New Internationalist

Inequality costs the earth

Issue 433

If we really want to avert climate change, argues Bob Hughes, we’d better tackle inequality first.

Mark Henley / PANOS
Divided we fall: social inequality adversely affects the rich as well as the poor. Mark Henley / PANOS

The modern global economy doesn’t just run on fossil fuels. It runs on inequality, which now stands indicted by a rapidly growing mountain of evidence, as the real driving force behind all the harms, and more, that have led to climate change. A world without inequality is not just desirable: it’s an urgent necessity. And it can be achieved. The market may or may not have an ‘invisible hand’ but it most definitely has an ‘invisible foot’ – inequality – which has been bearing down harder and harder on the world and its people in the frenzied pursuit of economic growth. Emissions will not reduce until that pressure is eased.

Our new understanding began with the epidemiological studies of inequality initiated by Michael Marmot and others in the 1970s. Today, thousands of surveys confirm that life in an unequal country is shorter and nastier than life in a more equal one.

In the US (the world’s most unequal rich country) being among the least wealthy 20 per cent takes 14 years off your life and diminishes its quality in ways that go too deep and too wide to quantify. In Britain, the penalty for being in that lower fifth is 7.5 years. And inequality affects everyone: even the rich die slightly younger, and lead slightly worse lives, in the US and the UK than in more equal Sweden or Japan. Knowing this means that anyone who tolerates inequality must now accept full responsibility for other people’s misery, illness and early death.1

Rich countries generally have far greater ecological impacts than poorer ones – but a country’s impact may not relate so much to its wealth, as to its wealth inequality

What is less widely discussed is the environmental cost. Inequalities are far more costly than income differences alone might predict. 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 $62,000 a year or more) while only 1 per cent of emissions came from those in the bottom 20 per cent (with incomes up to $15,500).

Sheffield University’s Danny Dorling (see ‘Mean machine’ p.20) reckons that: ‘… it is almost certainly an underestimate to claim that the richest tenth of the world’s population have a greater negative environmental impact than all the rest put together. […] And, of the richest tenth of the world’s population, the richest tenth consume more, even than the other half a billion or so affluent.’2

This extraordinarily disproportionate impact is explained not by their wealth alone, but by their wealth relative to the rest of the population. The whole idea of ‘wealth’ becomes disastrously skewed in an unequal society.

Rich countries generally have far greater ecological impacts than poorer ones – but a country’s impact may not relate so much to its wealth, as to its wealth inequality. The World Wide Fund For Nature’s (WWF) 2008 Living Planet Report showed that the two countries with the greatest per capita ecological impact were the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States, with ecological footprints of 9.5 and 9.4 global hectares (gha) per citizen in 2005. That compares to a sustainable footprint of just 2.1 gha. If wealth is defined in terms of human wellbeing and development, this need not carry any ecological price – highly egalitarian Cuba had a footprint of just 1.8 gha. In 2006, Cuba was the only country to achieve both sustainability and good-quality lives for its people as measured by the UN’s Human Development Index. Some countries that are almost as wealthy in crude terms as the UAE and US, but which are more equal, have nowhere near the ecological impact. But rich nations are deceptive units of comparison because they do less and less productive work, especially the dirty work, within their own borders.

In the US, a strong relationship has been established between inequality and environmental degradation. A 1999 study by James Boyce at the University of Massachusetts found that more-unequal states like Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi had worse pollution and weaker environmental laws than more-equal states like Minnesota, Maine and Wisconsin.3 These same unequal states also suffered from more crime, higher infant mortality and suicide rates and increased levels of incarceration – never mind the chances of being washed out of your home by a passing hurricane.

Enrique Marcarian / Reuters
One country, two worlds: 20,000 poor Argentines and immigrants live in the Buenos Aires slum known as Villa 31. Enrique Marcarian / Reuters

Emulative consumption: the cost of saving face

Inequality does its work in two ways – first, by the ‘emulative consumption’ described more than 100 years ago by the Norwegian-American sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class. In an unequal world, says Veblen, life becomes above all a battle for respect, to avoid ‘invidious comparisons’.

‘Everyday life,’ he wrote, ‘is an unremitting demonstration of the ability to pay.’

The rich not only spur each other on in extraordinary feats of over-consumption. Their habits also transform consumption down the social pecking order. Whole societies morph into high-performance planet-trashing machines as everyone is drawn into an intensifying struggle for ever-more fragile respect (and self-respect). Take the billionaire who needs apartments in London, Paris and New York and a yacht with a helipad just to keep face with his peers; or the working-class families that must spend more than they can afford on a car that makes them look wealthier than they are; or their children, terrified of the scorn awaiting them should they turn up to school in the wrong shoes.

Positional consumption turns private wealth into public ‘illth’

Whereas emulative consumption is driven by frail human psychology, ‘positional consumption’ is 100 per cent material; forced on us by factors that physically shape our lives. The British economist Fred Hirsch first coined the term in his 1977 book, Social Limits to Growth. ‘Positional goods’ are those whose value is reduced, or which cease to be luxuries and become necessities, if others have them too. Hirsch’s analogy is standing up at a football match to get a better view: if everybody does it, nobody is any better off. Country cottages and ‘unspoiled Greek islands’ are classic positional goods, whose pursuit blights entire countries with terrifying speed. Private automobiles are another classic positional good. Once enough people are using them, they become obligatory. Anyone who wants to continue leading a ‘normal life’ must find the money to play a game whose ante is continuously being raised. Likewise private schools and private healthcare. The more others use them, the more (and the more urgent) reason there is for you to use them too – or be left behind. All this is very good for the GDP (the whole neoliberal project can be seen as one of turning as many goods as possible into positional goods) but of diminishing benefit to anyone or anything else. As Dorling has observed, the English city of Bristol spends vastly more money on secondary education than does similar-sized Sheffield, because it has an extraordinary number of private secondary schools. Sheffield has hardly any. Yet both cities send almost identical numbers of children to university.

Actually, to call these things ‘private’ is misleading: they have massive public impacts. A ‘private’ housing development dominates and diminishes the lives of everyone it excludes, or who even tries to conduct their life in its vicinity. Private helicopters intrude on the lives of millions (especially in hotspots of inequality like São Paulo, which has more private helicopters than Manhattan). These things are unlike genuine private goods (such as a meal, decent clothing or a good night’s sleep) whose enjoyment affects only the person enjoying them.

Hirsch observes that even good A-levels (a British secondary school graduation diploma) are ‘positional goods’ when the supply of plum jobs (like a doctor or a lawyer) is restricted. Decent marks are no longer adequate – you need straight As plus interesting extra-curricular accomplishments to get into the best universities. And the education that provides these opportunities itself becomes positional, especially when an élite private sector dominates it. Hence the Bristol taxi-driver who works double shifts from the time his daughter is two years old to get her into one of that city’s five private all-girls schools – adding two extra tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere every year and wearing himself out in the process. He is not necessarily driven by crude ambition, but by fear for his daughter if she has to attend the disparaged local secondary school.

But being a doctor should not be a prize for which people fight each other: the more good doctors, the better, surely. This is the approach taken in Cuba where doctors come to you rather than you to them. His or her carbon footprint is about the same size as everyone else’s. They are not a species of aristocracy, yet the profession still has no difficulty attracting recruits. And Cuba achieves almost the same health outcomes as the US – for a twentieth of the expenditure. While this may be bad for GDP, it’s certainly good for the planet.

Housing is possibly the most ridiculous positional ‘good’ of all. Dorling’s 2007 study, Poverty, Wealth and Place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, showed how the ‘exclusive rich’ must now compete for diminishing numbers of desirable house locations at a huge energy cost to society. Extra hours must be worked to secure the same amount of housing (two salaries instead of one); extra journeys must be made as ‘islands’ of respectability and safety become smaller and more isolated. Jobs are also more separated from where people live. In unequal countries (and even more so on this increasingly unequal planet) work of all kinds has been relocated to suit the rich.

Within countries this means more time must be spent commuting and cars must be more reliable and safer. There has been a 20 per cent increase in the size of automobiles in the US since 19854, plus a vast increase in their numbers and a tripling of commuting time between 1983 and 2003.

Globally it means more migration: the bravest and ablest embark on trials and journeys that rival Odysseus wherever there are borders between rich and poor. Internationally there are thought to be about 300 million migrants (and this does not include the hundreds of millions of ‘internal’ migrants, especially in China). They are the ‘dark matter’ of the neoliberal universe, without which no budget would ever balance – ‘ragged-trousered philanthropists’ working almost for nothing, doing the work the poor in the rich countries refuse because it doesn’t pay enough to survive. There are three-quarters of a million illegal migrants in Britain alone, trapped by draconian anti-immigrant laws. This system has led to a lucrative revival of slavery, debt-bondage and death through overwork – not to mention the increasingly acceptable racism that keeps the whole structure standing.

The automobilization of Swindon

Some of the most powerful mechanisms driving ‘positional consumption’ seem to happen just outside our peripheral vision. For example, in Britain many banks, insurance companies and building societies moved their headquarters out of drab town centres to new, ‘prestigious’, out-of-town settings during the 1980s and 1990s. The word ‘prestigious’ became a stock-epithet in UK advertising copy during that period, reflecting the growing importance of status.

This was partly to accommodate the needs of an enlarged, motorized sales-force (in turn, the consequence of turning pensions into ‘positional goods’, as private pensions were promoted in opposition to state and job-based pensions).

In one case, in the early 1990s, the Nationwide Building Society moved its headquarters out of central Swindon into a new, steel-and-glass, atrium-style building, amid landscaped car parks, close by the motorway. This meant that several hundred low-paid and mainly female clerical, catering and ancillary staff could no longer travel to work easily by bus, or do family shopping in their lunch-hours. From 1994 to 1997 (when I worked there) Nationwide’s parking lots gradually became fuller and fuller – mainly with older cars. Executives complained the lots were being filled up with ‘bangers’. Tennis courts and flowerbeds were paved over to make way for them. Even so, the women had to arrive at work earlier and earlier to be sure of getting a place. Low-paid staff had been forced into the automobile economy, to play their part in the monstrous ramping-up of carbon emissions that marked that decade, with impacts that left no corner of the planet untouched.

This saga seems to have been part of a general trend. Amanda Root has found that the number of women with driving licences in Britain jumped by 90 per cent during the 1980s and 1990s. For the first time there were as many female drivers as men, but women drove only a fifth as many miles as the men reflecting the same type of car usage, and the low status that went with it.1

  1. Arthur Halsey and Jo Webb, eds, ‘Transport and Communication’, Twentieth Century Social Trends, Macmillan, 2000.

Prioritize public goods, outlaw inequality and open the borders

In Hirsch’s analysis, ‘positionality’ supercedes older and more limited notions of private and public wealth, and embraces what the 19th century English social critic John Ruskin called ‘illth’. The opposite of a positional good might be a public good, which enriches everyone’s life no matter who owns it. Or a private good, whose consumption is an entirely private matter, affecting nobody else – things like warm clothes, decent food, leisure, creative activities and personal relationships. Private fortunes, on the other hand, have broad social impacts, as does the industrial ‘private sector’.

Clean water, good schools, libraries, theatres, cafés, parks and public transport are clearly public goods – and the planet and its people need more of them. Yet no country has ever pursued an economic policy informed by this concept of maximizing public good while eliminating ‘positional goods’. Now is the time.

Above all we need to reduce inequality because this means less competitive and less positional consumption – and less of almost any type of social morbidity you care to name, from homicide to obesity.

We could do this rapidly: the British government did it during World War Two with great popular support. Consumption fell to a fraction of its peacetime level – yet public health made its greatest advance of any period in British history. Central to this project is the opening of all international borders. Instead of properly defining zones of responsibility, borders are now essentially a means of separating rich from poor, ‘us’ from ‘them’. The obscenity of EU and US border fortifications against the world’s poor (and the cancerous network of agencies and commercial interests serving them) is a terminal symptom of the divisive malaise the societies they pretend to protect have harboured for far too long: the divisions of class.

Time for anger, not guilt

Climate change is a social justice issue. But till now it has been presented as a problem of collective guilt. ‘We’ must repent and mend our ways. This spreads the blame in a way that mocks democracy, pretending that the poor and the rich are somehow equally responsible. Meanwhile the real crime – the very existence of rich and poor – continues to create havoc. There are powerful interests who are quite content if social justice stays out of the climate change debate and no doubt will fight tooth and nail to keep it out. There are also climate change activists who care nothing about the rights of their fellow humans, let alone their happiness. But they had better start taking an interest because until the grievous infringements of dignity most of humanity endures are addressed there will be no civilized end to the climate debate.

When people’s sense of injustice is engaged, mountains can be moved.

Bob Hughes is a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, and a member of No One Is Illegal

Short changed

As inequality grows, so does its impact on people. You can clearly see that in the archaeological and historical record. The first evidence of environmental degradation due to human activity is not associated with agriculture (as was widely assumed) but with the emergence of intensely unequal, aristocratic societies in the eastern Mediterranean around 5,000 years ago.

The same sites also reveal the human health problems associated with inequality. Ordinary people had five times more dental lesions than their rulers and were up to four per cent shorter. ‘An average Bronze Age male farmer from the eastern Mediterranean would stand 167 cm (5 feet, 6 inches); 6 cm shorter than his ruler and 10 cm shorter than his hunting ancestors.’1

This pattern of inequality, depletion of natural resources and human immiseration is common in early-modern European history, helping explain the rise of capitalism in northern Italy and the Low Countries, and culminating in the spectacular exodus of European poor to the Americas and Australasia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1914, the average British army conscript was 12.7 cm (5 inches) shorter than the average officer.2 Europeans have only regained their hunter-gatherer stature in the last two or three generations – thanks to cheap fossil fuels and intensified exploitation of the rest of the world.

This knowledge is new. Epidemiological studies began in earnest in the 1970s but the archaeological evidence only started to emerge in the 1980s. So it is little wonder that the penny has taken a little while to drop – especially when one reflects on how deeply and forcefully we have all been acculturated, over scores of generations, to accept inequality.

  1. Martin Jones, Feast: why humans share food, Oxford University Press, 2007.
  2. Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain, Macmillan, 2007.
  1. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better, Penguin 2009; Richard Wilkinson The Impact of Inequality, Routledge 2005; Vicente Navarro, ‘Inequalities Are Unhealthy’, Monthly Review, Volume 56, Number 2.
  2. Personal communication 28 Sept 2007. See also Dorling, Injustice: why social inequality persists, Policy Press 2010
  3. James Boyce, ‘Is inequality bad for the environment and bad for your health?’ Differentakes 8, Spring 2001.
  4. Richard Frank, ‘Falling Behind: how rising inequality harms the middle class,’ University of California Press, 2007.

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