Category Archives: Inequality

Inequality and an ecosystem service transition

Privately owned forests in the US are being increasingly converted to housing for the wealthy as the demand for cultural ecosystem service, such as recreation and beauty, is out-competing demands for provisioning services such as timber and pulp. These changes are having extensive effects on conservation and forest management practices. They are also resulting in a loss of public access to private forests.

These changes are described in a Oct 13th NY Times article As Logging Fades, Rich Carve Up Open Land in West:

With the timber industry in steep decline, recreation is pushing aside logging as the biggest undertaking in the national forests and grasslands, making nearby private tracts more desirable — and valuable, in a sort of ratchet effect — to people who enjoy outdoor activities and ample elbow room and who have the means to take title to what they want.  Some old-line logging companies, including Plum Creek Timber, the country’s largest private landowner, are cashing in, putting tens of thousands of wooded acres on the market from Montana to Oregon. Plum Creek, which owns about 1.2 million acres here in Montana alone, is getting up to $29,000 an acre for land that was worth perhaps $500 an acre for timber cutting.

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Visualizing Global Inequality

A graph of global inequality from:

Branko Milanovic, Global Income Inequality: What it Is and why it Matters? World Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1, January-March 2006.

Inequality within and amoung countries

The figure compares the income distribution within France, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Rural Indonesia. The graph shows that the poorest 5% of France are richer than the top 5% rural Indonesians. The poorest 5% rural Indonesian are richer than the poorest 5% of Brzil, but the richest 5% of Brazil are as rich as the top 5% of France.

Branko Milanovic, a world bank economist, is one of the world’s top experts on inequality. His 2005 book Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality is an excellent clear introduction to the problems of understanding global inequality.

via Tim Holland.

People dislike inequality

A recent paper suggests that people prefer equality, and are willing to personally suffer to eliminate extreme inequality. Egalitarian motives in humans (Christopher T. Dawes et al Nature 2007 (446) 794-796 ).

Abstract: Participants in laboratory games are often willing to alter others’ incomes at a cost to themselves, and this behaviour has the effect of promoting cooperation. What motivates this action is unclear: punishment and reward aimed at promoting cooperation cannot be distinguished from attempts to produce equality. To understand costly taking and costly giving, we create an experimental game that isolates egalitarian motives. The results show that subjects reduce and augment others’ incomes, at a personal cost, even when there is no cooperative behaviour to be reinforced. Furthermore, the size and frequency of income alterations are strongly influenced by inequality. Emotions towards top earners become increasingly negative as inequality increases, and those who express these emotions spend more to reduce above-average earners’ incomes and to increase below-average earners’ incomes. The results suggest that egalitarian motives affect income-altering behaviours, and may therefore be an important factor underlying the evolution of strong reciprocity and, hence, cooperation in humans.

From Aleks Jakulin on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

Adaptation to climate change: building resilience

In Time magazine’s mediocore issue (March 29th) on responding to climate change, journalist Mark Hertsgaard has a good article on adaptation:

With his curly, salt-and-pepper hair and thoughtful demeanor, Chris West looks like just another mid-career professor as he crosses the streets of Oxford University. But West, trained as a zoologist, is more an activist than an academic these days. From his cramped office around the corner from Balliol College, he directs the government’s UK Climate Impacts Program, which educates individuals and businesses in Britain about the risks they face from climate change and the ways to cope with it.

Not long ago, West says, a DuPont executive boasted to him about how well his company was now treating the environment. Jolly good, West replied, but was DuPont also prepared for how the environment might treat DuPont? “I asked how many of his company’s 300-odd facilities around the world were located in floodplains,” West says. Global warming will bring increased risks to anyone located in a floodplain. “He didn’t know,” West recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t you think you should?'”

For years, global warming was discussed in the hypothetical–a threat in the distant future. Now it is increasingly regarded as a clear, observable fact. This sudden shift means that all of us must start thinking about the many ways global warming will affect us, our loved ones, our property and our economic prospects. We must think– and then adapt accordingly.

In the April 3rd New York Times, Andrew Revkin has a good long article Reports From Four Fronts in the War on Warming on inequality in climate impacts and adaptation.

Over the last few decades, as scientists have intensified their study of the human effects on climate and of the effects of climate change on humans, a common theme has emerged: in both respects, the world is a very unequal place.

In almost every instance, the people most at risk from climate change live in countries that have contributed the least to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the recent warming of the planet.

Those most vulnerable countries also tend to be the poorest. And the countries that face the least harm — and that are best equipped to deal with the harm they do face — tend to be the richest.

To advocates of unified action to curb greenhouse gases, this growing realization is not welcome news.

“The original idea was that we were all in this together, and that was an easier idea to sell,” said Robert O. Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale. “But the research is not supporting that. We’re not in it together.”

The large, industrialized countries are more resilient partly because of geography; they are mostly in midlatitude regions with Goldilocks climates — neither too hot nor too cold.

Many enjoy gifts like the thick, rich soil and generous growing season of the American corn belt or the forgiving weather of France and New Zealand.

But a bigger factor is their wealth — wealth built at least partly on a century or more of burning coal, oil and the other fossil fuels that underlie their mobile, industrial, climate-controlled way of life.

We can create a poverty-free world

Inspiring words from Muhammad Yunus, in his acceptance speech for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize:

I believe that we can create a poverty-free world because poverty is not created by poor people. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social system that we have designed for ourselves; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies that we pursue.

Poverty is created because we built our theoretical framework on assumptions which under-estimates human capacity, by designing concepts, which are too narrow (such as concept of business, credit- worthiness, entrepreneurship, employment) or developing institutions, which remain half-done (such as financial institutions, where poor are left out). Poverty is caused by the failure at the conceptual level, rather than any lack of capability on the part of people.

I firmly believe that we can create a poverty-free world if we collectively believe in it. In a poverty-free world, the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums. When school children take a tour of the poverty museums, they would be horrified to see the misery and indignity that some human beings had to go through. They would blame their forefathers for tolerating this inhuman condition, which existed for so long, for so many people. A human being is born into this world fully equipped not only to take care of him or herself, but also to contribute to enlarging the well being of the world as a whole. Some get the chance to explore their potential to some degree, but many others never get any opportunity, during their lifetime, to unwrap the wonderful gift they were born with. They die unexplored and the world remains deprived of their creativity, and their contribution.

Grameen has given me an unshakeable faith in the creativity of human beings. This has led me to believe that human beings are not born to suffer the misery of hunger and poverty.

To me poor people are like bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a flower-pot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted, only the soil-base that is too inadequate. Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong in their seeds. Simply, society never gave them the base to grow on. All it needs to get the poor people out of poverty for us to create an enabling environment for them. Once the poor can unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.

Let us join hands to give every human being a fair chance to unleash their energy and creativity.

Human development, Canada, and water

Canada ranks #6 in the world according the UN’s annual report on human development. Back in the 1990s Canada ranked number #1, a fact frequently trumpeted by the Canadian government. Today, are Canadians worse off?The human development report ranks countries using an index that combines three aspects of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment in primary, secondary and post-secondary education) and having a decent standard of living (the per capita purchasing power parity adjusted GDP). The index provides a broader view of human wellbeing than economic growth, but it also excludes difficult to measure aspects of development such as respect for human rights, democracy and social inequality.

canada HDI

As shown in the figure above, Canada has actually improved on all these indicators over the past decade, but some other rich countries have improved a little bit more. The difference between Canada and other rich countries is relatively minor, compared to that between the rich countries and other regions.

The big pattern revealed in this graph is that contrary to many people’s expectations, human wellbeing has substantially improved in most places in the world. Trends for individual countries can be explored using an interactive graph on the report’s website. The Swedish NGO Gapminder, founded by Hans Rosling, also has a visualization of data from the 2006 Human Development Report. These show huge changes in child mortality and family size, with some countries in Africa lagging behind the rest of the world.

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Poor People Living in Rich Neighborhoods Die Sooner

A recent theme in epidemiology and health geography is understanding how social inequality impacts health outcomes (for a review see Richard Wilkinson‘s popular science book Impact of Inequality : How to Make Sick Societies Healthier).

Scientific reports on health geography research that shows that:

Poor people die sooner when living in higher-income neighborhoods than in poorer ones, a new report concludes. Researchers analyzed 17 years’ worth of data on thousands of people from four mid-size northern California cities to determine the death rates among different socioeconomic groups residing in the same neighborhoods. Higher rents or property taxes and limited access to free services may explain the paradoxical outcome for poor people with better-off neighbors.

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Mapping US urban income

On radicalcartography Bill Rankin has produced some interesting maps of urban wealth patterns in large US cities, which show how patterns of wealth and poverty vary among US cities.


Maps show the distribution of income (per capita) around the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the US (all those with population greater than 2,000,000). The goal was to test the “donut” hypothesis — the idea that a city will create concentric rings of wealth and poverty, with the rich both in the suburbs and in the “revitalized” downtown, and the poor stuck in between.

This does seem to have some validity in older cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, but in newer cities it is not the case. Instead of donuts, one finds “wedges” of wealth occupying a continuous pie-slice from the center to the periphery.