Thursday, June 16, 2016

Social Equality and the Destruction of the Planet

In this post, Jacopo Simonetta asks a fundamental (and politically incorrect) question: are we sure that social equality would be good for the environment? The answer turns out to be not politically very correct. (U.B.)

by Jacopo Simonetta

Exaggerated inequality is surely a major problem in today's societies, and it keeps increasing. I, too, certainly believe that this scandal must end, but the topic of the article is another one: is it true that redistribution of wealth would have a good effect on the Earth health? Many very influential people believe this, but I am not so sure.

Evidently, affluent people consume much more than poor people do, but how much? As far as I know, there are no studies correlating the environmental impact and social classes but, as starting point, we could compare how CO2 emissions change with income. (data Word Bank and Wikipedia respectively). 


Social equity and consumption: Comparison between per capita income (in blue) and CO2 emissions (in red).

It is clear that CO2 emissions increase with income, but less than proportionally in the central part of the curve. In fact, in very low incomes, the increase in emissions is very fast against modest increases. Then they go up rather slowly, to return to peak with the very, very rich people. Important local fluctuations are also correlated to climate, geography, local traditions, social organisation and so on.

Now, as a mental exercise, we can take for good the statement that 1% of the global population appropriates 50% of world income. This means that about 75 million people earn an average income of 500,000 $ per capita per year. So, let us imagine that we can distribute all this wealth among the remaining 99% of the world population (let's call it "Operation Robin Hood"). This means more or less 5,000$ per capita. Even for a large part of the western middle class, this would be a big help. For the majority of people this would drastically change one's life. Billions of people would finally eat to satiety, dress decently, live inside houses, send their children to school, heal the sick and much more. People a little higher in the income ladder could get a new car, go on holidays, and so on.

Very good, but what would be consequences for the planet?

Let's try to analyze the question. As a rough approximation, we can start classifying humanity in four meta-categories: the very rich (let us presume they are 1%, so about 75 millions); the affluent (let us presume 1 billion people); the Middle class (according to "The Economist", about 3 billion people); the poor (may be 2 billion), and the very poor (according to FAO, about 1 billion).

Comparing per-capita income and emissions in different countries, and assuming that there are all the social classes in each country, we can argue that the very rich produce about 20 tons of CO2 each per year. The affluent 10 tons each; the middle 6 tons each, the poor 2 tons each, and the very poor 0,1 tons each. For a total amount of about 36 billion tons of CO2. “Operation Robin Hood" would lead to disappearance of the lower class and a perceptible improvement in the life style of the poor and the middle class. At the same time, also the super-rich would disappear, while nothing would change for the affluent people.

And what would that mean in terms of total CO2 emissions? Well, we just multiply the per capita emissions by the total number of people per category. The result is a grand total of about 55 billions tons, that is a 50% increment with respect to the present emissions. Social equality doesn't seem to be so good for the planet.

But there is more: Operation Robin Hood would produce a sensible reduction in mortality, and probably an increment in natality too, among low wage people. So a sharp population increase, at least for one or two generations.

Evidently, that's just an example, not a realistic simulation. But the core conclusion, that a better life for the majority of people would be disastrous for the planet, is consistent with more sophisticated models available. In the 2004 edition (Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update), the Meadows group published a scenario where they supposed that since 2002 the birth rate is 2 children per woman and industrial production is equally distributed to everybody at a level 10% more than the global mean in the year 2000. It means much less for rich people and much more for the poor.

Word3 scenario with birth control and equal distribution of goods.(From Meadows et al. 2004)

Skipping the details, we can see that in this scenario there is a period of abundance that lasts some 20 years more than it does in the basic scenario (Business as Usual). But later the system collapses in a very similar way. And note that none of the people asking today for a more equal wealth distribution don't want any sort of birth rate control. We have no published scenario of what the outcome of these hypotheses wold be, but is not hard to argue that with a growing population andntemporary wealth distribution the system would collapse very quickly.

Another model that's relevant to our topic is "HANDY, From a scientific perspective this model, derived from an ultra-famous one by Lotka and Volterra, is too simplified to represent a system as complex as an advanced society. In particular, it neglects feedbacks existing between hierarchy, social complexity, specialization and the capability of the societal system to absorb low entropy from the outside. Unfortunately, this is one of the core feedbacks which shape the evolution of human societies. This largely reduces the viability of the model and explains the absurdity of some of the scenarios proposed. Anyway, "HANDY" has the merit of being the first model to try to introduce the social element inside a dynamic model. Here are some of the results of the model.

The above result is rather absurd since it implies that the elites keep growing even after the commoners have collapse. However, on the whole, the results of this model can be seen at least as the indication that a low level of inequality tends to shape more stable and resilient societies. In my opinion, a cursory glance at history seems to confirm this hypothesis. It is consistent also with what we have said before and with Word 3. A low level of inequality produces a more cohesive society and a highly legitimate leadership which tends to lower and to extend the peak phase of a society.

But, and this is the point, social equality is not sufficient to avoid systemic collapse if society is based on non-renewable resources.

After all, we have already seen all of this in the real world. Please observe the curves of USA and China CO2 emissions from 1990 and 2010.

The US economy trudged along with a low GDP increase completely concentrated in the top class, with a deterioration of the life level in the middle and low classes. The result has been a modest reduction in emissions.

In the same time, in China the life of the large majority of people improved and emissions skyrocketed. Because of that, the population too increased, in spite of a low birthrate. Just imagine to duplicate the China experiment: do you really believe that the Planet will survive?


It is true that billionaires are rich and I am not; this makes it possible that they are greater experts than me about money and power. But, nevertheless, it seems to me that, historically, smart leadership have always managed to redistribute a part of their revenue in ways useful to consolidate their legitimacy and hence their political power. It means that a partial redistribution of incomes would be to the advantage, first of all, of the top class people. But this is a lesson that the present day élite, largely consisting of pirates and sociopaths, has apparently forgotten.

Secondly, such action surely would improve the life of the poor, but just for a short time because, if done worldwide, the experiment would end in an unimaginable global catastrophe. Does this mean we have to be thankful to our kleptocrats? I don't believe so. It means that the reduction of inequalities must be done by reducing the income of the very rich and not by improving the commoners' wages. But this perspective is refused by everyone: right and left, south and north, up and down.

For this post I warmly thank my friend Miguel Martinez who corrected my limping English.


  1. " the reduction of inequalities must be done by reducing the income of the very rich and not by improving the commoners' wages."

    I'm trying to imagine turning this into an appealing policy slogan. 'Tax the rich, too.' sort of touchs on this.

    1. How about, "Tax the rich, then burn the money". Sort of hard to see it going viral.

  2. I think that this graphs mix all type of societies that, in any case, are actually fossil based.

    I don't think that in/equality was the key to be sustainable. Only the energy mix and material cycle really is.
    Of course, because we have fossil based society today, when we become richer, we spend more. Too poor, only basic energy (mostly biomass), a little less poor, short term expending, mostly fossil consumption, medium wealth, mix with renewables more efficient per GDP but more consumption per capita in total.

    In any case, to be sustainable, energy and raw materials are the key. The distribution thing is not to reach sustainability but to avoid war and massive poverty if total values drop fast. In any case, although inequality is possible, perpetual growing inequality is not compatible with steady state society. So, its a neccesary piece of the puzzle to reach the goal of complete sustainability.

  3. Ugo, come va?!

    Many/most environmental organizations have dual mandates of social equity and mitigating climate change. Just the like the central banks dual mandate of low inflation and full employment, they are at odds.

    The bottom 2 quintiles of wage earners in the US spend 100% of their income. The top 5% of wager earners spend 7%. If there were a wealth transfer to the poor (in the US, or in most developed countries), there would be an immediate increase in resource consumption and CO2 and other emissions as electronic digits from banks would be moved into accounts where they would be immediately spent on gasoline and stuff.

    The only way that social equality and environmental protection are commensurate is if we all are (a lot) poorer. Which will likely happen.

  4. Thanks a lot for this reminder of what should be an obvious truth! (that the lifestyle of the rich isn't more (or even, is less) pollution-intensive, in terms of pollution per dollar, than that of commoners).

    I would like to bring the point even further: some level of inequality may be useful, because it adds to society's diversity and hence to its resilience. When collapse happens, we will have many many things to learn and invent again, which will be painful because we won't always succeed in the first place. But the fact that there are rich people who maintain (mainly by financing employees and businesses) competencies such as taking care of a horse, or producing high-quality hand-made items, etc, and poor people who maintain (mainly by practicing themselves) competencies such as growing one's food, gleaning, recycling, etc, may help us a lot! On the opposite, I wouldn't bet anything on a society made of millions of the same average guy who only knows about driving his car through the suburbs to the supermarket, and practicing the jobs that are useful for making cars and motorways and suburbs and supermarkets...

    I didn't understand the second half of the point: it's not obvious to me that a low level of inequality tends to produce societies with better cohesion. For that matter, the prediction by Tocqueville that the egalitarian society would turn into a bunch of dissatisfied people arguably seems fulfilled. And even if the premise is true, how on earth would a more cohesive society be less collapse-prone? You write "A low level of inequality produces a more cohesive society and a highly legitimate leadership which tends to...", and we could go on, "bring the society higher before it falls harder"!

    Anyway, I feel like it's necessary to make the distinction between the selfish-disdainful sort of rich and the more aristocratic-concerned sort. In my opinion, our current problem is not that there are rich people, it is that various utopias have led us in a state where the vast majority of the rich do not feel obliged to the poor anymore (JMG made a point on this recently).

    1. In my opinion, rich people today live too far from commoners and have lost the capability to have any interest in them. Commoners sense this very well. This is a predicament that undermines the capability of the society to react constructively to the fast evolving and increasingly dangerous situation.

    2. This is exactly the case. Unlike most who comment on these matters, I am acquainted with the super-rich on a personal,social,level.

      It is a very attractive world from some points of view (although not mine) in that it is utterly comfortable and everything works perfectly in a highly-insulated environment.

      From that vantage point, it is but a short step to regarding those outside the magic circle as 'scum', and this way of thinking creeps up even on those who are initially very decent people and even themselves of humble origins. Money, lots of it, is truly a terrible poison.

      One can only expect the fierce defence of narrowly-defined self-interest from such an elite. (This state of mind is also, curiously, observable in some of the corrupt European trades unions...:))

      I see very little hope.

  5. The main way in which lessened inequality would be good for sustainability is in the political consequences. Simply put, economic inequality strongly correlates with (and is causative of) political inequality. A small wealthy class that dominates politically can and will ignore the threat of global warming because they can probably use their wealth to insulate themselves from the worst effects - leaving everyone else to suffer. A more equal society with more broadly distributed political power is more likely to make decisions that will benefit the majority.

    1. For example, a wealthy country (such as the USA) can move its industrial plants and their pollutants to a poorer country (such as China). Although this will be a bad deal for industrial workers in the US (job loss) it will provide temporary economic benefits to workers in China at the cost of environmental degradation, precisely what has happened. The rich literally dump on the poor.

      Comparing the emissions curves of the US and China without recognizing that they're directly connected seems like neglecting a rather vital point. A 2014 paper by Jintai Lin et al. -- -- concludes that roughly a quarter of the air pollutants emitted in China in 2006 were related to production of exported goods. (Roughly a fifth of those emissions were due to goods exported to the US.) A newspaper summary of the results can be found here:

      Under "Operation Robin Hood" where everyone is equally wealthy, to whom would one outsource one's increased pollution? And if each community had to live in its own pollution, how much would its use of non-renewable resources change?

  6. This is obviously in error. All you need to do to have equality and improve on energy consumption is to bring everyone down to poverty level.


  7. No doubt this is a complex issue with multiple interrelated factors involved. Strictly speaking though, a redistribution of wealth without any increase in the size of the economic pie should not result in a net increase in carbon emissions as total aggregate consumption remains the same.

    Remember the money not spent by the super rich does not sit idle under the mattress, but is invested in other enterprises or loaned by banks to expand economic activities. It is arguable that giving this 'surplus' to poorer folk would result in a net increase in consumption.

    In any case, the current global economy is already way too large for the planet to sustain, and we need not just a more equitable distribution but an overall drastic reduction. Taking it from the rich is a good start, but is insufficient, as those models are predicting.

  8. Inequality can be reduced through a more radical tool than the monetary redistribution: the abolition of the use of money. It is not easy, but it is possible ... unlike dreams (evenly distributed between the rich and the poor) of an endless economic growth.The right way to make good use of the resources is to think, to measure and assess the economy directly in terms of resources. Money is just a distraction that leads to systematic distortions and inefficiencies. You can use the money for better or worse, but you can not eliminate the distortions and inefficiencies that its usage on leads ... unless you give up entirely on its use. I know it sounds crazy, but radical innovations always appear as follies. Let's be honest: is the money really a less crazy idea than its abolition?


    However it may be that what holds us back is only the fear of a real change. It may be that, like addicts, we are too addicted to the use of money even only for to admit it.

    Objectively, today, the only reason for existence is the economic injustices both environmental unsustainability is the use of money. Its redistribution is a partial and temporary palliative, not without side effects. It is not the ultimate cure.

    To use less drug can prevent the overdose, but it does not get out of the addiction. Does not save drug addicts and the rest of the world from the hell of drug addiction. The solution is to stop using drugs. However, you must first realize that you have an addiction problem. Unfortunately the world has not yet come to this awareness and desperately searches for a way (illusory) to live "peacefully" with his own demon: the use of money.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)