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Prosperous Equality

Frustration. That is my typical response to the news of the world. There are so many ills and so little substantive dialogue, in media or government, about real pathways to change. And for those of us concerned with peak energy and the potential collapse of civilization, there is no dialogue, no acknowledgement of even the potential of a problem. A feeling of helplessness and even resignation is a natural response to disenfranchisement. Adherent to the Maximum Empower Principle, the world is self-organizing to maximize empower. That means that energy and resource use continues to expand as long as possible and a growth based economy maximizes empower. In the current state of energy resources, stopping growth and transitioning to a steady state or dynamic equilibrium economy is simply not possible, even as we exhaust our earth’s resources and constantly increase our risk of catastrophic climate change. There is a certain fatalism to that can be demoralizing. Why bother working for change if significant deviation from the growth paradigm is not possible, due to thermodynamic law?


Figure depicting the income gap in the United States

What is possible is preparation, by creating a society that can correct its course, to adapt. The way we govern and run our economies is not now structured in a way that it would even be possible to transition successfully to a lower energy world. This is something we can change, and we will need to in the coming years. In their book, A Prosperous Way Down, the Odums laid out a pathway for preparation, transition, and descent. The policies and actions for preparation are what we should be working towards now. A recent work by Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level, provides strong evidence for action towards perhaps the most important step for adjusting society to be able to descend: reduction of inequality. They present evidence linking higher inequality to increased instances mental health issues, increased drug use, decreased physical health and life expectancy, decreased average educational performance, higher rate of teenage births, higher rates of violent crimes, higher rates of imprisonment, and fewer opportunities for upward mobility. The authors compared degree of inequality and social ills between 23 rich countries, and within the 50 US States, and found statistically significant relationships between inequality and all the problems listed above. The US has the highest degree of inequality in the world, with the gap increasing rapidly for the past 30 years.

US income distribution over time

The income gap between the rich and poor has grown over time

Wilkenson and Pickett present a compelling case that social inequality is the root cause for many of the problems we face and not just a correlation, and that high degrees of inequality negatively impact the rich as well as the poor, as the rich suffer from high health care costs, decreased community structure and trust, and higher rates of violent crime, along with the poor. It is important to note that the authors are not advocating for a communistic, total equality society. Rather they are advocating for closing the income gap to a more reasonable level. Interestingly, countries with disparate spending on social welfare had high levels of equality. Nations that have large social welfare programs such as Scandinavia and much of the rest of Western Europe share high levels of equality with Japan, which has one of the lowest levels of spending on social programs. The European countries achieved greater levels of equality by redistributing wealth while Japan has had a more even wage distribution from the beginning. The authors name these two pathways to greater equality and advocate pursuit of both paths.

Moving towards a non-profit economy, increasing the prevalence of cooperatives and employee owned companies while restricting or eliminating speculative company stock trading would go a long way towards reducing the income gap. This change could be triggered by restructuring the tax code to increase taxes for higher income brackets more while giving tax breaks to employee-owned and controlled corporations/non-profits, investing in education for lower-income groups, and refocusing media around more fact-based reporting and presentation of edifying, rather than sensational, information. The bottom line can no longer be the end all be all for success. Success for a corporation should be redefined as providing a necessary good or service at a sustainable rate and maintaining employment. Stafford Beer, noted scientist in the field of operational management and cybernetics, advocated for something similar. He advocated for the capitalization of employees by involving them in decision-making and sharing in successes. Beer argued that this would increase the efficiency of the company as well. Wilkenson and Pickett suggest that all employees should be responsible for setting wages and making decisions, which would likely result in a much more even wage distribution and more ethical behavior.


Graph from the Equality Trust depicting the relationship between inequality and an aggregate measure of health and social problems

These changes will not be easy, as wealthy and corporate interests have tremendous influence on politics, particularly in the US. It will take a great effort by the populace for these changes to be made, and it may have to get worse before it gets better. But the people know that the status quo does not work, as shown in the populist Occupy Wall Street movement, the recent protests in Brazil, and Arab Spring movements throughout the Middle East. We know the root cause of our societal ills that so many people suffer from. With this knowledge it is irrational not to work towards reduction of inequality, difficult as that course of action may be. We must force our governments to represent the interests of everyone for the future, not merely some, for now.

adbusters occupy

One aspect of inequality that was not fully addressed by The Spirit Level, but essential for preparing for a lower energy transition, is that of inequality between nations. It is likely difficult to statistically demonstrate the relationship of inter-nation inequality to violent conflict, lower life expectancy, environmental pollution, or lack of ability to progress from a poor nation to a more developed one. More violence, health problems, environmental degradation, and lack of technology are expected in less developed nations. One very clear example of inter-nation inequality is the export of environmental impacts from developed nations to developing countries. Much of the exploitation of natural resources such as timber and minerals now occurs in less developed nations with lax environmental regulations and lower wages. This has the dual advantage of producing goods more cheaply and allowing the developed nation to avoid impacting their own environment, effectively exporting the environmental impact of consumption. The harmful working conditions and degraded environment negatively affect human health in the developing nation, again exporting impacts of consumption.


After essential needs are met increasing GDP has diminishing returns in terms of satisfaction and happiness

Reduction of global inequality is essential for energy transition because it will be difficult and unethical to ask extremely poor nations to restrict resource use and population, when survival is of primary concern to its populace. A minimum standard of living must be achieved for this request to be ethical. Developed nations who worked to aid poor nations in achieving this standard of living through technology and knowledge transfer and not the traditional avenue of material aid, would build good will and make energy and population reduction possible. Total equality between nations is not just a difficult goal, it is impossible to meet given the resource base for the world. When measured using emergy, resource use per capita is over two orders of magnitude greater in developed nations than in third world countries. Barring a nuclear fusion miracle, there is simply not enough energy in the world for all nations to have the same standard of living as developed nations. Fortunately, It has been demonstrated that once a certain standard of living has been achieved, increasing GDP (or total emergy use which is strongly correlated with GDP) does not much increase measures of satisfaction or happiness (see figure below). Achieving a high degree of life satisfaction with a minimum of non-renewable resource use should be the stated goal of the UN, World Bank and IMF, rather than simple economic development. Effective global governance and coordination of efforts is needed; the powers of the UN should be increased and the organization changed to better reflect the interests of the world as a whole rather than the most powerful nations.

Figure from www., assembled by Sweeney et al.

Emergy use in developed nations is more than two orders of magnitude greater than many developing nations. Figure from www., assembled by Sweeney et al.

No man is an island. We are all connected; the resource use of a man in China directly affects my future and my resource use affects his. We need to concern ourselves with the well-being of all global citizens, and we will need to be able to coordinate efforts to descend from peak energy. In the United States, the dominant belief may be that a high relative standard of living and technological advancement compared to much of the rest of the world will insulate us from energy collapse. In reality, we just have that much farther to fall. I firmly believe that if some people give up a degree of wealth now, making our country and the world more fair in absolute terms, it will make the future possible.

In A Prosperous Way Down the Odums suggest a redefinition of “prosperous”, from success in material wealth to success in education, community, personal relationships, spirituality, and our relationship with the world around us. The redefinition of this word represents the necessary paradigm shift that will allow us to go from competition and consumption to cooperation and equality. A measure of equality will not be given easily. Let’s occupy, spring, resist, protest, strike, plan, discuss, persuade and revolt. Let us not stop until a CEO only makes 10 times that of an assembly worker, not 400. Let’s not stop until our jewelry, shoes, computers are no longer covered with the blood and sweat of the underprivileged. Let’s not stop until a woman or minority makes the same wage as a man doing the same job. Let’s not stop until a corporation no longer has the same rights as you or I. If equality will not be given, let us take it.

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