Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Inequality and the Environment
distributed 2/1/19 - ©2019

Once again this week, I urge you to head to a nearby library, and to spend a little time reading (or photocopying) some important articles from Scientific American.

The November 2018 issue of that journal has four articles under the heading of "The Science of Inequality" -- and I drew heavily on a couple of them in researching last week's Notes, "The Crisis of Economic Inequality." Only the lead article in the series is available for free on-line access, so a library visit may be the best way for you to get the full batch of information.

As promised, this week I'll delve into the topic of the last article in the series, "The Environmental Cost of Inequality," which explains some things that might seem like common wisdom, and which also has some surprising conclusions.

As advocates for eco-justice -- "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth" -- the science of inequality gives strong support to our ethical convictions that ecological health and social/economic justice are essential elements of God's shalom.

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Economics professor James Boyce is the author of that fourth SciAm article. He starts off writing about the 2016 struggle on the Standing Rock reservation, which sought to protect water quality and tribal rights, and to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. He then says:

The battle reflected what seems to be a basic reality: When people who could benefit from using or abusing the environment are economically and politically more powerful than those who could be harmed, the imbalance facilitates environmental degradation. And the wider the inequality, the more the damage. Furthermore, those with less power end up bearing a disproportionate share of the environmental injury.

For many of us who have given any attention to matters of environmental justice, those are not surprising conclusions. It has become almost a truism that environmental harm, including climate impacts, falls most severely on the poor and the marginalized. In many faith circles, the call to action on climate change has been grounded primarily in those disproportionate impacts.

Dr. Boyce helped me to think more broadly, though, with his two decades of research correlating inequality and environmental harm. Whether measured between nations, or within countries, inequality -- not aggregate measures of income -- is a powerful factor in issues as diverse public health and species extinction.

He started to explore this question in 1998. His initial studies found "that countries with lower rates of adult literacy, fewer political rights and civil liberties, and higher income inequality ... tended to have more polluted air and water." A follow-up study looking at US states found that "wider inequality was associated with weaker environmental policies and that weaker policies were associated with more environmental stress and poorer public health."

More recently, other researchers have looked into the linkages between inequality and broader ecological issues. They found that "the proportion of plants and animals threatened with extirpation or extinction is higher in countries with more unequal income distributions. Rates of deforestation are higher in countries with greater corruption." A chart in the article ranks factors linked to species loss. Income inequality is a stronger factor than any of the other social measures: population density, environmental governance, or gross domestic product per capita.

Boyce says, "These findings make sense when we consider that with less inequality, people are better able to defend the air, water and natural resources on which their health and well-being depend. Protecting the environment and reducing inequality go hand in hand."

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Several times in the last few months, I've highlighted one of the major conclusions of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The report stresses that it will be much easier for the world to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C if strong efforts also are made to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

In October, when I first read that statement, I found it surprising (and exciting) that working toward those 17 diverse goals make climate action more viable. The articles on the science of inequality help me to understand the connections. In fact, number 10 of the UN goals is to "reduce inequality within and among countries."

The IPCC scientists wrote: "Sustainable development supports, and often enables, the fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations that help limit global warming to 1.5 C. Such changes facilitate the pursuit of climate-resilient development pathways that achieve ambitious mitigation and adaptation in conjunction with poverty eradication and efforts to reduce inequalities."

Economist Boyce said, "The relation between inequality and the environment is a two-way street. Reducing inequality in the distribution of wealth and power helps to bring about a greener environment. And efforts to advance the right to a clean and safe environment help to bring about greater equality. The key to both is active mobilization for change."

Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si', put it even more succinctly. "We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."

Dealing with that "one complex crisis" on many fronts will move us toward a better world. Societies with less inequality are happier and healthier and more productive. Societies with less inequality have less pollution, and cause lower levels of species extinction. Societies with less inequality are better able to act on climate change.

There are not trade-offs between environmental and social issues. Careful work on these issues has reinforcing effects for human and environmental good. Caring for all of creation brings health and well-being for us all.

Let's make it happen.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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