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How Does Inequality Affect the Environment?

Jul 13 2017 Read 1711 Times

It’s little more than common sense that economic inequality has a substantial impact on the quality of life in countries around the world. It’s perhaps less obvious that there would be a direct correlation between unequal nations and poor environmental practices.

However, it’s exactly such a correlation that has been suggested by Danny Dorling, author of The Equality Effect. In this comprehensive study of the relationship between economic equality and environmental culpability, Dorling highlights how the countries which suffer from the greatest divide between rich and poor are also regularly the worst offenders when it comes to pollution and unsustainable practices.

A case of extremes

Citing a 2016 Oxfam report, Dorling points out that the richest 10% of inhabitants in the United States were the greatest polluters on the planet, followed by the richest 10% in Canada, the UK, Russia and South Africa.

What do these societies have in common? They all have starkly defined social classes, with huge gulfs between the rich and the poor. By contrast, more socially equal well-off countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea don’t just contribute less pollution among their top 10%; their overall carbon footprint is reduced, since the bottom 50% pollute less than the bottom 50% in unequal countries.

Using this data as the premise for his argument, Dorling concludes that those living in rich nations where social inequality is not as prevalent consume less, discard less and emit less, making them more environmentally-friendly in almost every aspect.

The nitty gritty

Dorling fleshes out this theory by examining a number of different facets of everyday life in the top 25 most affluent countries around the world. Here are a handful of the conclusions he draws:

  • Meat consumption. In unequal countries, people tend to consume more red meat – perhaps due to the proliferation of cheap, low quality fast food and the advertising which peddles it. This results in greater methane emissions from agriculture and dairy farming than in those countries where meat consumption is lower.
  • Waste vs recycling. In socially divided countries, the rat-race to keep up with the Joneses is generally more pronounced. People are more likely to buy cheap, disposable clothing or commodities and throw them away than mend, recycle and reuse than those where income and social status are not attributed such high value.
  • Travel. Not only are those in unequal countries such as Australia, Canada and the US more likely to drive everywhere than walk or take public transport, but the travel bug is more prevalent in countries where there is a greater divide between the rich and poor, as well – and this has a large knock-on effect on the environment.
  • Water consumption. Those in unequal countries also consume greater amounts of water than those in equal countries. Though the reasons for this are not entirely clear, it’s certain that they’re not drinking more water – which must mean that they’re simply more wasteful with this most precious of resources.

Through this line of reasoning, Dorling argues that an equal society will not only result in happier inhabitants, but a happier planet, too. Moreover, an unequal society will exacerbate climate change – which will in turn exacerbate the inequality, since not everyone will feel its effects as profoundly as the poorest members. Therefore, engineering economic equality is in the best interests of everyone, both for ourselves and for future generations.

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