Sunday, October 4, 2009

Visualizing Inequality

The previous post raises interesting questions about the nature of inequality and the impact of urbanization. Do, for example, the middle class of wealthy countries have a lifestyle equivalent to the rich in the developing world? And how might that be changing? Inequality is at the heart of sociology's understanding of the world. And, with the economic growth in China and India, many have argued that global income inequality is declining. Not so argues Branko Milanovic, one of the most knowledgeable people about such issues and author of Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality and Global Income Inequality: What it Is and why it Matters? (World Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1, January-March 2006) from which this graph is taken.

The figure compares the income distribution within France, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Rural Indonesia. The graph shows that the poorest 5% of France (the left hand end of the France line) are richer than the top 5% of rural Indonesians (the right hand end of the Indonesia line). Focusing on the left hand side of the figure, we see the poorest 5% of rural Indonesian are richer than the poorest 5% of Brazil. But, focusing on the right hand side, we see that the richest 5% of Brazil are as rich as the top 5% of France. While people frequently note that income inequality has increased within rich countries over the past 30 years, the same trend has occurred to an even greater extent in the BRIC countries.

Turning to urbanization, David Owen's new book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability argues that Manhattan, Hong Kong and large, old European cities are inherently greener than less densely populated places because a higher percentage of their inhabitants walk, bike and use mass transit than drive; they share infrastructure and civic services more efficiently; they live in smaller spaces and use less energy to heat their homes (because those homes tend to share walls); and they’re less likely to accumulate a lot of large, energy-sucking appliances. People in cities use about half as much electricity as people who don’t, Owen reports, and the average New Yorker generates fewer greenhouse gases annually than “residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average.”

A complete review of the book is available here.


  1. Thanks for responding to my post, Gary. Satterthwaite's article says the same thing about urban vs. ex-urban living, probably based on the same data. Compact cities that support non-car transport, where people live in shared dwellings, have half the emissions of ex-urban dwellers. Satterthwaite argues that it's not urbanization that causes an increase in emissions, but an increase in consumption. The posted graph shows that: some highly urbanized nations also have fairly low emissions. Likewise, he argues that we have to count in emissions data are not "people", but "consumers."

    However, Satterthwaite also notes that emissions data counts don't include the "stored emissions" in the products we buy. Thus the true emissions rates of the wealthy, as a function of their rate of consumptions, is still hidden data. He says that new models of "stored emissions" in consumer products are now being developed.

  2. Great post Gary, when one looks at the older parts of many cities, houses and buildings are more compact; whereas in suburbs and ex-urbs, there's sprawl with box stores and spread-out cookie-cutter subdivisions.

    Many suburbs too are entirely oriented towards driving -- where busy roads don't even have sidewalks (Kanata, outside Ottawa, comes to mind for me).