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Rising inequality may lead to dysfunctional societies, new book warns

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Rampant inequality could have devastating societal consequences in the next 50 years if current economic policies remain in place, according to a new book by a team of economists and scientists. 

For one, societal divisions will make it increasingly challenging to deal with urgent crises like climate change, according to the authors of "Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity." The book is the result of a two-year research project that used computer modeling of system dynamics to predict outcomes if current policies don't change.

Social cohesion and cooperation within and among societies is essential to addressing the greatest challenges of our time, the authors argue. Already, rising inequality is causing societal tensions and a decline in trust, and that could lead to "regional collapse" if left unchecked, especially when combined with climate breakdowns, they warn.

"Income inequality will increase social tensions and the growing gap between the rich and the poor creates divisions and contributes to polarization," co-author Owen Gaffney told CBS MoneyWatch. "We need to all come together around these challenges — and that's going to be quite difficult in a highly unequal society."

If current policies remain the same, global temperatures will rise by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, above the Paris Agreement's target, and about two billion people will reside in areas that are on the edge of livability. Humanitarian crises including regional societal collapse and food insecurity would be likelier than today, the authors predict.

A more equal distribution of wealth, on the other hand, would lead to greater social cohesion and more stable societies. 

"Huge power differentials"

"In democratic societies, one key pillar is that everyone is represented, but in very unequal societies what you end up with is huge power differentials between the very rich and everyone else and that skews connections. It creates the perception that the political power is in service to the economic powers," Gaffney added. 

In other words, inequality leads to polarization, which makes it harder to address larger social problems.

The book's authors lay out remedies that include strengthening unions and establishing a "Citizens Fund" supported by carbon emissions taxes. The fund would pay out a universal basic dividend to redistribute wealth and reduce pollution. 

Other policy recommendations include rich countries cancelling all debt to low-income countries; more education opportunities for girls and women; and healthier diets including grass-fed livestock and new proteins that do not contribute to climate change. 

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