Is Equality a Foundation for Global Sustainability?

06/30/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

As the sustained media interest attests, Pope Francis's encyclical "Laudato Si" is a genuinely remarkable intervention. In exhaustive detail he identifies the two profound challenges facing our global civilization: poverty and the stability of the planet's life support system.

While they have often been treated as separate issues, the Laudato Si names the root cause: an economic system that values wealth accumulation above all else. But what he misses is that they may share a common solution: greater equality.

The media has largely focused on Laudato Si's climate message - the word is mentioned 17 times and the word "environment" 140. Pope Francis talks about a dynamic planet undergoing rapid change. He begins, "Theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract, unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity."

The Pope has homed in on a growing body of research that pulls together previously disconnected academic disciplines: geology, ecology, oceanography, soil science, atmospheric physics and chemistry and lately, the social and economic sciences. Assembling the Earth system jigsaw has been the focus of intense research in the last three decades led by organisations such as the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and, more recently, Future Earth.

This research reached its first peak in 2000 with the astounding realization that the considerable growth in human activities, largely since the 1950s, has elevated humanity to the scale of the great geological and astronomical forces shaping our planet.

Related research shows that, following the end of the ice age, the climate of the last 11,000 years has been remarkably stable - greatly benefiting human development. Indeed, as this period, known as the Holocene, kicked off, agriculture appeared independently around the globe. This led to cooperation, specialization, communities and eventually to our global civilization. The world we know depends on a stable climate. Worryingly, levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now far, far beyond Holocene boundaries. The temperature on Earth is rising. We have entered the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch driven by human activity, largely consumption and production in wealthy nations.

In 2009, this prompted a group of scientists, led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, to analyse the conditions required to minimize the risk of leaving Holocene-like conditions. They identified nine planetary boundaries it would be unwise to transgress. In 2015 they announced humans had pushed Earth beyond four relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation and use of fertilizers.

This is the "fresh analysis" the Pope speaks about. Some argue the Anthropocene marks a scientific and cultural paradigm shift similar in intellectual impact to Copernicus's conclusion that the Earth revolves around the sun or Darwin's theory of evolution.

The Pontiff concludes environmental destruction hits the poorest hardest but says there are "no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations". This may have an element of truth in it, but the priority must be to decarbonize the global economy as a matter of urgency - starting with the wealthiest nations and the greatest polluters.

While climate science attracts the lion's share of attention, the science of equality gets scant attention - the word receives just four mentions. This is an odd imbalance given the growing evidence linking equality to wellbeing and ecological sustainability.

In 2009, British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published The Spirit Level. This new analysis of equality in wealthier societies showed how more equal societies do better in all measures of wellbeing: obesity, health, teenage pregnancies, crime, drug use, life expectancy, literacy, homicide rates. People tend to be happier and enjoy more trust and so greater social cohesion. One of their more startling conclusions was that the richest in more equal societies tended to be happier and healthier than the richest in unequal societies. This takes the discussion on equality from being a moral obligation to whether it is an economic imperative.

Wilkinson and Pickett contend that people associate wellbeing to status, and that competition for status drives consumption. But status, and so wellbeing, is about relative income. Ultimately, this is a zero-sum game because we can't all have a higher status than everyone else. Wellbeing hits a brick wall.

Their work has major implications for global sustainability. First, inequality drives materialism and overconsumption. Second, more equal societies value collective responsibility more, leading to higher trust in their governments to do good, for example introducing low emissions schemes. Wilkinson even argues there's evidence business leaders in more equal countries are happier to respect international environmental agreements.

And finally, we will need great leaps in innovation to decarbonize economies and halt biodiversity loss. More equal societies tend to have sky-high patents per capita. This may simply be down to people having greater freedom to move more fluidly through strata in society allowing ideas to mix easily. Perhaps equality is the source of Sweden's unusually creative society, and its passionate commitment to global sustainability.

Research in the last decade on equality is every bit as profound as the Anthropocene because equality may be a precondition for improving both wellbeing and protecting Earth's life support system. Ultimately, more equal societies have the foundation to care more for the environment around them. In an interconnected world, this has become the whole planet. In an otherwise remarkable text, the Pope failed to make this case.