Universität Bielefeld

Social-Ecological Inequalities

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Latin America is a region with a very high and persistent social inequality. At the same time several of its countries are hot spots of biodiversity and other natural resources. Many of the economies are highly dependent on the extractivism and export of these resources by means of mining, forestry or the cultivation of monocrops (Acosta 2011). Despite this, a large social science tradition of research on the region's social inequality exists, but scientific debates and conceptualizations of social-ecological inequalities are rather rare. This striking research gap is particularly surprising, given the fact that the multiple crisis in recent times (e.g. climate crisis, food crisis, economic crisis etc.), have highlighted once more that most social and ecological issues cannot be separated from each other in a clearly “politicized environment” - a conviction that has not only been reflected by scholars of Political Ecology (Bryant 1998). A rather analytical concept here is the term societal relations with nature (Görg 1999). It critically acknowledges that nature has always been transformed, (re)produced and manufactured by societies throughout history and that environmental problems are never socially neutral, just as political or economic decisions always have an ecological impact (Harvey 1993).

In this sense, the term “social-ecological inequalities” describes the intertwined nature of social and ecological concerns of modern societies. It refers to the intersecting economic, political, social and ecological dimensions of inequalities and injustices, which are deeply inscribed in the historically manufactured institutions of nature and society, and which stretch from the global to the local level (Dietz 2011).

In the course of the following, five dimensions of social-ecological inequalities will be highlighted: First, the unequal (re)distribution of ecological risks and environmental costs; second, the socially unevenly distributed abilities and capacities to access and control natural resources and environmental goods; third, the uneven range of social abilities and capacities to cope with and react to changing environmental conditions; fourth the unequally distributed causes and responsibilities for socio-ecological crises, and fifth the uneven power relations and asymmetries which shape the production of knowledge, problem-definition and search for solutions within social-ecological phenomena.

To start with, the Environmental Justice Movement in the USA was one of the first local movements in the 1980s that gained global prominence in addressing social-ecological inequalities. It was born out of resistance against toxic waste dumps in black communities and the contamination and degradation of land or water used by poor and marginalized people. By highlighting the unfair and unequal (re)distribution of ecological risks and environmental costs, the movement brought environmental issues, the struggle for social justice and democracy together and successfully linked environmental, racial, class and gender concerns (Ageyman e.a. 2003). Likewise in Latin America, and too often, the distribution of negative impacts and externalities caused by industrial or infrastructural mega-projects differs according to class, (indigenous) ethnicity or gender. Contaminated air and water wells, degraded soils or expropriated territory are well-known consequences of oil drilling or silver mining-related activities which threaten the health and livelihoods of the people. Consequently, various movements have emerged that fight for their rights of survival and well-being in an imbalanced struggle against nation states or powerful private actors (Carruthers 2008).

However, the term social-ecological inequalities provides an analytical tool beyond the unjust distribution of environmental risks and costs. Social inequalities appear either as relational or as distributional where access to desired goods, resources or positions underlies constant constraints and stretch along different and overlapping axes of inequalities (such as race, ethnicity, class, gender or age). Thus social inequality can be understood as an expression of power relations and patterns of domination. It influences, reduces or broadens, the individual or collective range of coping strategies and the general scope of action of social actors (Kreckel 2004).

In this sense, the term social-ecological inequalities secondly describes the socially uneven distributed abilities and capacities to access and control natural resources and environmental goods. Historically Latin America has been a contested battlefield of deepening social inequalities due to the colonial appropriation, control and commodification of natural resources such as metals, water or land. Still today the continent is being squeezed out by various state and non-state actors and by different means of extractivism, such as metal mining in Peru, the privatization of water in Bolivia, or land grabbing for the purpose of the production of agrofuels in Colombia. However, the economic or social benefits of the access and control rights within these processes are rather unevenly distributed (Svampa 2012).

Thirdly, the term social-ecological inequalities serves to describe and analyze the range of social abilities and capacities to cope with and react to changing environmental conditions (such as soil degradation or extreme weather events under resulting from climate change). In Mexico, for instance, the neoliberal opening of local markets as a consequence of the NAFTA, together with climate change impacts such as prolonged droughts, exerts serious economic pressure on small scale farmers. Thus it results in extreme vulnerability and the lack of adaptive capacities in coping with socio-ecological crises (Leichenko/O'Brien 2008). Above all, research on the role of gender for climate change shows how it shapes and is shaped by societal relations with nature. Gender relations structure and determine the power and control over political, economic and natural resources. They are all relevant determinants for the adaptive capacity in coping with hurricanes, droughts or floods (Hackfort/Burchardt 2013).

Fourthly, the causes and responsibilities for social-ecological crises are unevenly distributed. With regards to global climate change, the poorer and rural societies on the one hand contribute less to the emissions of greenhouse gases (due to their position in the international division of labour, due to limited financial means of consumption or mobility etc.). On the other hand, they are often dependent on climate-sensitive, small scale or subsistence farming. Thus they are the most adversely affected by climate impacts and at the same time lack capacities and resources to successfully adapt. In international climate politics, for instance, this fact is acknowledged by the shared but differentiated responsibilities of the states. This implies the exemption of binding reduction targets for developing and least developing countries along with the obligation for financial assistance for the wealthier and more industrialized countries (Roberts/ Parks 2007).

Finally, the social-ecological inequalities can be observed in discourses. It is argued that social and cultural power asymmetries shape the production of knowledge, definition of problems and search for solutions within social-ecological phenomena (Dietz 2011). The policies and practices of mitigation or adaptation to climate change are mainly top down, technical and market-oriented. The underlying values and norms, prescriptions and representations are dominated by powerful groups and disconnected from e.g. the local livelihood conditions of marginalized indigenous peoples or forest tribes. Thereby they are often blind to intersectional inequalities such as gender, race or ethnicity, class or age (Ulloa 2012).

To sum it up, the term social-ecological inequalities refers to the complex and intertwined phenomena of social and ecological inequalities. The phenomenon can be grouped into the above defined five categories, all revolving around the core issues of politics: interests, power relations, and practices of resource use and appropriation. To critically analyze the dynamics, causes and implications of these inequalities, it needs to be considered that they are located in and mediated by international, national and local institutions, levels and scales in context specific and changing societal relations with nature.

Sarah Hackfort


Please cite as:
Hackfort, Sarah. 2012. “Social-Ecological Inequalities.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/s_Social_Ecological_Inequalities.html.


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