Are inequalities an obstacle to achieving sustainability?

Are inequalities an obstacle to achieving sustainability?


The corrosive impacts of inequalities and their relationship to sustainable development are better understood now than they were a few years ago. Since the mid 1980s, the average GINI coefficient, the most commonly used measure of inequality, increased by about 10 percent. In a globalized economy in which competition for resources is increasing, the tastes of consumers in affluent societies are pitted against the needs not only of disadvantaged members of their own societies, but also of vastly poorer populations in the global South. This poses ethical issues relating to social justice within affluent societies and globally; addressing these issues goes hand in hand with addressing the sustainability challenge.

Arguments have been advanced that economic inequality and environmental degradation are mutually reinforcing: large income inequalities can lead to runaway resource use by those at the top, whose relative purchasing power is huge, putting major pressures on the environment; and the more a society is unequal, the more consumption can be driven to unsustainable excesses by status competition. Perhaps more importantly, high levels of inequality grant certain groups in society a privileged position and the power to veto any significant changes to existing economic incentives.

  • How solid is the evidence that more equal societies are better equipped to address the challenges of sustainable development?
  • How concerned should we be about the growth of inequalities in OECD countries over the past thirty years?
  • Is the pressure to pursue economic growth a substitute for the adoption of more redistributive policies and greater equality?

Read more:

BACKGROUND PAPER by conference rapporteur: Equality, Sustainability and Well-being by Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson and Roberto de Vogli
Presentation to EU5P conference: Equality, Sustainability and Well-being by Richard Wilkinson
Equality, sustainability, and quality of life, Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, and Roberto De Vogli in the British Medical Journal
The Future We Really Want, by Robert Costanza, Jacqueline McGlade, Steve de Bonvoisin, Petra Fagerholm, Joshua Farley, Enrico Giovannini, Ida Kubiszewski, Frances Moore Lappé, Hunter Lovins, Kate Pickett, Greg Norris, Thomas Prugh, Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir, Debra Roberts, Richard Wilkinson
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), OECD Publishing, 2011. Or see an overview of key findings
The impact of income inequalities on sustainable development in London, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published by the London Sustainable Development Commission, July 2012
Sustainability and Inequality in Human Development, by Eric Neumayer, United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports, Research Paper 2011/04, November 2011
Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe, European Commission, Communication of the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, , COM(2011) 571 final of 20.9.2011
Sustainable development, decent work and green jobs, International Labour Organisation, report prepared by the International Labour Office for the 102nd session of the International Labour Conference, March 2013