Dynamics of Inequality: A Critical Thinking Theme

A conversation that introduces critical thinking theme about environment, science, and society, namely: The analysis of causes and the implications of the analysis change qualitatively if uniform units are replaced by unequal units subject to further differentiation as a result of their linked economic, social and political dynamics.
Philoso (who asks how you support your claims): [The] dynamic relations among unequal individuals may qualitatively change our understanding of population growth.

Ecolo (natural and human ecologist): Really? How might that be so?

Reso (a researcher who analyzes natural resources issues): I can help here. Consider this simple scenario (Taylor 1997). There are two countries. Each has the same amount and quality of arable land, the same population size, the same level of technical capacity, and the same population growth rate, say 3% per year. Country A, however, has a relatively equal land distribution, while country B has a typical 1970s Central American land distribution: 2% of the people own 60% of the land; 70% own just 2%. Both countries double their populations very rapidly, but five generations (120 years) before anyone is malnourished in country A, all of the poorest 70% in country B would already be-unless they act to change their situation.
Ecolo: But sooner or later in both countries everyone reaches the carrying capacity of their land.

Reso: This is not just an issue of when the crisis occurs in the two countries. B’s poor would probably first experience what others call population pressure in the form of food shortages. They would link these shortages to inequity in land distribution (see Durham 1979; Vandermeer 1977). They might attempt to take over the underutilized land of the wealthy. The wealthy, anticipating this possibility, might fund paramilitary operations that target leaders of campaigns for land reform. Or build factories that employ the land-starved poor. The availability and nature of foreign aid would influence the actual choices in specific instances. And so on.

Activo (who asks what one can do on the basis of claims): Does this mean that we should support land reform and abandon population control programs? Or are you saying that we should back up these programs by boosting military aid to countries like B?

Reso: I would have to ask to whom “we” refers. People are never all part of a uniform “we;” no real country is like country A. The important thing to understand is that the crises to which actual people have to respond come well before and in different forms from the crises predicted on the basis of aggregate population growth rates and ultimate biological and physical limits to growth. Indeed, in a country like B the poor would be justified in viewing anyone who focuses on population control policies as taking sides with those who benefit from the inequitable access to productive resources.

Ecolo: I have always stressed that affluent countries and people have disproportionate effect on the environment because of their higher per capita consumption of resources and the corresponding higher production of pollutants.

Reso: But I’m not just saying that in any district, country, or ecosphere there are richer and poorer people. My point is that groups with different wealth and power exist, change, and become involved in crises because of their dynamic interrelations.

Ecolo: OK, but even if the dynamics of population growth are more complex, it is still true that the greater the population, the greater the environmental effects.

Reso: Not necessarily. [The] case of soil erosion in a mountainous agricultural region in Oaxaca, Mexico [presents a different picture].

Excerpted from “How do we know there is a population-environment problem?” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/popdialogue.html

See also teaching activity based on the two islands scenario, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/island.doc


Durham, W. D. (1979). Scarcity and survival in Central America: Ecological origins of the soccer war. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1997) “How do we know we have global environmental problems? Undifferentiated science-politics and its potential reconstruction,” in P. J. Taylor, S. Halfon & P. Edwards (eds.), Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 149-174.

Vandermeer, J. (1977). “Ecological Determinism,” in Science for the People (Eds.), Biology as a Social Weapon. Minneapolis: Burgess, 108-122.


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