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Digested Read – Spirit Level 5: Sustainability

Written By: - Date published: 12:58 pm, October 1st, 2010 - 16 comments
Categories: equality, sustainability - Tags:

Digested Read Digested – Equality works better for a sustainable future.

Equality does not equal sustainability, but it is much more suited to the task than our current system.  Without the constant need to consume more and more as we compete for status, we use up far less of the earth’s resources.

There is a strong link between inequality and consumerism.  Everything from advertising (NZ & USA spend twice as much on advertising as a percentage of GDP compared to Norway & Denmark) to working hours (there is a strong trend between average hours worked to how disparate middle and upper incomes are) reflects this.  How we evaluate everything we own – and often ourselves – depends on how they compare relative to those around us.  A big house ten years ago is now less than average, and lower status/worth, because so many bigger ones have now been built.  A car from 10 years ago is sluggish when we compare to modern cars.  A suit from 10 years ago will no longer get us the stylish job we want.  So we need to constantly consume to keep up appearances, to keep up in the race.

But that is not sustainable.  Even if we develop better technologies, giving us, for example, more fuel efficient cars – we’d save money, and then spend it on more goods that consume more of the planet…

To get sustainability we really need a steady-state economy, rather than one focussed on growth.  But ‘Capitalism can no more be “persuaded” to limit growth than a human being can be “persuaded” to stop breathing’ (Murray Bookchin – US libertarian philosopher).  So we need a better system.

One where we all pull together (as in WWII) to fight the problem of climate change.  The rich must do more, not just to give the average and poor an incentive to also work towards the sustainability goal, but also because they can.  As India with its 1.6 tons of CO2 per person per year needs the US with 24 tons to do more, so the rich must do much more towards slowing climate change – they’re responsible for a lot more of it.

More equal societies are already on a better path towards sustainability.

They recycle more:

and they’re more innovative, ready to develop the technologies that will be needed for our sustainable future:

The next graph I want is one showing Human Development Index versus ecological footprint per capita.  Cuba is the only country with a sustainable ecological footprint that also has a high human development.  This despite the US embargo meaning they miss out on many of the latest and best technologies that could significantly help their sustainability.

As I don’t have that graph, here’s a similar one, with more countries in a slightly easier target area:

Sustainability is achievable with being highly developed and with no suffering to life expectancy.  But highly unequal developed societies struggle to go anywhere near that goal, and there appear solid reasons behind that.  A more equal society would make the necessary tasks ahead much easier.

Next Friday: A Better Future?

For more detail: Read the bookBuy it and/or support the Trust.

Right-wing trolls: r0b had a recent post with links refuting the arguments you’re about to make…

16 comments on “Digested Read – Spirit Level 5: Sustainability ”

  1. tsmithfield 1

    So, lets say all the rich individuals in the country lost their money to Nigerian scams, the country would suddenly become better off. Correct?

    • Bunji 1.1

      Even though you’re just being obtuse ts, whilst the country as a whole wouldn’t be financially better off, in a few years down the track with less showy possessions in everyone’s face and more of a feeling of empathy to & from the formally wealthy, you may well find trust and happiness has increased, yes. A bit further than that and crime and education statistics might improve.

      But the wealthy could always take less of the countries resources for themselves, leaving more for everyone else, and then we really would all be better off.

  2. comedy 2

    Man, of all the Spirit level graphs those would have to be amongst the weakest.

    • Bunji 2.1

      They still make a point comedy, which is more than you are likely to bother to do.

      • comedy 2.1.1

        Yeah a point that you can pick and choose statistics to make whatever case you like. …. weak Bunji very weak indeed.

        Hey I’ve got an idea if the rich must do much more towards slowing climate change – as they’re responsible for a lot more of it…. why don’t we just kill them !


        • Bunji

          The Spirit Level is based on decades of research. It is itself a summary of hundreds of peer-reviewed and published papers. You have graphs of particular things to fit all that into 1 book, but they are examples. When I’m then massively cutting that book down into a summary, inevitably it is much more just assertions with odd examples and statistics. That’s why encourage you to read the book.

          There are a couple of better graphs in the book that I unfortunately don’t have access to (as alluded to in the post). But the sustainability section, like the final section of ideas for how to achieve better equality, is a lot more assertion than dry proof (which the rest of the book tends to be). But it makes a lot of logical sense that facing the new challenge of climate change and global sustainability will be much more able to achieve that if they are (as more equal societies are) more trusting of each other, more able to pull together due to a greater level of empathy, better educated, and more healthy mentally and physically. Much better than an arch capitalist society that believes only in competition and cutting your neighbour’s throat to get ahead of them in the rat race. No?

          (oop, you’ve adjusted your comment – I like the look of the 10:10 film! brilliant!)

          • RedLogix

            Just finished Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” which is a study into how societies succeed or fail and the reasons why. When faced with a challenges to their survival Diamond explores the diverse examples of how people have responded… and whether it worked or not.

            Although Diamond never explicitly identifies ‘inequality’ as a key factor, he clearly implies that societies that are highly stratified, whose decision making elites have insulated themselves from the ordinary people, are the most likely to cling to their entrenched values and privileges…. and thus fail to make the crucial decisions need to change their fate.

            As he puts it, the rich earned themselves the final privilege of being the last to starve to death.

        • roger nome

          Comedy – the spirit level is possibly the most powerfully-argued politically and socially oriented book i’ve read for many years. You just seem to have not bothered comprehending any of it.

          You’ve just taken a knee-jerk ideological and/or materially interested stance against it. You’ve failed to mount any serious argument against it, and instead you’ve just shouted repeatedly “correlation is not proof of cause” – and while that, in theory is true, an intellgent person, that actually bothers to read the book cannot help but be overwhelmed by its wieght of factual evidence.

          You have to be a particularly blinkardly and ideologically intransigent to ignore this. Or maybe you’re just plain tupid. Your “why don’t we just kill them” would certainly indicate this.

  3. Coney Island Baby 3

    If anyone believes the USA is not an innovative country, I’ve got some patents I’d like to sell ’em. As usual with The Spirit Level, they’re playing hard and fast with the facts…

    “Another example is their use of low quality data to assess patent intensity. In our initial report, we found that the data regarding a link between patents and inequality in The Spirit Level was innaccurate. Wilkinson and Pickett defend their book, explaining that the data is from the World Intellectual Property Organization. But they actually give a link from http://www.nationmaster.com, where the data is clearly wrong.

    Wilkinson and Pickett explain to us that patents per capita are roughly the same for the US and for Portugal. Anyone who goes to the actual source – to actually look up data from the World Intellectual Property Organization rather than just log on to http://www.nationmaster.com – would find that the US in fact has close to 50 times as many patents per capita as Portugal. It is telling that Wilkinson and Pickett did not do so when confronted with the finding that the US is no more innovative than Portugal, which is absurd at face value. Then again, these are the same authors who believe Cubans have a longer lifespan than Americans.”


    The Spirit Level Delusion puts the rest of the nonsense to bed:


    • Bunji 3.1

      I’ve posted on a previous thread responses to both the Tax-Payers’ Alliance (a bunch of right-wing idealogues with an axe to grind), and to the spirit level delusion. It’s all here.

      But I’m not particularly keen to take the tax-payers’ alliance word against a peer-reviewed summary of peer-reviewed research unless they show me the money. Put up the WIPO stats, rather than just asserting that someone else has got them wrong.

      As for Cuba having a longer life expectancy than the US? Well that’s true. Cuba used to rank even more impressively on life expectancy lists, but like us, has fallen down the ratings. So if that’s the level of the Tax-Payers’ obvious truisms, their contentious points must be well down the trustability list…

      (The US is an innovative country. With such diversity in a country of over 300million they’d have to be… but these results are per capita, and their lack of social mobility and struggling incredibly unequal education system leaves an awful lot of people without the skills to be innovative patent-makers)

    • roger nome 3.2

      Coney: I’ve done similar work to the spirit level:



      My advice to you is – when the causative factors are obvious – stop being a dick and accept that the inequality you want has its prices. When the causative factors aren’t obvious then nit pick on minor points ( what you’ve done already), but admit that you can’t fault the message of the book – “huge wealth inequality accross society will cause hyper-competitiveness and deprivation, meaning more social ills.. What you’ve failed to do is accept the book’s general validity, which is a sign that you’re just a dick.

  4. RedLogix 4

    Our merry band of right wingers having of course no problem with the idea inequality is irrelevant to how well a country is doing then? How likely is that?

    If you don’t like W&P’s hypothesis, then what evidence do you have for the null?

    • Mr Magoo 4.1

      Are you kidding me??

      “Evidence” is for people who don’t believe strongly enough. There is not enough truthiness in evidence.
      All you need to do is have a common sense spin line that sounds reasonable and is repeated many, many times and it is OBVIOUS that it is correct.
      Conversely all you need to do to disprove the opposing view is to simply introduce the possibility of it being wrong.

      Truisms don’t need evidence to be true….in the mind of the RWNJ…

  5. Coney Island Baby 5


    Like most of The Spirit Level, that patent graph has never been peer-reviewed, and the Swedish critics showed the WIPO in their original report (on page 26)


    If your interest in The Spirit Level is more than a peg to hang your existing political views on, you should read that report. Also, read the responses to Wilkinson & Pickett’s responses:


    (Which, BTW, deals with the Cuba question).

    There are various other critiques and reviews from people on the left and right that are worth reading. But at least check out Kate Pickett tying herself in knots on the BBC when asked some basic questions about statistics:


    To my knowledge, the BBC isn’t run by right-wingers with an ‘axe to grind’.

    • RedLogix 5.1

      We’ve had these links to those extreme right wing ideological axe grinders over and over. We’ve read them and rejected them.

      On the other hand, most critics of TSL when push comes to shove, admit they haven’t even read the book they are professing to debunk.

      Like the climate change deniers, the only arguments you have are nit-picking around the statistical methods, a process intended to raise doubt and prevent real action. You believe yourselves to be better than ordinary people, you believe that extremes of wealth and poverty in this world are the natural way of things, you believe it’s your birth-right to enjoy entrenched privilege … and thats how you want it to stay.

      That is why you have no counterargument to TSL… because you are ashamed to articulate the truth… that you believe in inequality.

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