For years inequality has been a political issue. Some people have been willing to fight against it; for others, ending or reducing it has been low on the agenda; others still saw it as a non-issue, a fact of life and perhaps even something positive. No longer can we afford to debate this. If we are to tackle global warming, we must also tackle inequality.
Most arguments for reducing inequality are not new. There are selfish reasons: the poorest people understandably want what those better off than them can enjoy; and for richer people, lower inequality means less crime and greater stability. There are aesthetic reasons: the smell from the slums and the sight of poor people begging in the streets are certainly distasteful. And for believers there are religious reasons: "for the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise," said the Christian God in Psalms 12.5, for example.
Arguments against are not new either. Inequality is necessary, some say, as an incentive to work hard. According to his Laws, Plato thought inequality important for this very reason, though he suggested the richest individuals should own no more than five times as much as the poorest. In the world today, Bill Gates is worth US $56,000,000,000. The poorest people have nothing.
Arguments on both sides, however, become academic when put against the imperative of stopping global warming. This is because inequality stands in the way of the most effective measure aimed at retaining an environment able to sustain civilisation. Inequality traps both rich and poor in the cycle of consumption.
To slow and then stop global warming we must slow and then stop emissions of greenhouse gases. Technology can help with this, for sure. New ways of generating electricity or more efficient boilers can help reduce our emissions. Changing the way we live can also help. Leaving the car at home and walking, cycling or taking public transport will do a lot. But none of this will be enough to get mankind out of the hole it's dug for itself. To do this we must simply consume less.
Consuming less would mean fewer natural resources dug from the ground, less rainforest lost to farmland, and less fossil fuel burnt to make and transport the goods we buy. Under current conditions it would also mean global recession and mass unemployment.
No government wants that. And so, while Barack Obama presents the odd headline-grabbing green policy, he also urges the Chinese to take measures to increase domestic consumption – this so that US exports to China can counterbalance Chinese exports to the US. It's hard to think of anything that would harm the environment more than a billion people buying more stuff. Except seven billion people, of course.
Yet what would become of the millions of Chinese factory workers if we all did the right thing and stopped buying the plasma televisions, stereo systems and plastic nick-nacks they're knocking out? Would they sit quietly until they starved to death? What would become of the millions of workers in our home countries, making stuff, moving stuff, marketing stuff and selling stuff if demand for that stuff collapsed? Would they wither on the dole into old age? Probably not. More likely they'd riot, rampaging through rich and poor neighbourhoods alike.
And spare a thought for the billionaires. If the middle classes chose to spend less and the working classes were forced to do the same thing, they could lose fortunes. They'll be keen to prevent that happening, even if it means bribing a politician or two.
So the billionaires keep on bribing to ensure the middle classes keep on spending to ensure the workers keep on working until the environment screams "enough!" and shrugs us off. It would be the end of civilisation.
We may be just in time to stop this happening, but only just. And it's going to take radical action.
What's needed, of course, is for everyone to consume less, for most of us to work less (or at least, to work less at economic activities), for the work to be shared out more evenly, and for funds to flow rapidly from the richest to the poorest. Will this happen under the current system, in which politicians are bought and endless cries of 'consume! consume! consume!' drown out the green message?
What do you think?