23 Apr 2010

The ecological Cost of human Inequality: Why only a better Society can save the Planet

by Bob Hughes

One of the most promising developments in these otherwise challenged and war-ridden times, is the new wealth of data on the material effects of human wealth-inequalities.1 Inequality is no longer “just” a moral issue; it entails specific, physical harm. This changes the whole political game. But one massive dimension of inequality has not, so far, entered the public debate: inequality not only destroys people’s social milieu and their health; it is also wrecking the planet. Here are some indicative findings:

• The impact of the rich is notorious. For example, an Oxford University study in 2006 found that 61 per cent of all travel emissions came from individuals in the top 20 per cent (those earning £40,000 a year or more), while only 1 per cent of emissions came from those in the bottom 20 per cent (with incomes up to £10,000). The impact of rich is predictably greater (see below) in more unequal countries.

• A strong link has been shown in the USA between inequality and environmental degradation. James K. Boyce at the University of Massachusetts found in 1999 that more-unequal states (like Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi) had several times more, and worse, pollution, and weaker environmental laws, than more-equal states (like Minnesota, Maine and Wisconsin).

• Human impact grows whenever inequality grows, globally and within nations. For example, the IPCC’s 2007 figures show that atmospheric CO2 equivalents had increased more than twice as fast during 1995-2004 (when world-wide inequality soared) as during 1970-1994. Conversely, ecological impact seems to decrease when human inequality decreases – as it did in Cuba, especially during the “special period” after 1989, when the whole nation pitched into a (hugely successful) effort to feed itself and maintain quality of life without imported oil. A similar effect was seen in Britain during World War II.

• The same pattern can now be seen in archaeological records thanks to new, molecular techniques. Recent work by Martin Jones at the University of Cambridge, and others, finds that the first evidence of environmental degradation due to human activity is not (as previously thought) associated with agriculture as such, but with the subsequent emergence (about 5,000 years ago) of intensely unequal, aristocratic societies – whose remains also yield evidence of the human health problems we now associate with inequality: skeletal and dental stress, reduced stature and lifespan. A similar pattern of land-degradation and human immiseration runs through European history, paralleling the growth of inequality as the money-economy penetrated society from the 11th century onwards. How does this damage happen? In two ways:

1. Emulative consumption: the crippling cost of putting a price on respect

“Emulative consumption” was described over a hundred years ago by the US economist Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class. In an unequal world, says Veblen, life becomes above all a battle for respect and to avoid “invidious comparisons”. In How the Rich are Destroying the Earth2, the environmental editor of Le Monde, Hervé Kempf, shows how it has led, today, to very small numbers of extremely rich people transforming consumption, with climate-changing effect, all the way down the social pecking-order: from the billionaire who needs apartments in London, Paris and New York and a yacht with a helipad just to keep face with his peers; to the working-class family who must spend more than they can afford on a car that makes them look wealthier than they are, lest they be seen as “losers”; to their children.

2. Positional consumption: private wealth becomes public “illth”

Whereas emulative consumption is driven by frail human psychology, “positional consumption” is driven by brute necessity. Moreover it is a cause, rather than a consequence, of inequality, hence of particular importance to policymakers. It was defined by British economist Fred Hirsch in Social Limits to Growth (1977) but has been rather neglected since his early death in 1978, and the rise in Britain of Thatcherite orthodoxy.

“Positional goods” are ones that cease to be luxuries, and become necessities, if others have them too. Hirsch likens the process to standing at a football match to get a better view; if everybody does it, nobody is any better off, although all expend more energy. Private automobiles, country cottages and “unspoiled Greek islands” are classic positional goods, whose pursuit blights entire countries with astonishing speed. Margaret Thatcher’s “great car economy”, her privatisations of housing, state industry, and to a large extent social security, education and healthcare, and simultaneous devastation of secure and satisfying employment (so that “good jobs”, too, became targets of energy-intensive, positional competition) quickly made positionality the dominant mode of life in Britain: a game all must play at whatever cost, or be left behind.

The full structure and consequences of inequality are too vast and ramified to go into here but I hope this has given a sense of how it works, and of what we might do, to set a better course. In short, we need to redirect our highly-evolved, human talent for indignation against its proper and original target: inequality.

As a result, Veblen consumption would shrink dramatically – except that moral pressure alone is never enough. We must also target positionality wherever it is found, and turn as many of today’s positional goods into public ones, whose value remains undiminished however many people use them: plentiful public transport, healthcare, parks and squares, gardens, libraries, galleries and cafes, recreation and sporting facilities. And good jobs, that nobody is ashamed to do. Nothing that is essential for a dignified life should be left to the positional economy – which means no more private schools or private healthcare. What is good for one must be good for all.

More radically, we must tackle the rampant injustice that separates the “poor world” from the rich with ever tighter borders and controls. “Equality in one hemisphere” would be a deadly delusion – cementing in place the very global inequality that has made the whole phenomenon of climate-changing overconsumption possible.

1.See for example Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better (Penguin 2009). ↩

2.Originally published as Comment les Riches Détruisent la Planete; Seuil, 2007 ↩

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