Aside from the obvious benefits to mankind of reducing poverty, how would promoting more economic equality around the world benefit the environment?
—Steele Shapiro, Seattle, WA
Research has shown that in countries with a wide disparity between rich and poor, environmental protection tends to be a lower priority. The inverse is also true: Countries with greater economic equality assign higher priority to safeguarding their environment.
The main determining factor seems to be that lower income people tend to vote against spending tax dollars on what are deemed costly or discretionary environmental projects. In countries with less disparity between rich and poor, such as throughout Scandinavia, environmental protection is assigned a higher priority and governments have enacted more stringent regulations and policies accordingly.
University of Rochester researchers Laura Marsiliani and Thomas Renstrom reviewed hundreds of academic studies of linkages between economic equality and environmental protection and found plenty of evidence to suggest that “poorer individuals tend to prefer less stringent environmental policy.” Previous research also supports their hypothesis that greater income inequality causes lower environmental taxes, regulation and spending around the world.
On a related front, a team of McGill University researchers uncovered a connection between growing economic inequality and an increase in the number of plant and animal species threatened with extinction. Dr. Greg Mikkelson of McGill’s School of Environment led the study, which looked at income inequality and biodiversity loss on two different scales: among 45 countries worldwide; and among 45 U.S. states. The researchers found that the same general trend is evident in both cases: Societies with more unequal distribution of income experience greater losses of biodiversity.
While there is often a trade-off between economic growth and environmental quality, says Mikkelson, his study suggests that there is also synergy between removing or reducing poverty and greater conservation of biological diversity. If the U.S. were to achieve levels of income parity comparable, say, to Sweden, some 44 percent fewer plant and animal species in the U.S. would be in danger of extinction. “Our study,” adds Mikkelson, “suggests that if we can learn to share economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help us to share ecological resources more fairly with other species.”
One group working to help the environment by bridging the economic equality gap is the Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management (PREM) program at the Institute for Environmental Studies at Holland’s Vrije Universiteit. Formulated by Dr. Pieter van Beukering and Kim van der Leeuw, the program has lined up researchers in 16 developing nations to develop case studies showing how sustainability-oriented natural resource management can lead to economic development for poorer people. The researchers hope that their work in the field will help show policymakers the way toward enlightened regulatory practices that encourage both economic equality and environmental protection.