Making Ecocide Punishable Under International Law

Image result for tar sands ecocide
Alberta’s tar sands toxic tailings ponds
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of suicide, homicide and genocide, but what is ecocide?

—Leslie P., Carrboro, NC

While the concept of “ecocide” may be new to many of us, the practice of willfully destroying large areas of the natural environment has been around about as long as humans — although we got a lot better at it using the machinery we developed during the industrial revolution. Bioethicist Arthur Galston first started batting the term around in the 1970s to describe intentional widespread ecological destruction, especially as it pertained to ruining inhabited environments so people couldn’t live there anymore.

Scottish barrister and activist Polly Higgins led the charge to get “ecocide” recognized as a “crime against peace” by the International Criminal Court. Credit: Elevate Festival, FlickrCC.

One classic example of ecocide in modern history is American troops’ widespread application of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. It was used to clear some 12,000 square miles of tropical rainforest to enable flushing out the “enemy,” despite the toll on civilians and the environment.

There are also plenty of present-day examples, including: mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia whereby miners blast through hundreds of feet of earth to access thin seams of coal; the “fracking” for oil and gas across wide swaths of Canada’s Alberta tar sands that has so far destroyed thousands of square miles of boreal forest and peat bogs while releasing hundreds of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; the dumping of crude oil and toxic waste into Ecuador’s Amazon by oil companies too focused on profits to do the right thing about waste removal; and deep sea mining whereby the use of heavy machinery to ply veins of precious metals from the seabed is ruining marine ecosystems we still know little about.

In recent years Scottish activist Polly Higgins championed the cause of getting the International Criminal Court (ICC), an independent judicial body created by the United Nations in 1998, to recognize ecocide as a “crime against peace” in the eyes of international law. Her work focused on getting the ICC to add ecocide as the fifth prosecutable “core international crime” (along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression). Sadly, Higgins succumbed to cancer at age 50 in April 2019, but her efforts to institutionalize ecocide as a major international crime lives on with other activists.

“Destroying the planet is currently permitted,” says Jojo Mehta of the non-profit Stop Ecocide. “That is how ecosystems are being destroyed every day by dangerous industrial activity, exacerbating the climate emergency and destroying our forests, our soils, our rivers and the lands that we love.”

Mehta points out that any of the 122 member states of the ICC can formally suggest adding ecocide as a major international crime. Stop Ecocide is working with small Pacific island nations which are already “feeling the sharp end of climate change” to urge ICC to finally adopt ecocide as another crime it prosecutes.

“Serious harm to the Earth is preventable,” urges Mehta. “When government ministers can no longer issue permits for it, when insurers can no longer underwrite it, when investors can no longer back it, when CEOs can be held criminally responsible for it, the harm will stop.” SOURCE

The big polluters’ masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me

Fossil fuel giants have known the harm they do for decades. But they created a system that absolves them of responsibility


 Illustration: Eva Bee

Let’s stop calling this the Sixth Great Extinction. Let’s start calling it what it is: the “first great extermination”. A recent essay by the environmental historian Justin McBrien argues that describing the current eradication of living systems (including human societies) as an extinction event makes this catastrophe sound like a passive accident.

While we are all participants in the first great extermination, our responsibility is not evenly shared. The impacts of most of the world’s people are minimal. Even middle-class people in the rich world, whose effects are significant, are guided by a system of thought and action that is shaped in large part by corporations. 

The Guardian’s polluters series reports that just 20 fossil fuel companies, some owned by states, some by shareholders, have produced 35% of the carbon dioxide and methane released by human activities since 1965. This was the year in which the president of the American Petroleum Institute told his members that the carbon dioxide they produced could cause “marked changes in climate” by the year 2000. They knew what they were doing.


BP’s oil refinery complex in Grangemouth, central Scotland. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A paper published in Nature shows that we have little chance of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating unless existing fossil fuel infrastructure is retired. Instead the industry intends to accelerate production, spending nearly $5tn in the next 10 years on developing new reserves. It is committed to ecocide.

But the biggest and most successful lie it tells is this: that the first great extermination is a matter of consumer choice. In response to the Guardian’s questions, some of the oil companies argued that they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products. But we are embedded in a system of their creation – a political, economic and physical infrastructure that creates an illusion of choice while, in reality, closing it down.

We are guided by an ideology so familiar and pervasive that we do not even recognise it as an ideology. It is called consumerism. It has been crafted with the help of skilful advertisers and marketers, by corporate celebrity culture, and by a media that casts us as the recipients of goods and services rather than the creators of political reality. It is locked in by transport, town planning and energy systems that make good choices all but impossible. It spreads like a stain through political systems, which have been systematically captured by lobbying and campaign finance, until political leaders cease to represent us, and work instead for the pollutocrats who fund them.

In such a system, individual choices are lost in the noise. Attempts to organise boycotts are notoriously difficult, and tend to work only when there is a narrow and immediate aim. The ideology of consumerism is highly effective at shifting blame: witness the current ranting in the billionaire press about the alleged hypocrisy of environmental activists. Everywhere I see rich westerners blaming planetary destruction on the birth rates of much poorer people, or on “the Chinese”. This individuation of responsibility, intrinsic to consumerism, blinds us to the real drivers of destruction.

A protester is detained during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in Whitehall, London. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters Pinterest 

The power of consumerism is that it renders us powerless. It traps us within a narrow circle of decision-making, in which we mistake insignificant choices between different varieties of destruction for effective change. It is, we must admit, a brilliant con.

It’s the system we need to change, rather than the products of the system. It is as citizens that we must act, rather than as consumers. But how? Part of the answer is provided in a short book published by one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam, called Common Sense for the 21st Century. I don’t agree with everything it says, but the rigour and sweep of its analysis will, I think, ensure that it becomes a classic of political theory.

It begins with the premise that gradualist campaigns making small demands cannot prevent the gathering catastrophes of climate and ecological breakdown. Only mass political disruption, out of which can be built new and more responsive democratic structures, can d

By studying successful mobilisations, such as the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 (which played a critical role in ending racial segregation in the US), the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989 (which snowballed until they helped bring down the East German regime), and the Jana Andolan movement in Nepal in 2006 (which brought down the absolute power of the monarchy and helped end the armed insurgency), Hallam has developed a formula for effective “dilemma actions”. A dilemma action is one that puts the authorities in an awkward position. Either the police allow civil disobedience to continue, thereby encouraging more people to join, or they attack the protesters, creating a powerful “symbolism of fearless sacrifice”, thereby encouraging more people to join. If you get it right, the authorities can’t win.

Among the crucial common elements, he found, are assembling thousands of people in the centre of the capital city, maintaining a strictly nonviolent discipline, focusing on the government and continuing for days or weeks at a time. Radical change, his research reveals, “is primarily a numbers game. Ten thousand people breaking the law has historically had more impact than small-scale, high-risk activism.” The key challenge is to organise actions that encourage as many people as possible to join. This means they should be openly planned, inclusive, entertaining, peaceful and actively respectful. You can join such an action today, convened by Extinction Rebellion in central London.

Hallam’s research suggests that this approach offers at least a possibility of breaking the infrastructure of lies the fossil fuel companies have created, and developing a politics matched to the scale of the challenges we face. It is difficult and uncertain of success. But, he points out, the chances that politics as usual will meet our massive predicament with effective action are zero. Mass dilemma actions could be our last, best chance of preventing the great extermination. SOURCE

 

Protesters Dump Fake Blood On Charging Bull; Dozens Arrested

Cops cuffed 27 people Monday as environmental activists covered the iconic statue with fake blood and blocked traffic on Broadway.

Activists splashed fake blood on the "Charging Bull" statute on Wall Street during a Monday protest demanding action to address climate change.Activists spashed fake blood on the “Charging Bull” statue during a Monday protest demaning action to address climate change. Photo courtesy of @Postcards4USA/twitter

FINANCIAL DISTRICT, NY — Dozens of protesters were arrested after activists splashed fake blood on the Financial District’s “Charging Bull” sculpture during a Monday morning protest demanding action to combat climate change.

Cops cuffed 27 people during the demonstration in front of the Wall Street icon, which started about 11 a.m., the NYPD said. They will likely be charged with disorderly conduct, a police spokesperson said.

Dozens of protesters — some of them also covered with red paint — also blocked traffic farther up Broadway near Pine Street after splattering the statue in their bold effort to draw attention to the climate crisis.

“Denying it is — I’m not religious — but it’s sinful,” said Ben Watts, a protester from Brooklyn. “It’s totally immoral. I have a kid. The way it’s going, she may have no real future.”
The activist group Extinction Rebellion took credit for the protest, which drew more than 100 people to the Financial District. A video posted to Twitter shows an activist holding a flag emblazoned with the organization’s logo standing atop the bloodied bull.

Extinction Rebellion NYC 🌎@XR_NYC

Financial sectors profit from ecocide, so we must rebel

Embedded video

“Financial sectors profit from ecocide, so we must rebel,” the group said on Twitter.

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Imagine Jair Bolsonaro Standing Trial for Ecocide at The Hague

A group of activists already has.

A scene from the Amazonas, a state in Brazil, on Sept. 15.
CreditCreditBruno Kelly/Reuters

Since August, as vast stretches of the Amazon rainforest were being reduced to ashes and outrage and calls for action intensified, a group of lawyers and activists who have been advancing a radical idea have seen a silver lining in the unfolding tragedy: One day, a few years from now, they imagined Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, being hauled to The Hague to stand trial for ecocide, a term broadly understood to mean the willful and widespread destruction of the environment, and one that, they hope, will eventually be on par with other crimes against humanity.

There is no international crime today that can be used to neatly hold world leaders or corporate chief executives criminally responsible in peacetime for ecological catastrophes that result in the type of mass displacements and population wipeouts more commonly associated with war crimes. But environmentalists say the world should treat ecocide as a crime against humanity — like genocide — now that the imminent and long-term threats posed by a warming planet are coming into sharper focus.

In Mr. Bolsonaro they have come to see something of an ideal villain tailor-made for a legal test case.

“He has become a poster boy for the need for a crime of ecocide,” said Jojo Mehta, the co-founder of Stop Ecocide, a group that is seeking to give the International Criminal Court in The Hague the jurisdiction to prosecute leaders and businesses that knowingly cause widespread environmental damage. “It’s awful, but at the same time it’s timely.”

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at an Independence Day parade in Brasilia on Sept. 7.
CreditAdriano Machado/Reuters 

The first prominent call to outlaw ecocide was made in 1972 by Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden, who hosted the United Nations’ first major summit on the environment.

In his keynote address at the conference, Mr. Palme argued that the world urgently needed a unified approach to safeguard the environment. “The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation, we share it,” he said. “The big oceans are not divided by national frontiers; they are our common property.” That idea got little traction at the time and Mr. Palme died in 1986 having made little headway in the quest to establish binding principles to protect the environment.

During the 1980s and 1990s, diplomats considered including ecocide as a grave crime as they debated the authorities of the International Criminal Court, which was primarily established to prosecute war crimes. But when the court’s founding document, known as the Rome Statute, went into force in 2002, language that would have criminalized large-scale environmental destruction had been stripped out at the insistence of major oil producing nations.

In 2016, the court’s top prosecutor signaled an interest in prioritizing cases within its jurisdiction that featured the “destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.”

That move came as activists seeking to criminalize ecocide had been laying the groundwork for a landmark change to the court’s remit. Their plan is to get a state that is party to the Rome Statute — or a coalition of them — to propose an amendment to its charter establishing ecocide as a crime against peace. At least two-thirds of the countries that are signatories to the Rome Statute would have to back the initiative to outlaw ecocide for the court to get an expanded mandate, and even then it would only apply to countries that accept the amendment. Still, it could change the way the world thinks about environmental destruction.
Richard Rogers, a lawyer who specializes in international criminal law and human rights, said that if ecocide campaigners and countries suffering the effects of climate change put forward a narrow definition of the crime, it could quickly garner widespread support. “We’ve seen in the past few years a huge shift in public opinion, and we’re entering a phase where there is going to be huge pressure on governments to do more,” said Mr. Rogers, a partner at Global Diligence, a firm that advises companies and governments on risk mitigation. MORE

Natasha Lennard: Ecocide Should Be Recognized as a Crime Against Humanity, but We Can’t Wait for The Hague to Judge

The image of Darren Woods, CEO of Exxon Mobil, loomed over the climate strike in New York last Friday afternoon. Rendered in cardboard, 15 feet tall and clutching a bag of fake, bloodied money, the puppet of Woods wore the label “Climate Villain.” It bobbed among the 250,000-strong crowd, joined by cutout versions of BP CEO Bob Dudley and Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden. By the time the puppets were set down in Battery Park, the terminus of the New York protest, the faces of the fossil fuel executives had been daubed with marker-pen devil horns.

As millions of workers and students filled city streets around the world last week, there was no shortage of bold and inventive protest signs. While many expressed broad concerns about the burning planet and an imperiled future, a number, like the CEO puppets, were unambiguous in their antagonism towards the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers. With the stakes of global heating intolerable, and the fanglessness of international climate agreements undeniable, it is little wonder that activists are calling for the major perpetrators of environmental decimation to be seen as guilty parties in mass atrocity, on a par with war crimes and genocide. The demand that ecocide — the decimation of ecosystems, humanity and non-human life — be prosecutable by The International Criminal Court has found renewed force in a climate movement increasingly unafraid to name its enemies.

The push to establish ecocide as an international crime aims to create criminal liability for chief executives and government ministers, while creating a legal duty of care for life on earth. Its strength, however, lies not in the practical or likely ability of The Hague — a profoundly flawed judicial body — to deliver climate justice. The demand that ecocide be recognized as a crime against humanity and non-human life is most powerful as a heuristic: a framework for insisting that environmental destruction has nameable guilty parties, perpetrators of mass atrocity, against whom climate struggle must be waged on numerous fronts.

WHEN IT COMES to narratives about environmental degradation, the greatest lie of all is that people are not responsible. The second greatest lie is that people are equally responsible. Last year, the New York Times Magazine published an entire issue dedicated to one extended essay by novelist Nathaniel Rich. It was framed as a devastating and overdue exposure of how we could have prevented climate catastrophe in the 1980s, given available scientific understanding, but “we” did not. “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way,” wrote Rich. “Nothing, that is, except ourselves.” Rich’s story conveniently ignores the ferocious capitalist hierarchies, which decimate natural resources for profit, while state militaries and police forces help quash environmentalist and indigenous resistance — just think of the militarized police assaults and swathes of criminal charges faced by the Water Protectors who took a stand at Standing Rock.

No climate justice will be possible without bringing down the powerful actors standing in the way of cutting emissions and production.

Legal norms and rights can and do take on political life through direct action, community consultation and protest. Even if the court’s signatories resist adopting ecocide as a crime, or as is likely, the court fails to prosecute, let alone convict, the world’s worst climate criminals, we can and must take justice into our own hands. Collective action — like last week’s mass climate strike, like voting for leaders pushing a Green New Deal, like fighting for our lives against capitalism — must be pursued with vigor. This is how we take the fight against ecocide to its perpetrators.

MORE

 

Paul Andersen: Climate is the Civil Rights of today

Childrens Crusade
In the year 1212, tens of thousands children, put down their ploughs, carts, the flocks they tended, claiming it be God’s will, and joined the Children’s Crusade to the Holy Land.

Greta Thunberg’s youthful innocence while protesting environmental degradations is akin to the innocent faces of the Children’s Crusades from the Middle Ages. How pure and desperate are these missions of youth.

Greta’s cohort of young, worldwide climate activists has swelled into the millions, rising up in a challenge against ecocide in the same way the Civil Rights movement challenged the status quo of racial tension that continues to embroil America.

When Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he brought to bear the moral and ethical underpinnings of Western civilization, in particular decrying the “white moderates” who understood the gravity of racism but failed to act.

Image result for martin luther king birmingham jail

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” impugned King. “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”

So it is that Greta challenges today’s environmental moderates who recognize ecological threats but fail to act, resulting in threats to the dreams of future generations. Thunberg’s soft, piping voice is as much a clarion call as MLK’s sonorous baritone in defending basic human rights in the face of social disregard for an imperiled future.

MLK recommended four steps for activism: 1) Collection of the facts. 2) Negotiation. 3) Self-purification. 4) Direct Action.

Greta and her peers have checked off the first three and are now engaged in direct action. Hopefully, with the moral authority of youth, they can effectively change hearts and minds.  MORE

Ecocide Should Be Recognized As a Crime Against Humanity, But We Can’t Wait for The Hague to Judge

Image result for Darren Woods climate villan
People gather and march during the Global Climate Strike march in Washington, DC on September 20, 2019. – Crowds of children skipped school to join a global strike against climate change

THE IMAGE OF Darren Woods, CEO of Exxon Mobil, loomed over the climate strike in New York last Friday afternoon. Rendered in cardboard, 15 feet tall and clutching a bag of fake, bloodied money, the puppet of Woods wore the label “Climate Villain.” It bobbed among the 250,000-strong crowd, joined by cutout versions of BP CEO Bob Dudley and Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden. By the time the puppets were set down in Battery Park, the terminus of the New York protest, the faces of the fossil fuel executives had been daubed with marker-pen devil horns.

As millions of workers and students filled city streets around the world last week, there was no shortage of bold and inventive protest signs. While many expressed broad concerns about the burning planet and an imperiled future, a number, like the CEO puppets, were unambiguous in their antagonism towards the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers. With the stakes of global heating intolerable, and the fanglessness of international climate agreements undeniable, it is little wonder that activists are calling for the major perpetrators of environmental decimation to be seen as guilty parties in mass atrocity, on a par with war crimes and genocide. The demand that ecocide — the decimation of ecosystems, humanity and non-human life — be prosecutable by The International Criminal Court has found renewed force in a climate movement increasingly unafraid to name its enemies.

The push to establish ecocide as an international crime aims to create criminal liability for chief executives and government ministers, while creating a legal duty of care for life on earth. Its strength, however, lies not in the practical or likely ability of The Hague — a profoundly flawed judicial body — to deliver climate justice. The demand that ecocide be recognized as a crime against humanity and non-human life is most powerful as a heuristic: a framework for insisting that environmental destruction has nameable guilty parties, perpetrators of mass atrocity, against whom climate struggle must be waged on numerous fronts.

“There are situations in which framing a specific enemy is not useful and obscures more than it reveals — for example, when the systematic violence of policing is blamed on ‘bad apple’ cops,” said political scientist Thea Riofrancos, co-author of the forthcoming book “A Planet to Win.” “Here, we seem to have the opposite. Fossil fuel companies have sown confusion, and we need clarity about who our opponents and our allies are.” While warning about the “judicialization of politics” potentially wasting activists and lawyers’ time and resources on legal proceedings, Riofrancos noted that she has observed powerful examples of communities deploying the language of legal rights as a tactic outside courtrooms and state houses.

“Fossil fuel companies have sown confusion, and we need clarity about who our opponents and our allies are.”

Image result for Thea RiofrancosIn another forthcoming book, Riofrancos explores the case of indigenous communities in Ecuador who have invoked legal rights established in the country’s progressive 2008 constitution as a tool and weapon to use in and out of court. These groups enacted legal norms in Ecuador through various creative, interpretative strategies, which “took place in a wide variety of venues, consisting not only, or even primarily, of courtrooms, but also of ministry offices in the capital and in the provinces, state and corporate information centers in affected communities, social movement organization headquarters, anti-mining and anti-oil demonstrations, popular assemblies in repurposed auditoriums and soccer fields, and texts of various genres.”

Other terrains of social justice struggle, such as #MeToo, have also shown the potential uses of criminal justice lexicon and narrative, necessarily deployed outside of a problematic criminal justice apparatus. Those of us who believe that no lasting justice can come from carceral solutions (given the inherent violence of that system) see the intolerable risks of relying on, or bolstering, criminal justice as a path to social justice. The strength of #MeToo revelations lay not in their ability to convince a judge, but to build consensus around the need to unseat powerful perpetrators of sexual violence.

Legal norms and rights can and do take on political life through direct action, community consultation and protest…. Collective action — like last week’s mass climate strike, like voting for leaders pushing a Green New Deal, like fighting for our lives against capitalism — must be pursued with vigor. This is how we take the fight against ecocide to its perpetrators. MORE

 

TOP BRITISH LAWYER PUSHES TO CLASSIFY MEAT INDUSTRY AS “CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY”

VegNews.MichaelMansfield
Photo Credit: Bruce Adams/Associated Newspapers

“I think when we look at the damage eating meat is doing to the planet it is not preposterous to think that one day it will become illegal,” British barrister Michael Mansfield said.

This week, Michael Mansfield—a top lawyer recognized by the Queen’s Counsel in Britain—spoke about the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture at the launch of vegan group Viva!’s new campaign “Vegan Now” during the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Mansfield explained that “ecocide”—or the willful destruction of the environment as perpetuated by the meat and dairy industries—should be treated as seriously as other forms of widespread injustice.

“There are plenty of things that were once commonplace that are now illegal such as smoking inside,” Mansfield said. “We know that the top 3,000 companies in the world are responsible for more than £1.5 trillion ($1.9 trillion) worth of damage to the environment with meat and dairy production high on the list. We know that because the UN has told us so.”

The Vegan Now campaign will focus on educating the public about the effects of animal agriculture on climate change, habitat destruction, and biodiversity leading up to World Vegan Day on November 1.

“I think when we look at the damage eating meat is doing to the planet it is not preposterous to think that one day it will become illegal,” Mansfield said. “It is time for a new law on ecocide to go alongside genocide and the other crimes against humanity.” SOURCE

This isn’t extinction, it’s extermination: the people killing nature know what they’re doing

The climate strike must be a beginning and not an end. Warming won’t be stopped by symbolism


‘Schoolchildren have spurred a movement that’s growing in almost every nation. If they can do that, what else could be possible?’ Photograph: Don Arnold/Getty Images

During the carnage of the first world war, the poet Wilfred Owen revisited the biblical story in which God tests Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Isaac, his son. In Genesis, Abraham dutifully prepares the lad for slaughter before God relents and tells him to offer a ram instead.

Owen’s bitter poem rewrites the ending:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The parable illustrates global warming just as well as war – except, with CO2 levels higher than at any other time in human history, it’s a planet rather than a continent now under the knife.

That’s what makes the climate strike so fitting: an international rebellion led by the young against generations of betrayal. We know that, as far back as the late 50s, researchers for the oil industry understood the effects of carbon on the atmosphere but did nothing about it.

In 1988 George HW Bush promised on the campaign trail to fight climate change. “I am an environmentalist,” he declared. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”

There was, of course, no White House effect.

In 1997 the world’s leaders signed the Kyoto protocol, with Bill Clinton declaring “a commitment from our generation to act in the interests of future generations”. More emissions have been released since that agreement than in all of previous history.

How petty, how small, how childish do those politicians with the temerity to attack Greta Thunberg look! She speaks for science, idealism and hope; they embody an ignorance or cynicism so deep as to constitute depravity.

The ecological disaster that confronts us today extends way beyond climate. Some scientists speak of the “sixth extinction event” – but, as Justin McBrien argued, that phrase isn’t accurate.

We might less euphemistically discuss a “first extermination event”. Nature is not dying so much as being killed, by people who know perfectly well what they’re doing.

The need for protests could not be more urgent – and, at last, they’re happening. The global strike provides a perfect antidote to the despair so many of us have felt for so long.

There’s a nightmarishness to the isolated experience of climate change: a sense of paralysis and horror at a world sleepwalking into disaster. By coming together on the streets, we shake that off, and we grasp something of our collective strength. MORE

 

For the sake of life on Earth, we must put a limit on wealth

It’s not just the megarich: increased spending power leads us all to inflict environmental damage. It’s time for a radical plan


 Illustration: Bill Bragg

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 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.


‘Superyachts, built and furnished with rare materials, can burn 500 litres of diesel per hour just ticking over.’ The superyacht Aviva off the Cornish coast. Photograph: Simon Maycock/Alamy Stock Photo

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 fuel reserves is cancelled, there is little chance of preventing more than 1.5C 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.   MORE