The Big Ideas of 2008

The Rich Stand Accused

"We must 'bring down the rich' rather than pull up the poor..."

If you want to be an ecologist, you have to stop being half-witted." writes Hervé Kempf, author of the acclaimed Comment les riches détruisent la planète (How the Rich Destroy the Planet, Seuil, 2007). "We cannot understand the simultaneity of the ecological and social crises if we do not analyze them as two facets of the same disaster."

A journalist who specializes in the environment for France's respected newspaper Le Monde, Kempf has taken his work to the four corners of the planet and frequented – as is the privilege of an environmental chronicler – the cream of the scientific community. Yet, from these contacts and the issues patiently compiled for the newspaper where he works, he retains two observations:

First, he explains that the planet's ecological situation is worsening at a rate that neutralizes all the efforts of millions of citizens and ecological militants, to the point that the planet is in danger of crossing a threshold of irreversibility "within the next 10 years," he believes, on the basis of the speed at which negative outcomes are piling up.

The second observation of this attempt to provide a veritably comprehensive explanation of the environmental crisis is that "the social system that presently governs human society – capitalism – blindly, doggedly rejects the changes necessary if we want to preserve the dignity and promise of human existence."

In the same way that the different aspects of the global environmental crisis react with more and more synergy – warming accelerates the rate of species extinction, as use of fossil fuel gives rise to pollution and consumption to the exhaustion of resources – the planetary ecological and social crises are two mutually bound-up facets of the same problem.

"This disaster derives from a system piloted by a dominant social stratum that today has no drive but greed, no ideal but conservatism, no dream but technology. This predatory oligarchy is the principal agent of the global crisis," writes Kempf. "The present form of capitalism," he adds in an interview, "has lost its former historic ends, that is to say the creation of wealth and innovation, because it has become a financial capitalism, disparaged even by capitalist economists. This capitalism, which destroys jobs by rationalizations, new technologies and globalizations, overall and everywhere increases the disparities between rich and poor within each country and between different countries."

This oligarchy he targets is not satisfied with blindly consuming and wasting the planet's material resources with its big cars, its airplane trips, its unbridled consumption of living products, its uselessly vast houses, its unrestrained energy wastage. It has also, adds Kempf, spawned a model of hyper-consumption that the lower and especially the middle classes now attempt to imitate, just as developing countries try to imitate western countries – even though, whether instinctively or rationally, everyone clearly knows that "this ideology of waste" and its drain on planetary resources will inevitably come to an abrupt end.

This course places before the human species the unprecedented fact that it has reached or soon will reach the planet's limits, which could, through feedback effects, threaten the species' own existence. But this course is all the more difficult to arrest, Hervé Kempf deems, because it depends on a semi-authoritarian regime ever more institutionalized at the planetary level. It even depends, he says, on crises like that of September 11 in order to appreciably reduce those human rights that had been acquired through elevated struggle and to neutralize, even cause to disappear, those democratic mechanisms that allow free public debate on the choice of plans, the social choices that the workings of the economy repeatedly raise.

Kempf rejects all accusations of attempting to take the planetary ecological debate from green to red.

"I am no Marxist," he says, "and have never been, because that ideology does not respect human rights. But the Marxists do not have a monopoly over the social debate and we cannot, all the same, close our eyes to the documented, measured phenomena right in front of us. I note the existence of two crises, one ecological, the other social. And I observe that they act in synergy. I observe that a minority of people benefit from them. And I draw conclusions from these observations."

But he also observes that a large part of the European left has not seen the depth of the links between the two problems, just as many ecologists – who restrict themselves to an environmental approach – miss half the problem, if not its first cause.

"We must," he writes, "get past this hiatus. Understand that the ecological crisis and social crisis are two facets of the same disaster. And that this disaster is set in motion by a system of power that has no other end than the maintenance of the ruling classes' privileges."

Although he does not address the impact of unchecked demography on the decline of the planet's "biological services" in his essay, Kempf immediately acknowledges that this factor certainly has an impact that is greater overall than any hyper-consumption by this oligarchy, composed of several hundred thousand millionaires and billionaires who control the bulk of income and financial capital. However, he explains, it's this oligarchy that creates an unsustainable model for the planet, the indirect impact of which on other social groups exceeds its direct consumption. "And," he says dryly, "not all humans have the same impact on the planet at birth: a Westerner carries more weight in the planet's fate than a baby from Niger or from India."

Kempf advocates to put an end to this ostentatious consumption. He proposes a radical control of wealth through "a ceiling on maximum salaries and on the accumulation of wealth," a sort of matching piece for the minimum wage, but on the upper side.

"Everyone," he comments, "knows that China will never be able to reach a level of consumption per inhabitant comparable to that of the Americans, with two cars per family, three televisions, four computers and cell phones, a house three times too big for its inhabitants, which generates energy consumption that would be sufficient to the needs of 10, even 20 people on other continents." He proposes that a reduction of consumption be imposed on this oligarchy that has globalized poverty, so that it no longer feeds this unsustainable dream, which numbs the critical faculties of the entire planet to the point that it closes its eyes to the wall into which it is careening full speed ahead.

And the reporter, known for his rigor and level-headedness, nevertheless concludes: "It is still necessary for ecological concerns to be based on a radical political analysis of present relationships of domination. We will not be able to reduce global material consumption if the powerful are not brought down and if inequality is not combated. To the ecological principle so useful at the dawning of awareness – Think globally, act locally – we must add the principle that the present situation imposes: "Consume less, share better."

Ecologists, he adds, have not often conducted an inquiry into the "ecological misery" that parks the poor next to industrial neighborhoods, polluted and at risk, next to highways or noisy activities, in the most insalubrious houses and in sectors generally the least well-served by public services, including public transportation. It is wrong, he says, to act as though the economic system must grow to bring these people out of poverty or to allow more poor people to attain greater wealth. The economic system works in the other direction, Kempf maintains, by monopolizing wealth and power at the expense of those who have the least, and of the middle classes that dream – ever more vainly – of hoisting themselves into the cocoon of the present financial oligarchy, Kempf maintains.

That's why, he says, we must "bring down the rich" rather than pull up the poor, in order to begin to respect the thresholds of irreversible deterioration of the planet's resources.

He takes aim, finally, at the concept of sustainable development and the alibi it now constitutes for governments and companies that use it to justify other drains on resources in the name of this new rationale that is supposedly harmless for the planet. Sustainable development, he writes, has become "a semantic weapon to remove the dirty word, 'ecology.'"Is there any need, moreover, to still develop France, Germany or the United States? The concept has meaning, he concluded, but only in poorer countries, because it can help them to avoid a development as brutal and lawless as the one we have effected in the West. In the West, the first of our environmental responsibilities "consists of reducing our consumption of material goods" to attain a level of well-being based on values and knowledge, in sum, on immaterial, but nonetheless very real, riches.

Translated from French by Leslie Thatcher on truthout.org. Original version at ledevoir.com.

52 comments on the article “The Rich Stand Accused”

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tomba88

the link is there. Anyone who wants to enact their beliefs should first start with themselves and their own excesses. Free market capitalism has gone crazy as it always was destined to do. You take away the controls from any system and it eventually collapses on itself. As for bringing down the rich.........although I agree this should happen I see absolutely no way it can. Who is going to bring them down? We are headed for the biggest shock of our lives. When mass starvation and global flooding happens will we care then. Maybe if it happens in our towns we will otherwise...........whatever!!!

Jessica

Wow. I sincerely did not believe others thought this way. I thought EVERYONE was consumed by the pursuit of more money than they need. Now not so much: the fuel price crisis is killing the US & eroding the middle class. Now middle is working just to survive. I hate the greedy oligarchy & hope that we CAN stop them. Somebody ORGANIZE something. Quick.

Maia

I think Kempf touches on some key points that the comfortable and world-conscious Westerner struggles with on a daily basis. If we work hard and earn a large salary, why then should we not use it to keep ourselves happy, buy our big house and watch our three televisions? The problem here is what society has redefined happiness as. It is not enough to have a healthy family and a roof over your head; you need a plasma screen and a three car garage to feel satisfied with your life. If we had never known the standard of living we experience today, the world would probably be a better place, but as much as I would like to support Kempfs ideas, I sadly concede they are near impossible. Technology and the demand for it are essentially irreversible; no young person supports the idea of going back to a time before cell phone, a time of less consumption. It its there, the rich will buy it. If we find a way to first, somehow, eliminate luxury goods, then maybe, just maybe, the fight to save the earth a eliminate poverty is conceivable.

Sophie McKeand

There is a thought that mankind began crossing the 'threshold of irreversibility' around 11,500 years ago when we first began to settle rather than live as 'hunter/ gatherers'. One could argue that from an ecological perspective it has been downhill all the way since.
Yes our capitalist system rejects change, because change would signal its end. But to advocate 'radical control of wealth' is not feasible, not practical and is just not going to happen, full stop.
The Prohibition of alcohol in the US in the 1920's did not curb alcohol consumption, the prohibition of drugs in the UK has not curbed drug use and yet Kempf believes that a prohibition on the accumulation of wealth will miraculously provide a level, ecologically sound, playing field for the earth's inhabitants. Who will enforce this? History shows us that a black market will thrive under such stifling laws and will counteract any benefits, has nobody read Orwell's '1984'?
WE ALL as a society provide the structure for capitalism by wanting for ourselves instead of for each other. Whilst that basic human instinct still exists, and people are not taught how to be selfaware in order to balance this, no amount of 'fair play' rules will work. People break and subvert rules, people think that the rules exist for others and not for themselves one look at the dogshit hanging in plastic bags off the trees in my local forest perfectly illustrates the sheer bloodyminded determination of the individual to follow the rules but only in so far as it suits their own immediate requirements. There is no reason these people can't walk to a bin, they just don't choose to do so. I appreciate that this is a ridiculous example and have used it exactly for that reason, to highlight the way people's minds work.
Bring down the rich?? What an absurd suggestion. You might as well argue that there would be more wealth to go around, and less of a drain on the planet, if the first born son of every family was killed. Rich or poor each individual has their own unique lessons to learn, you have no right to take that away from them.
Of course the way in which we live is unsustainable and when that time comes we will have to find new ways to survive, or die as a species, this is not a new concept, it is one that has existed since the dawn of time.
Kempf is right, the problem does most definitely lie in our inability to accept change. But it seems to me that he is criticising the inability of capitalism to embrace change whilst still attempting to hold the world in limbo with his own sets of rules and laws.
This universe will still exist once we have left it, it is greater than we could ever perceive; stop trying to change the world and take a look in the mirror instead.

astrid nordness

I think that it is important to see that this system IS going to crash. We are on a run away train heading for a cliff, and there is no stopping or getting off. Any time a system, any kind of system, gets this out of wack,it is going to come tumbling down. We have no need to' bring down the rich' they are going to bring themselves down. Saddly most of us will fall with them. I more and more often think that we humans are nothing but the catalist for the next evolutionary change. As an individual all that I can do is sit back and watch and witness, and not be afraid to ask myself the hard questions...Why am I here? In any given situation what is the most possitive thing that I can do; not just for me, but for all concerned. What kind of sacrifices am I willing to make in order to live up to my ideals?...When the crash comes it would behoove us all to not just think of ourselves but to realize that in order to survive we need to help each other...something we are discouraged to do within this paradigm.

paul siemering

it's really easy. to say, not to do: global capitalism insists it must increase the gdp every year - need to increase production and consumption. That is, it must chew up more of the planet. But clearly if we are to save the planet we must consume less, produce less, use up of our planet each year than we did the year before. Global capitalism is not sustainable. So global capitalism must go. Not only that, we hardly have any time left for transition we need to move quickly, draw up models for what a sustainable world would look like, and go do it right away.Try buy nothing year.

Jamiey Dale

It's strange to consider how the rich can be brought down. Will the disaster be manmade or natural? Either way, the super poor are the least likely to really feel the real burn of a world transformed by hunger, illness and poverty. The more affluent, the hardest hit. Brace for impact everyone.

Boris

Kudos to this French! For one thing, not all the new ideas come from the USA, the most developed of them all...

Understanding this concept fully really requires thinking outside the box. Bringing down the riches hits the nail in the head, and even if it seems like it can't be done. If we, humans, don't do it to ourselves, the nature inevitably will. Do it to ourselves in terms of selfcontrol, nothing new. When you read Bhagavadghita, self-control comes out as iit/i! But today it's been repaced with freedom, free market society, capitslism, which eventually through remarkable rhethoric and hypocrisy brings out and glorifies competition.

My take is erase competition from the educational program be it at home, in school, and not only at work and reenter selfcontrol in addition to love, compassion, etc. and you will get as close to he solution of the problem as you can. But now you sound like a communist and you're in danger of being crashed by the wounded beast of capitalism as it had happened before... Communism didn't die because it wasn't good, but because capitalism killed it fierce competition. OK, communism is not perfect either, but I remember my thoughts of it while I lived in a communist country it was lacking positive religious thoughts, like love and compassion, etc. as it is godless and antireligious. I was thinking then, if it was religious, it'd be something really powerfull!

I've heard this song haven't you heard, the evolution's over forgot who wrote it... Evolution with it's survival of the fittest engine in the bottomline, has been / or should be surpassed. We're not killing our misfitts any longer. Or ain't we..? Capitalism is trying to maintain a balance so that the poor of the world are on the verge of existence so that they can be turned into consumers of the global economy.

As for the riches and putting a cap on them communist thought, again... On the other hand, there's an aspect of classes, casts, that's still standing strong... In newer countries, it's the class or cast of the rich; one of the engines that drive this cast is pure fact that they want to be segregated from the masses, the poor... That's why there are stores that thrive on these, the rich; that's why one thing can cost thousands at Barney's, while you can find the exact same thing for much less, or for it's real value communism, if not for under it's real value made in China. And guess what there are still people who would rather buy it at Barney's...

RK

How do we define the rich? If we define them as the top 1/10th of 1% income earners in America, they certainly consume an inordinate amount of natural resources but even if they were somehow magically eliminated, American and Worldwide overconsumption would be hardly dented at all. To have any significant impact we would probably have to expand the concept of 'the rich' to anybody making $25,000 or more per year. I don't think so.

If you want a longterm ecologically sustainable solution, population in America, Western Europe and the developing nations must be put on a sharp downward path. That means making huge efforts to first stop population growth and then over the next century naturally reducing overall population numbers worldwide to something under 1 billion people.

Aaron

I must say I both agree with Sophie and I find her arguments to be as callous as they come. Yes, Kempf's proposition is ludicrous. It is the product of fantasizing systems that work, but reflects a poor understanding of the reality on the ground. Wealth and greed have always existed, and will always exist for as long as humans follow that paradigm of behavior. Does anyone think this is a new observation? Was the income inequality among the ancient Egyptians somehow better than now? Nonsense, greed and the concentration of power and wealth has been with humans since they have been settled in place. But to follow Sophie's argument, why not just do yourself in now, Sophie? Spare the world a little extra carbon? If you're so convinced of the destruction of humankind, and so convinced of the implacability of nature, then we are meaningless. No I would offer an argument quite the opposite. We are exceedingly meaningful. All of us. That is the point if you can instill that sort of awareness and mutual selfrespect, we may be able to change human nature. There are millions of people in the world who think like this, and at least one religion whose tenets call for this. Is a mass changing of human nature feasible? I have no idea, but I would rather die trying to do that than conclude that humanity should simply die of its own selfishness.

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