Yesterday I said I’d explain what the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s book and the writings and speeches of others on inequality have to do with consumerism and its impact on the environment. So let me get right to the point: All of this focus on unequal distribution of wealth is causing us to take our eyes off the environmental ball at a time when swift actions could help mitigate the extent of future ecological catastrophes.
In all probability, within a few decades, it will make very little difference to us whether the median annual income is $50,000 or $100,000, because we’ll be too busy struggling with resources wars, eco-refugees, droughts, floods, water shortages, hurricanes, wildfires, and on and on, to care about such trivialities.
In the meantime, putting more money into the hands of the middle class will almost certainly exacerbate our environmental ills. Why? Because middle class people are likely to spend much of their additional income on stuff they could actually live quite well without, and that sort of over-consumption is the very foundation of human-caused environmental problems.
Keep in mind that everything that goes into producing, transporting, using, maintaining, and disposing of our possessions inflicts costs on the environment, even though most of those costs occur out of sight. We deplete resources and produce waste (including pollution) during every step of a product’s lifecycle: from the extraction, transportation, and transformation of resources; to the manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of finished goods; and finally to the disposal of used-up or broken-down trash.
I don’t mean to say that unequal distribution is a frivolous issue. Wealth translates readily into political power, so the concentration of wealth in a tiny fraction of the population is a danger to democracy. And clearly, there are too many people within the United States and around the world who work hard but barely scrape by—even in good times. When misfortune strikes, these folks lack the reserves to cope with the consequences of adversity.
So thinking about the unequal distribution of wealth and what to do about it is certainly worthwhile—as long as we keep the environmental consequences of overconsumption centermost in our minds.