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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Charles Cosimano

There are times when I think that articles like this are planted so that the powers that be can identify the people who agree with them and then target those individuals.

In any event, population reduction is not a bad idea but make no mistake, if it is done, it will be the poor who will be eliminated as they serve no economic function.

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