New Internationalist

Best Way There

Issue 307

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Richard Douthwaite

explains why equality and sustainability

can't do without each other.

Although a few people have been very much wealthier than their neighbours since civilization began, only three basic ways have emerged to deal with the tensions this causes.

The modern way is to pretend that inequalities are transitory and that economic growth will create jobs and raise incomes. This approach became dominant in the early 1970s. Since then, the gap between rich and poor has grown enormously, both within countries and between them. Essentially, the super-rich have been able to capture almost all the increased income that growth brought about and have been allowed to direct the economic system along a path which made it more environmentally damaging and unsustainable.

The current approach to inequality was preceded by the Marxist view that a large gap between rich and poor was indefensible and should be rectified by the state. While this held sway, left-wing governments imposed fiercely redistributive taxes on incomes and used death duties to chisel away at inherited wealth.

The Marxist view, in turn, replaced the traditional approach which saw differences in people’s economic status as being due to the will of God. Hindus, for example, explained the great differences between the castes in India by believing – as many still do – that one was whatever one was in this life because of how well or badly one had behaved in previous incarnations. A parallel attitude was found in the West. A rarely sung verse of the well-known Victorian hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful runs:

                                                                   The rich man in his castle,
                                                                   The poor man at his gate,
                                                                   God made them high and lowly,
                                                                   And ordered their estate.

So which of these established ways of coping with inequality will help us achieve a sustainable system during the next 50 years?

Well, the current attitude to inequality obviously has to be abandoned because rapid rates of economic expansion are totally incompatible with sustainability. Societies aiming for it will avoid taking environmental risks. This means they will favour known technologies over unknown ones and, as a result, their economies will grow slowly, if at all. They will see the certainty and stability this brings as desirable and see no reason to permit huge differences in income and wealth.

Equally, neither the present generation nor the next are likely to accept that big differences between rich and poor are the will of God. Consequently the Marxist view is certain to re-emerge.

Many Greens might feel that aiming for equality as well as sustainability is simply taking on too much. Achieving either target, they might say, is well-nigh impossible by itself, but setting out to achieve the two together is simply ridiculous. Such a view is, however, seriously mistaken. The two goals are inextricably linked because the least environmentally damaging way of providing any given level of human well-being is for everyone to get more or less the same. Equality, in short, is ultra-efficient.

This has been demonstrated convincingly by Richard Wilkinson of the Trafford Centre for Medical Research at the University of Sussex, Britain. For over 20 years, Wilkinson has been studying what changes in people’s relative incomes do to their health.

In countries where incomes have become more equal, the incidence of disease has fallen and life expectancy has gone up. These improvements were not the result of economic growth, better healthcare or the movement of individuals out of absolute poverty. ‘There are too few people in absolute poverty in each of the developed countries for their death rates to be the decisive influence [on the statistics],’ Wilkinson says.1

‘Since the early 1970s, Japan has gone from the middle of the field in terms of life expectancy and income distribution to the top in both. Japan now has the highest recorded life expectancy and the most egalitarian income distribution in the world,’ he said.

‘On the other side of the coin, while Britain’s income distribution worsened dramatically during the 1980s to produce the largest inequalities for over a century, its relative position in terms of life expectancy has also worsened. Each year since 1985, mortality rates among men and women between the ages of 16 and 45 have actually risen – a trend which is not attributable to aids.’

In short, Britons are dying prematurely not because they don’t have enough to live on but because the distribution of resources has become less fair.

Why is someone’s relative income more important than its absolute level? ‘Relative poverty is a demeaning and devaluing experience,’ Wilkinson says, arguing that the way people feel about themselves affects their health. He believes that once an adequate level of national output has been reached, the best way to make people feel better is not to produce more and more goods for them to consume, but to share incomes – and therefore goods – more equally. ‘[This] might be expected to improve the quality of life for everyone by simultaneously improving the social fabric and slowing the pace of environmental damage.’

So here we have the common ground on which Reds and Greens can unite. Equality isn’t a sideshow, a distraction in the quest for sustainability: it’s simply the best way there.

... escalating unsustainability in Singapore.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES

Richard Douthwaite writes on environmental issues from County Mayo, Ireland. Among his recent works is Short Circuit, published by Resurgence, Totnes, 1996.

1 Richard Wilkinson, Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, Routledge, London, 1996.

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