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Embarrassment of Riches

September 20, 2019 - 18:22 -- Admin

For the sake of
life on Earth, we should set an upper limit on the money any person can
amass.

By George
Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 19th September 2019

It is not quite
true that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Musicians and novelists, for example, can
become extremely rich by giving other people pleasure. But it does appear to be
universally true that in front of every great fortune lies a great crime.
Immense wealth translates automatically into immense environmental impacts,
regardless of the intentions of those who possess it. The very wealthy, almost
as a matter of definition, are committing ecocide.

A few weeks ago,
I received a letter from a worker at a British private airport. “I see things
that really shouldn’t be happening in 2019,” he wrote. Every day he sees Global
7000 jets, Gulfstream 650s and even Boeing 737s take off from the airport
carrying a single passenger, mostly flying to Russia and the US. The private
Boeing 737s, built to take 174 seats, are filled at the airport with around
32,000 litres of fuel. That’s as much fossil energy as a small African town might use in a year.

Where are these
single passengers going? Perhaps to visit one of their superhomes, constructed
and run at vast environmental cost, or to take a trip on their superyacht,
which might burn 500 litres of diesel per hour just ticking over, and is built and furnished with rare
materials, extracted at the expense of stunning places.

Perhaps we
shouldn’t be surprised to learn that when Google convened a meeting of the rich and famous at the Verdura resort
in Sicily this July to discuss climate breakdown, its delegates arrived in 114
private jets and a fleet of megayachts, and drove around the island in
supercars. Even when they mean well, the ultrarich cannot help trashing the
living world.

A series of
research papers shows that income is by far the most important determinant of environmental impact. It doesn’t matter how green you think you are. If you have
surplus money, you spend it. The only form of consumption that’s clearly and positively correlated with good environmental intentions is diet:
people who see themselves as green tend to eat less meat and more organic
vegetables. But attitudes have little bearing on the amount of transport fuel, home energy
and other materials you consume. Money conquers all.

The disastrous
effects of spending power are compounded by the psychological impacts of being
wealthy. Plenty of studies show that the richer you are, the less you
are able to connect with other people. Wealth suppresses empathy. One paper reveals that drivers in expensive
cars are less likely to stop for people using pedestrian crossings than
drivers in cheap cars. Another revealed that rich people were less able than
poorer people to feel
compassion towards children with cancer
. Though they are disproportionately
responsible for our environmental crises, the rich will be hurt least and last by planetary disaster, while the poor are
hurt first and worst. The richer people are, the research suggests, the less such knowledge is likely to trouble
them.

Another issue is
that wealth limits the perspectives of even the best-intentioned people. This
week Bill Gates argued in an interview with the Financial Times that divesting (ditching stocks) from fossil
fuels is a waste of time. It would be better, he claimed, to pour money into
disruptive new technologies with lower emissions. Of course we need new
technologies. But he has missed the crucial point: in seeking to prevent climate
breakdown, what counts is not what you do but what you stop doing. It doesn’t
matter how many solar panels you install if you don’t simultaneously shut down
coal and gas burners. Unless existing fossil fuel plants are retired before the
end of their lives, and all exploration and development of new fossil
fuels reserves is cancelled, there is little chance of preventing more than 1.5°C of global heating.

But this requires
structural change, which involves political intervention as well as
technological innovation: anathema to Silicon Valley billionaires. It demands
an acknowledgement that money is not a magic wand that makes all the bad stuff
go away. 

On Friday, I’ll
be joining the global climate strike, in which adults will stand with the young
people whose call to action has resonated around the world. As a freelancer,
I’ve been wondering who I’m striking against. Myself? Yes: one aspect of
myself, at least. Perhaps the most radical thing we can now do is to limit our
material aspirations. The assumption on which governments and economists
operate is that everyone strives to maximise their wealth. If we succeed in
this task, we inevitably demolish our life support systems. Were the poor to live like the rich, and the
rich to live like the oligarchs, we would destroy everything. The continued
pursuit of wealth, in a world that has enough already (albeit very poorly
distributed) is a formula for mass destitution.

A meaningful
strike in defence of the living world is, in part, a strike against the desire
to raise our incomes and accumulate wealth: a desire shaped, more than we are
probably aware, by dominant social and economic narratives. I see myself as
striking in support of a radical and disturbing concept: Enough. Individually
and collectively, it is time to decide what enough looks like, and how to know
when we’ve achieved it.

There’s a
name for this approach, coined by the Belgian philosopher Ingrid
Robeyns
: limitarianism. Robeyns argues that there
should be an upper limit to the amount of income and wealth a person can amass.
Just as we recognise a poverty line, below which no one should fall, we should
recognise a riches line, above which no one should rise. This call for a
levelling down is perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.

But her
arguments are sound. Surplus money allows some people to exercise inordinate
power over others, in the workplace, in politics, and above all in the capture,
use and destruction of natural wealth. If everyone is to flourish, we cannot afford the rich. Nor can we afford our own aspirations, that
the culture of wealth maximisation encourages.

The grim truth is that the rich are able to live as they do only because others are poor: there is neither the physical nor ecological space for everyone to pursue private luxury. Instead we should strive for private sufficiency, public luxury. Life on earth depends on moderation.

www.monbiot.com