Inequality Costs The Earth
As inequality grows, so does its impact on people. You can clearly see that in the archaeological and historical record. The first evidence of environmental degradation due to human activity is not associated with agriculture (as was widely assumed) but with the emergence of intensely unequal, aristocratic societies in the eastern Mediterranean around 5,000 years ago.
The same sites also reveal the human health problems associated with inequality. Ordinary people had five times more dental lesions than their rulers and were up to four per cent shorter. 'An average Bronze Age male farmer from the eastern Mediterranean would stand 167 cm (5 feet, 6 inches); 6 cm shorter than his ruler and 10 cm shorter than his hunting ancestors.'(l)
This pattern of inequality, depletion of natural resources and human immiseration is common in early-modern European history, helping explain the rise of capitalism in northern Italy and the Low Countries, and culminating in the spectacular exodus of European poor to the Americas and Australasia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1914, the average British army conscript was 12.7 cm (5 inches) shorter than the average officer.(2) Europeans have only regained their hunter-gatherer stature in the last two or three generations - thanks to cheap fossil fuels and intensified exploitation of the rest of the world.
This knowledge is new. Epidemiological studies began in earnest in the 1970s but the archaeological evidence only started to emerge in the 1980s. So it is little wonder that the penny has taken a little while to drop - especially when one reflects on how deeply and forcefully we have all been acculturated, over scores of generations, to accept inequality.
1 Martin Jones, Feost: why humons shore food, Oxford University Press, 2007.
2 Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britoin, Macmillan, 2007.
[18 NEW INTERNATIONALIST JUNE 2010]Bristol spends vastly more money on secondary education than does similar-sized Sheffield, because it has an extraordinary number of private secondary schools. Sheffield has hardly any. Yet both cities send almost identical numbers of children to university.
Actually, to call these things 'private' is misleading: they have massive public impacts. A 'private' housing development dominates and diminishes the lives of everyone it excludes, or who even tries to conduct their life in its vicinity. Private helicopters intrude on the lives of millions (especially in hotspots )f inequality like Sâo Paulo, which has more private helicopters than Manhattan). These things are unlike genuine privace goods (such as a meal, decent clothing or a good night's sleep) whose enjoyment affects only the person enjoying them.
Hirsch observes that even good A-levels (a British secondary school graduation diploma) are 'positional goods' when the supply of plum jobs (like a doctor or a lawyer) is rescricted. Decent marks are no longer adequate - you need straight As plus interesting extra-curricular accomplishments to get into the best universicies. And the education that provides these opportunities itself becomes positional. especially when an élite private sector dominates it. Hence the Bristol taxi-driver who works double shifts from the time his daughter is two years old to get her into one of that city's five private all-girls schools - adding two extra tonnes of C02 to the atmosphere every year and wearing himself out in the process. He is not necessarily driven by crude ambition, but by fear for his daughter if she has to attend the disparaged local secondary school.
But being a doctor should not be a prize for which people fight each other: the more good doctors, the better, surely. This is the approach taken in Cuba where doctors come to you rather than you to them. His or her carbon footprint is about the same size as everyone else's. They are not a species of aristocracy, yet the profession still has no difficulty attracting recruits. And Cuba achieves almost the same health outcomes as the US - for a twentieth of the expenditure. While this may be bad for GOP, it's certainly good for the planet.
Housing is possibly the most ridiculous positional 'good' of all. Dorling's 2007 study, Poverty, Wealth and Place in Britain, 1968 to 2005, showed how the 'exclusive rich' must now compete for diminishing numbers of desirable house locations at a huge energy cost to society. Extra hours must be worked to secure the same amount of housing (two salaries instead of one); extra journeys must be made as 'islands' of respectability and safety become smaller and more isolated. Jobs are also more separated from where people live. In unequal countries (and even more so on this increasingly unequal planet) work of all kinds has been relocated to suit the rich.
Within countries this means more time must be spent commuting and cars must be more reliable and safer. There has been a 20 per cent increase in the size of automobiles in the US since 1985(4), plus a vast increase in their numbers and a tripling of commuting time between 1983 and 2003.
Globally it means more migration: the bravest and ablest embark on trials and journeys that rival Odysseus wherever there are borders berween rich and poor. Internationally there are thought to be about 300 million migrants (and this does not include the hundreds of millions of 'internal' migrants, especially in China). They are the 'dark matter' of the neoliberal universe, without which no budget would ever balance - 'ragged-trousered philanthropists' working almost for nothing, doing the work the poor in the rich countries refuse because it doesn't pay enough to survive. There are three-quarters of a million illegal migrants in Britain alone, trapped by draconian anti-immigrant laws. This system has led to a lucrative revival of slavery, debt-bondage and death through overwork - not to mention the increasingly acceptable racism that keeps the whole structure standing.
Prioritize public goods, outlaw inequality and open the borders
In Hirsch's analysis, 'positionality' supercedes older and more limited notions of private and public wealth, and embraces what the 19th century English social critic John Ruskin called 'illth'. The opposite of a positional good might be a public good, which en riches everyone's life no matter who owns it. Or a private good, whose consumption is an entirely private matter, affecting nobody else - things like warm clothes, de cent food, leisure, creative activities and personal relationships. Private fortunes, on the other hand, have broad social impacts, as does the industrial 'private sector'.
Clean water, good schools, libraries, theatres, cafés, parks and public transport are clearly public goods - and the planet and its people need more of them. Yet no country has ever pursued an economic policy informed by this concept of maximizing public good while eliminating 'positional goods'. Now is the time.
Above all we need to reduce inequality because this means less competitive and less positional consumption - and less of almost any type of social morbidity you care to name, from homicide to obesity.
We could do this rapidly: the British government did it during World War Two with great popular support. Cronsumption fell to a fraction of its peacetime level - yet public health made its greatest advance of any period in British history. Central to this project is the opening of all international borders. Instead of properly defining zones of responsibility, borders are now essentiaIly a means of separating rich from poor, 'us' from 'them'. The obscenity of EU and US border fortifications against the world's poor (and the cancerous network of agencies and commercial interests serving them) is a terminal symptom of the divisive malaise the societies they pretend to protect have harboured for far too long: the divisions of class.
The automobilization of Swindon
Some of the most powerful mechanisms driving 'positional ç:onsumption' seem to happen just outside our peripheral vision. For example, in Britain many banks, insurance companies and building societies moved their headquarters out of drab town centres to new, 'prestigious', out-of-town settings during the 1980s and 1990s. The word 'prestigious' became a stock-epithet in UK advertising copy during that period, reflecting the growing importance of status.
This was partly to accommodate the needs of an enlarged, motorized sales-force (in turn, the consequence of turning pensions into 'positional goods', as private pensions were promoted in opposition to state and job-based pensions).
In one case, in the early 1990s, the Nationwide Building Society moved its headquarters out of central Swindon into a new, steel-and-glass, atrium-style building, amid landscaped car parks, close by the motorway. This meant that several hundred low-paid and mainly female clerical, catering and ancillary staff could no longer travel to work easily by bus, or do family shopping in their lunch-hours. From 1994 to 1997 (when 1 worked there) Nationwide's parking lots gradually became fuller and fuller - mainly with older cars. Executives complained the lots were being tilled up with 'bangers'. Tennis courts and flowerbeds were paved over to make way for them. Even so, the women had to arrive at work earlier and earlier to be sure of getting a place. Low-paid staff had been forced into the automobile economy, to play their part in the monstrous ramping-up of carbon emissions that marked that decade, with impacts that left no corner of the planet untouched.
This saga seems to have been part of a general trend. Amanda Root has found that the number of women with driving licences in Britain jumped by 90 per cent during the 1980s and 1990s. For the tirst time there were as many female drivers as men, but women drove only a fifth as many miles as the men reflecting the same type of car usage, and the low status that went with it.(l)
1 Arthur Halsey and Jo Webb, eds, 'Transport and Communication', Twentieth Century Social Trends, Macmillan, 2000.
Time for anger, not guilt
Climate change is a social justice issue. But till now it has been presented as a problem of collective guilt. 'We' must repent and mend our ways. This spreads the blame in a way that mocks democracy, pretending that the poor and the rich are somehow equally responsible. Meanwhile the real crime - the very existence of rich and poor - continues to create havoc. There are powerful interests who are quite content if social justice stays out of the climate change debate and no doubt will fight tooth and nail to keep it out. There are also climate change activists who care nothing about the rights of their fellow humans, let alone their happiness. But they had better start taking an interest because until the grievous infringemenrs of dignity most of humanity endures are addressed there will be no civilized end to the climate debate.
When people's sense of injustice is engaged, mountains can be moved.
Bob Hughes is a lecturer ar Oxford Brookes Universiry, and a member of 'No One Is Illegal' (www.noii.org.uk)
(1) Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Leve/: why more equal societies almost always do better, Penguin 2009; Richard Wilkinson The Impact of Inequa/ity, Routledge 2005; Vicente Navarro, 'Inequalities Are Unhealthy', Monthly Revi'ew, Volume 56, Number 2,
(2) Personal communication 28 Sept 2007. Sée also Dorling, Injustice: why social inequality persists, Policy Press 2010
(3) James Boyce, 'Is inequality bad for the environment and bad for your health!' Differentakes 8, Spring 2001.
(4) Richard Frank, 'Falling Behind: how rising inequality harms the middle class: University of California Press, 2007
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