The larger the gulf between rich and poor the harder it is to find solutions for problems such as climate change
Inequality is the real issue for the world’s growing population. (Photography: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Is no-win politics on the rise? Unemployed protesters campaigning against a failed financial system are thought feckless, but employed ones get condemned as part-time and fair-weather. Economic growth drives environmental destruction, but without it, we’re told the economy will fall apart. A rising global population is deemed a threat, but so is a falling national one. All brilliantly confusing.
Anyone pondering the right way ahead feels paralysed by choices and apparent contradictions, but only the status quo benefits if we get frozen in the headlights. Several half-relegated issues, such as the population debate, have ridden the issue of climate change back into the centre of public debate. Population, of course, is about much more than that.
Germany, for example, is paranoid about the economic implications of a shrinking, aging population, while anti-immigration activists in the UK fan a range of scares about our rising population. The fact that UK population size is now on an apparent trend to overtake Germany is meant to be hugely symbolic, exactly how, though, is less clear. The difference between Germany and the UK is largely explained by different migration patterns, immigration history and average age of population (we’re much younger in the UK meaning more women are still likely to have children: the median age of women differs by a significant five years between the two countries).
Immigration compensated for the UK’s declining domestic birthrate and has brought a wide range of economic benefits. Taxes paid by migrant workers, for example, outweigh their costs. And “regularising” undocumented migrants already resident and working in the country could bring a £3bn economic benefit, according to a study by the London School of Economics.
But what benefits the UK in terms of the thousands of trained health and education professionals who migrate here to staff our schools and hospitals, can be a damaging drain on the sending countries.
Globally, fertility rates have fallen at such a rate that it is hard to imagine any socially acceptable policy intervention making any significant impact. About half a century ago, the average woman had between five and six children; now she has 2.6. At the level of 2.1 populations stabilise, and below that begin to decline.
High birth rates are crucially a function of poverty, related to lack of basic education (particularly for girls); lack of access to reproductive health services; high infant/child mortality rates; and dependence on adult children for income (not least as migrants). Whatever undermines health and education services in poor countries with high birth rates – the economic policies of international financial institutions or the drain of skilled professionals to rich countries – exacerbates the problem. In a less unequal world, the pressure to migrate would be greatly reduced.
The current economic system against which the “occupation” protest across the industrialised world are directed, both creates and depends on unsustainable consumption, and has driven income and asset inequality within and between nations. Fred Pearce, author of Peoplequake, argues that an obsession with population distracts from the real issue, overconsumption among the rich.
He quotes Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, who calculated that the world’s richest half a billion people – about 7% of the global population – account for half of the world’s emissions. Whereas, the poorest half of the world’s population account for just 7% of emissions.
Inequality is at the heart of the problem, whether the split is between the 99% majority and the 1% minority in whose interests the financial system operates, or the 7% representing half the world’s emissions and the rest.
Contrastingly, a huge range of problems, including over-consumption, become easier to solve in societies that are more equal (inequality drives status competition which in turn fuels consumption). The evidence of the last three decades is that redistribution is far more effective at tackling poverty than waiting for trickle-down from increasingly unequal growth. When the New Economics Foundation modelled the impact on the UK economy of reducing consumption to meet our climate change targets, we found that moving to Danish levels of equality compensated for the impact on GDP.
Which brings us full cycle to the protests in favour of financial reform (employed or not). Andrew Haldane at the Bank of England estimates that the ratio of CEO pay at the biggest seven banks compared to the national median wage in the US was 100:1 in 1989 and rose to 500:1 in 2007.
Reversing such startling polarisation, with active economic policy designed to increase equality at the national and global level, might not solve everything, but if it helps tackle economic stability, population concerns and climate change, that would be a good start.
Author: Andrew Simms
Source: The Guardian