Climate Change and Income Inequality

People committed to struggles for peace and justice always have our work cut out for us.  The forces arrayed against us are powerful and determined, and the range of issues and crises demanding action is daunting.  Given our limited time and energy, where and how do we apply them for the common good?  What guides us in deciding?  Life experience and the values we uphold, no doubt, but also our analysis of the present situation.  For me, the two broad concerns that have become most pressing, at least since the economic collapse of 2008, are income inequality and climate change.

These are, of course, twin products of industrial capitalism and its class system.  The rising oceans, killer heat waves, floods, species extinctions, and crop failures we are witnessing on the climate front – like the poverty wages, attacks on labor, bank fraud, malnutrition, and “austerity” in public services on the class front – are inter-related signs of a system in crisis.  Yet the two issues – climate change and income inequality – are rarely linked in a common analysis.

For instance, a recent study by the UK Government Office of Science predicts that, given increasing global population, “by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change.”  Author John Beddington adds, “This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events,” without specifying what those events might be or how they will be exacerbated by unequal distribution of the necessary resources.

The just-published fifth assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goes a bit further, according to The Guardian’s report:

The volume of scientific literature on the effects of climate change has doubled since the last report, and the findings make an increasingly detailed picture of how climate change – in tandem with existing fault lines such as poverty and inequality – poses a much more direct threat to life and livelihood. (my italics)

One study that does make the link explicit comes from the NSF-funded Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in a report titled “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.”  When Nafeez Ahmed wrote about this report in his Earth Insight blog for The Guardian, he touched a nerve regarding our “convergent catastrophes,” and generated a storm of commentary.  The study, Ahmed writes, “highlight[s] the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

The HANDY report begins with a review of past collapses of societies – such as the Roman Empire, Han dynasty, and Mayan civilization – to demonstrate that societal collapse is “a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.”  Collapse typically entails loss of political authority, breakdown of economic systems, and inability to sustain the population.   Not all societies collapse, of course, but in those cited the cycle of “boom and bust” seems to take about 300 – 500 years.

Noting “widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource use are unsustainable,” the authors apply their analysis of such collapses to the question “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible.”  Explanations for particular cases of collapse vary by time and place and include drought, foreign invasion, earthquakes, technological change, famine, and popular uprising.  But across states and cultures that have collapsed over the past 5000 years, the authors find two common features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).”

Using the HANDY theoretical model, the authors analyze interactions between population and natural resources as these tend towards equilibrium or towards collapse, across three scenarios: 1. Egalitarian society without Elites, which can achieve a “soft landing” to equilibrium;2. Equitable society, with Workers and non-Workers (students, retirees, disabled people), which oscillates a bit but can still achieve a negotiated sustainable equilibrium; 3. Unequal society with Elites and Commoners — “most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” – in which,

Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates.  . . .  However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Good luck with that, you might be thinking – but it is the goal!

The HANDY analysis is mathematical and complex, but two significant points emerge clearly.  One is that technological innovation does not reverse the trend towards collapse:  “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”  For example, greater fuel economies for cars can have the “rebound” effect of encouraging people to drive more and faster, in newer cars.  Current “policy effects,” despite occasional “green” tweaking, all tend towards encouraging consumption as a stimulus to economic growth.

The other point addresses the conundrum: do the leaders of the fossil fuel industries, and the politicians who do their legislative bidding, not know that their activities will make the Earth uninhabitable, for themselves as well as the rest of us?  Well, “it is important to note that the Elites – due to their wealth – do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners.  This buffer of wealth allows the Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”   This mechanism, the authors believe, may explain the obliviousness of the elites in the face of the impending Roman and Mayan collapses.  But they got theirs in the end.

Although I’ve been concerned here with scenarios of collapse, I am an optimist, still hopeful that the arc of human history does indeed bend towards justice.  I am also a realist, and I sense that the arc is going to need a mighty shove from those of us who still believe we can shape our history.  The fundamental problem we face, as the HANDY study makes clear, is that a sustainable equilibrium of population and resources is incompatible with business as usual under industrial capitalism.  And the difference in the current cycle of boom and bust is that the society threatened with collapse is not Roman or Mayan or even American, but global.  It’s all of us.

Perhaps I ‘ve gone a long way round to affirm the obvious: that issues of economic and social justice are interrelated with issues of environmental justice and climate change, and that we need to keep making those links visible in our activism.   But I find it helpful to have an analysis that explains the linking mechanism and points a way forward, while laying out very clearly the consequences of inaction.

Nick Coles

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One Response to Climate Change and Income Inequality

  1. This is a very interesting piece that brings together a number of strands. Thanks for sharing. I’ve worked on modeling technology/economic/systems changes that might be part of a package that helps address total net emissions of greenhouse gases. The transportation sector is particularly difficult — much more difficult here in the U.S. than in Europe (older societies/systems) or the fast growing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China ) in part because they have the potential to leapfrog over to newer technologies and approaches. In the U.S., due to subsidies for home ownership and suburban/exurban sprawl there is population dispersion that limits the economically viable mass transit alternatives. That is compounded by the relatively low price of gasoline (much lower taxes than in European nations) as well as a “car culture” in part created by massive ad investments by car makers, dealers, etc. Making change in this entrenched system is going to take huge political muscle. I don’t know who can bring that to the work ahead. It also will entail considerable transitional pain. Can that be managed in a way that don’t FURTHER exacerbate the fragile economic/financial status of the people, families, and communities we care most about? Interested in your thoughts.

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