Equality and the environment

8th October 2019 ** Updated 6th April 2022 **

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was a groundbreaking book in 2009 which "shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries."

The UK has among the highest levels of economic inequality in the world. In the UK in 2019-2020, 14.5 million / 23% of people, 4.3 million / 31% of children were living in poverty. Inequality is at the heart of social and environmental crises, including plastic pollution, as outlined in this article, ‘The Rich, Poor and the Earth‘, by Oxford University professor Danny Dorling.

Levels of inequality continue to spiral out of control in the wake of Covid-19. Oxfam state in their Inequality Kills report that, "The world’s richest 10 men have seen their fortunes double, while the incomes of 99% of humanity are worse off" and that, "A new billionaire has been created every 26 hours since the pandemic began".

So to deal with social and environmental crises, including plastic pollution, we must put an end to this inequality. Fundamental systemic change is required to deal with the corrupt economic and political systems that have enabled it.

‘Equality matters in terms of health and happiness, but surprising new data reveals that it is also better for the environment; in the more equal rich countries, people on average consume less, produce less waste and emit less carbon.’
- Danny Dorling, Oxford University professor of Human Geography..

The following was kindly written for us in 2019 by Tom Wilkes of the now defunct Swindon Equality Group, who were affiliated with The Equality Trust. Many thanks to Tom and SEG for their work and dedication.

The Spirit Level book cover

Economic inequality is often in the news. Even at Davos, executives acknowledged that inequality is a major problem, one that is fuelling the populist backlash. Some might believe that economic inequality only matters to the poor but the gap between the richest and the poorest in a country damages everyone. It is not just those at the bottom, the gap damages those at the top, too.

People living in countries which are less equal in economic terms do worse across a range of social and health-related issues than countries which are similar but more equal. Rates of divorce, mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, life expectancy and crime are all increased. The poorest may suffer the most but economic inequality also afflicts the affluent. Everybody is affected either directly or indirectly.

Thanks to Wilkinson and Pickett and their book The Spirit Level we know where the UK stands in terms of economic inequality. In a world ranking of developed nations in terms of the gap between the richest and the poorest in society the UK is among the most unequal. When the gap between the 20% poorest and 20% most wealthy were compared in 2011 the UK was the third worst; only Portugal and the USA ranked higher. The gap has narrowed a little since then but the more affluent in the UK have, on average, seven times that of the less wealthy. In Japan and the Scandinavian countries it is far less unequal, at around four times.

In the UK we now have levels of inequality of wealth not experienced for 100 years. The gap widened specifically over the last four decades, following deliberate political decisions, setting the UK on a path to inequality that most other developed countries did not follow.

Recently Wilkinson and Pickett have published a second book The Inner level where amongst other things they look at how to tackle inequality in order to make the transition to sustainable well-being. First they show how inequality brings out features of our evolved psychology to do with dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority; factors which affect how we treat each other. Inequality increases status competition and insecurity. It increases anxieties about self-worth, and intensifies worries about how we are seen and judged – whether as attractive or unattractive, interesting or boring. The richest people in the UK do have less anxiety than the poorest but the richest people in the UK also report higher anxiety levels than the poorest people in countries where they all enjoy low inequality.

So a more nuanced view of inequality might begin to explain why raising the national income per head does not help to deal with such problems. It is the difference between the richest and poorest in a society, the economic inequality, imposing the greatest impact. In societies where there is greater equality the benefits of superiority diminish, providing us with clues about our own self-worth. For some, inequality creates anxiety, leading to mental illness, while for others this may lead to narcissism – people who ‘big themselves up’ (now who do we know like that?)

Because inequality increases status competition, it also increases consumerism. People in more unequal societies work longer hours because money seems even more important. How do you feel about advertising? It appears now, unwanted, on our digital technology, targeted to suck us in. Advertising has an end goal of course. Money is spent to increase the consumption of goods. But isn’t that a good thing?

We are used to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as measuring the economic health of a nation. Some people have suggested that a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a product of green economics, should replace GDP. Rather than growing the economy we need to grow sustainable well-being. Inequality allied to consumerism provides a threat to sustainability. Twelve years to save the planet anyone? Because inequality harms the quality of social relations (increasing violence, reducing trust, cohesion and involvement in community life), people become more self-interested, less public spirited, less concerned with the common good. A crucial resource if we are to reduce carbon emissions. There is a decline of community life in more unequal societies.

So what can be done about it?

Changes to government and business practice will be at the heart of any improvement. Countries that are less unequal economically have usually achieved this through more progressive taxation. You may not believe it by reading some newspapers but the UK is a low tax nation – at 33.1% of GDP we are 20th out of 28 European countries (only the Eastern European countries are lower). Even the Institute for Fiscal Studies says we need to add at least 1% to stand any chance of ending austerity.

At present the poorest 10 per cent of households pay 8 percentage points more (or about 23% more) of their income in all taxes than the richest 10 per cent – 43% compared to 35%.

The whole world, not just the UK, would benefit from a more rigorous pursuit of tax avoidance and the removal of tax havens. The UK tax gap, the difference between what is owed and what is payed, is now estimated at £100 billion per annum. So why have 30,000 HMRC staffed been sacked over last 10 years?

Company boards that include employees, community and consumer representatives are more likely to make decisions that benefit the environment. You may recall hearing about stronger trade unions and greater company democracy from the party conference season so we might get an opportunity, someday, to vote for people who propose them.

Transforming the experience of work, turning companies from being pieces of property into communities, reducing pay ratios, redistributing wealth and reducing unearned income could become the goal. Those companies who have tried to develop greater economic democracy such as paying the living wage and obtaining the fair tax mark, have revealed increased productivity. Companies become more environmentally and socially responsible through this process.

Different approaches are also being proposed to stimulate the economy.

There is an increasingly robust argument being made on both sides of the Atlantic for a Green New Deal. ‘This includes policies and novel funding mechanisms that will reduce emissions contributing to climate change and allow the world to cope better with the coming energy shortages caused by peak oil. It consists of two main strands. Firstly, it entails a structural transformation of the regulation of national and international financial systems, and major changes to taxation systems. And, second, a sustained programme to invest in and deploy energy conservation and renewable energies, coupled with effective demand management.’

The whole issue of economic inequality can seem overwhelming, let alone when it is allied to environmental issues. How can one person possibly have an impact on governments and big business to bring about the changes that are needed? But an individual person can make a difference for example through pressure groups, making use of crowd sourced funding, supported either through the signing of petitions or with more direct action.

The Equality Trust (TET) was founded following the publication of The Spirit Level. Working through 23 UK organisations, such as the Swindon Equality Group, to improve the quality of life by reducing economic inequality. TET have produced three leaflets recently for action at national, local and personal level.

As an individual it is possible to hold our decision makers to account, it is possible to encourage ethical practice, it is possible to boycott companies that don’t pay tax or if they fund issues that are damaging the planet. Shareholder action is increasing annually. So do join the debate, offer ideas, work together, become informed – read around each topic and ask awkward questions. Actively seeking alternative voices can be difficult but also rewarding and can encourage all of us to transcend current ideology.

Further reading