Can countries be fair, prosperous, and green? That’s one of the questions that Kevin Berry, assistant professor of economics at ISER, considered with his colleagues at a recent meeting of the Beijer Young Scholars Programme in Stockholm, Sweden.

Berry brings an expertise in environmental economics to the cross-disciplinary international network of scientists brought together by the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The early-career scientists are exploring new pathways to address global sustainability – in particular, they are looking at how issues of inequality are intertwined with society’s impact on the biosphere.

Beijer Institute logoThis is Berry’s fourth year working in the Beijer Young Scholars Programme. He began while finishing his postdoctoral training in economics at Yale, and has continued since joining ISER in 2017.

“Our work highlights the importance of considering inequality as a mediating factor in interactions between the environment and human well-being,” Berry said. He and his colleagues reviewed the linkages between global environmental change and inequality in “Inequality and the Biosphere,” in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources.

“By extensively reviewing the literature, we found evidence that the textbook solutions for resource management do not always work,“ Berry said. “Assigning property rights is sometimes assumed to solve every conservation problem.”

But, he pointed out, inequality influences how people respond to policy changes. When people lose access to resources they depend upon, they may view it as unfair, and damage conservation efforts out of spite. In addition to people’s perceptions and fairness, the paper documents how inequality influences how society impacts the biosphere through the ability of people to collaborate and market concentration in different industries. The paper also documents how the biosphere influences inequality through either gradual environmental change or environmental shocks, including natural disasters.

“Inequality can increase the risk of natural disasters to society – for instance when all of society needs to contribute to hazard mitigation, or reduce risk if a small group of people are able to reduce the risk for everyone.”

Understanding how inequality affects the interactions between the biosphere and society is the first step toward better understanding the unintended consequences of policy decisions, according to Berry.