Tuesday, December 6, 2011
How does wealth inequality affect environmental protection? The environmental justice movement (and related scholarship) has done a good job of elaborating one way that wealth inequality matters for environmental protection. It has shown that environmental protection policy tends to favor wealthier and more powerful contingents of society. Environmental justice has, however, often missed another important dimension. As far as I know, it has not focused on whether environmental protection declines as wealth inequality increases. I suspect that this is the case, and it worries me in light of the growing inequality of the US.
First, let’s be reminded of the growing inequality. According to a great piece by Joseph Stiglitz last May in Vanity Fair, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”: "The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent… Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”
So what are the implications of the growing income and wealth inequality for the level of environmental protection? A couple possibilities occur to me:
• As the wealthy develop private substitutes for public goods (i.e. bottled water instead of clean drinking water; gated community parks instead of public parks), less political pressure is exerted to provide public goods.
• Inequality weakens social cohesion and effective democracy, both of which are likely to favor the passage of needed environmental protection laws.
Given this and the many connections between corporate power and environmental degradation, it seems to me that there's a lot for environmental advocates to like about the Occupy Wall Street movement.
- Lesley McAllister