With a title like that, you’d expect ‘How the rich are destroying the earth’ to be a marxist polemic. It’s not. At least, not entirely. Simply put, the rich are destroying the earth because in the face of environmental catastrophe, “this class opposes the radical changes that we would have to conduct to prevent the aggravation of the situation.”
Herve Kempf is a expert journalist committed to fighting France’s ‘environmental illiteracy’ through the clear presentation of cold hard facts, and his book is to a plea to get people thinking about the environment in a social context.
The key factor in this, for Kempf, is a wealthy elite: “this predatory oligarchy is the main agent of the global crisis.” That’s obviously a highly provocative statement, but it is well backed up. We know there is a wealthy elite – we encounter it only very occasionally. (See Peter Mandelson and his dealings with Oleg Deripaska last year) They live lives of opulence, disconnected from reality and operating almost in an alternative world populated only by people like them, and their servants. There are a number of problems with this.
Firstly, the rich set the agenda for everyone else. Drawing from the economic philosophy of Thorstein Veblen, Kempf argues that the primary driver of the consumer culture is emulation. We have a tendency to compare ourselves upwards, which creates a constant need to do better, to have more. What the rich have inevitably becomes the ambition of those just below them on the income ladder. The mega-rich pitch our whole culture into a self-destructive pursuit of wealth.
Secondly, the wealthy have all the economic and political power, and they’re very happy with things that way. Democracy does not suit them, and the erosion of civil liberties that has occurred in almost every western country in the past decade shows a growing paranoia and desperation to maintain the status quo. Kempf hesitates in suggesting the rich are actively conspiring against us, but they are unaware of the realities of the world, and hold all the power.
As long as the rich continue to run things, nothing will be done about injustice, says Kempf. The 500 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 416 million poorest. But, “if nothing happens even as we enter an economic crisis of historic seriousness, it’s because the powerful of the world want it that way.” Why would the rich not care about injustice? Because poverty is relative. If you fix inequality you fix poverty, but the rich will be less rich.
Instead of equality, Kempf argues, we are given growth. Rather than dividing the pie more fairly, we are told we must make a bigger pie. “The pursuit of material growth is the oligarchy’s only means of getting societies to accept inequalities without questioning them.”
Kempf’s is a great little book, angry and passionate, and matching a concern for the earth with a concern for the poor. He has some wonderful turns of phrase, and is not afraid of a blunt statement: “naive comrades, there are evil men on earth” or “If one wants to be an ecologist, one must stop being a halfwit.” It is also refreshing to read a French view for a change, and his is a welcome voice among the British and American writers that dominate the politics and ecology debate.