Systemic Sickness

by Shaker Erica

I learned a useful new term from a friend the other day—the 'L-curve.' It's that graph you've probably seen around a lot of the Occupy Wall Street coverage, that line that shows wealth distribution across a specific population. A straight line means that the wealth is distributed evenly, and a lopsided, sagging curve means it's not. And these days, obviously, it's really, really not.

The blatant injustice of that is enough to piss off most of us on the face of it, but a recent post by Maia Szalavitz on's Healthland blog calls attention to a handful of studies that show that this kind of economic inequality doesn't just affect our pocketbooks. It affects our health. Our actual, physical health.

Szalavitz writes: "A growing body of research suggests that such inequality—more so than income or absolute wealth alone—has a profound influence on a population's health, in every socioeconomic group from rich to middle class to poor."

Yeah, you read that right—even that elusive 1% can't escape it.

It all comes down to the inherent stress of a stratified culture:
As studies of wild baboons in Africa have shown, there are certain key side effects of inequality—namely, stress. Baboons have a rigidly enforced social hierarchy in which fights to win alpha status are common and higher-ranking males constantly abuse and bully those below them. Not surprisingly, this results in chronically elevated levels of stress hormones in the lower ranks.
[A] study found that alpha males—those at the very peak of the hierarchy—were actually just as stressed as their lowest-ranked followers.
Tough to be king, huh?

Szalavitz also tackles the inevitable victim-blaming:
In humans, in fact, differences in health linked to social status—which tracks closely with economic status—have often been attributed only to addictions and to the generally bad health habits of the poor, such as eating a lousy diet. But baboons don't have these 'lifestyle factors' and yet increased mortality in the lower ranks is still seen.
Besides, the effects are seen even when the people lower in the hierarchy aren't particularly poor themselves. A researcher in London who spent decades studying civil servants found that the mortality rates for the lowest-paid were three times that of their highest bosses. That's far worse than the baboons, and the baboon-bosses have fangs.

Most of the people reading this blog already know that income equality stinks, and now there's another reason to add to the long list. Worse, we seem to have perfected it:
As Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, who led much of the research in stress in African baboons, once told me: "When humans invented inequality and socioeconomic status, they came up with a dominance hierarchy that subordinates like nothing the primate world has ever seen before."
Great, so, even the freaking baboons have us beat.

Here in Edinburgh, we have a tiny little occupation doing its bit for the worldwide movement. They have maybe twenty tents pitched in one of the many public gardens, and they haven't attracted much press. I haven't been able to join them, since I'm fortunate enough to have a job where I need to be, so a few days ago I bought about £15 in cheap goods—a couple of wind-up flashlights, a couple of blankets, some bread and peanut butter—and took it down to them.

A student (he said he's studying painting) guided me to the right tents, where I added my loaf of bread to the pile of donated bread, and my blankets to the pile of donated blankets. And then I left, glad to have done something, but nagged by the sense that it was hardly anything at all.

There's this one band of baboons, out there in the Savannah, that's been mentioned on Shakesville before, and Szalavitz brings them up here again. They're called the Forest Troop. Twenty or thirty years ago, the baddest of their badasses fought off big males from another group for the right to feast on some tainted garbage from a nearby restaurant. As a result, those alpha males got sick and died, leaving only the lower-class males and all the females and young. This remainder made a whole new society for themselves, an entirely new culture unheard of among baboons where kind behaviour was rewarded and bullying frowned upon. New males coming into the group learned the new customs, and now, long after the original males have died off, they're preserving this new, more egalitarian culture.

image of baboon troop at sunset

It's no coincidence—not by a long shot—that the first article about them here focused on the way the sexual violence and coercion that's normal in other baboon groups have been all but eliminated in the Forest Troop's new regime. Because, as we see over and over, this shit is all connected.

And according to Szalavitz, amongst the Forest Troop, "rank appeared not to affect stress and health."

All that worry about status? All that bullying and violence? Not much of an issue any more. And everyone—everyone—is better off for it.

As Eric Michael Johnson, author of the earlier article, puts it, "what we're ultimately after is social change."

So I drop off my little blankets at Edinburgh's little protest. The Occupy movements collect and grow like little drops of water, and slowly, slowly, we all start talking about it. People start noticing. Politicians start referring to "the 99%."

And I keep thinking, maybe. Just, maybe.

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