In the West, the discourse on sustainability is causing a rift between proponents of sustainable policies and lifestyles and those who fear that overly demanding environmental norms will have too much of an impact on their welfare and wellbeing. The problem here is that many climate-related measures invoke higher costs on an individual level (e.g. increasing consumption tax) or on a societal level (e.g. subsidies for clean solutions) and tend to hit lower-income families the hardest, even though their ecological footprint is already quite modest. This raises the question how sustainability can be promoted without increasing social inequality.
Two of the world’s most pressing problems, climate change and (global) inequality, are deeply intertwined. Rising temperatures and extreme weather events will hit developing economies the hardest and, as long as economic growth is coupled with increasing energy use, raising the standard of living in those countries will almost certainly come with increasing greenhouse gas emissions. On a smaller scale, something similar is true for developed economies where higher-income groups are responsible for most emissions and are better able to deal with the possible effects of climate change (e.g. by relocating to higher grounds), while those in the lower-income brackets have a smaller ecological footprint and will be hit hardest by most climate-related policies.This, however, is not merely a practical or economic problem. It also represents a moral challenge. As we noted before, sustainability has become somewhat of a secular religion for many (highly educated) people in the West and not abiding by its rules equals immoral behavior. It is thus tempting to look down on people who drive old and polluting cars, eat low-cost non-organic food or simply pick the cheapest energy provider. However, on the whole, the most vocal proponents of sustainable policies and lifestyles do not necessarily lead the most sustainable lives themselves. Others, who are less outspoken or even critical of the sustainability discourse, may very well have far smaller ecological footprints as they, typically, have less to spend on carbon-intensive practices (e.g. driving a gas-guzzling car, but only for short trips). They, in other words, are likely to lead a more sustainable lifestyle by default and it would be unjust to put the burden of preventing climate change solely on them.As it stands, the societal fault line between environmentalists and their critics needs to be mended before any meaningful environmental policies can be implemented. This probably requires the highly educated and well-earning parts of society to acknowledge the fact they are the biggest polluters and that simply making things more expensive or providing subsidies for green technology will not make for a sustainable and just future. In a practical sense, this first and foremost implies that any environmental consumption-related taxes, or rising costs of energy, would have to be compensated by lower income taxes for lower incomes. And, similarly, subsidies for green technology should be available and attainable for lower-income households as well. While such subsidies are mostly part of sustainable policy mixes already, much societal unrest still centers around subsidies for the “rich”; for solar panels and electric vehicles. Apparently, much more can be done to create opportunities for lower-income households to reap the benefits of such subsidies as well (e.g. shared EVs in low-income neighborhoods). And, more attention could be paid to the ways in which local (or national) subsidies also result in local jobs. While it is still unclear whether it has had the desired effect, the German Energiewende, just like the U.S. Green New Deal, was always presented as a tool for job creation as well as for reaching environmental goals.More interesting, perhaps, is the question what society can learn from the sustainable-by-default lifestyles of lower-incomes families. As we have noted before, consumer behavior is rooted in practices that are shaped by various structural and cultural forces and these may be changed to induce more sustainable behavior. A simple example would be to stimulate people to live closer to their places of work and, as such, reduce their commuting distance. Culturally, there may be something to gain from a different perspective on holidays. Currently, there’s quite a lot of talk about “flying shame”, but this is merely an afterthought that does not really alter people’s behavior. A more profound shift in the practice of vacationing (and international business alike) would be needed to prevent people from flying all over the world. Such a shift would probably have to include agrowing (re-)appreciation of nearby holiday destinations (i.e. a “staycation”) and possibly prioritizing company (i.e. friends and family) over destination.