Inequality and Concern for the Environment

If you have read Stirring the Pot blog very much (thank you), you will have noticed two persistent themes —  inequality and the environment.

Examples of bogs on inequality include:

Class Warfare?

Shame on Us

The Crisis of Our Age: Part II Welfare Economics

Among those on environmental issues are:

When Did We Stop Worrying About Population Growth ?

Pennies for Puffins

The Wilderness Ethic

These seem to be different topics, unrelated except that they may be perceived as part and parcel of the 21st Century liberal agenda (using the American meaning of liberal).  It turns out that there is a strong link between how people around the world think about these two broad issues areas.

One of my UMaine colleagues shared with me a technical article from the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science  which explores the link in human attitudes on inequality and the environment.  The article is titled On the Relationship Between Social Dominance Orientation and Environmentalism:  A 25-Nation Study.  Using well tested and widely accepted techniques, the authors confirmed globally what had been shown to be true in individual countries.  The research confirmed “…a link between support for social inequality among social groups and support for legitimizing myths justifying human dominance over nature…”  Generally speaking, people who are comfortable with inequality in society are also comfortable with the idea that nature exists to serve human wants and needs.

Humans dominating other humans (inequality) and humans dominating nature are just two sides of the same coin.  This finding generally holds up across diverse cultures and various stages of social and economic development.

If this is true, it has broad implications for Americans where inequality has increased steadily for almost a century.  It is not surprising then that as we tolerate this increasing inequality we would also accept the climate change denial that persists in our culture.

This finding also has implications for how environmentalists talk about what they do and why Americans should support greater protections for the natural world.  Increasingly, as I have written , environmental groups have turned to justifying their work to the general public by emphasizing the value of ecosystem services provided by nature.  In other words, we should protect nature because it provides for humans services we would have to pay money for otherwise.

Unfortunately, this is just another way of saying that nature exists for human wellbeing, a perspective that naturally leads to human domination of nature.  If nature is nothing more than a commodity for generating human benefits, then we can ignore any adverse effects of human actions as long as those effects do not hurt the flow of human values from natural systems.  The idea of ecosystem service valuation reinforces the idea that humans should dominate nature.

So the irony is that by focusing on ecosystems service valuation, environmental groups cause less support for protecting nature.  This new research on inequality and environmentalism helps explain why this happens.

But how real is this effect?  Research by some of my UMaine colleagues shows that “pricing nature” reduces significantly how much people are willing to donate to support conservation.*   It follows that acknowledging nature as intrinsically valuable, worthwhile without reference to human benefits, would lead to more support for environmentalism.

Being for fairness among humans and seeing humans as part of nature is all of a whole cloth.


*See: Goff, S. H., Waring, T. M., & Noblet, C. L. (2017). Does pricing nature reduce monetary support for conservation?: evidence from donation behavior in an online experiment. Ecological economics141, 119-126.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.