Ecological sanity and social justice: We can’t have one without the other

Dr. Trevor Hancock

15 November 2022

700 words

More than 40 years ago, in my major paper for my Masters degree, I sought to identify the fundamental principles underlying public health. I concluded there are two: Ecological sanity and social justice. The pursuit of these principles has defined much of my work to create a healthier society ever since.

So I was pleased to find that ‘Earth For All’ – the recent report to the Club of Rome – is largely focused on those two issues. Or to be more precise, it is focused on finding solutions to the growing ecological insanity and social injustice that plagues humanity today.

A separately published background paper, available on the Earth4All website, provides a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between inequality and sustainabilty. The authors are Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two British social epidemiologists who wrote ‘The Spirit Level’, an important 2010 book on the social and health consequences of inequality. (Pickett is a member of the Transformational Economics Commission, whose members guided the final report and the Earth For All strategy.)

Their paper “outlines six ways in which large income and wealth differences – both within and between countries – reduce the chances that our societies will respond adequately to the environmental crisis.” The first of these is rooted in the simple fact that on a finite planet there are limits to growth, as the Club of Rome’s 1972 report by that name made clear.

If the pie cannot keep growing, then the only way that those who do not have enough of the Earth’s bio-capacity and resources can meet their basic human and social development needs is for those who take an excessive amount to take less. This issue is closely related to Wilkinson and Pickett’s second and third points: People will only accept the burden of changes that are needed to achieve a sustainable world if they feel the burden is fairly shared, which means those who benefit most right now must make the largest changes.

The inequality of impact is seen at both the personal and the global levels. A November 2nd article in the Guardian reported an analysis by Autonomy, an independent economic consultancy in the UK, that looked at income and greenhouse gas data from 1998 to 2018. They found that the ‘polluting elite’ – the top 1 percent of earners in the UK –  “are responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions in a single year as the bottom 10 percent over more than two decades”.

This polluting elite is found not just in high-income countries, but in all countries. As Will Stronge, Director of Research at Autonomy, notes, “it’s the rich who are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis”, adding “the most effective way for the government to tackle climate change would be to properly tax the rich, through a well-targeted carbon tax scheme.”

The same point has been made at COP27 over the past two weeks: Wealthy countries have contributed most to the greenhouse gas emissions that have caused global warming, but it is low-income countries that disproportionately bear the environmental, social, health and economic costs. That is why the issue of compensation for the resulting loss and damage has been such a hot topic at the conference.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s next two points are that consumerism – in itself a threat to sustainability because always making and selling more ‘stuff’ depletes the Earth – “can be reduced by lowering the inequality that intensifies status competition and increases the desire for personal wealth”, and that the evidence is clear that beyond a certain point (which Canada is well past), greater equality is a much more important determinant of health than more wealth.

Their final point is that “greater equality leads people to be more cooperative and mutually supportive”, making it easier to get people to work together to address the challenges we face. Or conversely, as the ‘Earth For All’ report puts it, over-consumption comes “at the expense of social cohesion and human and planetary health.”

In short, ecological sanity and social justice are inextricably linked; we can’t have one without the other. Next week I will look at some of the policies the ‘Earth For All’ report proposes to rectify these inequalities.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


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