Social Sustainability | 3 Eye-Opening Reasons To Care About Equality

LGBTQ pride sign in Orlando that says "Let love last"

In my intro post to environmental sustainability, I gave an overview of the environmental problems we are facing. However, I feel that an intro post to social sustainability needs to do more than just outline the social problems the world faces.

The reality is that everyone knows that we don’t have a socially sustainable world.

We all know about the inequalities that run rampant throughout the world.

These inequalities hinder social sustainability.

So I wanted to get into why we need social sustainability, and I guess we should start with what social sustainability actually is.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

What is social sustainability?

Since sustainability in its most basic form is the ability of something to last, social sustainability means a social system that is long-lasting. And our current system of inequality is not conducive to longevity, as you’ll see in the following sections.

In more specific terms, I would define social sustainability as a state in which the following criteria are being met:

  • People’s basic human rights are not being violated
  • People are treated with dignity and respect
  • People have equal opportunities regardless of their background or identity

But in a single word: equality.

It may be a little idealistic to expect that we will ever fully be able to get to this point, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try as hard as we possibly can to work toward a more sustainable social system.

In fact, I know that it sounds naive for me to hope that we can truly achieve equal rights. And the reason I know is because I’ve been told for most of my life that what I’m pushing for just wouldn’t be feasible or that it would cause more harm than good because I’m overlooking some reality about how the world actually works. 

But in the years (decades?!) since I was first told that I was naive to think that I can (or should) change the world, I’ve learned a little bit more about how the world works.

Ellie holding a journal with portals into a polluted world and a greener world | individual sustainability

The first reality about how the world works is that it is governed by an international law that declares that “All people have an equal right to live free from violence, persecution, discrimination and stigma.” 

So I’m not arguing that we introduce any radical new ideas to achieve social sustainability. I’m just pushing for us to enforce a law that’s existed since 1948.

The second reality about how the world works is that it doesn’t. It doesn’t work.

Here are just a few examples off the top of my head.

  • More than enough food is grown on the planet to feed everyone, and yet almost 10 million people die from hunger each year.
  • It wouldn’t take much money (and would potentially save money) to end homelessness by providing housing and support, and the number of vacant houses in the US vastly outnumbers the number of homeless people, but homelessness still exists in large numbers.
  • Including women and people of color in climate discussions could have ended the climate crisis before it became an actual crisis, but white men have continued to dominate climate discussions and resist changes that would help the environment. (I wrote about this in detail in my last post.)
  • The US could prevent 60% of pregnancy-related deaths with very little cost or effort, but the country’s maternal death rate continues to be the highest in the global north. In fact, a young woman in the US is more likely to die in childbirth than her mother was, which is only the case in a handful of countries, including North Korea, Venezuela, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Blue skies and puffy clouds over Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

Ultimately, we could make changes that would help the most vulnerable people on this planet, and those changes would be positive for everyone else too.

So why don’t we?

Is it ignorance?



All or none of the above?

Personally, I think people just don’t make the connection and have a gut instinct that they would have to sacrifice their own rights in order for other people to be given more rights.

So here is some actual proof that equality is good for everyone.

1. Poverty is bad for everyone.

If you’ve seen or read even the smallest amount of historical fiction, then you have probably encountered the idea of class conflict. Centuries’ worth of rebellions, uprisings, and revolutions have demonstrated that a system that denies rights to the poor is not sustainable.

And that’s not just a phenomenon in history books. The Borgen Project documents that this cycle of riots and protests is still alive and well in countries where income inequality is increasing (which even affects higher-income Western countries). Plus, terrorist organizations are more likely to take advantage in periods of instability, which is another way that people from across all backgrounds could be affected by poverty.

Regardless of our financial stability or instability, we all have something to gain by addressing issues related to poverty, and preventing violent movements is just the start.

For example, homelessness is one symptom of poverty. The 2020 pandemic has illustrated that homelessness can cause diseases to spread more, which is bad for everyone. 

(When I was in college, I worked at Panera Bread, and I served people from all across the spectrum, from homeless people who would occasionally stop in to buy a cheaper item and warm up by our fire, to the owner of the upscale hat shop across the street, to doctors and lawyers, to tourists who were in town for sporting events or conventions. All of this to illustrate that most of us are not that far removed from coming into contact with homeless people, so even if you don’t care about them, it is still in your best interest to care about the issue of homelessness as a whole.)

Dirty alley in Hong Kong

Furthermore, homelessness can affect communities by diverting public spending from community programs to the costs associated with maintaining the homelessness-jail cycle that exists throughout society at present. Making sure that funding goes toward community services can reduce crime, which will mean that all of us would live in a safer world.

Then there are more hypothetical consequences.

Since it is harder to break out of intergenerational poverty, we are cutting a lot of people off from reaching their potential. Rich people will make sure their children have the best education, whereas poor people don’t often have as much of a choice in what education they can provide for their children. Arguably, there are minds that would have solved problems that affect all of us, like cancer or faster air travel, but because they lacked educational opportunities, they never had a chance. 

The same can be said for people who die of hunger or other poverty-related causes of death before they have a chance to impact the world.

In many parts of the world, poverty not only steals high-quality education from children, but it can cause them to forgo schooling altogether in favor of working to help support their family. And often that work involves dangerous work conditions to produce semi-disposable items intended for consumption by people who are more privileged. That affects all of us because owning something made by an underpaid 7-year-old is not a good look.

In my conversations with people about this topic, I’ve started to understand that there is a widespread belief that poverty is a moral failing. I’ve seen people use religion to justify this. (“If God didn’t bless them with money, then it must be because they are a sinner.”) I’ve also seen people perpetrate this belief as a boost to their own ego. (“If I had to work hard to make money, so do they. If they don’t have enough money, they must be too lazy to work for it.”) 

Regardless of where this mindset comes from, it is a hindrance to making positive change. 

There are so many reasons why somebody might end up in a position of poverty. As much as some people want to deny it, the fact that women, LGBT folk, people of color, and disabled people are disproportionately affected by poverty cannot be explained away by mere laziness. 

LGBTQ rainbow pride flag in the window of an apartment | eco-social sustainability

Poverty not only ruins the lives of the people who have the misfortune to experience it, but it can affect larger communities and even destabilize entire countries.

There are many systemic problems that need to be addressed in order to remove the additional barriers that prevent people from achieving economic stability and therefore social sustainability. And the rest of this post will discuss two of those barriers at length.

2. Patriarchy is bad for everyone.

One of the main takeaways from my last post was that addressing patriarchy could help solve the climate crisis.

This works in several ways, since patriarchy empowers men to hurt the environment, it makes them fear helping the environment, and it prevents women from participating in climate solutions even though they are more qualified for the job.

Quote by Patricia E Perkins that says “When women’s situated experiences and expertise, diversity, and gendered roles in production and reproduction are taken into account, climate justice for women increases the welfare of all humans – economically, socially, and politically, both intra-generationally and inter-generationally.”

Patriarchy is the system in which there are a lot of gendered rules in place that typically put men in leadership. Most of the world runs on a patriarchal system

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we flip the script and kick men to the curb in favor of women running things. Instead, I am arguing that we eradicate the arbitrary rules that patriarchy has inflicted on society.

For example, patriarchy usually dictates what clothing is acceptable. Throughout history, dress codes for women have been imposed based on men’s modesty standards and the false belief that men are strong and women are weak. 

Although dress codes often punish women’s clothing choices, they can also harm men because of the patriarchal stigma that would arise if a man should choose to dress like a woman. Just think, it’s normal for women to wear traditionally masculine clothing (like pants), but if a man wears traditionally feminine clothing (like a dress), it violates gender expectations and he is seen as weak.

This may seem like a silly starting point for examining the way patriarchy negatively affects everyone, but if you are a man or a woman, consider whether there was ever something that you wanted to do but felt that you couldn’t because of your gender. The way you dress is just one possible example.

Woman in traditional clothing observing Balinese Galungan celebration traditions

The issue becomes even more complex for people who are not cisgender. I still see a lot of people who assert that there are only 2 genders, and that not only hurts the identities of trans and non-binary people, but also the wellbeing of intersex people who are genuinely born without a clear biological sex, as is the case of one baby out of every 1,500 births.

So one out of every 1,500 parents could be impacted by the harmful patriarchal norms that make it hard for them (many parents of intersex children grapple with psychological issues due to their child’s lack of a clear sex) as well as the child (psychological side effects are just the beginning).

And that doesn’t even get into the social dynamics involving all the other individuals who don’t uphold patriarchal values in their gender expression.

Patriarchy also enforces heteronormativity, which is the idea that heterosexual relationships are the norm (and each partner should follow the expected gender roles within the relationship). This means that people who are not straight face hurdles in being accepted and even in getting their basic needs met.

As we established in the previous section of this post, poverty makes for an unsustainable society, and there is no way to tackle poverty without also tackling patriarchy. This is because poverty is one of the side effects of women and LGBTQIA people being oppressed by patriarchy.

And again, we can consider the hypothetical of how much better the world would be if our society fostered the success of all individuals regardless of gender or sexuality.

Definition of sustainability on on phone screen against floral backdrop

Although, that’s really not a hypothetical, when you think about it. You’re reading this on some kind of computer device, and Alan Turing is partly to thank for that. He invented a computer that helped end World War II early, which potentially saved more than 14 million lives. He had a brilliant mind that could have further revolutionized computer science, but we’ll never know how much he would have accelerated the digital age, because he was prosecuted for homosexuality, which led to his death at age 41.

Homophobia and transphobia run deep in most parts of the world, and it affects everyone.

Society often vilifies LGBT people, and that can deflect attention from actual issues, which is another social sustainability problem for society as a whole.

(A recent example is when JK Rowling jeopardized her philanthropy work by taking a negative stance on trans rights that alienated much of her audience.)

But there are plenty of other instances where homophobia and transphobia missed their mark and hurt more than their intended target.

In 1953, the United States’ well-established homophobia heightened as President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 allowed significant government resources to be spent on exposing and punishing gay men and lesbians.

In addition to wasting money that could have been used on other causes for the benefit of the whole country, Order 10450 also employed guilt by association tactics, so anyone who knew somebody who was suspected to be gay would also be a suspect. It wasn’t until 1995 that this order was rescinded in its entirety.

At another point in history, when HIV surfaced, it wasn’t taken seriously at first because society didn’t care about a deadly illness that didn’t seem to affect straight people. Since this “gay cancer” only afflicted a marginalized group of people in the beginning, it didn’t merit instant research and funding, and lots of time was lost in understanding the illness that continued to spread and kill beloved public figures among tens of millions more people.

Even today, the financial cost of HIV amounts to $26 billion per year in the US alone. Without homophobia, measures would have been taken much sooner to slow the spread, develop therapies, and work toward a cure.

Just 2 years ago, a trans woman in India was killed because it was believed that trans women were planning to kidnap children. A mob of several hundred people attacked her because they fervently wanted to prevent child trafficking. However, because they approached the situation with ignorance and violence, their actions did nothing to actually protect children. Imagine what change they could have made if they banded together in the same way for a cause that actually would make the world a better place.

Sign at Orlando's March for Science says "Oceans are rising and so are we"

One final piece in why patriarchy needs to be vanquished in order to achieve social sustainability is that it fosters violence.

Violence against women and LGBT people is rampant, and while it undoubtedly affects the victims and their families, it also isn’t good for society as a whole. 

In the EU, 1 out of every 3 women above the age of 15 has been a victim of gender-based violence (GBV), and 95% of trafficking victims are women.

In the midst of a global pandemic, South Africa’s President Ramaphosa acknowledged an outbreak of femicides and declared that the country was suffering from an epidemic of GBV.

But as we know, women are not the only victims of violence due to patriarchal gender roles. 

LGBTQ pride sign in Orlando that says "Let love last"

The United Nations asserts that failing to protect LGBT people can have a “far-reaching impact on society” and yet millions of LGBT individuals are still at risk of violence, even in unexpected places like medical settings.

Each year, roughly one trans person per day is murdered every day for the “crime” of their gender identity, with at least 37 of them taking place in the US this year.

With such a large portion of society being affected by gender-based violence, it’s not hard to understand that gender inequality spills out into many other aspects of society and needs to be addressed.

The #NotAllMen movement was a great example of how this phenomenon hurts men as well. Because the majority of gender-based violence perpetrators are men, women are less likely to trust men at first. We were taught to hold our car keys as weapons in parking lots, to be wary of men walking behind us at night, to not be too nice to men and give them the wrong idea, and to make sure we stay in groups for even the simplest things like going to a public restroom. 

Women are taught that if they fall prey to gender-based violence, it’s their fault for letting down their guard. 

As a result, a lot of men feel victimized when women don’t immediately let down their guard. But it was the patriarchal system that taught women that this is how they need to respond. 

Women need to assume all men are threats in order to stay safe, but most (all?!) men don’t want to be seen as threats. You see how patriarchy is a lose-lose?

While it is not all men who are responsible for gender-based violence, it is patriarchy as a whole that is to blame.

So eliminating patriarchy will not only keep women and LGBTQIA folks safer, but it will make men more comfortable as well.

(It is also worth mentioning that although male victims of gender-based violence are in the minority, they do exist and are less likely to be believed because of patriarchal expectations. Conversations of social sustainability shouldn’t ignore this fact.)

Another palpable result of gender-based violence is the economic cost, as healthcare and criminal justice systems use resources to address these incidents. Here in South Africa, these costs amount to somewhere around two billion US dollars per year.

Violence toward our fellow human beings is not only morally wrong, but it’s not socially sustainable, and a society-wide belief system that encourages violence is simply not a sign of social sustainability.

3. Racism is bad for everyone.

Another society-wide belief system that encourages violence in many parts of the world (and harms progress toward social sustainability) is racism. Although historic systems of oppression such as the enslavement of African-Americans are no longer in place, there are still many modern-day practices that treat people of color as second-class citizens. 

(Although my experience and research is largely based on the United States, I do know that most of these issues exist in many other countries as well. Plus, there are other manifestations of racism that may exist elsewhere that I am unaware of despite doing my best to stay educated. Please comment below if you can add an additional perspective on how racism hurts everyone in your part of the world.)

Historic bench in Cape Town, South Africa, that says "Non-whites only" | social sustainability

To begin with, the root of problems for POC often stem from the above issues of poverty and patriarchy. People of color are more likely to experience poverty. In addition to less intergenerational wealth (after all, we’re only a few generations removed from slavery), discrimination still persists in the form of racial wage gaps, job and housing discrimination, and violence.

Further resources are wasted on overpolicing communities of color and mass incarcerations of POC, rather than investing in social programs to prevent crime in the first place. And these truly are symptoms of racism, as 1 in 3 Black boys and 1 in 7 Latino boys will go on to be imprisoned, in comparison to 1 in 17 white boys.

This misappropriation of resources and priorities not only fails to prevent crime, but it increases crime by fostering high rates of recidivism and therefore trapping people in a cycle of crime and incarceration

Higher crime rates are just one side effect. On the economic side of things, mass incarceration costs taxpayers in the US $80 billion each year. Instead of using that money to punish one group of people, what if we used it in a way that benefits everybody?!

Changing gears a little, POC are more likely to have chronic conditions and less access to quality care, which strains a healthcare system that is already overburdened, even in non-pandemic times.

And again, this inequality has a financial downside for every tax-paying citizen. In the US, diabetes and obesity cost about $475 billion each year in healthcare and lost productivity, and these disorders disproportionately affect people of color.

The healthcare disparity in the US is so severe that the American Medical Association has declared that racism is a public health crisis, asserting that “Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer.”

Women and LGBT folks of color have to deal with all of these racial inequalities as well as all of the side effects of being oppressed by patriarchy.

“When Black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society.”

Angela Davis

For example, the lack of quality healthcare for people of color is especially risky for women and can be demonstrated by the fact that Black women die in childbirth at a rate 3 times more than other women. Since 60% of those deaths could be prevented with very little extra cost or effort, these preventable deaths are not only a tragedy, but also yet another additional strain on the healthcare system and cost to tax-payers.

Long-term implications of racial inequality can be costly as well, with the idea of slavery reparations attached to figures as high as $97 trillion dollars. If that sets the trend of keeping people accountable for acting as oppressors, then there will certainly be wide-ranging implications for all members of society.

(Update: The day after I published this post, I saw in the news that “Indigenous people across the US want their land back,” which seems related to the idea of reparations.)

Again, addressing these inequalities is not only our moral imperative and the legally correct thing to do, but it is in the best interest of virtually everyone on earth.

We must tackle these social sustainability issues if we want our society to reduce violence, crime, disease, death, and unnecessary spending so that we can focus on things that matter more.

The Takeaway

I understand that it can be hard to care about issues that we don’t feel affect us. Sentiments that we are only as strong as our weakest link can seem both cloying and hollow.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou

However, although my conversation on this was limited only to a few social issues, I hope I have made clear that social equality affects everyone. It is within our best interest to care about social sustainability.

And while addressing these problems may require a shift in our cultural values so that we as individuals and communities are more understanding and less judgmental, the biggest changes we can make will come from participating in our political systems to make sure that the governments’ policies and use of taxes are in the best interest of everybody. 

There is simply no way to take a comprehensive approach to sustainability without addressing these important components of social sustainability.

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    Continuing the Conversation

    What other social inequalities are bad for humanity as a whole? How is this tied to other aspects of sustainability? Is there any information in this post that reframed the way you think about social issues? Are there more nuances to conversations of social sustainability? Let me know in the comments!

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