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Unsustainable Inequalities

Unsustainable Inequalities: Social Justice and the Environment

Lucas Chancel, Malcolm DeBevoise, translator
Harvard University Press
184 pp.
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Does a hurricane discriminate between the wealthy and the poor? Do earthquakes target specific victims? How does systemic racism influence development goals? In academic explorations of sustainable development and environmental responsibilities, our assumptions about the relationship between income and energy consumption remain largely rooted in the idea that social inequalities decrease as countries develop, thus reducing environmental inequality. No such relationship appears to actually exist.

In his sobering but essential new book, Unsustainable Inequalities, economist Lucas Chancel explores the intersections of social justice and environmental sustainability with a focus on global goals established at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which informed the underlying philosophy of the 2015 Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1). Framing his narrative through the lens of intragenerational economic inequalities, he identifies social inequality as a core driver of environmental unsustainability that leads to a vicious circle wherein the rich consume more and the poor lose access to environmental resources and become increasingly vulnerable to environmental shocks.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued a report called “Our Common Future” that defined sustainable development as “development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (2). The idea of intergenerational environmental equity became a cornerstone concept, shifting climate policy toward the common but differentiated responsibilities enshrined in the UNFCCC. Yet questions about intergenerational responsibility and the equitable impacts of climate change and environmental degradation remain. Environmental racism, wherein communities of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental risks, is inseparable from social justice, Chancel argues, and the attainment of sustainable development that also protects the environment across generations is “extremely difficult” without first addressing economic inequality within a single generation.

The notion that we may be able to attain sustainable development and achieve equal responsibility for environmental degradation feels more unreachable than ever in a world upended by a global pandemic. In prepandemic times, many nations had already failed to implement or participate in local and global environmental justice efforts, and taxation schemes to level responsibilities for environmental pollution have proven wildly unpopular. And while Chancel argues that common indicator frameworks such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals encourage nations to learn from one another, the continued rise of social inequality is a stark reminder of the difficult road ahead.

1. Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 12 December 2015, TIAS No. 16-1104.
2. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford Univ. Press, 1987).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.