Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net
The more unequal a society is, the fewer cyclists it has.
This turned out to be a useful insight which, after it was put to the Tuesday plenaries, was referred to by conference speakers again and again.
It was useful because it helped people to think of ways to move beyond the impossible invocations of many scientists here, repeated endlessly at this meeting, that the only way to save the planet is to “change societal values” and “reduce consumption”.
Richard Wilkinson, professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, and expert from the world of inequality research, told us there is a growing wealth of data showing that more unequal societies are, regardless of the overall national wealth, more fraught with health and social problems ranging from obesity to violence.
“Inequality is divisive and corrosive. The data show us that that is truer than we ever expected,” he said.
Here’s where the cyclists fit in: they tend not to come out in societies where your position is in a steep hierarchy, and thus the symbols of status you project, are important. Cyclists are also less common when you need to defend yourself against the weak. In both cases a flashy four-wheel drive vehicle is a better option for those who can afford it.
That’s why greater inequality leads to greater consumption, argued Wilkinson, as people aspire to climb the hierarchy, acquire status and protect themselves from those beneath them.
And that, in turn, is why reducing inequality may be the route to reducing consumption.
Wilkinson also said that people (and businesses) in more equal societies are more public-spirited and thus more likely to act according to the greater environmental interest.
The previous day, doctoral student Pamela Collins called for a ‘global patriotism’ – the kind of sentiment that has pulled communities together during times of war – as a route to rising above individual interests to halt Earth’s environmental decline.
So is tackling societal inequality, therefore, the first step?
This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.