In Which We Pick on Picketty, Part II

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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.

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2 thoughts on “In Which We Pick on Picketty, Part II

  1. Sean Odell

    Sally,
    Good points. I had not thought of the propensity to spend in relation to the redistribution of wealth to the middle class. I think that redistribution to the poor might be a good idea. Redistribution to bring them up to a living wage (but not an over consuming wage?) Ate the poor too often forgotten in discussions of redistribution? Government programs are in place for them but are woefully inadequate. What effect does raising people out of poverty have on the environment?
    P.S. I’m consuming Picketty’s book from a bookstore. I have a hold on a copy at the library, but I’m 83rd in line. Consuming less sometimes takes more time.

    • Thanks for the comments and questions, Sean!

      I started to write a reply, but it quickly outgrew the comment box, so I’ve decided to turn it into a post. I think the title will be “Redistribution and the Middle Class,” so look for it there.

      P.S. I was lucky enough to get Picketty’s book at the library, so I consumed the book’s content (to the extent of my ability), but not the entire book (just my portion of the wear-and-tear). When I first heard about the book, I put a hold on it. As I recall, I was #13 on the list, but the library bought 13 copies, so I got the book right after the library received it.

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