Inequality and Sustainability

“We should … dethrone the idea that maximising the growth in measured prosperity, GDP per capita, should be an explicit objective of economic and social policy.”
Adair Turner, Chair of the UK Financial Services Authority, 2007

Today I gave a talk at the meeting of the Sustainability Knowledge Alliance and the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) of the UK Parliament at the British Academy in London. The event aimed at discussing the relationship between growing inequality and sustainability. As the meeting’s announcement explains, “in so many ways inequality is a backdrop to many features of modern political, economic and social arrangements where structures of self-reinforcing power and influence combine to buttress non-sustainability. We see this in the lobbying for the perpetuation of a carbon economy, in the promotion of the “war on terror”, and in the huge biases built into the interweaving connections between business, politics, regulation and consumerism.”
In my talk I explained how inequality and a consumption correlate. I looked at the issue mainly from a global perspective, using evidence that Danny Dorling and I compiled to find out to what extent inequality and (un)sustainability correlate. The following series of charts give in insight into how the level of inequality and a range of indicators related to consumerism and consumption compare:

Inequality and the ecological footprint
Inequality and the ecological footprint
Inequality and air travel
Inequality and air travel
Inequality and meat consumption
Inequality and meat consumption
Inequality and water consumption
Inequality and water consumption
Inequality and waste production
Inequality and waste production

I concluded my talk with reflections on whether growth is the ultimate goal to pursue in the wealthy part of the world (see the introductory quote above). As data shows, happiness of societies and income levels are only correlated to a certain level, while it then begins to stagnate once people have achieved a certain standard of living. Inequality then feeds into this: To consume less, you need to feel you have more in common with other people. If success is about having a lot of money, success is about consuming more and wasting more. Consumption by everybody is less in countries where everyone is more equal. All affluent countries need to reduce their levels of consumption by reducing social inequalities. Through their dominance of global media and marketing the rest of the world usually looks up towards richer countries. What example are we providing?

The following slides provide more context and show further data and visualisations (and maps) related to my talk, including some recent findings related to inequality in the United Kingdom and how this relates to the ‘super-rich’ within society:

View on Slideshare

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