Opinion / 4 March, 2012

More equality means less CO2 says Hackney Friends of the Earth

In more unequal societies, ‘status anxiety’ fuels consumerism, and consumerism fuels carbon emissions, says Hackney eco-campaign group

foe logo edit

Less is better, say Hackney Friends of the Earth

Wow – I’ve just listened to the Wild Hackney podcast – excellent. I’d recommend it: ‘The chicken and chip shops lay barren…’.

It looks at a (dis?)topian future where Hackney has been flooded and a few eclectic characters survive. Not to be too morbid, but I wonder who would survive in the event that the waters rise?

I hope Bear Grylls would, otherwise he’s been somewhat mis-selling himself. I’m not sure environmentalists as a group would – I can’t imagine my hoarded stashes of as-yet-unrecyclable plastic items is really going to come in handy.

But I wonder if the fact that I’m white, middle-class and – in the grand scheme of things – quite affluent , would help me along? Certainly Hurricane Katrina disproportionately affected lower-income residents of New Orleans, because they were more likely to be living in flood-risk areas and also less likely to have somewhere to go when the flooding began.

If you look at the distribution of carbon emissions and income you see something striking. A map of Haringey (sic) that I saw recently showed a close relationship between higher  income areas of the borough, and higher levels of carbon emissions. Standards of living in lower income areas should of course be improved, but does that necessarily mean that carbon emissions will rise? Let’s look at it from another angle: if we reduce inequality, will carbon emissions lower?

The evidence here is that it certainly will. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s great book The Spirit Level demonstrates that health and social problems are worse in more unequal societies, but also that more equal societies are more green: status anxiety fuels consumerism, and consumerism fuels carbon emissions.

I paraphrase, but the evidence is here. Wilkinson and Pickett say: “Rather than believing that consumerism is an unavoidable expression of human nature which will inevitably prevent us from responding adequately to global warming, we need to recognise that it is a reflection of the social environment created by great inequality and which can be countered by reducing inequality.”

Potentially, this leaves us in a virtuous circle, where increased equality leads to lower carbon emissions, and lower carbon emissions reduces the threat of events such as extreme weather which affect the poorest hardest.

On an international level the same dilemma applies. In response, nations are starting to follow the contraction and convergence model, whereby a sustainable average level of carbon emissions is met by large reductions in wealthier, more historically responsible countries, and an increase in development and so carbon emissions by poorer countries.

Could this be applied locally? A host of tricky ethical issues – particularly the personalisation of relative carbon consumption – say no.

Still, I like the way contraction and convergence clearly brings environmental and social issues together into a single framework. And in reducing personal carbon emissions and allowing others to increase theirs (to an extent), we’d be directly linking a complex chain of environmental impacts into social equality, and perhaps also understanding more directly the value of the carbon we use.

/ 4 March, 2012
  • Spirit Leveller

    As, perhaps, the name implies, I’m a devotee of The Spirit Level, so I’m sympathetic to this article. My concern, however, is that Kate Hand dismisses “personalisation of…carbon consumption” out of hand. Is it really such an insurmountable problem?

    As for that map of Haringey, I’d love to see it.

  • Hi Spirit Leveller – it is indeed a great book. I’m certainly not dismissing *personal* carbon consumption as a concept or a policy lever, what I’m saying is that I think *personalising* carbon consumption in order to redistribute resources within a small area would be very difficult, because you’d probably end up penalising socio-economic groups. You also end up making all sorts of value judgements about, for example, diet. And finally there are a whole host of practical difficulties. For example, do you redistribute carbon from those who have to pay lots for fuel bills because they can’t afford the capital costs of retrofitting their home to be very energy efficient, to those who can afford the costs and are by default much wealthier?

    As they say on In The Loop, ‘difficult difficult lemon difficult’!


Sign up for Hackney news straight to your inbox with our weekly Friday digest - also featuring special offers, competitions and more
Email address
First Name
Last Name
Secure and Spam free...