The social and health impacts of inequality and our current economic system

[This piece is an excerpt from the Economic Design Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability.]

Ecological, social and economic issues and impacts are not as neatly separable as academic disciplines and our reductionist and siloed way of thinking would like them to be. They are in fact deeply intertwined. Communities are buckling under the strain of an economic system oriented towards consumerism and unprecedented global concentrations of power and economic wealth (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

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Inequality drives status insecurity and the advertising industry plays on that to fuel the consumerism that is destroying the planet and with it the basis for all human wealth. Tragically, it is now also clear that all this over-consumption is not making us any happier. “The link between economic development and real improvements in quality of life is broken in rich societies” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2014). Inequality has devastating health impacts, which in turn result in massive economic costs to the health systems of unequal countries.

“Overall levels of health are far worse in more economically unequal societies. Research suggest that life expectancy is longer and rates of adult mortality, infant mortality, mental illness and obesity are lower in more equal societies.” Equality Trust, 2015

Inequality is a huge social, health and economic problem — not only within countries but also between nations. In the next chapter we will take a closer look at the economic mechanisms of re-distribution of wealth (or more precisely the transfer of wealth from the poor (many) to the rich (few) — a system that operates both within and between countries. Here is a link to a well produced video by the activist organization ‘The Rules’ which aims to encourage people to take an active role in the re-design of an economic systems that does not serve humanity or the planets: Global Wealth Inequality — What you never knew you never knew (3:50min.).

Global Wealth Inequality — What you never knew you never knew (3:30 mins video by The Rules)

In addition to economic and ecological crises, we are seeing serious signs of social dislocation worldwide. There is the large-scale displacement of people from the land they have inhabited and worked on for centuries. Much of the displacement is the result of land being integrated into industrial production systems. This applies to land directly transferred from subsistence to export-based agriculture; to the building of dams, roads and other elements of industrial production and distribution infrastructures; and to tourist resorts and other facilities built to serve the global consumer class.

Here are three examples of how increasing global inequality, environmental degradation, and unsustainable methods of production and consumption are engendering a large amount of hidden externalities (impacts and costs) that do not figure in the profit and loss balance sheets of large multi-nationals or the global investor class that comprises their share-holders. Nevertheless these impacts affect the health and wellbeing of billions.

Example 1: Migration

Societies around the world have also come under considerable strain as a result of dramatically increasing disparities in wealth resulting from the concentration of economic power into ever fewer hands. While we often distinguish between environmentally induced migration, economic migration, and political migrants (refugees and asylum seekers), the cause-and-effect relationship between economic, environmental, and political drivers of migration are deeply intertwined and affect each other in complex ways.

Global Migration Flows 2005 to 2010, Wittgenstein Centre
Climate Change and Environmentally Induced Migration as a Global Security Risk (WGBU 2007)

Example 2: Urbanization and slums

Somewhere between 80 and 110 million peasants are estimated to have migrated to the cities over the last decade — perhaps the largest displacement of population ever to have taken place. The growth of mega-cities, particularly in the Global South and in Asia is creating massive social, health, economic, and environmental challenges. Such mega-cities are too big not to fail. They consume a large proportion of global material and energy resources and are responsible for more than half of global green house gas emissions.

More and more people are living in urban slums. Most mega-urban traffic systems are close to collapse and air-quality in these cities is a massive health risk. These cities are facing water and energy shortages, issues with waste management, and social unrest driven by economic inequality, to name just a few of their common problems. Increasingly, urban planners are coming to realize that we need to making sure cities keep below a certain size, as the work-life balance in medium sized cities is much better, and we need to support sustainable rural economies (O’Brien, 2014).

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Example 3: Health impact of pesticides, plastics and endocrine disruptors

The impact of industrial agriculture and the use of fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, not only affects the health of ecosystems but also of the people that inhabit them, with farmers being exposed to the highest health risks. Nine out of the 12 most persistent organic pollutants are pesticides (Stockholm Convention).

The World Health Organization recognize that it is hard to estimate the overall impact of pesticide use on human health and death tolls. In 2002 alone “the global impact of self-poisoning (suicides) from preventable pesticide ingestion has however been estimated to amount to 186,000 deaths and 4,420,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY)” (WHO, 2015).

Evidence is mounting that exposure to agricultural, garden and pesticides used in buildings as well as the pesticides residues we ingest with our food and in drinking water, cause a wide variety of fatal diseases, in particular many different types of cancer (Beyond Pesticides, 2015).

One example of a particularly widely used pesticide, Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ which contains the herbicide glyphosate’, has been linked to systemic health effects in humans and “most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease” (Samsel and Seneff, 2013). Follow this link for further information on why glyphosate should be banned and a review of its effects on health and the environment.

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Many of our common household products, like plastic containers (bottled water), cosmetics such as sun-screen, detergents and disinfectants, all contain chemical compounds that act as so called endocrine disruptors which can have severe effects on humans and wildlife by affecting reproductive health and the development of the nervous system (more information).

A recent World Health Organization report links these compounds to the rise in endocrine related diseases like genital malformation in both sexes, reduction in semen quality and fertility, adverse pregnancies, neurobehavioural disorders, various types of cancers, and the massive increase in type-2 diabetes (WHO, 2012).

Furthermore, the industrial production of hazardous chemicals such as pesticides also carries significant risks as a result of industrial accidents. The most serious of these, the Bhopal disaster in India, occurred when a pesticide plant released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, an intermediate chemical in the production of pesticides. The disaster immediately killed nearly 3,000 people and ultimately caused at least 15,000 deaths.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from the Economic Design Dimensionof Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability, which I recently revised and re-wrote on the basis of an earlier version by Jonathan Dawson (now head of economics at Schumacher College). The 400 hour on-line course offers a whole systems design approach to taking part in the transition towards thriving communities, vibrant regional economies and diverse regenerative cultures everywhere. The Economic Design Dimension starts on March 6th, and runs for 8 weeks (80 study hours). The above is a little preview of the nearly 140 pages of text, links and videos, that participants explore under the guidance of experienced tutors and as part of a global community of learners. For more information take a look at the content of this on-line training for global-local change agents in economic design. Much of the material I used in authoring the curriculum content for this course is based on the years of research I did for my recently published book Designing Regenerative Cultures.

Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures