Environmental Reads Geographic Information Systems

Battling Inequality to Promote Sustainability

How Socioeconomic Standing Determines Equitable Resource Access

By: Dorothy Helmken, Justine Martinez, Andrew Saylan, Jared Chiariello

For our final project, we worked to determine the best ways to reduce inequality to support the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (found at this website). This video outline’s the project’s goals:

The following is reposted from our original StoryMap submission, including interactive maps, which is found at: https://arcg.is/1KSDiG1. Thanks for reading!

Our conceptualized web showing how our chosen Sustainable Development Goals are all interconnected.

Introduction: Sustainable Development Goal Number 10 – Reduced Inequalities

As a global society, access to clean energy, clean water, and healthy climate conditions are inalienable rights and reducing inequality in communities affected by power plants, pollution, and climate change catastrophes is fundamental to environmental sustainability.  To achieve this end, we believe a collaborative effort encompassing all of the following Sustainable Development Goals should be employed.  By aiming for these goals, we believe the equity gap will close and sustainable life will improve.  To best describe our understanding of the interconnectedness of these Sustainable Development Goals, we have created a web linking images depicting disparities we’ve studied and their proximity to several Sustainable Development Goals.

A fundamental component in inequality is poverty. This map shows the global proportion of people living below the international poverty line (UN Stats).

Full, interactive map available here: https://arcg.is/1fbrnq

Poverty levels are inextricably tied to inequality.  In our research, we came across countless examples of inequalities arising from the subjugation of marginalized communities. We therefore present the following instances of inequality and their correlation to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable Development Goal Number 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation

“Mní Wičóni.” Water is life. In 2016, images blazed across American media outlets as hundreds of Native American tribes gathered to protest the continued construction of the Dakota Access pipeline (Medina). While this was a first look into the struggles for clean water access for many Americans, it was yet another systemic disenfranchisement of a minority in pursuit of a corporate profit. Unfortunately, the instances of water inequality are abundant. Because “clean, accessible water for all is an essential part of the world we want to live in,” we believe addressing these issues is essential to progression towards a more sustainable world (SDG 6).

An article titled “Exposing the myths of household water insecurity in the global north” exposes the errors based around the notion that access to clean water is the same across the US (Meehan et al. 2020). The authors delve into the unfortunate reality: that those living among low-income communities suffer from household water insecurity. These families face inequalities that limit their accessibility to a safe and sanitary water supply. The article hones in on the “six myths” of water security: (1) water access is universal, (2) water is clean, (3) water is affordable, (4) water delivery is trustworthy, (5) water is uniformly governed, and (6) that “modern water” is the best system, rather than indigenous communities’ traditional  ways of gathering water (Meehan et al. 2020).

Another article titled “Assessment of socioeconomic inequality based on virus-contaminated water usage in developing countries” by Adelodun et al. is based around the detection of pathogens in the water system and the occurrence of waterborne diseases (2020).  The relative locations of water supplies holding the greatest amounts of contamination have been found to be mostly in developing countries (Adelodun et al. 2020).  These families of poor socioeconomic standing suffer from waterborne illnesses from the viruses found in the water supply, proving to be yet another inequality of global water security.  Clean water in these communities is crucial for their survival, as it is necessary for flushing out toxins that they are instead ingesting from the water (Adelodun et al. 2020).

Access to clean water is essential to reducing global inequality, as water quality is tied to health and wellbeing. In order to reduce water pollution and improve water quality, we must analyze and adjust our habits in accordance with more sustainable behaviors. One area where this change is desperately needed is with energy production, allocation, and usage, which leads us to our next Sustainable Development Goal.

Sustainable Development Goal Number 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy

Like water, the use of energy and it’s generation are linked to poverty in a similar fashion, with the world’s wealthiest population accessing and using, even wasting, most of the world’s energy sources. Given that “energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity,” improving use of and access to energy sources is essential to reducing global inequality (SDG 7).

Affordable and clean energy is a right that every human is entitled to. Sadly, our global economy is not based on a humanitarian system and not everyone has access to energy. According to the World Bank, 10% of the global population is still powerless.  There is also a large gray area between people who have power and people who have a lot of power. In countries like France and Norway the kilowatts emitted per person average around 5 to 13 even in some years reaching 15. However in countries like China and India, countries we assume emit a lot of greenhouse gases, these countries only average about 0-3 kilowatts per person (Rogoff 2020).

Rising temperatures due to climate change have increased the demand for air conditioners throughout the world.  This has caused an increase in “energy poverty” because more individuals are spending more money on energy bills.  In fact, households spend up to 42% or more on electricity when they have air conditioners, as reported by Emma Charlton in her article “How air conditioners contribute to inequality and ‘energy poverty’” (2020).  This leaves them with less money to spend on other essential items like food and education.  The number of “energy poor” will continue to increase as they are forced to spend more money on energy related to air conditioning as global temperatures continue to rise.  Unfortunately, “energy poverty” is not just those burdened with increased costs spent on air conditioning, as 800 million people in the world do not have access to electricity (Charlton 2020).  Despite the unequal consumption of energy, the whole world will suffer the effects of increased energy usage, so mitigation of energy poverty is essential to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.  Continued inequity in energy use will lead to situations of increased risk, as seen in our next example.

The article “‘I Can’t Breath’ What Air Pollution and Police Violence Have In Common” by Kendra Pierre-Louis discusses the inequity in air pollution in America and the primary communities affected (2020).  She writes: “Communities of color, and in particular poor communities of color, are more likely to live in places with poor air quality than their white, wealthier counterparts,” when discussing the sources of air pollution, one of which is energy production (Pierre-Louis).  The increased air pollution shows a statistically significant association with the increased occurrence of death from COVID-19 in affected areas, and is a phenomenon that is occurring globally.  The increased occurrence of lung and heart problems in communities where air pollution levels are high has also led to higher numbers of COVID-19 deaths in these communities.  This, coupled with the long-standing effects of systemic racism in these communities, has been compounded further by a relaxation of air quality regulations in the United States under the Trump administration.

Corporations involved in energy production have exploited this relaxation in the United States, increasing air pollution and energy inequality in pursuit of profit.  We see again a connection between the Sustainable Development Goals, with the goal of sustainable energy and the goal of responsible consumption and production both tied to reducing inequality for these affected communities.

Sustainable Development Goal Number 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production

In developed countries, the consumption of goods and services accounts for an astronomical amount of waste generation.  The current consumption patterns are fueling climate change at an alarming rate.  Both consumption and production “rest on the use of the natural environment and resources in a way that continues to have destructive impacts on the planet,” as we found repeatedly in our research (SDG 12).  Current consumption and production patterns have contributed heavily to global emissions numbers, heating the planet as they go.

Historically, the countries which developed first have emitted the most greenhouse gases. From 1751to 2017, Our World In Data reports that North America, being the biggest contributor, emitted 457 million tons of greenhouse gasses, contributing to 29% of global emissions (2019).  Europe has emitted 363 billion tons (Ritchie 2019).  Compare these numbers to China at 200 billion tons, or India at only 48.  The European and American countries emitted a lot of CO2 while they were developing exponentially, and now criticize other countries that are developing for doing the same (Ritchie 2019).  This has been viewed as hypocritical by some developing countries.

An overview of historical global contributions of CO2 emissions by country. (Ritchie 2019)

This article by Ganzleben and Kazmierczak, “Leaving no one behind – understanding environmental inequality in Europe,” explores the disparities between who causes water pollution and who suffers the consequences (2020).  Those living in high-income communities consume the most resources and produce the most waste; they receive the benefits of clean water, but are the same people who taint it.  From large businesses, industrial sites, and government oversight to individual consumption, the exploitation of the world’s water resources occurs with wild abandon and utter disregard for damages to the water cycle.  The UN’s “leave no one behind” promise is brought to light: that they must implement necessary measures in order to lower these inequalities for people who are unable to access clean water (Ganzleben and Kazmierczak 2020).  Irresponsible consumption of water resources is one issue, but the production practices that contaminate it are a different issue altogether.  The use of water as waste pools for energy production is on track to increase going forward as we face continuous increases in usage to cool our homes from the heating planet, as seen in our next example.

A study by the University of Oxford showed that the increased global temperatures associated with climate change have increased the demand for air conditioners, to the point where 10 air conditioning units are sold every second (Goering 2016).  By 2050, the demand for energy related to air conditioning is expected to increase 5 times in known hot climate countries like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia.  It is projected that by the end of the century, the energy demand for cooling will be greater than heating globally (Goering 2016).  The inequality is now shifting to individuals who were not able to afford heat to those experiencing “cooling poverty.”  A total of 1.1 billion people face health risks to lack of access to cooling (Goering 2016).  As global temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, cooling will have to become essential to live and not be a luxury as it has been to so many of the global population (Goering 2016).  Increased use of air conditioning will most likely lead to greater fossil fuel consumption because they use 20 percent more power than fans.

These examples are dubiously representative of only those with access to the resources to allow exploit them.  Globally, there is a larger disconnect between resource access and resulting conditions from a lack thereof.  We explored this growing disparity by looking at inequality through the lens of the third Sustainable Development Goal of Good Health and Wellbeing.

Sustainable Development Goal Number 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing

By our measure, the Sustainable Development Goal that is most conspicuously bound to the goal of Reducing Inequality is that of Good Health and Wellbeing. The strongest evidence for the importance of any of the other goals we have outlined is a disastrous toll on human health resulting from these trends. In order to achieve any sustainable future, the world must acknowledge that “ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being for all at all ages is essential to sustainable development” (SDG 3). Otherwise, instances like the following cases will continue in perpetuity until recovery is impossible.

This article by Krista Karlson with the Sierra Club titled “Cancer Alley Now Coronavirus Alley: The pollution-induced illnesses these Louisianans have suffered for decades put them at greater risk from COVID-19” discusses how the people in the region of Louisiana along the Mississippi river, also known as Cancer Alley, have been disproportionately affected by pollution from oil refineries in the same area.

Full, interactive map available here: https://arcg.is/1Xve8

This map shows the abundance of power plants in the region, and also has an overlay that describes the socioeconomic status of those living in the area.  As you can see, the region with the row of power plants also has some of the lowest socioeconomic statuses as reported by the Neighborhood Socioeconomic Status (NSES) Index, which determines status based on a scale from 0 to 100, with 50 representing the national average as of 2010.  The Index takes median household income, education level of adults, unemployment rate, and female-led households into account, with the lighter regions representing overall lower scores on their range.  This map is consistent with the occurrences in Cancer Alley, where pollution has caused increased incidences of cancer and respiratory illnesses in the community, and recently has had the nation’s highest per capita death rate from COVID-19.  Here, disease amplifies injustice, injustice that comes from continued, institutionalized inequality.  Despite attempts by community members to end the excessive pollution through legislative action that would add enforceable regulation to the region’s biggest polluters, corporations and the local government worked together to criminalize the community’s actions through legislation against protesters and promises to blacklist any workers who spoke out, preventing them from working in the plants in the community.  This is radical inequality that is allowed to persist in pursuit of economic profit, and it defies any attempt towards sustainability.

Admittedly our focus to this point has been on the impact on people.  However, inequality is not a uniquely human experience.  The voiceless world around us suffers more from inequality owing to the inability to speak out against injustice.  This year, a record number of birds died in New Mexico due to the uninhabitable conditions resulting from the west coast’s most recent rash of wildfires.  The air quality was so poor that the migratory patterns of these birds were interrupted, forcing them to alter their flight paths and expend more energy.  The fires also decimated their food sources, and is thought to have caused lung deformities, all of which resulted in a massive die-off of the bird population.  A researcher who is used to seeing a seasonal die-off event but not at this scale, said “I had never seen just piles and piles of dead birds in one spot” (Higgins).  The birds fell victim to the fires as a result of human inaction.  The longstanding practice of natural fire suppression in the western US led to one of the deadliest fire seasons on record, amounting to billions of dollars worth of property damage and a devastating loss to biodiversity.  When left to its natural course, the burn season would remove detritus and maintain the forest life–often even improving biodiversity–but human interaction has robbed the region of its natural cycle in order to preserve property housed on stolen land.  The lost birds are only one of innumerable victims of the human condition of self-servitude.

Joining Together to Promote Sustainability by Reducing Inequality

Our behavior needs to change from transactional to responsive within our communities and our environments. When we change our viewpoints from what we seek to gain from our interactions to what our interactions will impact in their execution, we begin to understand how to sustainably coexist with our neighbors, our homes. This transformation will then lead to improved conditions from those most directly impacted by the current dichotomy between consumption and sustainability. A system that allows instances like the following, an example from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, to occur daily can never be sustainable. She writes that: 

“modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world’s wealthiest peoples. The shortage is due not to how much material wealth there actually is, but to the way in which it is exchanged and circulated. The market system artificially creates scarcity by blocking the flow between the source and the consumer. Grain may rot in the warehouse while hungry people starve because they cannot pay for it. The result is famine for some and disease of excess for others. The very earth that sustains us is being destroyed to fuel injustice. An economy that grants personhood to corporations but denies it to the more-than-human beings: this is a Windigo economy.”

Braiding Sweetgrass, pg 376

Our resources are indeed scarce, but not in the ways that the capitalist economies promote.  When people starve while food is wasted intentionally, inequality abounds.  There can be no sustainability without justice, without equality, without representation, without health and prosperity and opportunity.  As the Reducing Inequalities Sustainable Development Goal outlines, “to reduce inequalities, policies should be universal in principle, paying attention to the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized populations” (SDG 10).  Only once we begin to bridge these gaps in inequality by addressing energy use, health and wellness, water rights, and consumption, then–and only then–can the goal of sustainability be achieved.

Thank you for reading!

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  2. Adelodun, B, et al. “Assessment of socioeconomic inequality based on virus-contaminated water usage in developing countries: A review.” 2020. Environmental Research. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
  3. “Affordable and Clean Energy – United Nations Sustainable Development.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/energy/.
  4. Charlton, Emma. “How air conditioners contribute to inequality and ‘energy poverty’.” World Economic Forum, 6 Jul. 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/air-conditioners-inequality-energy-poverty-climate-change/. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.
  5. “Clean Water and Sanitation – United Nations Sustainable Development.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/.
  6. Ganzleben, C., Kazmierczak, A. Leaving no one behind – understanding environmental inequality in Europe. Environ Health 19, 57 (2020).
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  8. Goering, Laurie. “Air conditioning for all? Hotter world faces risk of ‘cooling poverty’.” Reuters, 6 Dec. 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-cooling/air-conditioning-for-all-hotter-world-faces-risk-of-cooling-poverty-idUSKCN1VV2HI. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.
  9. Higgins, Drew. “Researchers Still Don’t Know Why So Many Birds Died This Fall.” Sierra, Sierra Club, 10 Nov. 2020, www.sierraclub.org/sierra/researchers-still-don-t-know-why-so-many-birds-died-fall. Accessed 11 Nov. 2020.
  10. Karlson, Krista. “Cancer Alley Now Coronavirus Alley: The Pollution-Induced Illnesses These Louisianans Have Suffered for Decades Put Them at Greater Risk from COVID-19.” Sierra, Sierra Club, 1 July 2020, www.sierraclub.org/sierra/cancer-alley-now-coronavirus-alley. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
  11. Meehan, Katie, et al. “Exposing the myths of household water insecurity in the global north: A critical review.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews – Water, vol. 7, no. 6, Oct. 2020. Web of Science. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
  12. Medina, Daniel. “‘Water Is Life’: A Look Inside the Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters’ Camp.” U.S. News, NBC News, 6 Dec. 2016, www.nbcnews.com/storyline/dakota-pipeline-protests/water-life-look-inside-dakota-access-pipeline-protesters-camp-n691481. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.
  13. Pierre-Louis, Kendra. “”I Can’t Breathe” What Air Pollution and Police Violence Have In Common.” Sierra, Sierra Club, 15 July 2020, www.sierraclub.org/sierra/i-can-t-breathe-covid-pollution. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
  14. “Reduce Inequality – United Nations Sustainable Development.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/inequality/.
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  17. Rogoff, Kenneth. “We Must Tackle Global Energy Inequality before It’s Too Late.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Jan. 2020, www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jan/06/global-energy-inequality-tax-emissions-co2.
  18. Wall Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Penguin, 2013.

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