Is Inequality Bad for the Environment?

Is Inequality Bad for the Environment?

James K Boyce. April 2007. Working Paper #135, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst. (15 pages of text not including notes)

“The irony was inescapable and terrible: In a land where they lived lightly on the earth, the poor themselves were regarded as pollution.” (p.3)

The idea that a Blue-Green political coalition is feasible and/or desirable rests, I would argue, on the notions that environmental policy can be separated out from other policy, and that meaningful environmental gains can be had without addressing the fundamental structures of our capitalist societies and economies.

Unfortunately for those who would like to avoid the ugliness of power, social injustice, and conflict (perhaps while wandering in a pristine wilderness not peopled by indigenous peoples or other humans), such notions are not very plausible.

In this paper, James Boyce provides theoretical analysis and empirical evidence to support the contention that social and political inequalities among humans are harmful for the environment, and that efforts to address those inequalities need to go hand-in-hand with efforts to protect the natural world.

Boyce suggests (p.4) that when we analyse activities that cause environmental harm, we can ask three basic questions:
1. Who benefits from the activities that cause the harm?
2. Who suffers environmental harm from the activities?
3. Why is the first group able to impose harm on the second group?

In summary, the answer to the questions is:
1. Disproportionately, rich humans.
2. Disproportionately, the poor, future generations, and non-humans.
3. Because purchasing power and political power are disproportionately in the hands of the rich.

Abstract: By respecting nature’s limits and investing in nature’s wealth, we can protect and enhance the environment’s ability to sustain human well-being. But how humans interact with nature is intimately tied to how we interact with each other. Those who are relatively powerful and wealthy typically gain disproportionate benefits from the economic activities that degrade the environment, while those who are relatively powerless and poor typically bear disproportionate costs. All else equal, wider political and economic inequalities tend to result in higher levels of environmental harm. For this reason, efforts to safeguard the natural environment must go hand-in-hand with efforts to achieve more equitable distributions of power and wealth in human societies. Globalization – the growing integration of markets and governance worldwide – today poses new challenges and new opportunities for both of these goals.


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