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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007 01:01 am

Economic justice and saving the earth

Good environmental policy flourishes where there’s fairness

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Studies show that promoting economic equality around the world also promotes greater environmental stewardship.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
Untitled Document Aside from the obvious benefits to humanity of reducing poverty, how would promoting more   economic equality around the world benefit the environment?
Research has shown that environmental protection tends to be of lower priority in countries with a wide disparity between rich and poor. The inverse is also true: Countries with greater economic equality assign a higher priority to safeguarding the 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. Although there is often a trade-off between economic growth and environmental quality, says Mikkelson, his study suggests that there is also synergy between removal or reduction of poverty and greater conservation of biological diversity. If the United States were to achieve a level of income parity comparable, say, to Sweden’s, some 44 percent fewer plant and animal species in the United States 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 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 policy-makers the way toward enlightened regulatory practices that encourage both economic equality and environmental protection.
For more information: “Inequality, environmental protection and growth,” Laura Marsiliani and Thomas Renstrom, ideas.repec.org/p/roc/wallis/wp35.html; “More inequality means less biodiversity,” McGill Reporter, www.mcgill.ca/reporter/39/17/inequality/; PREM Program, www.prem-online.org.

Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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