How the Rich are Destroying the Earth

richdestroy How the Rich are Destroying the Earth is a striking title for a book. Hervé Kempf, environmental editor of Le Monde newspaper, doesn't beat about the bush.  He builds on two observations: first, the planet's ecological situation is continuing to worsen at great speed; second, the social system that presently governs human society - capitalism - blindly holds out against the changes that are indispensable if we want to preserve the dignity and promise of human existence.   

Climate change and species extinction are the two factors that put us in a long-term state of planetary environmental crisis. All the indicators of crisis proliferate, yet astonishingly we still do nothing. Our system seems stubbornly incapable of changing. Why? One reason is economic. We have run a prosperous economic system which has not counted environmental destruction as a cost. Another reason is that our leadership elites, trained in economics, engineering or politics, are frequently ignorant of science and ecology. A third, that the cocooned lifestyle of most of us in the developed countries prevents us from seeing what is happening, while the poor who are already affected have no voice.

The welfare of the poor is an important theme in Kempf's book. He has a memorable account of a visit to people who live from trawling a Guatemalan garbage dump. A sense of affront at the exclusion of the poor from the benefits of prosperity is never far away. Ecological concern is interleaved with a sense of social justice.

Oligarchies of immense wealth have grown from our economic prosperity. They benefit from the injustice of the disparities that now obtain. Kempf describes some of the scarcely believable financial rewards dealt out to the rich, and scornfully recounts the excesses of their spending - the yachts, the clothing, the cars, the mansions, the protected neighbourhoods, the vacations, the airplanes, the parties. They live separated lives and stand as an obstacle to the changes that we must make. They bear no plan, are animated by no ideal, deliver no promise. They assert, with what he calls the pseudo-realism of capitalism, that any alternative to the present system is impossible and the only way to soften the injustices is to create ever more wealth. Material growth is the paramount solution.

Their flamboyance may be reprehensible, but is it significant enough to destroy the earth? Not by itself, but Kempf considers the rich define the lifestyle of their era. At this point he invokes an economist who was working a century ago, Thorstein Veblen, son of immigrant parents to the US from Norway. Veblen wrote at a time of economic inequality not dissimilar from our own, which to Kempf's mind gives a freshness to his incisive commentary. Veblen considered that the economy is dominated by the propensity for emulation, a pervading trait of human nature. He posited that each of the many strata of society seeks to imitate the layer above in terms of conspicuous consumption, a term he was the first to use. Thus the standards of consumption are traced back by imperceptible gradations to the usages and habits of the highest social and pecuniary class. Imitation results in a torrent of waste throughout the whole of society, sourced from the top of the human mountain.  That is how the rich are destroying the earth. 

That may seem rather indirect. After all if we allow ourselves to be ruled by the urge to imitate we should presumably share the blame for what results.  But Kempf adds to this indirect influence the much more direct control of economic and political power that maintains inequality. The oligarchy keeps repeating the dominant ideology that the solution to the social crisis is production growth. 

Kempf doesn't agree. Growth doesn't reduce inequality, it reduces poverty only when it reaches unsustainable levels and it aggravates the already critical ecological situation. He has no objection in principle to growth, but under present conditions growth manifests itself as an increase in material production that greatly harms the environment. 

We have to move to material decline. Not for the poorest, whose consumption should be increased out of concern for justice, but for the 20% of the world's population who consume 80% of global wealth. This means reducing the consumption, and the power, of the richest who establish society's consumption model.   

But don't expect them to go quietly, warns Kempf.  Democracy will come under severe tension; indeed it already has. We need to revitalise it, to recapture concern for the common welfare and reanimate the idea of collective destiny. In his final chapter Kempf scratches around for signs of hope that can happen, and finds a few.

The book is quite short at around 100 pages. It's not always well organised.  But the basic themes are strong and the direction they point in is clear.  The ecological crises and the social crises are two sides of the same disaster.  Ecologists need to take the political and economic processes seriously, and those who seek more just societies must not ignore the reality of looming environmental catastrophe.

Kempf's book was first published in France in 2007. The  economic meltdown now upon us would not surprise him. The ecological crisis has not abated one whit. Treat them both as one would surely be his advice. There are occasional hopeful signs that some politicians are ready to consider this, but much of what we hear is still depressingly centred on re-establishing the type of growth which has already proved destructive.


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  • Posted on April 25, 2009. Listed in:

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