Leverage Point 4: Inequalities
Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.
Many sustainability initiatives, policies, and laws targeted at protecting and conserving the environment seldom consider the social implications of such outcomes. While social inequalities are often thought of as a separate and discrete issue from sustainability, they are actually closely interconnected.
Social equality and equity are closely intertwined with environmental protection. For example, while excess wealth yields unsustainable consumption, excess poverty triggers unsustainable forms of resource extraction. Thus, it is not only our moral obligation as fellow humans but our duty as inhabitants of this Earth to address inequalities in the path towards sustainability.
Inequality consists of many dimensions including (but not limited to) income, race, and gender, which play a role in the growth rate of populations and influence environmental factors, such as natural resource management and carbon emissions. These inequalities are often a direct result of systems that unequally distribute wealth based on power and control over resources. With their access to finite resources dwindling and an increasing world demand for ‘economical’ alternatives, nations make use of ‘cheap’ labour. This practice often results in the exploitation of disadvantaged peoples and communities. Moreover, powerful groups with vested interests in the status quo have helped establish barriers to the fair allocation of resources, such as high monetary costs, stringent laws, lack of access to technology and an unequal distribution of power.
Income inequalities leading to poverty are of particular significance. Poverty tends to yield more environmentally detrimental methods of resource extraction and the overexploitation of scarce resources. When people are living hand to mouth, they often don’t have the needed options or technologies to act more sustainably, so who can blame them for unsustainable bushmeat and firewood harvest?
Income inequalities often go hand-in-hand with racial inequalities, laying the foundation for a rigid social structure with little opportunity for growth and mobility. Racialized communities are often disproportionately exposed to industrial activities, and thereby experience heightened adverse social, economic, and health impacts caused by local pollution and environmental degradation. These ordeals are exacerbated by systemic barriers to wealth, employment, and education, which can reduce their capacity (capital, access to resources, access to technology, etc.) to address these negative impacts.
Advancing gender equity is deeply interconnected with environmental sustainability. Income inequalities together with gender inequalities tend to yield high rates of human population growth, a key contributor to total consumption (see Leverage Point 2, Total Consumption). On a global scale, women are more likely to rely on natural resources for their livelihood and are therefore especially vulnerable to the impacts of ecosystem degradation. Their inclusion in resource management is key, and their vast knowledge of local environments can help enhance outcomes (see Leverage Point 5, Justice and Inclusion in Decision Making).
Addressing inequalities requires economic and systemic reforms, which can be achieved in a few different ways. One is through increasing the availability of jobs in sustainable development to disadvantaged peoples and communities. This would provide not only much needed income opportunities, but also transition the economic dependency away from detrimental resource extraction and more towards sustainable alternatives. Beyond creating traditional ‘green jobs’, advancing equality also requires increasing the availability of paid work that supports and improves the well-being of both people and environment, e.g., work in the care sector, education, and other jobs that are not primarily profit-motivated. It is also necessary for this to be accompanied by stronger protection regulations for workers.
Also vital is reforming harmful subsidies or structures to welfare benefits that have historically benefited the rich via ‘elite capture’, in which the wealthy and privileged exploit the bureaucratic system to reap disproportionate benefits from public goods and services (see Lever 1, Change Incentives). In other words, the wealthy can often take advantage of subsidies intended to improve an industry as a whole, instead funneling the funds straight into their own pockets and negating any potential benefits to workers. This drives inequalities and allows for further exploitation and corruption to occur.
Furthermore, laws and policies need to recognize the interconnectedness of inequalities and environmental degradation to write policies specifically geared towards reducing these target issues (see Lever 3, Strengthening Environmental Law).
Overall, when pushing for systemic changes, it is necessary to strive for equity instead of merely equality as not everyone's circumstances and needs are the same. Equality refers to the distribution of resources equally between people(s) whereas equity is the distribution of resources based on one's particular needs. It is crucial for a reformed system to recognize the differing situations that people face and work to allocate resources accordingly with the goal of providing fair and just outcomes.
It is also important to note that much of the unsustainable activity undertaken by developing or least developed nations is done so out of necessity, as limited viable alternatives are currently present. This is oftentimes remnant of historical colonialism and oppression, and its ongoing expression in today’s international political economy. The current economic system’s disproportionate favouring of the wealthy and powerful leaves many low-income people and nations with no other choice, and thus reinforces the necessity for systemic reformation.