Can an Unequal Society Become Sustainable?

Kate Pickett is a Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She studied physical anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at Berkeley before spending four years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. Her work, with Richard Wilkinson, on "The Spirit Level" was shortlisted for Research Project of the Year 2009 by the Times Higher Education Supplement, and their book was chosen as one of the Top Ten Books of the Decade, by the New Statesman.

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Question: What is the connection between sustainability and equality?

Kate Pickett: Yeah. I mean, I think this goes back to the idea I was talking about earlier that, in a sense, in the rich developed countries we’ve come to the end of what economic growth can do for us in terms of better quality of life. We also know that we’ve got to constrain economic growth to deal with the challenges of climate change. And we need to develop more sustainable economies. And we think that equality has an important role to play here in several different ways. The first is the increased status competition that I talked about in more unequal societies. That drives consumerism. And we know that high levels of consumerism are a major cause of high levels of carbon emissions and that we need to rein in consumerism to cope with climate change. So, I think more equal societies will be better places to be able to do that because there will be less drive to consume.

Also because we find that levels of trust are much higher in more equal places, social cohesion is better. People are more willing to act together for the common good, there’s a greater public spiritedness and people are less out for themselves. And we see that in more equal countries, this translates into the way the population acts with respect to the planet and with respect to other countries. For instance, more equal countries donate more in foreign aid. A greater portion of their national income is given in foreign aid and they do better at recycling across a whole variety of waste goods. And in more equal countries, business leaders are more likely agree that their government should comply with environmental regulations. So, there are all kinds of ways in which more equal societies seem better able to act for the common good.

But there’s a third thing as well, and I think this is really important because I think a lot of people have thought in the past that we need a certain level of inequality to drive aspirations and creativity. And we’ve actually found that using a sort of proxy measure of innovation, we use the number of patterns grounded per head of population, sort of a measure of innovation and creativity, and we find that there is a significant tendency for more equal countries to have a higher level of patterns grounded per capita than the more unequal ones. Probably because in more unequal societies educational achievement is lower and social mobility is lower. So, they’re wasting a much higher proportion of their potential human capital.

So in terms of consumerism, acting in a public spirited way, and being creative and innovative, it looks as if greater equality might be a very necessary precondition as far as coping with climate change.

Question: What practical steps can countries take to enhance equality?

Kate Pickett: I think the first thing to note is that not only do we find that inequality is related to a whole range of social problems, we also find that it affects the vast majority of the population, and I think that’s really key to getting greater support for measures that would make our societies more equal. Greater equality won’t just benefit the poorer in our society; the benefits seem to extend all the way up the population so that even among the wealthier, more educated, affluent sections of our populations, they are healthier and do better in a more equal society. So, I think that’s really key.

But we also find that it is the level of inequality that matters for all of these health and social problems and it doesn’t seem to matter how that greater equality is achieved. So we often point to the contrasts between Sweden and Japan, for instance. Both of them are at the more equal end of the spectrum and they do very well in terms of health and social problems. But they achieve their greater equality in very different ways.

Sweden has quite large income differences to start with and redistributes through taxes and benefits, whereas Japan has smaller income differences to start with. And that doesn’t seem to matter, it’s the level of inequality of equality that they achieve that matters. And we find the same contrast actually among the U.S. states. So, we have two states bordering each other, Vermont and New Hampshire, culturally very alike, but New Hampshire has very low levels of state expenditure and taxation and Vermont much higher. So, New Hampshire looks a bit more like Japan and Vermont a bit more like Sweden. But because they are among the more equal states, they do very well in terms of health and social problems.

So we don’t advocate any particular way of achieving greater equality. There are big state interventions that could work such as higher tax rates on higher incomes, or raising minimum wage levels. But there are sort of small state solutions as well that are around institutions, how companies decide to set their salary structures. And it does seem that where there is more economic democracy, more employees on the board for instance, or promotions from within a company, more employees owning shares in a company. Income differences within those institutions are kept smaller. So, there are lots of different ways that greater equality can be achieved


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