Is Extreme Inequality Condemning Us to Ecological Armageddon?

It has been claimed that the earth has entered a new geological era, the anthropocene. This name captures the pervasive human impact on the whole earth, from the deepest oceans to the edge of space. If this continuing impact were to end the planet's ability to support human life, it would be ecocide -- an ecological Armageddon.

Current trends seem to give to ecocide a degree of inevitability. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, drawing on contributions from thousands of scientists from around the world, reports that the earth is on an "irreversible" trajectory toward severe climatic disruption from the buildup of greenhouse gases. According to an article by 18 scientists in Science, within the next few decades, the earth could become no longer a "safe operating space" for humans. They contend that four "planetary boundaries" have already been breached: the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous. Crossing these boundaries set the conditions for a possible destabilization of the earth from which there can be no return.

Ecologist George Marshall predicts that the likely consequence over the next 60 years may be a rise of temperatures by four degrees centigrade, putting 40 percent of plant and animal species at risk of extinction, and melting glaciers such that sea levels rise by 30 feet, putting two-thirds of the world's major cites underwater. Crop yields could plummet by a third in Africa, and U.S. output of corn, soy beans, and cotton by as much as 82 percent. The oceans, the "lungs of the earth," are 30 percent more acidic today than the pre-industrial level and their acidity is projected to double by the end of the century, dramatically reducing a major source of protein for much of humanity.

Given these dire consequences, why is this environmental threat not being adequately addressed? The major stumbling block among the world's nations is the free-rider problem. Reducing emissions of CO2 and other pollutants is a global public good. The benefits to any particular country of curbing its emissions is only a fraction of the costs it would bear and thus the self-interest of each country militates against such reductions.

The free-rider problem is widely recognized among the world's nations, and strategies for dealing with this problem are not lacking. Why, then, have nations not coordinated so as to address it? The reason is a second stumbling block: high levels of inequality. Inequality impedes necessary responses to environmental degradation through two dynamics: First, inequality increases the political power of the elite, enabling them to block measures that would be against their self-interest. Pollution controls mean lower profits for the corporations they overwhelmingly own (In 2007, the last year for which data are available, the wealthiest one percent of Americans owned 49.3 percent of stocks and mutual funds, the richest 10 percent, 89.4 percent, leaving the bottom 90 percent with only 10.6 percent). Also, because the elite consume far more, they benefit more from lower prices made possible by lack of adequate pollution controls. Further, they are also better able to avoid suffering the harmful health consequences of pollution by living and working in relatively pollution-free environments.

The second dynamic is that high inequality sets off a consumption arms race. The ultra-rich, in a struggle for the very pinnacle of status, buy ostentatious luxury goods such as jewelry, expensive cars, yachts, private jets, and McMansions. Everyone below, in an attempt to maintain their relative social standing feels compelled to ratchet up their own consumption, often reducing savings, going into debt, and working longer hours to do so.

This struggle for status through consumption is especially strong in the United States where there is a strong belief that upward mobility is possible, and anyone can move up if they only put forth the effort. If they become rich, they deserve it and if they wind up poor, it's their own fault. Because how hard people work is not typically available for others to see, a high level of consumption can serve as a proxy for hard work. Workers are encouraged to accept less fulfilling jobs for better-paying ones to enable more consumption.

Arguably we face today the greatest challenge in the history of our species -- avoiding making our habitat inhospitable to human life. Unless inequality can be reduced and political power more democratized, it is difficult to muster confidence that we'll succeed. In Collapse, Jared Diamond reminds us that in past civilizations elites pursued their own immediate self-interest even when they had before them the evidence of severe environmental devastation, their civilization's decline, and thus the long-run ruin of the foundations upon which their own privileges and livelihoods depended. And today, the challenge facing humanity appears far more daunting than that facing the individual civilizations studied by Diamond. As he put it, "The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth's photosynthetic capacity."

Democracy, then, is key and it is inversely related to inequality. An international study has found that, controlling for per capita income, a more equal distribution of political power, as gauged by degree of political democracy, civil rights, and literacy, correlates with higher environmental quality. In another study of the 50 American states, a more equal distribution of political power correlates with stronger environmental policies.

On the bright side, inequality is getting increasing attention. More and more people are coming to realize what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger has richly demonstrated: more unequal societies score lower on practically every measure of quality of life. Might this realization lead to political action that will reduce inequality, increase democracy, and open the potential for measures that will halt humanity's rush toward ecocide?