Environmental Inequality and Allocation Preferences for Necessary Evils

with George E. Newman, and Gal Zauberman 

While inequality has been at the center of public discussions and academic research, much of it has been about economic contexts. However, environmental inequalities (e.g., differences in water quality or air pollution levels between communities), are as common and consequential as economic ones. Environmental inequality can be created and remedied through allocations of both ‘harms’ (e.g., polluting industrial facilities) and ‘benefits’ (e.g. pollution control technologies). Across multiple studies, we demonstrate that despite well-established preferences toward equality, people are significantly less likely reduce environmental inequalities when distributing harms compared to distributing benefits. In addition, people show less confidence when allocating harms (vs. benefits) and are reluctant to do so. These different allocation preferences across harms vs. benefits cannot be explained by harm aversion alone. Rather, we suggest that they are a result of an incompatibility between harms, which are seen as inherently unfair actions, and equality, which is a basic fairness principle. This work has both theoretical and practical implications. Since objective environmental conditions (i.e., water pollution levels) are typically shaped through the distribution of harms, our findings suggest that a basic unwillingness to use harms to increase equality between communities might contribute to the prevalence of environmental inequality.