What stops us from being sustainable: Part 2

by Dayan Pindoria, GSD Competition Prizewinner

‘Sustainable development’ (SD) is widely believed to be an approach towards socio-economic progression that aims to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. At the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.)

Sustainable Development Goals launch in 2016

Figure 1. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Each goal correlates to either a branch of socio-economic inequality (e.g., No.1) or environmental inequality (e.g., No.7). To achieve sustainable development, ideally, the world population must meet all seventeen goals. This essay will argue that socio-economic inequality is the main barrier to SD, and that by reducing this inequality, SD can be achieved.

As an underestimated and often disregarded pillar of sustainability, socio-economic inequality should be considered the main barrier to achieving SD. Factors such as income inequality, especially on an international scale, harm the collective and ‘no man left behind’ pledges of sustainable development that the UN puts forth in the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Due to stark income inequalities, the poorest and lower middle classes may not have the financial status to afford products deemed sustainable, such as electric cars and organic foods.

IZA World of Labor - Measuring income inequality

Figure 2. The Lorenz Curves of the US, Brazil, and Norway.

Figure 2 shows that Brazil’s Lorenz Curve dips deeper than the USA’s and Norway’s, suggesting a greater income inequality, as the Lorenz Curve maps out the cumulative distribution of income. This striking difference between nations poses a threat to sustainable development, as it hinders the process of levelling out countries, especially the poorest, to equal middle ground. Shifting the modern-day society and economy to sustainable methods will require each person to make an effort. With some nations experiencing greater and increasing income inequality, many will face greater challenges in moving towards sustainability compared to others. 

Greater economic inequality correlates to greater social inequality, with a rise in poverty and higher disparity in education levels. According to Suckling, Christensen and Walton, ‘as of 2021, over a quarter of the global population (1.8 billion people) were living below $3.20 a day.’ Moreover, in the same year, about ‘two-fifths of the world population (42%) lived on less than $5.50 a day.’ Greater poverty may trigger greater societal desperation, leading to higher crime rates and more people acting in self-interest. This hinders one of the pledges of sustainable development made by the 193 UN participants – everyone working together to unitedly induce and achieve change. 

These two issues also intertwine with SDG 4, which addresses the importance of quality education for all. The stark disparity in wealth has an impact on the likelihood of a child attending school, with less wealthy families opting to remove their child from education to earn money for the family: ‘As of 2018, around 16% of children all over the world were not enrolled in primary education, while for lower secondary school children, the number reached over 30% in that same year.’ The distinct lack of education for a lot of children implies a potential increase in the spread of misinformation and a reduction in the transfer of knowledge regarding the impact of humankind upon the environment to the next generation. 

The differing levels of income and education are linked to the worsening of environmental inequality. According to the World Population Review, less wealthy countries typically have lower education rates, which results in a lower proportion of the future working class being educated regarding how they can enhance SD. Ultimately, this lower proportion of a population educated about SD culminates in a greater number of individuals who are more likely to forgo sustainable consumption. Therefore, my aforementioned points stand to reason that those individuals who are not educated are more likely to follow principles that harm the UN’s seventeen SDGs.

A secondary, yet noteworthy barrier to SD is environmental inequality, which is defined in this essay as the variations in environmental degradation across different regions. This measure of inequality’s harm to achieving sustainable development is illustrated by the Kuznets Curve.

Figure 3. The Environmental Kuznets Curve

Partially due to colonial exploitation, regions such as Nigeria in Africa have been deprived of their natural resources. Environmental degradation has progressively and unequally worsened after industrialisation: As countries with low GDP per capita, low standard of living and poor access to resources gradually accumulate capital, environmental decay increases drastically since they must resort to non-environmentally friendly methods of production. Although there is a turning point in the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which is where a country has developed sufficiently to continue developing sustainably, this dip occurs after the environment has already been severely degraded. This poses a threat to the environmental sustainable development goals that the UN has set out for 2030. 

While environmental inequality presents a significant barrier to SD, I believe the most pertinent challenge is socio-economic inequality, with environmental degradation as its sub-section. Evidence of this is demonstrated above, where socio-economic issues – the lack of education and income – correlate to environmental issues – lack of green product consumption.

One solution to socio-economic inequality that I would employ is an increase in progressive income taxation for high-income earners. Kate Raworth’s analysis highlights that 57% of global income is in the hands of just 10% of people. Although this is a staggering figure, it can be used as an incentive to act proactively. An increase in tax on the rich leads to greater government revenue and as part of the SD movement, governments in low-income countries and newly emerging economies can hypothetically ring-fence this additional taxation for unemployment schemes which would reduce poverty levels and income inequality. Although there is a limitation to my argument, which is that this does not generate a global redistribution of wealth, reducing forms of inequality on a national scale could build a good foundation to resolve inequality on an international scale thereafter. With a greater redistribution of wealth on a national scale, a greater number of people will meet the ‘financial threshold’ for developing sustainably. In turn, this would trigger a shift towards fulfilling the UN’s ‘no man left behind’ principle. 

Another solution would be greater investment in education to empower the generation facing the biggest threat of unsustainable development. By investing in education, a foundation is built for the future reduction of income and wealth inequality, as a greater proportion of children will have the required skills for higher-wage jobs – a style of employment which is likely to increase since machinery will arguably start to take jobs that are less skilful as technology develops. Moreover, educational investment can be utilised as an opportunity to tackle environmental inequality: Through lessons, students can be educated on how to ensure we do not harm the environment past the point where it becomes irrecoverable.

Therefore, to conclude and restate my thesis, socio-economic inequality is the most significant barrier to achieving sustainable development. Moreover, I am adamant that if solutions, such as the two outlined above, are enacted, this barrier can be overcome.

Header image by Elizabethlies, via Unsplash

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