How Inequality Increases Environmental Damage for Everyone (But Not Equally)

James Boyce of PERI discusses how inequalities in power encourage the creation of environmental damage. Inequality disempowers some communities while allowing the powerful to profit at the environment’s and everyone else’s expense

How Inequality Increases Environmental Damage for Everyone (But Not Equally)

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

It is generally known that inequality and pollution are closely connected. One connection is indicated with the concept of NIMBY, which stands for Not In My Backyard, and expresses the idea that environmentally polluting projects are usually pushed into communities that suffer from poverty and other social problems because wealthy communities can effectively stop such projects from being built in their communities.

A study that was recently published in the magazine Scientific American, however, has found that inequality not only determines how pollution and environmental damage are distributed, inequality also plays a role in how much environmental damage is created overall. In other words, the greater the inequality in society, the greater the environmental damage. The article is titled The Environmental Costs of Inequality, and was written by James Boyce of PERI, the Political Economic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Professor James Boyce joins us now from Amherst. Thanks for joining us today, James.

JAMES BOYCE: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So what is the link between inequality and environmental damage?

JAMES BOYCE: Well, the way to get a handle on that link is to first realize that when we’re talking about environmental damage we’re not only talking about people damaging nature. We’re also talking about people harming other people. And so we can think about the relationships among people as having something to do with how much damage, and when that damage occurs or doesn’t occur.

So whenever we encounter a case of environmental degradation, of pollution, or natural resource depletion, we can ask ourselves three basic questions. The first is who is it who benefits from these activities that degrade the environment? If no one was benefiting they wouldn’t be happening. The second is who’s harmed by these activities? If nobody’s being harmed, it wouldn’t be a problem, at least from the standpoint of human wellbeing. And thirdly, why is it that those who benefit from these environmentally harmful activities are able to impose these costs on others?

Those are the three basic questions that set us up for understanding how inequality plays a role. Because when we asked why some people are able to impose these costs on others, the answers have to do with inequalities of wealth and power between those who were creating the environmental problems, and those who were on the receiving end of the environmental harms that occur as a result. In some cases that’s because the people who are being harmed are in future generations who aren’t here to defend themselves. In some cases it’s because the people who are being harmed don’t really know what’s going on. They may know their kids are getting sick, but they don’t know why. And in some cases–many cases, in fact–the people being harmed are here today, they know what’s going on, but they simply don’t have the power, the political power or the purchasing power, to prevail in contests over what should and should not be done in our use and abuse of the environment.

So the basic story, then, is that in a situation where you have bigger inequalities of power, and inequalities of wealth that go hand in hand with inequalities of power, you tend to have wider disparities between those who are imposing the costs and those who are on the receiving end of the costs, and therefore you tend to get more environmental degradation because the beneficiaries of those activities can get away with it.

GREG WILPERT: So, you looked into the research on this. So what’s the evidence for this linkage that greater inequality in the distribution of wealth and power leads to greater environmental harm?

JAMES BOYCE: Great question. There’s been an accumulation of a fair amount of evidence on this now at multiple levels. So those include at the international level, at the level of the U.S. states, and at the community level.

At the international level there have been a number of studies that look at various indicators of environmental degradation, like biodiversity loss, or air pollution, or water pollution, and try to understand why countries differ in the extent of those environmental harms. And those studies very often find that one of the most important things affecting the levels of environmental degradation is inequality; inequality in the distribution of income and inequality in the distribution of political power. So we can see that at the international level, and I cite a few of those studies in the Scientific American article which you alluded to earlier.

At the level of the 50 U.S. states, colleagues and I did a study–this goes back almost two decades, now–where we looked at variations across the states in the strength of environmental policies, and in environmental quality that was related to those different policies. And we asked the question, is it the case that states where there are bigger disparities of power tend to have weaker environmental policies? We thought there might be, but we wanted to test that idea statistically. And so we developed an index of power inequality which was based on data on the fairness of the tax system, Medicaid access, the share of adults having completed at least a high school education, and voter participation rates. And when we looked at the relationship between that composite measure of power inequality and the strength of state environmental policies, we found very, very strong evidence that the greater the inequality in the distribution of power, lower voter participation, fewer adults with a high school education, et cetera, the less stringent were environmental policies. And as a result, the worse environmental quality became, and the worse public health became as a result of that.

So there’s evidence at that level, too. And then, finally, at the community level we can see evidence that in metropolitan areas in the United States, for example, that have higher levels of disproportionate impacts of pollution on racial and ethnic minorities on people of color, often those are places that also have higher levels of segregation; residential housing segregation based on race and ethnicity. We find higher levels of pollution, not only for the people who are at the lower end of that socioeconomic ladder, so to speak, but for everybody. Even for the white folks living in these areas there tends to be more pollution than in the case where there is less disparity and less segregation.

So in all these cases the evidence seems to be consistent with the basic hypothesis, which is that where inequality in the distribution of wealth and power is great, environmental problems are also going to be big.

GREG WILPERT: So this actually touches on the next question, which is how, actually, do your findings connect to the issue of environmental justice?

JAMES BOYCE: Well, environmental justice, especially in the United States where the term was coined, I believe, primarily deals with the disproportionate impacts of pollution and other kinds of environmental harms on people of color and on low-income people, including low-income white folks. And there’s a wealth of evidence now that systematically those who have lower than average incomes and communities that have higher than average percentages of African Americans and Latinos, Native Americans, tend to have greater pollution exposure and experience more environmental harm. We can also see those environmental disparities in fast motion, so to speak, when we look at what happens during natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina was a real object lesson in environmental justice, because we know that the whole city got hit by the hurricane, and yet the people who died were predominantly low-income and predominantly African American.

So those disparities are well documented. And if that’s the case, as I’ve suggested, that the patterns and extent of environmental degradation have to do with disparities of power between the beneficiaries and those on the receiving end of environmental harms, this is exactly the kind of pattern we would expect. So what we can expect is that environmental harms aren’t going to be distributed randomly across the population. It’s not like rain that just falls, you know, indiscriminately on everybody’s houses. No. It’s specific. It’s targeted. Obviously not perfectly targeted, but there are disproportionately high exposures to environmental harms on the part of those who have the least power and the least wealth with which to resist that imposition.

GREG WILPERT: Now, if more inequality leads to more environmental degradation, and if more environmental degradation leads to more environmental harm, are things just going to go from bad to worse? And are we caught in a kind of death spiral from which there is no escape?

JAMES BOYCE: That’s a great question, too. And there’s always a danger. These things are, as you say, mutually reinforcing. And if we have more inequality, we’re going to get more environmental harm. That’s going to produce more inequality as it damages people’s health, and income opportunities, and so on. On the other hand, we could have a virtuous circle where we get less inequality and less environmental harm that in turn produces less inequality, and so on.

So the question is, is it possible to turn these from vicious circles into virtuous circles? And if political economy said there was no way we could turn those around, it would be a dismal science, indeed. But the reality is, of course, that throughout history we’ve learned the lesson that people can and do change the way that societies operate. They do so by changing balances of power within society. So if we think about the history of our own country, if we think long term, we think back to the abolition of slavery, or if we think back to the movement which gave women the right to vote, or if we think in the beginning of the ’70s and environmental legislation that came after that, none of those things just happened. They didn’t just fall from the sky. They happened as a result of really active mobilization on the part of the public demanding change, demanding action. And that is what change balances of power and change our outcomes.

And so I think we can be inspired by that history. We can learn from that history, and we can build on it. And in trying to address the widening inequalities that we experience today and the environmental degradation that we experience today we can take a certain amount of heart from the fact that people confronted challenges equally great, if not greater, in the past, and they’ve prevailed. They’ve overcome those challenges. And if we get together, we can do it, too.

GREG WILPERT: Now, finally, for my last point, or question, do you see a link between your research and climate change? That is, you know, just recently the U.S. government released an interagency report on climate change–which the White House, by the way, is trying to ignore as best as it can. And this report shows a clear danger that climate change represents for the U.S., but it doesn’t relate it to the issue of inequality. Now, if you were to extrapolate from your findings on inequality and environmental damage, how would it relate to the issue of climate change?

JAMES BOYCE: Yeah, I think the connections are certainly there. And unfortunately, they’ll become more and more apparent as the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent. So first, of course, what we already are seeing and we’ll see more of is the fact that the impacts of climate change, the harms that that inflicts on people, will, again, not be randomly distributed across the population. It’ll hit hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable populations both at home and around the world. And we can already see that, as we saw in Hurricane Katrina, insofar as that was an early warning of the kinds of patterns that, unfortunately, could become more and more frequent in the future if we don’t act.

Also, we can see linkages in terms of how inequality on a global scale and inequality within countries leads to more use of fossil fuels and exacerbates the problem of climate change. At a global level, the fact, of course, is that the countries that have done the most to contribute to the problem of climate change, have benefited the most from using fossil fuels, are at the opposite end of the cost spectrum from the countries that will feel the worst impacts. The worst impacts, the climate models tell us, will be in sub-Saharan Africa and in coastal areas of South and Southeast Asia. In other words, in places that are home to some of the poorest people in the world. And so the people are going to bear the worst impacts from this are the people who’ve done the least to create the problem.

Also, when we look internally at the dynamics within countries, there is some evidence–although the evidence on this is still, I would say, not conclusive–that countries with more inequality tend to have more carbon emissions, more fossil fuel use. And one can think of various reasons why that might happen. One of which is that when we burn fossil fuels we not only emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, but also a host of other toxic pollutants; sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, et cetera, et cetera. And these things are negatively impacting people within the country here and now, and where the power disparities are greater it’s easier to get away with befouling the air that other people breathe.

So that’s one of the connections. Another possible connection, some have hypothesized, is that there’s a kind of keeping up with the Joneses mentality which is exacerbated by inequality and widening inequality, and that stimulates people to consume more and more fossil fuels, among other things. There could be a variety of ways in which this connection operates between inequality within communities and within nations and the level of carbon emissions, as well as the more obvious way it operates internationally.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to James Boyce of the Political Economic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Thanks again, James, for having joined us today.

JAMES BOYCE: Thanks again for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network. If you like news stories such as this one, please keep in mind that we have started our winter fundraiser and need your help to reach our goal of raising $400,000. Every dollar that you donate will be matched. And unlike practically all other news outlets, we do not accept support from governments or corporations. Please do what you can today.