Thursday, September 19, 2019

Monbiot - Time to Declare War on Wealth

We are in a fight for life itself. The stakes couldn't be any higher.

Guardian enviro-scribe/activist, George Monbiot, is calling for a war on wealth. It isn't wealth itself that vexes him but the environmental havoc it creates.

Some time ago I did a rough calculation of how humanity's footprint had grown during the 20th century. I factored in population growth, increased longevity and the massive upswing in per-capita GDP representing extraction, production, consumption and waste. In my inelegant calculations it was around a 30-fold increase. There are vastly more of us, living vastly longer and steadily consuming ever more energy and resources, creating more waste of all descriptions, far more than the Earth can handle. It was growth that would be more typical of a malignancy which, in a way, is what we've become.

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 G650s 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 passengers, are filled at the airport with around 25,000 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 an hour just ticking over, and which is built and furnished with rare materials extracted at the expense of beautiful 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 in 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.
...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.
...If everyone is to flourish, we cannot afford the rich. Nor can we afford our own aspirations, which 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.
Monbiot's views will be seen as heretical by a large segment of the population. Even the ordinary aspire to wealth some day, a dream instilled in us by our consumer theology.

Think of it this way. We, mankind, are using the planet's resources at wildly unsustainable excess. Every year we exceed Earth's resource carrying capacity by a factor of 1.75. We need almost two planet Earths to satisfy our ever growing demands. At the same time as our demand grows, the planet's carrying capacity declines.  This is a graphic depiction of our predicament.

The red line represents consumption. The dotted line is the Earth's ability to meet our needs. We are already past the point at which carrying capacity is degraded.

I can argue a couple of Monbiot's claims. I expect you might as well. That said, the path we are on bolsters his arguments.


John B. said...

Maybe by the plan they have in store everyone is not intended to flourish or even to survive. With 99% of us gone, for those that remain there will be more than enough to go around. They're just letting nature take its course. Acceleration of the assault on nature my be fitting perfectly into that plan.

zoombats said...

"We cannot afford the rich". I like that line. It speaks volumes doesn't it.

Owen Gray said...

Weath, we are told, is what everyone strives for. Most of the world's population simply works to survive.

Northern PoV said...

imo, debilitating inequality could be fixed in relatively simple ways via a (global) tax system. And a great new tome arrives to buttress Monbiot ....

"Thomas Piketty back with 1,200-page guide to abolishing billionaires"

"The French edition of “Capital and Ideology,’’ weighing in at 1,232 pages, comes out on Thursday (English speakers will have to wait till next year for a translation). It’s a sequel to “Capital in the 21st Century,’’ which has sold more than 2.5 million copies in 40 languages since 2013, according to its publisher.

Nobody can be sure how many of that book’s buyers actually got through all 900-something pages. But its impact has been undeniable.

Six years on, there are more politicians pledging to redress the skewed distribution of income and wealth. (One of them, U.S. presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, worked with two former Piketty aides to design a wealth-tax proposal.)

And it’s become common to hear inequality described as an urgent problem by billionaires like Warren Buffett and Ray Dalio.

All that suggests policy makers and investors would do well to acquaint themselves with Piketty’s latest thoughts -- which sound pretty radical.

Sacred Property

“The time has come to exit this phase of making property sacred, to go beyond capitalism,’’ the economist told French magazine L’Obs."

btw, I am warming to Jagmeet and I do not believe I've seen anything from May similar to his wealth tax proposal.

The Mound of Sound said...

John, I was listening to BBC World Service this morning. They had a jarring report on the predicted rise in coal-powered generating plants. China, India in particular, and a host of small countries where China is loaning out its amassed wealth and where the investment of choice seems to be more coal plants.

"Acceleration of the assault on nature" indeed.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, it does have a ring to it, Z. We may be about to witness the ultra-wealthy employ their considerable political power in a campaign of 'screw the little people.' Fill the moat, raise the drawbridge, drop the portcullis and man the ramparts.

That reminds me of an Economist cover more than 20 years ago that depicted a walled Europe and the title "barbarians at the gate."

The Mound of Sound said...

We have taken our environment, Owen, to a place where it can no longer keep us. Human civilization, a 12,000 year work in progress, that blew itself up in the span of less than two centuries.

Monbiot's right. We're already in something akin to lifeboat-mode. There is an officer, a couple of ratings and the rest of the seats full of passengers. Everybody wants the same thing, survival. Imagine if the first-class nobs announced they were entitled to a double ration because they had paid so much more for their passage.

There is a reason the rich are now becoming openly worried about what might befall them in the decades ahead. A common concern they express is how to keep their private security from turning on them.

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV, you're a dreamer. A global tax system. That's out there. We can't reach a global emissions system. In part that's greed. In part it's because we vary so much nation to nation and that suppresses our altruistic impulses if we even have them.

Warm up to Jagmeet all you like. Even in a minority government his wealth tax would be laughed out of Parliament. It doesn't matter much, though, does it?

Northern PoV said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Northern PoV said...

You may say I am a dreamer ....

Floating the wealth tax is part of a long process to drag the Overton window to the left. It sure beats Mulcair/2015.

You think May will achieve her "no fracking goal" in the new Parliament?

Anyone still bothering to vote is a dreamer.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know if May's energy plan has a snowball's chance, NPoV, but there's a lot of inertia to overcome whenever you set out to achieve great change.

One thing about May is that she'll be fighting as hard for these things as she is now.