Why We Need to Push Back Social Inequalities

Nowadays, social inequalities and their widening are very often discussed as one of the most serious global problems of our time. It is no coincidence that it is also a central theme of my book, as a cornerstone of social sustainability. And although the latter concept is usually mentioned much less often in everyday life than the obviously very critical environmental sustainability, I believe it is just as important for the future of humanity.

While environmental sustainability is about using our planet’s resources without upsetting the delicate balance of nature, social sustainability is fundamentally about meeting people’s needs in a way that ensures balance and stability within our societies. Sustainability in general is often defined as “meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. And this, whichever way you look at it, also involves trying to ensure that everyone, not just one section of the population or another, has the actual opportunity to meet their needs.

The simplest and most obvious reason for this is that it is the only humane and civilized way that is truly worthy of an intelligent species like man. As the saying goes, you must treat others as you would like others to treat you, which clearly means that we must strive for equality as far as possible in terms of people’s quality of life and opportunities. Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations to achieve this are the eradication of poverty and hunger, the provision of clean water and basic sanitation, quality education, good health and well-being, the pursuit of gender equality, but a specific need for ‘reduced inequalities’ is also included. (And economic growth is better understood in qualitative rather than quantitative terms, for our own sake – at least on a global scale.)

Nevertheless, there is a much more prosaic and objective reason to maximize our efforts to reduce social inequalities. For in the longer term, they can cause very serious problems for the unity and functioning of our societies, which are fundamentally counterproductive to livability and civilization. Extreme economic and social inequalities continue to have negative effects, often in less visible or obvious but insidiously accumulative ways, as the results of research in this field clearly show. The gap between rich and poor has a major negative impact on the health and well-being of people all around the world, as well as on the development of human capital and social cohesion. The problems range from reduced life expectancy and higher infant mortality to low educational attainment, lower social mobility, and increased levels of violence and mental illness.

Extreme social inequalities are therefore not only inhumane, but also have the potential to greatly undermine the stability of our societies. A complete loss of confidence in politics, for example, can make it very difficult to maintain (balanced) governance, but without stability in society, there can be little talk of stability in the economy, as well. And it’s not just that if a large part of the population becomes poorer, the fall in solvent demand will reduce overall consumption, threatening a growth-based market economy with crisis or even total bankruptcy. (After all, our goal should be to limit quantitative growth in order to achieve environmental balance and sustainability.) However, if the majority of people experience for a long time that a narrow minority can afford practically everything, while they are constantly struggling to make ends meet or just survive, they may eventually refuse to cooperate or revolt. In an extreme case, this can lead to a society becoming dysfunctional, throwing off all the achievements and hallmarks of civilization.

However, a similar scenario is not only possible for socioeconomic or political reasons, but we must also increasingly expect an environmental crisis due to climate change and environmental degradation. At the same time, to achieve environmental sustainability, we are likely to need to ensure social sustainability. (Unless civilization collapses to the point where basically all activities that cause increased damage to the environment cease.) Part of the reason is that the poor do not really care about protecting the environment in their daily lives, as they have plenty of other problems and are usually busy with just subsistence. In addition, because of this, as well as their general lack of education and information, they are not in a position to hold leaders to account for achieving environmental sustainability, which is usually far from the top of the priority list of politicians and the elites.

Achieving social sustainability requires as much awareness and organization on the part of communities and civil society in general as environmental sustainability. And to put this into practice, we essentially need to combine the design of the physical realm with the design of the social world – the infrastructure that supports social and cultural life, social amenities, systems of citizen engagement, and the space for people and places to evolve. From an economic perspective, social sustainability is both about understanding and regulating the impact of companies on people and society, and about the importance of putting the role of communities at the forefront of meeting human needs.

This is as important for a fair and as equal as possible distribution of goods as it is for a fair and optimal organization of the labor needed to produce them. When community is the main cohesive factor, its members tend to share tasks in the most compromising and fair way possible. In contrast, whenever money and power is the main cohesive force in society, the upper classes exploit the vulnerability of the lower classes and force on them all the work they do not want to do themselves. It’s essentially about domination and a small minority preying on the majority – as it has essentially always been throughout the existence of human civilization, ever since our ancestors settled and began to produce together.

To get the money and resources to where they are most needed, the ‘investments’ must be made and managed not by shareholders but by stakeholders. In essence, this means that it is not individuals investing to make money and get the most profit out of it, but communities of people directly involved in some way, who decide on carrying out various projects and endeavors. So the bottom line is that for a sustainable economy and society, communities, not individuals, must have money and power, and community finance must prevail, rather than individual finance.

True, innovation and progress require the right concentration of resources and a willingness to take risks. However, as they say, money is not lost, it is merely transformed, and if extreme wealth is not concentrated in the hands of just a few percent of the population, then it opens up the possibility of channeling resources to projects that really need them. So, despite the fact that existential opportunism is fundamentally harmful to the reduction of social inequalities, we must be opportunistic for the sake of uninterrupted development, though not so much at the individual but at the community level. And if we can develop the culture to do so, we will have socially sustainable communities that are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic, and that provide a good quality of life for all their members.

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