Wellbeing index in relation to income inequality © Farley J et al., Sustainability (2013). 5(6), 2802-2826.
Life expectancy is related to income within rich countries. © K. Pickett and R. Wilkinson, A Convenient Truth: A Better Society for Us and The Planet (Fabian Ideas, 2014).
More equal societies have a greater engagement with environmental behaviour, such as recycling. © Farley J et al., Sustainability (2013). 5(6), 2802-2826.
Business Leaders' prioritisation of complying with environmental legislation. Egalitarian Scandinavian countries consistently score highly. © World Economic Forum, The Global Competitiveness Report 2001 (Oxford University Press, 2002).
I begin this article with a sense of unease and apprehension. Often public reception of environmental matters is frosty at best. Defeatism has crept in to our psyche. Words such as "sustainable", "eco" and "green" are met with contempt. The general apathy is hardly unexpected. Since the 1970s, environmental campaigners have been banging their drums, yet no real progress has been achieved. Environmental issues are perpetuated by the constant desire for growth. Politicians, and in turn industry, are deaf to these calls - illustrated by farcical international environmental treaties echoing their disregard for our planet (see the recent USA/China pledge or the Conservative claim to be the "greenest" government ever). But why? What's driving this lethargy towards tackling the urgent environmental issues that threaten our civilised existence?
Please, don't roll your eyes - this isn't catastrophising. Yes, we all know we're pumping out too much carbon dioxide for our atmosphere to handle; yes, we all know we're destroying the oceans by using it as our global dumping ground; yes, we all know we're systematically destroying the Earth's biodiversity and plundering its natural resources. The consequences however are skirted over - environmentalists are consistently accused of hyperbole and scientists are reproached for a lack of communication. However the IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) message was clear - we're on course for a 4C rise in global temperatures by 2060.1 Present day school children will be dealing with a largely uninhabitable world by their middle ages. Unfortunately, the more dramatic the consequences, the less tangible they are and in turn the less believable they become, and hence, my trepidation with writing this article. From personal experience discussions concerning climate change, or any environmental issue for that matter, frequently result in deep sighs and general ennui.
So what is it that's limiting our response to the increasingly urgent battle cries of environmentalists? Disbelief that climate change is real? I highly doubt that. That it simply isn't a pressing enough issue? I sincerely hope we aren't that delusional. That the task's too large to combat? Or simply that we don't think it will affect us enough to warrant a response? These arguments unfortunately hold ground. However, I put to you an additional reason, a highly shortsighted and uncomfortable reason - the fear of jeopardising our lifestyles; moving towards a sustainable world is inevitably viewed as a "belt-tightening exercise" and consequently the false threat of impoverishment. A decrease in emissions necessitates less consumerism, less air travel, fewer cars and fewer amenities, such as air conditioning. Realistically who's willing to forgo these modern comforts? The threat to our lifestyle is obvious.
What if I were to say that our supposed excellent lifestyles weren't all we imagined. A wealth of research collated in The Spirit Level (2009) reveals our societal norms for what they are - detrimental to society as a whole.2 Wilkinson & Pickett clearly expose the majority of Western developed countries, with the exception of the liberal Scandinavian countries, as societies rife with inequality. In the UK, the inequality ushered in with the rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s has led to population-wide poor wellbeing, ranging from violence to infant mortality. Comparatively, equal societies consistently have higher markers of wellbeing - from life expectancy, to mental health, or crime rates (demonstrated in Fig.1). The ill effect of the rise in income differential within a country's socioeconomic hierarchy is also clearly illustrated by our life expectancies (Fig.2).
Although quality of life initially improves with economic growth, growth has now become a process of diminishing returns for developed countries where economic inequality is prevalent. Broken are the links between growth and life expectancy, happiness and decreasing crime rates; as growth continues society now suffers. A critical point for growth is therefore imaginable, a critical point where upon equality needs to be addressed. I don't deny that growth is important in developing countries to ensure universal access to basic human needs - water, food, shelter - I'm merely stating that equality is vital once these needs are met and the critical point is reached.
Inequality in these terms specifically refers to income differentials. It isn't an issue of the poor getting poorer - it's a matter of top-end salaries rising exponentially. The income share of the top 1% of the UK population doubled from 8% in the 1970s to 16% in 2008 (at the so-called 'peak' of our economic standing). In the USA, CEO average pay is 200-400 times the pay of the typical production worker, when in the 1970s it was merely 20:1.3 Numerous academic studies have discussed the factors leading to this drastic rise in inequality, largely attributing them to the growth of multi-national corporations and the unregulated free market). It's important now to focus on combating inequality and realising the powerful potential of economically equal societies are not just for society's wellbeing but for our global environment too.
So what does inequality have to do with sustainability? Wilkinson & Pickett argue in A Convenient Truth (2014) that by addressing economic inequality a societal change will occur which will subsequently address sustainability issues.4 There's no denying that Western society has become highly atomised and individualistic; gone are the days of communities, and in turn gone are the days of public spirit and ideologies of common good. Geographical mobility has freed many from family "chains" yet has also stripped us of our most fundamental communities. Research clearly shows that community spirit deteriorates in unequal societies. As pay differentials increase, so does our status anxiety. Does our wealth now determine our worth? Social situations become a form of peacocking and self-aggrandisement. However, status anxiety can lead to isolation, insecurity and inferiority. These trends are clearly observed with the rise of both narcissism and mental health issues since the 1980s. The increase in violent crime can even be attributed to heightened social anxiety, as people are more defensive and easily triggered. Thus, the deterioration of communities is accelerated and individualism is perpetuated. An endless cycle is created which fuels economic inequality.
A large body of research conclusively shows a direct link between poor wellbeing and a belief and prioritisation of materialistic pursuits i.e. consumerism.5 As poor wellbeing is an "effect of economic inequality, it can be deduced that economic inequality leads to heightened consumerism" (due to the need to assert ones worth via markers of wealth). Now we all know that consumerism definitely doesn't gel with sustainability. We love to shop but perhaps that's simply habitual and potentially a subconscious need to assert our worth to ourselves.6 Egalitarian countries have markedly lower social dysfunction and increased wellbeing, and in turn, less consumerism.
Yet another bonus of a more equal economic system is the increase in communities. Communities improve public spirits and increase our trust and belief in public good. To tackle as large an issue as a threat to our planet Earth, we must join together for the greater good. Yes, that statement makes me gag too - how incredibly corny! But just look at studies into businesses' attitudes towards the environment and recycling - the more equal the society, the more engaged they are with environmental issues (Fig.3-4). There's no arguing with that.
If there's any hope of combating pressing environmental issues it's now essential to stop compartmentalising. With this in mind surely it's time to start looking at ways to address the deep-seated economic inequality widespread in the majority of Western countries. The stigma surrounding "sustainability" and the common lethargy towards environmental concerns needs to be approached from a more fundamental view. Let's look at this holistically.
1 ‘Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ (Summary for Policy Makers, IPCC, 2014).
2 K. Pickett and R. Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009).
3 L. Mishel and N. Sabadish, ‘Pay and the top 1%: How executive compensation and financial-sector pay have fuelled income inequality’ (Issue Brief: Economic Policy Institute, 2012).
4 K. Pickett and R. Wilkinson, A Convenient Truth: A Better Society for Us and The Planet (Fabian Ideas, 2014).
5 R. Bond, H. Dittmar and K.M Hurst, ‘A meta-analysis of the materialism literature’ (unpublished manuscript, University of Sussex, 2013).