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How equal is your equality?

Updated Friday, 21st March 2014

Equality is possible but only if the West gets used to living on less, writes Steven Primrose-Smith.

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A man hopes for equality, but also a lot of luxuries and treats Global financial equality, or something close to it, seems like a worthy goal. Russell Brand certainly thinks so. Imagine for a minute you could put aside the difficulty of bringing this about and click your fingers to create such equality [See The Philosophy of Russell Brand at Equality By Lot]. What level of equal wealth would you want?

I'd imagine most people would set their desired standard level of wealth to be a tad higher than their current stash, assuming that if the super-rich got levelled then there'd be a little bit extra heading their way. Those content with what they already have would probably accept their own current standard of living as a workable base. Some people may even opt to take a small cut if it meant the world would stop starving.

But as well as financial equality there are other worthy goals, such as protection of the environment and the management of global resources.

The goal of financial equality is to make poor people richer. Unfortunately, wealthier people buy more stuff. They consume more. Poor people don't consume much. They mend things that are broken. They don't need to be told to recycle them. Poor people don't buy expensive, food-mile-heavy, imported vegetables. They grow what they can themselves. They are, by necessity, green, unlike rich people like us. And we are rich. Even if you are unemployed in the UK and living with the help of food banks there is still a greater difference in living standards between you and a $1-a-day African than there is between you and Donald Trump.

Fewer global hectares for us

There is a measure of the planet's resources. The concept of 'global hectares' ;encompasses actual hectares but also includes other resouces we consume like oil, and the fish in our seas. There are around 14 billion global hectares available on Earth. If we shared these resources reasonably equally – in a way we'd have to if we wanted equality – we'd get just a bit less than two each. If you are reading this in Western Europe or North America you are currently using somewhere around seven. In terms of global hectares, only one country in Europe lives within its means and that's Moldova, by far and away the poorest, with a GDP per capita half that of the second poorest, Ukraine, and less than a tenth of Britain's.

It now becomes clear that global financial equality is possible but only if we in the West – all of us – make do on a lot, lot less. Left to decide for ourselves, few would be willing to go so far.

Maybe we could say that if we aren't prepared to make things truly equal, we could at least make things more equal. In a sense this is already happening. Thanks to growing economies, nations like India, China and Brazil have got more money than before. Once this process is complete, there will be millions or billions more people whose lifestyle could be described as Western or approaching it.

The biggest threat to the environment no longer comes from population growth – that's predicted to slow – but from the 'Westernification' of populous, formerly poor countries. As they become richer they consume more. And they have as much right to those global resources as we do. So it seems that, whether or not we actively choose to reduce our living standards, they are going to be reduced regardless. Or we could fight for those standards, keeping others resource-poor. But we can't fight at the same time as claiming we want anything approaching equality. How equal do you want it to be?

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
Want to know more about studying social sciences at The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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