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Inequality, Social Respectability, Political Power and Environmental Devastation

  • Jon D. Wisman

Although healthy societies may require a degree of material inequality, higher levels of inequality have been linked to negative social consequences ranging from poorer health to lessened democracy. However, the greatest contemporary threat of excessive inequality might be its contribution to increased environmental degradation. Indeed, avoiding devastation of our habitat may be the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity. This article explores the manner in which inequality encourages consumption, by drawing upon Thorstein Veblen’s theory of consumer behavior, whereby in societies in which fluid social mobility is believed possible, inequality encourages households to seek social certification and social status through consumption. Rising inequality strengthens the intensity with which households struggle to maintain social respectability through increased consumption. The ideology, institutions, and behavior generated by this focus on consumption reduce the potential for people to achieve certification of value through more environmentally friendly domains such as work and community. This article also addresses the manner in which inequality impedes responses aimed at reducing environmental damage by augmenting the political power of those whose interests would be harmed by environmental measures. Indeed, the wealthy benefit threefold from pollution: Their disproportionate consumption is made less expensive, their assets yield higher profits, and they are better able to shield themselves from the negative consequences of environmental destruction.

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Paper provided by American University, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 2010-09 JEL classification: Q50, P16, B15.

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Date of creation: Jul 2010
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Handle: RePEc:amu:wpaper:2010-09
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  1. Morgan Kelly, 2000. "Inequality and crime," Open Access publications 10197/523, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
  2. Samuel Bowles & Yongjin Park, 2004. "Emulation, Inequality, and Work Hours: Was Thorsten Veblen Right?," UMASS Amherst Economics Working Papers 2004-14, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Economics.
  3. Princen, Thomas, 1997. "The shading and distancing of commerce: When internalization is not enough," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 20(3), pages 235-253, March.
  4. Boyce, James K. & Klemer, Andrew R. & Templet, Paul H. & Willis, Cleve E., 1999. "Power distribution, the environment, and public health: A state-level analysis," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 29(1), pages 127-140, April.
  5. Torras, Mariano & Boyce, James K., 1998. "Income, inequality, and pollution: a reassessment of the environmental Kuznets Curve," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 25(2), pages 147-160, May.
  6. J. Solnick, Sara & Hemenway, David, 1998. "Is more always better?: A survey on positional concerns," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 37(3), pages 373-383, November.
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