is a modern phenomenon, having evolved out of religious values in the 1800s, during the coal and oil-based industrial revolution. The idea of social justice evolved further with the systems-oriented utilitarian ethics of Bentham, Mills, Locke (privatization of property), and Kant. In utilitarianism, societal ethics value the greater good. In the 1900s, ethics evolved further, into a more deontological and less systems-oriented approach that was probably a sign of the times of great surplus energy.

We derive our ethical views from our cultural systems. Culture evolves to fit available energy patterns. Soddy (1911) said that “the laws [thermodynamics] that express the relation between matter and energy, govern the rise and fall of political systems, the freedom or bondage of societies, the movements of commerce and industries, the origin of wealth and poverty, and the general physical welfare of a people.” During the last two centuries, in a system with gross surpluses of energy, relative freedom and bondage of societies shifted as a result of surplus energy. Society couched the moral good in moral, absolutist terms of right and wrong, because we could. Anything was possible. Cultural values shifted as a result of the surplus, so that personal freedom was no longer connected to the natural system of limits. Much of modern medical ethics evolved from deontological roots, where the goal is to do everything possible for people, because we had no limits. We have treated people perhaps as a way of furthering the economic growth engine, denying the idea that people live within environments where there are connections and limits. Our western culture reflects an extreme outlier in terms of competitiveness, independence, and perhaps anthropocentrism, too, as a result of the dramatic surplus energy, leading to a WEIRD culture (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). Western culture has the most changing to do in order to adapt to a lower-energy society.

Earth on a cliff edge
Triandis/Schwartz, 1994, from Marini (Rokeach?)
Click on image icon to view full size

Until we understand the driving force of our energetic basis, our ideas about social justice will not change. We will believe what the economists have told us about fairness–that everyone can have everything they want, plus more over time, as growth expands infinitely into the future. Instead, we are more likely to view the idea of equality and freedom from a very limited two-dimensional, anthropocentric political perspective such as the figures above that fail to consider nature at all. Politics that does not consider the ecological basis for society is no longer adequate.

All of these ideas deny the ongoing depletion of the environment over time if we do not contract our economy physically and culturally. So basing our ideas about our societal culture within the environment (internalizing the externalities) is essential in describing what type of social justice can occur. We must understand energetic limits before reasonable dialogues about social justice can occur. What are the limits of societal ideas about justice, and how will they change as our national economies contract, especially those in the developed world, where the change will be greatest? What are the energetic limits of social justice? Can everyone have more?

In contrast to Boulanger’s figure, a different figure produced by Holmgren below uses the collective identification axis along with an anthropocentric /ecocentric axis that better incorporates our blindspot about the importance of the environment and energy. If we are ignorant of the energetic basis for society, we will choose an anthropocentric focus that ignores or devalues nature.

From David Holmgren's Money vs Fossil Fuels lecture 2010

From David Holmgren’s Money vs Fossil Fuels lecture 2010 

Rights only exist as a subset of rights within a functional culture, which resides within a functional economy, and the functional economy depends on the environment. In order to depict this idea, we really need a 3-dimensional map that includes the biosphere as the system boundary for the discussion, or even a 4-dimensional map that includes the passage of time and shows cycles and pulsing over time, to frame the discussion adequately. Individual rights have varied over time in different cultures and settings, depending on a number of factors, including perhaps most importantly the availability of resources. As Boulanger points out, populations must adjust their lifestyles to the limits of resource availability. So what does that mean in the pursuit of equality, as resources wane?

Solar equity–what is your solar share of the world?

Brown & Ulgiati, 2011

Renewable vs Nonrenewable Flows Emergy Basis M.T. Brown, S. Ulgiati / Ecological Modelling 223 (2011) 4–13

First, what is the long-term carrying capacity for humans on the earth? Odum suggested that the eventual carrying capacity would be far under 1 billion. Odum suggested that about 70% of whole earth empower comes from fossil fuels, so we will eventually have to eventually live on about one-third of current emergy (Odum, 2001). And Brown and Ulgiati (2011) suggest that “while 97% of global production was based on renewable emergy flows in 1900, today only about 16% of total emergy use is from renewable emergy sources” (p. 7,, discussion also available here without firewalls). This complete turnaround in energy basis for society over the last century suggests a future with waning fossil fuels will result in a much decreased carrying capacity. During the current decade, we are the furthest from sustainability as a society as we have ever been, due to our reliance on fossil fuels. In the same paper by Brown and Ulgiati, the authors ask:

“In the transition from a quantity to a quality-based growth, we will also have to address the question of how to adjust the current consumptive way of life to make things more egalitarian between the haves and have-nots. Qualitative growth does not fully address this disparity. How do we address it in a way that is sustainable?” (Brown & Ulgiati, 2011, p. 12).

We can illustrate this discussion the equality cake with the simple analogy of dessert (be it a cake or pie, either will work). We will eat all the pie, because of the maximum power principle, that suggests that available resources will all be used when possible. As resources wane, and the pie gets smaller, we have four choices then. First, we can escalate the making of pies so that everyone can keep their share, thus damaging the environment even more—that is what we are doing now. This option is the least sustainable of the three options. Or secondly, we can divide the shrinking pie unfairly, with some who are in power now keeping their share while the rest get less. Over time as we descend, we will have to revert to renewable energies as the main drivers for our society. We will have to decide what our personal solar share of society is. When we use Emergy to calculate ecological footprints, we can derive a relative sense of the inequities involved in our consumption. For instance, on average, Americans consume 19 times their personal solar shares of the world’s annual global renewable energy income that is equitable. If I eat a Big Mac, that act alone consumes 3.3 times the average daily per capita global renewable solar income (Brown & Ulgiati, 2012). Is that fair?

The third is to reimagine the world more locally, and more equitably, by working within the constraints of a sustainable biosphere. That will only happen if people universally understand that there is not an infinite supply of energy and resources. If we don’t arrive at that understanding then we default to our fourth option, extreme collapse, leading to extinction. An argument for dealing with inequity, beyond the obvious ethic of doing what is right, is that an even playing field reduces the chances of global pandemics and war. From a systems perspective, not dealing with inequities in a world in overshoot means that wars and epidemics are more likely to lay waste to humanity. Better to have population attrition come from natural causes and a more humane medical system that prioritizes healthcare away from sick care for the wealthy to basic, equitable healthcare for all. There comes a tipping point when life for the haves becomes so uncomfortable from the inequities and strife that the system changes–are we there yet? When people and countries have their basic needs met, they are less likely to abuse the environment or each other in politics of necessity and not politics of choice (Neuhaus, 1971).

Trade imbalances and global equity–practical solutions

Hans Rosling talks below about wealthy countries and equity with the rest of the world, drawing three global lines about social equity; the poverty line, the wash line, and the air line. Where do we draw the line on the level of prosperity that everyone will share that can be supported sustainably by our biosphere?

Population growth occurs mostly with the poor, while economic growth occurs with the rich. Both increase use of energy in unsustainable fashion, with autocatalysis increasing the rate of growth over time. As Rosling points out in the video above, the rich blame the poor, and the poor blame the rich. But all of us are at fault, and the answer lies somewhere in the middle, between the poorest and the richest in the world. Rosling suggests that the dividing line should be the washing machine, since women who are freed from grinding human labor, then they have time to educate their families. If we provide for basic needs that allow for social justice, equity, happiness, and economic productivity, then we can begin the discussion about how to protect the environment in adaptation to descent. But none of that can occur until there is a general understanding that descent is inevitable and imminent. So the first step is education about our ecological, energetic basis for society. Ryan (2012) emphasizes the importance of ecological literacy education, so that we can understand the value of enough in “cultivating sustainable and ethic prosperity with basic income”, so that economies can move forward into the new era of descent.

Because of trade imbalances and vastly different rates of resource use in developed versus less developed countries, the mechanisms that will promote both social justice and solar equity vary. If Americans get solar panels, is there enough cake to go around that Bangladesh can have basic health care? How much commerce can we produce while still maintaining public safety, especially when the commerce produces environmental pollution that crosses public borders? How do we calculate and compare the damage to the biosphere between the consumption of the rich countries or the population growth of the poor countries, and what causes the worst unsustainability? Is electricity a basic need? How do we avoid returning to human slavery as our energy slaves leave? How do we enact green governance that values nature appropriately? These are the types of global discussions and cooperative behaviors that need to occur as countries attempt to set up realistic policies for descent. In the short-term, justice could be distributed more equitably on a global basis, while fossil fuels still allow it. Later on, equity will be a much more local concept, dependent on the cooperative behaviors, local resources and renewable energy availability. We will need to abide by the African proverb; if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

In developed countries, especially for Americans who use a quarter of the world’s energy, the changes will need to be more drastic. Initial policies for descent could provide incentives to cut luxury and waste through high horsepower uses of fuels, cars, and electric power. We could place limits on personal income, and introduce campaigns such as those that limit the power of private cars, public funding of extreme healthcare and other gross wastes of energy.

Several economic principles that could help in clarifying social justice and its relationship to solar equity follow:


  • Wars have historically helped organize the landscape into units appropriate to available resources. Current imbalances in international trade are based on market valuations and unfair international exchange. Perhaps energy valuation can evaluate products, goods and serves for trade to balance the equity and energy
  • Holding back on resources does not maximize economic vitality, and the best national economic policy is the symbiotic sharing with neighbors for stability. Developed nations should not limit fuel imports because these stimulate their economies with a 6 to 1 amplifier effect. There is a 6 to 1 negative amplifier effect on the economy when energy use is curtailed, so taxation of energy sources should be avoided.
  • Setting prices of fuels below market prices depresses sources of supply, creates shortages, and inhibits economies
  • If one sector of the economy is either neglected or overemphasized, the economy will suffer
  • When a developed country borrows money from outside, its economy is stimulated temporarily but later it is inhibited by its debt
  • It hurts a less developed country more to repay borrowed money
  • In less developed countries, use resources to make wealth; don’t sell them to make money. Market prices are not a fair basis for international trade. Human services from less developed nations are worth more in Emergy terms than is paid for them. Raw products contribute 5 to 50 times more to urban centers than is received for them (Odum, 1987, Brown & Ulgiati, 2012)
  • Full employment maximizes an economy
  • An economy is hurt by raises in pay at the expense of jobs (Odum, 1987)
  • Develop international partnerships and peace by balancing Emergy of exchanges between nations, including trade, migrating people, foreign aid, loans, and culture
  • Do not attempt to exert military influence beyond the power of the country’s resources

What happens if we don’t?

If we have seven times the number of people that the biosphere can support without fossil fuel support, how to we get down to less than 1/7 of the current population without catastrophe? Is there a prosperous way down at this time? Radical change in the entire system is needed. Odum wrote his first draft of the Prosperous Way Down in the early 1980s, with some optimism that there was still reasonable hope that we were capable of heading off full-blown collapse. That optimism was in spite of his understanding that, because of the Maximum Em/Power Principle, while there was net energy to burn, we would burn it. It is pretty clear at this point that we are marching towards full-blown disaster, without the will to change the current system on a grand scale, at least. It also seems clear to me that collapse sooner rather than later will be less painful in the long run. If that is the case, what form of collapse will move us to radical change, and which form is the least painful, without environmental catastrophe?

Foster and Clark (2012) suggest that there is no way to head off ecological catastrophe without “breaking with the underlying logic of the accumulation of capital”:

“Ironically, it is in the very waste and destructiveness of what Odum called the ‘cancerous capitalism’ of today that we are able to discover the potential for a more rational, just, and sustainable society. Looking at the explosive growth of finance, already visible in their time, together with ‘advertising, product differentiation, artificial obsolescence, model changes, and the other devices of the sales effort,’ Baran and Sweezy observed: ‘The prodigious volume of resources absorbed in all these activities does in fact constitute necessary costs of capitalist production. What should be crystal clear is that an economic system in which such costs are socially necessary has long ceased to be a socially necessary economic system’”(Foster & Clark, 2012).

Fortunately, we will be forced to break with the current methods of capital accumulation when our currencies fail. Embedded system dynamics, the Ponzi nature of debt and a failure to understand the inappropriately valued energetic basis for our currency dictate that our global currencies will eventually fail.

When the petrodollar currency fails it would be a good time to consider a new plan arising from a regained cooperative ethic centered around discussions of solar equity. What is fair in sharing diminishing world resources? Smaller steps that people are willing to take such as buying a Prius may be a symbolic first step, if only because thoughts evolve over time, and if the current most progressive thinking and green efforts are the beginning of an evolution to what really needs to be done in the form of major change. Those efforts can build into cooperative behaviors, but not if we blow ourselves up first.

Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?” Ubuntu in the African Xhosa culture means “I am because we are.” We had better get started in building a more cooperative culture, at the smaller and the larger scales. We have too many people and weapons in the world now, paired with a lack of understanding. Our expectations of growth may become our most dangerous foes. In one way or another, our expectations for growth may be the death of us.

SUV image credit: Krystian Konopka / Reproduced at with permission.

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