There’s something strange going on in the developed world. We are the wealthiest group of societies ever to grace the earth, and yet we seem to also be the most stressed, worried, depressed and untrusting. Why is this?
Meanwhile, people seem to recognise that there is something intuitively wrong about the massive and increasing gaps between rich and poor, both in the UK, and across the world. While cumulatively, we’ve been getting richer, we’ve also been getting more and more unequal. In the UK, the richest 20% of the population have 45% of the wealth, with the poorest 20% having just 5.3%. (Department of Work and Pensions, 2009). These kinds of stats are rolled out so much they almost seem to become part of the background noise of life. But read them again. They’re startling!
But people also generally don’t think equality is particularly good either. I reckon most people are for reducing inequality, but not for greater equality. The two sides of the same coin have been tarnished by a left-right ideological divide entrenched since the Cold war, that equates equality with communism and inequality as a necessary evil of efficient market democracies.
A new book called the Spirit Level spells out in convincing and shocking detail the statistically proven relationship between a whole range of social ills (for example crime, bad health, teenage pregnancies, and lack of trust) and levels of inequality within developed countries. It is inequality, not GDP, which appears to determine a countries ability to tackle the long-standing and fundamental social problems we face. The most unequal countries: the USA, UK, and Singapore, fare many times worse than the most equal: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Japan, irrelevant of how rich they are per capita.
The implications from their findings are profound. It suggests that instead of piling millions into end-of-pipe solutions to our social problems: like mental health clinics or prisons, we need to introduce interventionist policies to seriously reduce the levels of inequality in our society- and everyone will benefit, even the very richest.
The book’s argument is elegantly simple and politically loaded, and so has come in for some stick from the political right: who say it’s a coup to smuggle in big government, and that it’s statistically inconsistent. There’s a great debate planned between the authors of the book, and its critiques, at the RSA on 22nd July
But its argument is based on decades of statistical research, and what’s more, its basic thrust- that inequality is not an intrinsically good thing for society- seems intuitively to me to make sense, whatever your political persuasion.
And so, inspired by this book and the debate it has triggered, a friend and I are setting off on a journey across one of the most equal countries in the world: Sweden, on August 4th 2010. Often seen as the model of socialist utopia, its citizens appear to be rich, trusting, healthy, low users of drugs and alcohol, tolerant and happy. Of course it’s no actual utopia. There are plenty of problems in Sweden. But since it’s one of the most equal countries out there, what better place to go to find answers to the questions: What is it like to live in a more equal society? And what can we learn to take back to the UK in a period of changing political and economic realities?
A little quote from our website sums up nicely what we’re going to do:
The exploration will take the cyclists thousands of miles through the cities and fjords of Sweden; wild camping, staying with strangers, talking with ordinary people and academics alike. They will learn what it is about these countries that mean they record such high levels of what are considered to be social ‘goods’, and uncovering any negative side affects that might ensue. The adventurers will record their six week journey via video diary, photo-blog, and interview. The material will tell their story, and that of Sweden, in an interwoven mosaic of visual media.
This trip is not about presenting a utopian vision of another society. It’s not about saying everyone must be the same. It’s about testing the basic premise that living in a less unequal society is better for us: our health, mental well-being, communities and more. By exploring the lives of people living in Sweden, we hope to uncover what it might be like to live in a society in which more people have more. We don’t think the UK should become Sweden- each country is different, culturally, historically. But what would greater equality look like in the UK? And would it be desirable? We hope to spark debate about these issues, particularly among new graduates of our generation- who will be shaping what the UK looks like in years to come, and have a chance now to decide what kind of society they want to live in. In the context of massive budget costs and the promotion of a ‘big society’, now is the time to be asking this question of ourselves.
You can follow our progress at www.exploringequality.tk.We want you to get involved. Sign up to our blog, post your view, donate some money or items we need to make the trip happen, spread the word, read the books, have a debate, form an opinion. It’s going to be fun.
And so ends the forum blog- sustainablyspeaking my year at forum comes to an end. But a new adventure begins.
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