Red and Green
Inequality and unsustainability are the twin curses of the current world disorder.
It's not just a question of being 'rich' or 'poor', but of how much is being consumed by whom -
at what cost to others and to the world's environment.
The earth’s oceans and biomass can absorb 13 to 14 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. If this ‘budget’ were equally distributed between the 5.8 billion inhabitants, each of us would have the right to discharge a little more than 2.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
In the North an American discharges 20 tonnes, a German just under 12 tonnes, a Japanese 9 tonnes.
In the South an Indian discharges 0.8 tonnes, a Chinese 2 tonnes, an Egyptian or a Brazilian 1.5 tonnes.
- Five planets would be needed to process emissions if the entire global population discharged as much CO2 as the Germans.
Who contributed what to global warming 1800-1988
(increases in CO2 emissions)1
In 1965 the richest 20% of the world's people already consumed far more than all the rest put together - about 70% of the world's income. Now it's nearer 85%, and still growing.
The graph shows the consumption of resources by each
fifth of the world's population, measured by income.
- The difference between people who consume too much and too little is often at its most extreme in relatively poor countries.
- However, high average incomes (GNP per capita) don’t necessarily create more equality. Measured in terms of how many times the income of the richest 20% of the population exceeds that of the poorest 20%, India, Indonesia (both 5 times) and Bangladesh (4 times) are more equal societies than Britain, Australia or Aotearoa/New Zealand (all 6 times).
- The most recent figures given by the World Bank for the distribution of income in rich countries are extraordinarily out of date – a reflection of its distorted perspectives. In most of them, inequality has increased sharply since the figures quoted above were compiled in the 1980s.
- In no country in the world does the richest 20% of the population consume less than twice as much as the poorest 20%: in Brazil – a relatively wealthy country – it’s 32 times as much.
NIGEL DICKENSON / STILL PICTURES
While cereals, for example, are consumed more or less evenly across the world’s population, the richest 20% consume nearly 90% of the total number of cars. Because the richest fifth consume much more of the things that cost the most (in resources as well as cash), they also account for over four-fifths of the world’s total consumption.
Accidents of birth - where, and into which group, you are born - have a big influence on how much you consume, even in rich countries. 'Classes' develop - rich families accumulate and consume more and more, while poor families struggle to survive at all.
In rich countries
In Germany, less than half the proportion of 'nationals' compared with 'foreigners' live in poverty - 'nationals' escape poverty more easily and spend less time there. It's similar for 'White' and 'African' Americans - almost half the latter live in poverty and escape it less often.
In a poor country
A caste system still operates in India. Studies of rural households over a long period have shown that castes considered to be lower consume less - little more than half the national poverty line - and take three times as long to escape from poverty as 'others'.
With the majority of the world’s industrial labour force now in the South – and the proportion of people employed in factories falling in the North – membership of trades unions is rising sharply in many Southern countries but declining in the North.
- China – where ‘official’ union membership was almost 104 million in 1995 – prohibits independent trade unions.
- The demise of repressive regimes has pushed membership upwards in South Africa, Spain, Chile; downwards in the former ‘Eastern Bloc’.
- The ‘density’ of union membership in Britain still stood at 32.9% of wage and salary earners in 1995, but only 18.6% in 1994 in Spain. The highest density in the world (91.1%) is in Sweden.
- There is an upward trend in union membership in almost all ‘newly industrializing’ countries like Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
A thousand Germans consume about ten times as much as a thousand Argentinians, Filipinos or Egyptians – and produce that much more waste, too. Many of these resources, like oil or aluminium, are ‘non-renewable’ and can never be replaced.
1 Wolfgang Sachs, Reinhard Loske, Manfred Linz et al, Greening the North, Zed Books, London, 1998.
2 Trade and Development Report 1997.
3 World Development Report 1997, World Bank.
4 Human Development Report 1998, UNDP.
5 Human Development Report 1997, UNDP.
6 World Labour Report 1997-98, International Labour Organisation.