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Social Inclusion and Environmental Sustainability: We Stand or Sink Together

February 1, 2018

During the opening plenary of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to retrofit one of our oldest paradigms. “The one who controls data,” he said, “controls the world.”

But if there’s one urgent takeaway from the information revolution, it’s that humankind’s efforts to control the world have had unintended consequences. New data are revealing deep interconnections, and some disastrous dynamics, between human social systems and the natural world.

Environmental degradation and climate change are taking a frightening toll, especially in cities, where 60 percent of the world’s people are expected to live by 2030. Headlines describe melting streets in Sydney and mounting sea levels in Osaka; “blast furnaces” in the South and “bomb cyclones” in the North.

And those most affected by environmental crises tend to be the most vulnerable populations on Earth: the young, the old, the disenfranchised, and the poor. Social inequities translate to environmental inequities as well.

Today, for example, we know more than ever about the connection between socioeconomic status and exposure to environmental pollution and harm. In the United States, longitudinal research paints a grim picture of pollution sources and hazardous waste facilities systematically locating themselves in lower-income communities — whereas environmentally friendly interventions like bike-sharing that can help reduce automobile pollution and traffic are often located only in higher-income areas.

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