Thursday, May 21, 2015

Inequality in the Anthropocene

I just watched an excellent lecture by Prof Will Steffen on the Earth system and the Anthropocene. It inspired me to write a brief blog post for BODHI US. But I got a bit carried away and called it "Health in the Anthropocene", by mistake (a topic I have written much about just the same, and is a working title for a third edited book).
Despite Will's claim that the Earth system community now includes humans in it, I think the social science community can and should go much further to collaborate and integrate the two (as Tony McMichael, Jane Dixon and I recently argued in the journal Public Health). Will speaks of a recent cover story in National Geographic called the War on Science. (Mind you, I would not include anti-GMO as an example - given for example, the recent classification of glyphosate ("round up") as a probable carcinogen. Will also speaks strongly about rising inequality, including praising Thomas Picketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century. (See this excellent review of that by Paul Krugman.)

I would go further: rising human inequality is a response (and a cause) of the changing Earth System – albeit dysfunctional. It is a response because, as resources per person diminish, those with the greatest economic power claim more, in order to preserve their lifestyle. It is also a driver because elites fear that a more sustainable economy will harm their own lifestyle. Thus, elites maintain there are no "limits to growth", there is no planetary emergency, and act to undermine sustainable and equitable policies.

This is a simplification, but my PhD thesis (published 2002) was called Inequality and Sustainability. I have mostly written about the second aspect of this argument (that elites exercise too much control on the Human Titanic), eg "Inequality, Global Change and the Sustainability of Civilisation". For several years I have been making the argument about the first part, too, though I have yet published much on this idea. There is a third reason for rising inequality, well expressed by Professor Robert Wade in his paper called On the causes of increasing world poverty and inequality, or why the Matthew effect prevails. Essentially, s(he) who has gets - elites rig the system to increase their advantage. Unfortunately, I cannot find an open access version of this paper to link to.