Review: Unsustainable Inequalities By Lucas Chancel

Arguably the two greatest threats our civilization face are the ecological crisis (climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and so forth) and the ever widening inequality between the rich and poor, the Global North and Global South, the have and have-nots. The 21st century and our societies survival will greatly depend on how we manage both these emergencies. 

At first glance, the two might seem like completely different problems. The environment and inequality deal with separate issues: inequality is the difference among individuals and groups in wealth, income, health, among other economic and social measurements; while the environment deals with trees, air quality, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and other “natural resources.” But is this assumption true? Are inequality and the environment inextricably linked in that tackling one inevitably tackles the other? This type of question is at the heart of economist Lucas Chancel’s Unsustainable Inequalities: Social Justice and the Environment (2020). 

In this short book (150 pages) Chancel exposes that the distinction between caring for the environment and the many inequalities people face are part of the same conversation—that by dealing with one, for better or worse, inevitably influences the other. It is by approaching both the economy and the environment simultaneously that we can, and must, transform our society for the better and avoid collapse. 

In “Part One” of three sections, Chancel gives us a lay-of-the-land on social and economic inequality in our time, providing historical and political context to help ground the reader in how things became so unequal in the first place. In this series of chapters, Chancel practically goes through every question and assumption we might have about inequality: How’d we get here? How does inequality impact productivity? How does inequality create social strife? Can inequality be good? 

By trying to answer so much at the expense of diving in too much depth with any one example, Chancel gives the reader a comprehensive grasp of the relationship between inequality and the environment. There are, evidently, countless intersections between the two, as the book shows. Many economists have put forth theories to explain the growing inequalities. Some attribute it to technological innovation: technologically advanced nations demand highly educated workers, thereby attributing growing inequality to the inequality between those with higher education and those who lack it. Others argue that globalization is the chief cause because, it’s presumed, the “unskilled” workers are those in the Global South, where the “skilled” are in mainly rich nations, pitting the two groups against one another and widening the equality gap. Each of these arguments speak to the skill and nature of certain types of work and how they’re valued in society.  

But Chancel provides us with even more explanations: financial globalization, the weakening of the social state, availability of natural and energy resources, and the political power of the wealthiest all contribute to growing inequality, according to Chancel.

What conclusion to draw? “Economic inequality is due to many factors” and we “must be careful not to overgeneralize,” Chancel remarks. We must have what he calls a “concerted political response” that addresses the symbiotic relationship between policy decisions, technology, and the globalized financial markets and their effect on inequality. 

Given that there is some semblance of the co-causes of rising inequality, what are the impacts of this growing inequality?

One of the more shocking things Unsustainable Inequalities edifies is how inequality impacts our personal and societal health. “Levels of equality are strongly correlated with levels of physical and mental health, education, economic security, and social mobility” writes Chancel. This might sound a little odd at first. Health seems like a question of access to healthcare, the quality of doctors, cultural lifestyles. 

And all of this is true. But inequality is not just a matter of providing social and health services. Using a “groundbreaking” study by two epidemiologists, Chancel explains: “Here we find a clear correlation between equality and the variations in national performance… In Japan, for example, where the level of inequality is low, health and social well-being scores are the highest among OECD member countries. Conversely, when one compares average income and social health performance, no correlation is observed.” He continues: “health depends more on income differentials than on average income.” 

Why is this? Shouldn’t access to healthcare or quality of doctors trump all other factors in the health of individuals and nations? One answer: chronic stress. “Epidemiological studies have shown that stress predisposes to a variety of pathologies, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.” Chancel continues with one of the conclusions from the groundbreaking study: “Injustice at a systemic level generates stress in persons at the bottom of the social ladder, but also… in persons above them. What makes stress a matter of special concern for public policy, in other words, is the fact that, through it, inequalities act on the health of the society as a whole.” 

Inequality is not just bad for our physical health, explains Chancel. The more inequality (through pay for example) between workers in the same position, the less productive they are in total. 

Through a breadth of scholarship, Chancel helps us understand inequality is not just an abstract numerical concept, but has real practical implications for our health, labor, and self-worth. 

Beyond inequality-induced stress, a more obvious health related outcome from inequality concerns pollution. Pollution provides an example of inequality amongst people exposed to certain environmental risks

Take black America as an example. 

In the United States there is a strong correlation between race and proximity to hazardous sites, Chancel explains. It’s long been documented that black Americans live closer to landfills and industrial centers than white Americans do. With many harmful toxins and pollutants emitted from these hazardous cites, the health of members in already disadvantaged communities feeds a vicious cycle where black Americans are exposed to harm, leading to poor health, perpetuating poverty and inequality throughout a person’s life as a result. 

Such an inequality in this context has rightly been called “environmental racism” because of the persistent trend regarding where pollution sites are located and who— disproportionately black America—faces the deathly consequences.  

Inequality extends beyond just the health risks associated with pollution and the environment. As it concerns things like energy, there is well-documented inequality between those who control energy resources, those who can afford even basic energy for their homes, along with a large inequality between how much energy is used. Such phenomena represent what Chancel calls the “unequal access to environmental resources.”

Lets use unequal access to energy as an example. When talking about consumption of energy, Chancel reminds us that total consumption cannot just be calculated in direction consumption – the amount of energy used to heat and light a single home for instance. Energy consumption must consider more “indirect” forms of consumption, be it through the energy needed to make materials, the electricity needed to build computers, or the labor used for any object or product. Such a calculation for including both direct and indirect energy use is often called a thing’s embodied energy

In considering embodied energy, one is able to find massive inequalities between how much energy the poor of the world use compared to the rich. To put it in context, Chancel writes, “[we] found that someone belonging to the bottom 10 percent in respect of income consumes about 70 kWh per day, not quite half of the average figure. Someone belonging to the top 10 percent consumes more than 260 kWh per day, or about 70 percent more than the average.” 

Energy is at the heart of addressing climate change. Meaning, since we still live in a global fossil fuel economy, the richest are much more responsible for the changing climate then the poorest. What’s worse, the poorest, who have contributed the least will also bear the biggest brunt of climate change: be it rising seas, extreme heat, and so on. Evidently, we are not equal for climate change and therefore don’t share equal responsibility in changing how our societies and economies are structured. To be frank, It’s the rich individuals and nations who need to change.

Throughout this review, I have highlighted just some of the many ways Chancel explains how the environment and inequality are part of the same conversation.  Inequality and environmental damage, evidently, are not such different domains. 

To close out the book, Chancel gives the reader a set of lessons and policy prescriptions to help address the illness that is environmental inequality. They range from energy democracy, lifestyle changes, progressive taxation, enhanced public transportation, and so on. 

One of those prescriptions is the Green New Deal. Introduced by United States Representative Alexandria Occasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the Green New Deal is a jobs and justice centered climate agenda that seeks to create millions of good paying jobs as we transition our energy economy, protecting frontline communities and workers through a “just transition.” 

Chancel writes, “the basic idea of a Green New Deal is that it is both possible and desirable to protect workers’ health while letting certain polluting industries transform or eventually close. What matters is the welfare of human beings, not of firms.” Sign me up!

Unsustainable Inequalities is a necessary read for everyone in the 21st century. A book that tackles all the questions and intersections between our economy and the environment, it is an enlightening starting point for anyone trying to get a grasp on the two biggest problems our world faces and how they can be tackled together. 

Smart and scholarly without being too academic, Chancel’s book will serve as a starting point and a primer for anyone interested in understanding environmental inequality and what we can do about it. An invaluable read that will only gain importance with each passing year.

Unsustainable Inequalities by Lucas Chancel
Unsustainable Inequalities by Lucas Chancel

Lucas Chancel is co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics and co-editor of the World Inequality Report 2018. A lecturer at Sciences Po, he is also Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.