Social Inequality And Environmental Behavior
Moving forward, some researchers argue that creating truly safe and equitable societies will mean two things: Fixing social inequalities to improve people’s well-being while at the same time reducing the harms facing our planet.
But how do these two dimensions (human and ecological well-being) affect each other? More specifically, how will people’s treatment of the environment change as we continue to improve human equity and overall well-being? For example, research consistently shows that as countries become more wealthy, their meat consumption tends to increase (e.g., see this study summary).
The authors of this paper suggest that combining two fields of study — human behavioral and well-being research — might lead to a better understanding of how we can help the environment and reduce poverty and inequality at the same time. While the insights may be interesting to animal advocates, the authors ultimately hope to inspire scholars with research ideas to further explore this issue.
Behavioral research has investigated many issues related to the environment. For example, researchers have recently tried to understand why societies haven’t taken action against climate change and biodiversity loss. Ultimately, behavioral research has taught us that information and attitudes are not the only driving factors for change. Often our surroundings and the social context we are in determine our behavior more than we think.
Unfortunately, behavioral research regarding the link between social inequality and environmental behaviors is not always clear. In some contexts, it seems that social inequality can have negative effects on how people cooperate and engage in sustainable behaviors — for example, some research has found that inequality, when visible to everyone in a group, hinders cooperation. Meanwhile, other research suggests that people may be more likely to rally together when faced with an environmental emergency (although cooperating as a group doesn’t necessarily mean the group will engage in pro-environmental behaviors). Nevertheless, it remains unclear how different forms of inequality directly affect how people treat the environment.
Well-being research can potentially help us understand what it means to create safe spaces for humans and what impact this will have on the environment. However, this field of study has thus far not been heavily involved with environmental behavior. Although some researchers have looked at the relationship between monetary wealth and sustainable behavior, poverty is just one way of looking at well-being. It is important to understand well-being as multidimensional, including factors such as health, food justice, and social acceptance. We may also discover other measures of inequality and well-being that need to be addressed as we move toward collective justice.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between inequality and sustainable behavior, the researchers suggest several different topics in need of further investigation. For example, scholar-advocates might consider the following questions:
- How can poverty reduction programs and efforts to promote sustainable natural resource use work in harmony?
- How have different groups interacted with the environment over long periods of time as they’ve experienced poverty and other inequalities?
- How does the experience of inequality impact how people treat the environment? Similarly, how do different dimensions of well-being (e.g., wealth, health improvements, food security) impact people’s environmental behaviors?
For animal advocates, this paper serves as an important reminder that social justice issues are often interconnected. Although the authors focused on general environmental inequalities, there are many ways that the oppression of animals intersects with other social justice issues. Ultimately, we can’t fix climate change and achieve animal liberation while causing human suffering, and we also need to find ways of improving people’s well-being without exploiting animals and the environment.