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Social Stratification and Environmental Degradation: Understanding Household CO2 Production

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Social Problems, Number 40, p.50-73 (1993)



Arguing against the economic model of consumer sovereignty that is assumed in policy discourse concerning the environmental effects of consumer demand, this analysis explores the social origins of one consumption-based environmental problem (greenhouse gas emissions), and considers the social impact of carbon tax proposals aimed at slowing global warming. It uses data on household-level energy consumption in California to show patterned variation in energy use and carbon emissions among households. This variation is accounted for by social class and life cycle differences in housing, appliances, travel, and lifestyle-the cultural expressions of a materialized social structure. A comparison of the economic impact of alternative carbon tax proposals shows that tax rates designed to significantly reduce global emissions would also differentially increase energy costs, with regressive effects upon low- and moderate-income households. Despite the possibility of compensating energy subsidies, caveats are offered based on the history of federally funded low-income energy assistance programs in the United States. Carbon taxes are not simple substitutes for social class and life cycle-appropriate policies designed to: (1) equitably increase the efficiency of housing and household technology, (2) reshape residential settlement patterns, and (3) fundamentally improve the transportation system in the United States.