One integrated struggle, as Pope Francis says. Reflections on growing inequality and its effect on people and the environment

February 2, 2019

From Rev. Peter Sawtell and Eco-Justice Ministries (of the Sisters of Loretto and others), building on Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkenson’s work – three decades of research…

The November 2018 issue of Scientific American has four articles under the heading of “The Science of Inequality

The Crisis of Economic Inequality.” The US has the highest levels of economic inequality among developed countries — and it is getting worse. Joseph Stiglitz — writing the lead article in a November, 2018 Scientific American report on “The Science of Inequality” — highlighted one of the most dramatic details from the most recent 40 years.

Whereas the income share of the top 0.1 percent has more than quadrupled and that of the top 1 percent has almost doubled, that of the bottom 90 percent has declined. … In fact, for those with high school education or less, incomes have fallen over recent decades.

Stiglitz identifies many interlocking factors that cause such inequality: the shift from manufacturing to a service-based economy; attacks on unions (now representing only about 11% of US workers); weak corporate governance that allows obscene levels of compensation for executives (CEOs earning 361 times as much as average workers); and tax policies that favor the rich. He writes of a feedback loop, where economic inequality leads to political inequality, allowing those with wealth to increase their advantages.

While those with wealth tend to find advantage in their wildly disproportionate share, global research suggests that the US economy as a whole is damaged by this state of affairs. The trend toward greater inequality degrades our national health and prosperity.

Robert Sapolsky, writing about “The Health-Wealth Gap” in the same SciAm report, shows that inequality — not just poverty — has terrible social and health implications.

While poverty is bad for your health, poverty amid plenty — inequality — can be worse by just about any measure: infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more. Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.

Inequality also affects the rich, in what one economist calls the “secession of the wealthy,” as they try to insulate themselves from the stresses of such a divided society. “They spend more of their own resources on gated communities, private schools, bottled water and expensive organic food. And they give lots of money to politicians who will help them maintain their status.”

Such a highly unequal and sharply divided society leads to a breakdown of trust, and diminished social cohesion. When many people have given up hope, there’s also a rising number of “deaths by despair” related to alcoholism, drug overdoses and suicides.

Economic inequality creates countless personal tragedies, and it reveals the presence of societal injustice. An ethical perspective that gives any attention at all to a “preferential option for the poor” should be unwilling to accept such a situation. Indeed, in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has a significant section condemning global inequality.

The research on inequality is disturbing, but it also offers very clear evidence that doing the right thing brings many benefits — individually, socially and globally. Communities with greater income equality rank far better on measures of human and social health.

A 2009 book, “The Spirit Level” compares the Index of Health and Social Problems with measures of inequality for the world’s developed countries. A graph shows that the nations with low income inequality (Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden are at the bottom) have some of the lowest measurements of problems. A rising trend line on the a graph shows the UK and Portugal toward the upper end, with both higher inequality and deeper problems. The US sits way above the trend line for both factors.

A parallel study has been done looking at US states, with generally comparable results. States with low income inequality (such as Alaska, Utah, Wisconsin and Vermont) also tend to have low scores on the Index of Health and Social Problems. The states with the highest problem scores (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) are also very high on income inequality.

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.”

Number 10 of the UN Sustainable Development 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.

There are some political initiatives in the US House and Senate to make major changes in tax laws. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is proposing a “wealth tax” that would impose a 1 percent surtax on billion-dollar-plus fortunes. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated a 70 percent tax on annual income over $10 million. The political debate on these ideas may give some indication of whether the US is serious about dealing with the inequalities of income, wealth and political power.