Skip to main content

Capacity to Promote Equity

Achieving fair or equitable distribution of the fruits of the earth’s resources both within and between generations is a central objective of sustainable development. Accelerating progress requires above all more effective means for empowering those who are now losing out.

Published onSep 10, 2020
Capacity to Promote Equity

Cite as: Harley, Alicia G., and William C. Clark. 2020. “Capacity to Promote Equity.” In Sustainability Science: A Guide for Researchers, edited by Alicia G. Harley and William C. Clark, 1st ed. Retrieved from

We argue in this chapter that a greater capacity to promote equity is necessary for the effective pursuit of sustainable development. (In)equity1 is a normative concept dealing with fairness and justice that has been central to social deliberations on sustainability. In that context it addresses how fairly people judge the fruits of the earth’s resources are being distributed within and between generations. (In)equality2 is a positive concept used for describing those distributions. (In)equality in access to resources is an emergent property of the Anthropocene System that can be modified through policy in order to meet the equity component of sustainability goals. Power differentials among actors turn out to be both a cause and a consequence of inequality. Empowerment of those actors who are losing out under current pathways of development is thus a vital component of the capacity to promote equity in sustainable development.

1 Findings: (In)equity, (in)equality, and power

The Brundtland Commission put (in)equity and (in)equality at the core of its case for sustainability, arguing that inequality is both the “planet’s main ‘environmental’ problem” as well as its “main ‘development’ problem” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, 6). Subsequent international deliberations have reaffirmed this perspective with specific emphasis on sustainability as fairness, its goals including both the alleviation of poverty in today’s world of plenty and the assurance that efforts to improve well-being today do not unfairly undermine the prospects of those seeking it tomorrow (United Nations 2015). These normative commitments to equity have also been used to argue that all people deserve the freedom and capacity to pursue their own visions of the good life (Sen 2013).

(In)equity: Given the centrality of concerns over (in)equity to the political deliberations about the goals of sustainable development, we were surprised to discover how relatively little those concerns have figured in sustainability research or practice during most of the period covered by this Research Guide. There have always, thankfully, been a few welcome exceptions, (e.g., Weiss 1988). But it is only recently that equity concerns have begun to appear consistently in sustainability scholarship (e.g., Lintsen et al. 2018; Tessum et al. 2019; Williams et al. 2020). And even when research has addressed equity issues, as is true for the inclusive wealth scholarship discussed in the Chapter on Capacity to Measure, applications have lagged behind. For example, none of the UN or World Bank reports on historical patterns of inclusive wealth we cited there (Lange, Wodon, and Carey 2018; Managi and Kumar 2018) give more than passing attention to the questions of intragenerational equity latent in their data. Even more surprisingly, none of the 17 UN SDGs explicitly address the concerns of intergenerational equity that have been so central to sustainability discourse (Lim, Søgaard Jørgensen, and Wyborn 2018; Ribas, Lucena, and Schaeffer 2017).

Society cannot achieve the goals of sustainable development that it has repeatedly endorsed without giving more attention in both research and practice to the challenges of achieving fair and just distributions of well-being both within and between generations. We therefore conclude that that a second necessary (but not sufficient) condition for sustainable development is a greater capacity to promote equity within and between generations. In the remainder of this chapter we summarize the research that we have found most relevant to advancing the equity dimension of sustainability. The following reviews provide deeper treatments of key topics than we can cover here: (Hamann et al. 2018; Caney 2018; Zucman 2019; Kashwan, MacLean, and García-López 2019). We have drawn heavily on them in shaping our argument.

(In)equality: Both theory (Scheffer et al. 2017) and empirical evidence (Zucman 2019) suggest that substantial inequality is an emergent property of the Anthropocene that should be looked upon as the rule, not the exception, for pathways of development. Multiple inequalities relevant to sustainability exist with opportunities and outcomes divided by income, race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and other factors. Moreover, these inequalities frequently intersect with and reinforce one another (Collins 2015). Scholars have documented the ways in which quantifiable metrics of inequality are distributed over time and among actors within and between different action situations (Piketty 2020; Milanovic 2017; Pierson and Lamont 2019; Banzhaf, Ma, and Timmins 2019).

Inequality has a tendency to snowball such that without intervention unequal wealth distributions become even more unequal over time (Hamann et al. 2018). Understanding inequality therefore requires a multi-generational historical perspective (Scheve and Stasavage 2017). This historical record shows that patterns of inequality change over time and can be both strengthened and mitigated by anthropogenic and natural influences (Piketty 2020). Mitigating influences include micro-processes of accumulation and distribution (Benhabib and Bisin 2018) and macro-forces including wars and natural calamities (Scheidel 2017). Perhaps most relevant for action to promote sustainable development are findings on the efficacy of meso-level institutional structures (Mazzucato 2018; Piketty 2020). Some of these can reduce inequalities, including inheritance taxes and strong unions (Ahlquist 2017). Others have been shown to accentuate them: tax systems that target wages over investment income, as well as ownership of intellectual property and stocks of scarce natural resources (Stiglitz 2012). That said, many mechanisms that reduced inequality through much of the 20th century in the affluent West—e.g., increasing access to education, rural-urban migration, and progressive tax systems—seem to be no longer functioning as mechanisms of redistribution (Pierson and Lamont 2019).

Power: Some inequalities would result from the heterogeneous distribution of resources in the Anthropocene System even if all actors preferred an equitable allocation. But all actors don’t. Indeed, initial inequalities are reinforced by a variety of mechanisms, ranging from what psychologists call social dominance theory (a preference to prefer inequity over equity (Milfont et al. 2017) to the norms of capitalism to realist strategies of states. What these mechanisms have in common is power, a fundamental relationship in the Anthropocene System that we defined in the Chapter on a Framework for Research as the ability of some actors to affect the actions and beliefs of others.

Access to resources (including each of the resources discussed in the Chapter on Capacity to Measure) is at the heart of individual power (Kabeer 1999; Pedde et al. 2019). Inequality in the access to resources leads to inequalities of power that in turn reduce the abilities of all but the most powerful actors to define and pursue their own goals. For example, the ability of colonial governments to extract vast quantities of resources (including slave labor) from their colonies, promoting their own well-being at the expense of others, was predicated on unequal distributions of military and economic resources and therefore power (Mann 2012; Milanovic 2017).

The literature on power, however, shows that it can take many forms that go well beyond coercive power derived from superior military or economic might. In response to the increasing awareness that maldistributions of power reinforce unsustainable development pathways, more and more sustainability science research is seriously grappling with the mechanism and impacts of power on development pathways (e.g., Boonstra 2016; Kashwan, MacLean, and García-López 2019; Brisbois, Morris, and de Loë 2019; Avelino 2017). Yet this literature remains disjointed—failing either to build on itself or to converge around a common theoretical language with which to discuss the mechanisms of power (Gerlak et al. 2019). Our review of the core political and sociological approaches to the study of power as well as more recent work on power and sustainable development leads us to conclude that future work in sustainability science would be well served to build on an adaptation of a three-dimensional view of power first articulated by Steven Lukes (1974). We advocate Lukes’ approach both because it is frequently used to conceptualize the mechanisms of power in empirical work, and because by articulating power’s relationship between actors, resources, institutions, and goals, it fits well within the Framework for Sustainability Science we described elsewhere on this site and Figure 1.3

Lukes proposes three dimensions of power, each of which provides an entry point for advancing the equity dimensions of sustainable development:

1) Compulsion: This dimension of power is derived from actors’ ownership of or access to natural and anthropogenic resource and/or flows of goods and services produced from those resources. It gives powerful actors the ability to compel relatively powerless actors.

2) Exclusion: This dimension of power is derived from actors’ ability to shape institutional structures including rules and norms to serve their own interest often at the expense of other actors. It gives powerful actors the ability to exclude relatively powerless actors.

3) Influence: This dimension of power is derived from the ability of actors to influence the goals, aspirations, values, and even knowledge systems that privilege the well-being of some actors over others. It gives powerful actors the ability to influence relatively powerless actors.

We describe Lukes’ three dimensions of power in greater detail in the appendix. We explore the implications of this perspective for understanding prospects for empowerment in Section 2 below.

2 Building Capacity: Empowerment of current and future generations

Inequality and resultant maldistributions of power hamper the prospects for sustainable development along multiple dimensions. Within the current generation, research demonstrates important if complex relationships between poverty and maldistributions of power in over-exploitation of natural resources and worrisome patterns of resource use (Bebbington et al. 2018; Barbier and Hochard 2019). And unchecked corporate power has enabled private interests to discredit science and delay action on issues from toxic chemicals to global warming, thus harming both present and future generations (Michaels 2020). Indeed, the persistence of many seemingly intractable global problems from the climate crisis, to ecological destruction, to persistent poverty in a time of plenty can in many ways be attributed to incumbency4: the relationships among actors and institutions through which power differentials shape, stabilize, and reinforce existing regimes and their associated development pathways (Stirling 2019).

The pursuit of sustainable development is thus a political agenda that requires redistribution of access to resources, and to the flows of benefits from those resources, both within and between generations. To do this, those agitating for sustainable development will have to overcome the resistance of incumbent actors keen on stabilizing current regimes and their associated development pathways. Doing so will almost certainly require conventional “top down” efforts by reformers in government and industry. But top down strategies alone are unlikely to be sufficient for two reasons. First, top-down efforts risk violating Sen’s admonition, quoted earlier, to see people not as patients but as agents with the potential to set goals and agendas of their own. Second, elite capture of top-down governance approaches is well-documented (Sheely 2015; Torpey-Saboe et al. 2015; Casey 2018). For these reasons, realizing a vision of sustainability as fairness will require work to empower the individuals and groups that are most harmed by current development pathways: today’s vulnerable communities and future generations. Building a capacity to promote equity is thus a second necessary condition for the effective pursuit of sustainability.

Power and empowerment: Collective social movements are likely to play a fundamental role in efforts to promote intra and intergenerational equity (Villamayor-Tomas and García-López 2018). Scholarship on empowerment is beginning to sort out which strategies for overcoming maldistributions of power are most likely to be effective in particular action situations (McGee and Pettit 2019). Much of this scholarship has found Lukes’ three-dimensional perspective on power useful because it provides a language with which to analyze path-dependent regimes, the cross-level linkages that often serve to reinforce incumbent interests, and the spaces and leverage points available to shift development pathways toward more equitable outcomes (Gaventa 1980).

The explanatory value of the three-dimensions of power in analyzing strategies of empowerment was perhaps most famously articulated by John Gaventa in his 1980 study of Appalachian coal country (see the text box below titled Power and Empowerment in Appalachia). More recent efforts to mobilize against all three dimensions of power can be seen in struggles to promote sustainable development. Activists often initially turn to the third dimension of power in efforts to alter path-dependent regimes reinforced by the interests of powerful actors. For example, in Latin America, maldistributions of power were reinforced by norms that legitimized inequities. Activists disrupted these norms by mobilizing marginalized groups around new concepts of justice and fairness. Over multiple decades, new norms of fairness contributed to the restructuring of institutions that reduced inequality in Latin America in the early years of the 21st century (Evans 2018). Strategic use of the second dimension of power has also been made by activists and agitators. They mobilize local governance mechanisms, the court system, and legislative pressure to change laws and regulations to reinforce gains made through struggles over the third dimension of power (Boston 2017; Wittmayer et al. 2017).


John Gaventa’s classic study of power in a central Appalachian valley demonstrates how compulsion, exclusion, and influence serve to reinforce one another (Gaventa 1980). Through his analysis, he shows that when the powerful owners of the local mine began to lose their grip on one dimension of power, they were able to mobilize their control over the other two dimensions in order to protect their interests until they could reestablish control over all three dimensions. Successful resistance was possible only when agitators strategically mobilized against all three dimensions of power. They did this through collective issue framing to identify inequities (3rd dimension of power); formulation of specific demands for changes in rules and norms and identification or creation of venues for protest and participation (2nd dimension of power); and open protest and conflict over the resources from which the coal company drew its power (1st dimension of power).

Efforts to mobilize the first dimension of power by regaining access to resources are often the most challenging for disempowered actors. Indeed, empirical evidence from real-estate markets in the United States shows that the same asset, when it belongs to a member of a marginalized group, can be devalued in the market simply by virtue of the fact that it is owned by a member of a marginalized group (Perry, Rothwell, and Harshbarger 2018). Nevertheless, examples of efforts by indigenous communities around the world to secure land redistribution and formal land tenure show that occasionally activists can successfully regain the first dimension of power, but these efforts are almost always predicated on strategic use of the second and third dimensions of power (Ganz 2009; Rudel and Hernandez 2017). Current efforts by activists to influence the banking and insurance industries to stop supporting fossil fuel companies are also designed to deprive incumbent actors of the first dimension of power by limiting their ability to finance extraction of fossil fuels (McKibben 2019).

Future generations: How to empower future generations in current decision-making remains a topic of continued theoretical and practical discussion. Theoretically, as illustrated by debates over appropriate discount rates to use in climate policy, scholars continue to argue about how best to compare present and future well-being and whether it is warranted to assume that future generations will be wealthier and have better technologies (Gollier and Hammitt 2014). Practically, suitable legal and regulatory mechanisms are still being developed and tested to ensure whatever rights we grant to future generations are in fact honored by today’s decision-makers (Boston 2017). More empirical research on strategies for empowerment of current and future generations, together with legal, regulatory, and behavioral approaches to promoting intra- and intergenerational equity, will almost certainly prove necessary in the pursuit of sustainability. In Section 2 of the chapter on building governance capacity, we further explore the research on governance strategies to promote equity, looking specifically at the role of values and norms; laws, rights, and regulations; and social movements as tools to foster more equitable development pathways for both current and future generations.

Arun Agrawal: The discussion suggests we know relatively little both about how changes in equality have occurred across generations and the factors driving these changes. Indeed, we know far less about prevailing inequalities across different levels of sociopolitical aggregation. Data on inequality even at national level, are sparse. At one level, the observation that increasing inequality is an emergent property of the anthropocene makes intuitive sense. At the same time, we know that there have been variations in levels of equality and that the direction of these changes is neither linear nor unidirectional. Even within the period we consider the anthropocene, there have been increases and declines in inequality. Researchers from Olson to Piketty would suggest that declines in inequality (greater equality) more likely result when elite control over production and distribution of resources and wealth undergoes change - as for example during the first and particularly the second world war, or after regime changes in democratic polities. While military and political changes are two means to disturb existing social orders, so also are technological and perhaps demographic changes. But how and in what direction these changes will affect inequality remains unclear. At least the digital revolution has made substantial economic inequalities more commonplace. As we try to understand the dimensions of inequality and injustice, it is critical to develop a more consistent vocabulary. We need to distinguish among the goals of actions aimed at greater equality (inclusion, equity, redress), strategies through which to achieve stated goals (recognition, procedures, allocation), principles that guide strategies (merit, rights, needs, contribution) and the stakeholders whose interests are prominent (intra- vs. inter-generational, and within these, those defined by distinct legal, historical, socio-economic, and cultural identities). Such conceptual clarity is only the beginning. Better data and measures to understand how inequality is changing and analyses that attribute these changes effectively to their drivers are critical for a practical program that strengthens capacities for inclusion, equity, and redress.