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How does equality link to global sustainability? Richard Wilkinson interview

Words: Owen Gaffney

Interview: Jon Turney

The global recession, the financial crisis and the Occupy movement have pushed the debate on wellbeing and equality up the mainstream media agenda. Now, we are beginning to see glimpses appearing in the press of how wellbeing and equality link to global sustainability.  In a recent interview in the Guardian, media mogul Arianna Huffington declared, “Burnt-out people do not create a sustainable planet.”

The owner of the Huffington Post, one of the world’s most-read online media sites, went on, “We have to get away from the way men have constructed work around war metaphors and sports metaphors and praising each other for working 24/7 … these phrases simply encourage a very destructive way to lead our lives, and we are paying a very high price.”

Interviewer Decca Aitkenhead was skeptical. Apparently Huffington, a famous workaholic, once declared ownership of three BlackBerry phones. But Huffington is on to something. She’s hooking into a growing body of research linking personal wellbeing to societal equality and global sustainability.

British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson is a leader in this field. With co-author Kate Pickett, Wilkinson published the highly influential The Spirit Level (Allen Lane 2009). The book’s arresting subheading – “Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” – primes the reader for its ultimate conclusion: in more equal societies people at all levels tend to be happier, have better health, and enjoy more social cohesion, more trust and less crime. Moreover, in these societies, such as Sweden or Japan, it seems there is a greater desire to address collective challenges relating to, for example, environmental pollution and sustainability.

In June, Wilkinson was a guest speaker at a Future Earth Town Hall meeting in London. We caught him afterwards to discuss his research (interview above) and how it links to global sustainability.

Central to Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis is the link between wellbeing and status. They contend that in more unequal societies, status competition drives consumption. This becomes an arms race to keep up with the Joneses, Kumars or Chens.

Wilkinson says, “People deny global warming … because it conflicts with consumerist aspirations. (There is a) sense that your wellbeing depends on your income. (But) it is actually about relative income, about social position. At a societal level, that is a zero-sum game. We can’t all improve our social status.”

Indeed, Wilkinson is convinced that greater equality may be both a precondition for achieving sustainability and improving quality of life. Over the past 30-50 years, people in rich countries have seen their happiness and wellbeing plateau despite vast increases in material living standards, according to Wilkinson and Pickett. They argue curbing greenhouse gas emissions – even curbing economic growth  may not dent wellbeing in the wealthiest nations.

When it comes to societal transformation for a sustainable future, they give three reasons why equality could be part of the equation.

First, inequality drives materialism.

Second, people living in more equal societies value collective responsibility more. This leads to a host of sustainable spin-offs: smaller carbon footprints, more recycling, less meat eaten, less waste produced. Wilkinson says that even the business community is not immune to these effects: “There is evidence from an international survey of the opinions of business leaders that leaders in more equal countries attach a higher priority to international environmental agreements.”

The third reason also relates to business. Transforming societies will require significant innovation. It seems more equal societies tend to have a higher level of patents per capita, possibly because of more efficient use of human capital. Such conditions make these countries valuable engines of creativity. (Ref: Equality, Sustainability and the Quality of Life. BMJ 2010;341:c5816)

In the past two decades, we’ve heard substantial rhetoric about the need for a global paradigm shift, much of this coming from Earth-system scientists concerned about the consequences of inaction. Few, though, have tackled ways to achieve this. In the meantime, politicians have begun to take a keen interest in research on equality and its links to crime, obesity and other social and health concerns. We’ve heard much less public discussion, though, on links between equality and global sustainability, yet this is showing tremendous promise as a foundation stone for a new paradigm. Huffington’s efforts to connect these together and bring this debate to a wider audience are welcome.  


Richard Wilkinson was speaking at the Future Earth Town Hall, hosted by the British Academy and the Royal Society, London 21 June, 2013. 

Find out more about Richard Wilkinson and his work on equality at the Equality Trust.

The feature-length documentary, The Spirit Level, is scheduled for release in 2013 (Trailer).

Slideshare presentation of The Spirit Level.

Richard Wilkinson's TED Talk.

Richard Wilkinson at the Planet Under Pressure conference, March 2012.

Owen Gaffney is Director of Communications at the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme based in Stockholm.

Jon Turney is a freelance journalist based in Bristol.