Green Leviathan and Income Inequality in the 21st century

Environmental policy is an unusual beast.

In an age when austerity and privatization target almost every sector of the state, environmental protection remains Leviathan’s acknowledged ward. Charter schools and e-mail provide alternatives to conventional government functions, but bureaucrats remain trusted to run national parks, punish polluters, and guarantee clean water and food.

In Britain, one need only compare the Conservative Party’s failure to privatize the Forestry Commission with its success at similar reforms to the much-cherished National Health Service. If the cornerstones of state expansion in the 20th century were social welfare and economic development, the 21st-century story of the state may well center on Green Leviathan’s growth from its 1970s roots.

Simultaneously since the late 1970s, income inequality has skyrocketed in rich countries. Income inequality has become the “biggest threat to the world” for most Europeans and Americans.  “Pollution and environment” were the biggest worry in Asia while “religious and ethnic hatred” topped the Middle East. In the 1960s, the cause de rigueur was anti-war activism. For residents of richer nations today, it will be environmental protection and income inequality, which are more related than you think.

Alarm about income inequality has been in vogue of late thanks to the 2008 bank bailouts, the Occupy movement, and most recently, Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book, Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty, a French economist, observes that the share of wealth taken by the top one percent of earners in the United States and Western Europe has risen steeply since the late 1970s. Subsequent research has concluded that the most significant capital gains for middle and upper-class earners came in the realm of housing.

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If disparities in residential property values are a major source of income equality, then income inequality has a key local link to environmental protection. At the neighborhood level, so-called “environmental interests” often mean restrictions: restrictions on land use, noise pollution, air pollution, waste dumps, and aesthetic monstrosities through a form of communal opposition known as “NIMBY” (Not In My BackYard).

The term NIMBY was in use as early as the 1950s but it gained steam as a practice in the 1980s just as the environmentalist movement was taking off. More and more middle and upper-class communities across the United States pressured government regulators to move toxic waste dumps, power plants, and highways toward lower-class or rural neighborhoods. In turn, lower-class and rural health have suffered. Gaps in housing values widen. Even education levels are affected due to the curious American policy of tying local school funding to local property taxes.

Below one can see the frequencies of “NIMBY” and “housing prices” in digitized books as plotted by William Fischel using Google Ngram.

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From the 1980s onward, NIMBYs and community activism tied Green Leviathan to local interests aimed at preserving not just the environment but also economic wealth. In history, dark fates have befallen regimes whose land-use policies become vehicles of local elite interests.

In eighteenth-century France, the state granted the privilege of forest access according to property ownership, tax contributions, building size and family status, with bigger and higher being preferred in all cases. Accordingly, local elites had all the advantages. Their domination of forest rights and resources helped fuel the smoldering lower-class resentment that exploded in the French Revolution. Across the world as well, in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Korea, local elites used innovative methods, including bribery of forest officials and the strategic placement of burial grounds, to monopolize forest access for themselves. As elites cartelized more resources and the corrupt officials turned a blind eye, resentful peasants finally revolted in the late nineteenth century, helping bring about the fall of the 500-year-old Chosŏn dynasty.

The fates of pre-industrial societies may seem distant affairs today. After all, environmental policy is now the prerogative of experts armed with the latest scientific research and cost-benefit calculations. Yet the strengths of modern technocracy are neutralized when Green Leviathan falls sway to the interests of moneyed locals. The aforementioned cases of France and Korea repeat themselves if American environmental policy becomes a localized, gerrymandered vehicle of economic inequality.

Indeed, inequality in the United States has long green roots. For the most part, environmentalist sensibilities have been middle and upper-class concerns and have provided vitriolic ammunition aimed at disadvantaged groups. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants and people of color were blamed for the prevalence of disease, pollution, “filthy weeds,” and even allergies everywhere from New York and New Orleans to central California. Fearful middle-class citizens retreated into mountains and later national parks for soothing “hay-fever holidays. As historian Mike Davis has noted, fears of environmental disasters and lower-class crime in Los Angeles have gone hand in hand to produce a “fortress city” littered with economic inequality and unequal exposure to environmental hazards.

Now, NIMBYs zealously protect a form of entrenched capital – residential property – in an age of rising anxiety about environment and inequality. It does not have to be this way. Historical precedents also show that environmental policy can be congruent with the economic interests of disadvantaged groups. The Magna Carta’s oft-forgotten companion document, the Charter of the Forest issued in 1217, provided the right of common access to royal forest lands for pasturage and fuelwood. The Magna Carta merely preserved the rights of English barons; the Charter of the Forest actually protected the average Englishman from aristocratic encroachment. While subsequent Anglo-American history may not have followed the Charter of the Forest to the letter, the document recalls an unfulfilled promise: the obligation of the state to guarantee rights, including equitable land-use rights, to its citizens.

The 21st century can be Green Leviathan’s golden age, but to do so, the serpent cannot just be wily or wise: it must also be fair.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 


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