The rich, the poor and the earth

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The rich, the poor and the earth

Equality is important for health and happiness. Surprising new data shows that it is also better for the environment. In the more equal rich countries, people mostly buy and use less, produce less waste and less carbon. By Danny Dorling.

Maybe the most important benefit of the equality effect is that it makes us do things that don’t damage the environment so much. This information is new. We can see this by looking at the 25 richest countries in the world – where the levels of inequality are different.

We can look at the difference between what the top 10% and the bottom 10% earn. The most unequal is the US and the most equal is Denmark.


How does this affect the environment? We will look at four areas here: waste; CO2 emissions; eating meat; and transport.

1/ World leaders in waste

Most of what you buy goes in the bin. We can’t keep everything forever. When you buy something, you don’t think about throwing it away. But you will throw away almost everything. Maybe you recycle some things, but recycling is not always efficient, and it uses a lot of energy and produces more pollution. It’s much better not to buy things you don’t need. But this is difficult in a world where adverts make you buy these things.

In this chart, the countries are the size of their population. The vertical side is about the environment – the countries higher up produce more waste. They should all be in a line from the bottom left to the top right. There are some countries that don’t fit – Denmark and Switzerland – maybe because they get more information about their waste than other countries.


Economic inequality and Waste Production (domestic), 2009-13 the richest 10% and the poorest 10% (the countries to the right are more unequal)

More unequal countries usually produce more waste - we would see this even more if the 50 US states were in separate smaller circles. In Japan people generally buy and throw away half as much as people in the US – of everything!

There is a lot of pressure in unequal countries to buy the things other people (especially important people) have, especially with clothes, fashion and new cars. Society tells us to improve and have a better life; not to help the world, but to buy more things. A good job is not a job that helps society, but a job that pays you well.

2/ Equality and carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most damaging form of pollution. People who live in the US produce more CO2 than any other of the 25 rich countries in our list. The US produces almost twice as much CO2 per person as Japan, and more than three times that of France.

In general, the more unequal a rich country is, the more CO2 it produces. But some countries do better. For example, the UK produces less because it uses natural gas from the North Sea and has used the coal that was easiest to mine; 75 per cent of France’s electricity production comes from nuclear power – this produces less CO2 but creates radioactive waste that lasts much longer. But Australia mines and burns a lot more coal (and also a lot of uranium).


The average amount of emissions of someone in the poorest 10 per cent of the global population is 60 times less than that of someone in the richest 10 per cent.

In 2015, Oxfam, together with economists like Thomas Piketty, made a report about why some countries produced so much more than others.

They found that economic inequality makes people buy and use more in rich countries. This is because richer people usually waste more energy, heat their homes more than they need to, drive more than they need to in bigger cars that use a lot more petrol, take more flights and need more cement and other materials to build buildings that are bigger than they need. Also, they buy and throw away more.

So if you are very rich, money is not a problem and you want other people to see you spending it. In a more equal country, people are usually more careful, public transport is better, and people don’t feel they have to be and do the same as people above them so much.

Half the CO2 emissions in the world from individual lifestyles come from things the richest 10% of people do. These people live more in the most unequal countries.

3/ The problem of eating meat

Eating a lot of meat is not good for you or the planet. If we grow crops to feed animals to eat, we need to grow a lot more than if we simply eat the crops. So a country is less environmentally friendly if the people eat more meat.

Most of the animal life on our planet is now produced on intensive farms. The animals produce a lot of greenhouse gases in their short lives. Cows are the worst. The most common bird on the planet is now the domestic chicken – we only have so many because so many of us in the rich world are now so used to eating cheap meat.

The next chart below shows that the more unequal countries (size = population) usually eat more meat. Again, a few countries do not fit – eg. Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa, maybe because their cultural histories are closely related to sheep and cattle farms and their high levels of meat production.


Economic inequality and meat eating (not fish), 2011 The richest 10% to the poorest 10% (countries more to the right are more unequal). 82 points = eating about one beef steak a day all year

Our great-grandparents did not eat much meat, and chicken was often for Christmas Day and some Sundays. Eating more meat has not made us healthier. In some countries we are now eating so much that many people are obese (too fat). Obesity is much higher in rich countries that are more unequal. This could be because the poor people in these countries have to eat cheap fast food – adverts put pressure on them, and fast food often uses lower-quality meat. It could also be because people in more equal countries usually have more education, so they can see how bad it is to advertise fast food and eat too much.

We don’t know yet why, but we do know that people in more unequal countries in general eat more meat per person by weight. Where there is more equality, there is less obesity and less meat eating, and the world needs people to eat less meat to protect the soil and biodiversity and cut greenhouse gas production.


('at least we're helping the world')

Cartoon by Ella Furness

4/ Transport: breathing in bad air

We use cars and other transport too much. This produces a lot of CO2 and other damaging gases eg. carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. This pollutes the air we all breathe. Three of the richest 25 countries are extreme: the US, Canada and Australia. Population is not dense and there is often a long way to drive from home to work. But they chose to organize their cities like this. Inequality affected this because people believed that the individual is more important than society and ‘the car is king’.

The UK, Singapore and Israel use less petrol / gasolene - this shows that very unequal countries do not have to use so much. These three countries have big cities that can only work with good public transport eg. underground trains, buses and trams. No equal rich country uses more than half as much gasoline per person as Canada and the US do each year. We will all have to use a lot less fossil fuel soon. It will be much easier to do this in a country that understands that we need to develop good public transport that does not pollute much.

We can also see how equality affects the environment when we look at the rich and poor inside different countries. Oxfam found (in the December 2015 report) that the richest 10% in the US produced more pollution than everyone else: about 50 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. The top 10 % in Canada were the next most polluting, followed by the British, Russian and South African top 10% - you can see this the graph below. In more equal rich countries eg. South Korea, Japan, France, Italy and Germany, the rich pollute less, and also average pollution is lower because the poorest half of the population in those societies also pollute less (even though they have more money) than the poorest half of the population in the US, Canada or Britain. The equality effect is clearly also an environmental effect. The poor pollute less when they have more money and the rich pollute less when they have less money.

Or we could look at something simple like how many people cycle or walk to work in each country: 50 per cent (in the Netherlands) to less than 5 per cent (in the US).

Everything is connected. People are fatter in the US because they eat more food; because they sit in cars more often and for longer; because they see more advertising and eat more and so buy more cars; because they are more afraid of crime and so they are afraid of not walking/ cycling; and because they see other obese people, so they don’t feel unusual if they are fat. But behind all of these is the basic difference in equality.

It is important to people to know their rank. If you pay them a lot more than other people, they lose respect and empathy for poorer people because they think they are important. If there is less difference between rich and poor, people see that they are like others. Then they fight for cycle routes, pavements to walk on, good public transport, and to be able to live near where they work. The equality effect influences almost everything we do and so much about us.


The equality effect: emission of pollution by income group in selected rich nations, 20152

Lake Suwa

In 1443 Shinto priests who lived on the edge of Lake Suwa in Japan began to write down the date when the lake froze in winter and when the temperature changes created a ridge of ice across the top of the lake. They believed that the feet of the gods made the ridge when they walked over the lake. So they wrote down the date every day.

In the first 250 years, the lake didn’t freeze three times. Between 1955 and 2004 it didn’t freeze more than 12 times. Between 2005 and 2014 it didn’t freeze more than five times: one year freezing, one year not freezing. Since 2014 it has not frozen. There are many different records of global warming, but the Lake Suwa records are the longest and clearest.

Since the late 1970s, the 25 rich countries in this article have started to separate into different levels of economic inequality. Because of this, some natural experiments have started which let us research the effects of these differences.

The first conclusion from these natural experiments is that the countries that are more equal economically are generally better for the environment. When we know why this is and how much inequality is bad for both the environment and society, we will see how important it is to change.


Do you want to know more? Get The Equality Effect book by Danny Dorling:

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).