Equity? “That’s not an issue for us, we’re here to save the world”

People often ask me “why should race, class, culture, justice and equity play a role in sustainability; isn’t sustainability about ‘green’ things, you know, ‘the environment’?” My response is usually along the lines that irrespective of whether we take a global, statewide or more local focus, a moral and ethical or practical approach, inequity and injustice resulting from, among other things, racism and classism are bad for the environment and bad for sustainability.

What is more, the environmental movement with its green or environmental sustainability discourse, which includes most of the social movement and institutional discourses that dominate the sustainability and sustainable development discourse today, does not have an analysis or theory of change with strategies for dealing with current or intra-generational (in)equity and (in)justice issues. While researching a BBC TV program in the early 1990s, I asked a Greenpeace U.K. staffer if she felt that her organization’s employees reflected the diversity of multicultural Britain. She replied calmly, “Equity, that’s not an issue for us. We’re here to save the world”. I can understand what she means. She thinks as her organization is saving the world, the environment, for everyone, this is an inherently equitable act, so there’s no need to look at, for instance who’s at the Greenpeace table in terms of the workforce and who’s setting the agenda.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this issue of equity and saving the environment? In the 1990s, research showed how, globally, nations with a greater commitment to equity and a correspondingly more equitable society tend to also have a greater commitment to environmental quality (Torras and Boyce, 1998). Good examples here are the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. Similarly, in a survey of the fifty U.S. states, Boyce et al. (1999) found that those with greater inequalities in power distribution (measured by voter participation, tax fairness, Medicaid access and educational attainment levels) had less stringent environmental policies, greater levels of environmental stress and higher rates of infant mortality and premature deaths. At a more local level, a study by Morello-Frosch (1997) of counties in California showed that highly segregated counties, in terms of income, class and race, had higher levels of hazardous air pollutants.

British researchers Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) however changed the game. In their book The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone, they revealed what many of us had suspected. Based on thirty years’ research, the book convincingly demonstrates that societies which are more unequal are bad for most everyone rich as well as poor. The data the book utilizes and the comparison measures it uses allow global comparisons. The differences are striking, even among the supposedly ‘rich’ countries. Virtually every contemporary social and environmental problem from violence, obesity, drugs, illness and mental health, life expectancy, community life and social relations,  long working hours, teen birth rate, educational performance, prison populations, you name it – is more likely to occur in less equal societies.

In terms of moving toward sustainability and combatting climate change, Wilkinson, Pickett and De Vogli (2010), in a recent Comment entitled Equality, sustainability, and quality of life in the British Medical Journal argued that there are three reasons why greater equality is necessary. First, inequality drives ‘competitive consumption’ the desire for materialistic satisfaction or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. People with materialistic values exhibit fewer pro-environmental behaviours and have more negative attitudes toward the environment. This drive to consume pushes up carbon footprints. Second, cohesion and levels of trust are higher in more equal societies, leading to more public spirited actions toward the common good. Evidence they cite includes smaller ecological footprints, higher levels of recycling, less air miles, lower levels of consumption of water and meat, and less waste production. Finally, sustainable community development needs high levels of adaptability, innovation and creativity. They cite that more equal societies show higher levels of patents granted per capita arguing that this is because people are more socially mobile and possess higher qualifications.

Educational attainment requires investment in human capital and potential. As a young geography teacher in the U.K. in the early 1980s, I was confronted by a student of mine, David, who said “Sir, what do thickies (dumb) kids like me do now we’ve finished our exams?” Nothing in my education had prepared me for this. David was not dumb, he was an average kid who felt he’d failed himself and us, his teachers. He hadn’t. We’d failed him in our inability to help him flourish and find out what he was good at. We were of course far too quick to tell him what he wasn’t good at and he’d internalized this, probably to this day. Twenty five years later I was traveling in Ghana and was stopped by a young woman selling peppers.  She asked me if I wanted to buy her peppers, and quickly assured me that I shouldn’t think of her only as a seller of peppers; she was trying to make money to pay for for her education.

Two instances, thousands of miles and 25 years apart made me realize that people around the world are simply trying to realize their potential. In the environmental movement the loss of environmental potential is lamented: “every acre of rainforest we lose might have held a cure for cancer”. To me David in the U.K., the Ghanaian pepper seller and African American men, more of whom are in prison than college, represent the tip of the iceberg of a desperate global loss of human potential. These could be the future researchers discovering cures for cancer. This wastage of human potential is every bit as profound as the loss of environmental potential as we destroy the rainforest. Of course a focus on both increasing human capital and potential and environmental capital and potential are necessary if the spirit level is to balance. It goes without saying that both are the focus of ‘just sustainabilities’.

What’s the message? From global to local, human inequality (the loss of human potential), is bad for environmental quality (the loss of environmental potential), and only a just sustainabilities approach to policy and planning has an analysis, and theory of change, with strategies to transform the way we treat each other and the planet.


Boyce, J.K., Klemer, A.R., Templet, P.H. and Willis, C.E. (1999). Power distribution, the environment, and public health: a state level analysis. Ecological Economics 29, 127-140.

Morello-Frosch, R. (1997). Environmental justice and California’s ‘Riskscape’. The distribution of air toxics and associated cancer and non cancer risks among diverse communities. Unpublished dissertation. Department of Health Sciences. University of California, Berkeley.

Torras, M. and Boyce, J.K. (1998). Income, inequality and pollution: A reassessment of the environmental Kuznets curve’. Ecological Economics 25. 147-160.

Wilkinson RG, Pickett K. (2010) The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone. London. Penguin.

Wilkinson RG, Pickett K and De Vogli, R (2010) Equality, sustainability, and quality of life. British Medical Journal 27 November 2010 Vol 341 pp. 1138-1140.


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