Ecological Crisis and the Need to Challenge the Twenty Percent

The Privilege of Being Human

Although you would not know it from what passes for debate during the ongoing presidential campaign here in the United States, the biosphere is under siege. A historically high rate of ice melt in the Artic, devastating floods from the Philippines to Nigeria, a record-setting decline in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and extreme levels of drought in much of the United States are just some of the recent manifestations.

These worrisome signs highlight, among other things, the tragic failure of the international community to slash consumption of the Earth’s resources via binding international mechanisms. While the reasons for this are numerous, a key one is the obstruction by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries, and their refusal to renounce the gospel of endless economic growth.

But also central is a combination of refusal by and seeming inability of members of the planet’s ecologically privileged class—let’s call them the twenty percent—to see their very ways of life, and their associated gargantuan levels of consumption as problems in need of radical redress.

To appreciate this one need look no further than at a much-talked-about article, one with foreboding news for those interested in sustaining human life on the planet as we know it. It appeared in the journal Nature shortly before the ballyhooed, but ultimately fruitless U.N. Earth Summit opened in June in Rio de Janeiro. Due to human-induced changes to the biosphere, the article asserts, the world is quite possibly approaching a “critical transition.” It is one “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.”

A significant decline in biodiversity, a fossil-fuel-use-induced growth in atmospheric greenhouse gases, deforestation, the melting of glaciers, and large “dead zones” in coastal marine areas are just some of the myriad indicators of the extent to which human have altered the biosphere and the “drivers” of the planetary-scale critical transition, say the authors.

As a review of already published material, the article’s findings are, in some ways, old news. Its significance lies in the endorsement by the team of authors of previous findings and the synthesis it offers. Yet the paper’s importance also lies in the myopia exhibited by the 22 scientists from Canada, Chile, Finland, Spain, and the United States who authored the paper in trying to explain what has produced dangerous levels of ecological degradation.

Instead of highlighting the ravenous consumption of a global minority in bringing about the crisis they decry, the authors—no doubt members of the twenty percent—assert that “population growth and per-capita consumption rate underlie all of the other present drivers of global change.” In other words, by raising consumption in a manner that doesn’t distinguish between differential levels of resource use (and putting population growth aside for a moment), they suggest that all of the Earth’s denizens are equally at fault.

The ludicrous nature of this position immediately struck me as I read it given that I had just come across a report revealing that New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg had recently bought a 33-acre estate, for $4.55 million. This is his third home in Westchester County, just north of New York City. He also has three in Manhattan, one in nearby Long Island, one in Colorado, one in Florida, one in London, and one in Bermuda to where he regularly flies in his private jet.

I had also just received an email from Barack Obama (at least it purported to be). In it he promised, if I made a financial contribution to his re-election campaign, to automatically enter me into a drawing. The handful of winners, he wrote, would be flown from their home areas to have dinner with him.

To own 12 homes or to be able to fly supporters across long distances to join you for dinner are obscene displays of wealth and power given the environmental degradation resulting from the resource consumption they embody. They are obscenities that an emphasis on average rates in the form of “per-capita consumption” only serves to obscure. Yet, while highly extreme, such levels of consumption are the pinnacle of grossly unequal levels of resource use, ones that largely correspond to divisions related to the overlapping categories of race, class, and nation.

As international development scholar David Satterthwaite has pointed out in relation to climate change, about 20 percent of the world’s wealthiest individuals and households—given their consumption and lifestyles, along with the production processes, infrastructure, and institutions that make them possible—are likely responsible for more than 80 percent of all contemporary greenhouse gas emissions, and an even greater percentage of historical emissions. In other words, the problem is not primarily one of population growth, but of increasing consumption, consumption by the global twenty percent.

Members of this elite group—people like me—tend to have cell phones, personal computers, and housing with central heating and air conditioning. We typically use electric or gas-driven clothing dryers. More often than not, we own cars, and we travel occasionally, sometimes frequently, by flying—the single most ecologically destructive individual act of consumption one can undertake. (A single roundtrip flight between New York and London produces, in terms of its impact on the climate system, the equivalent of two metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per economy class passenger—more than the emissions produced by an average resident of Brazil for an entire year.)

We also throw away a lot and consume huge amounts of plastic (more than 300 pounds per person annually in the United States). And most of us eat a great deal of meat, the production of which constitutes one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses. In other words, we consume way beyond what is globally sustainable by any reasonable measure—and increasingly so.

Invocations of population growth divert one’s attention from such levels of consumption and the massive inequities underlying them. They lead to a focus on peoples and places with the highest rates of fertility, ones which are typically largely non-white and among the world’s poorest—those who consume least, in other words. Effectively erased from view are the socio-economic classes and places with which the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama are associated as they tend to have very low, sometimes even negative, rates of demographic increase.

This is not to say that population expansion does not matter at all.  High rates of demographic growth among the global poor and related increases in consumption can and do have significant impacts on local resource bases. But to state what should be painfully obvious, these populations have a negligible impact on the global environment given how little they consume.

According to Satterthwaite, for example, 18.5 percent of the world’s population growth during the 35-year period of 1980-2005 took place in sub-Saharan African, but its share of the growth in global carbon emissions was only 2.5 percent. During that same period, Canada and the United States had 4 percent of population growth, but were responsible for 13.9 percent of the increase in C02 emissions.

Similar to responsibility for carbon emissions, resource consumption broadly is highly unequal. The United States, home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, for instance, is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel use. If everyone in the world were to consume environmental resources at the present U.S. level, or that of Denmark or the United Arab Emirates, between four and five planet Earths would be required to sustain them—according to the Global Footprint Network. (In comparison, if everyone consumed at the level of India, half the planet Earth, given today’s global population, would be sufficient.)

Admittedly, invocation of the global twenty percent rather than, say, the one percent no doubt obscures, just as it illuminates. Few have the power to consume and destroy like Michael Bloomberg or Barack Obama, for example. Clearly, as within any grouping, there are significant differences within. But this should not hide the fact that it is not only the super-rich who consume in a manner way out of proportion to what would be their fair share of the world’s resources were they to be allocated equitably with an eye toward ensuring the well-being of posterity.

Moreover, it is true that an increasing share of the twenty percent is from relatively prosperous countries of the Global South—largely urban elites from the likes of China, Brazil, India, and South Africa. Yet, most of the world’s top consumers, as they long have, come from those countries that are in the top tier of per capita incomes, countries such as Australia, those of the European Union, Japan, and the United States.

The socio-geographic concentration of the twenty percent helps illustrate why critical scrutiny of individual consumption need not and should not lead to an ignoring of the systemic components of our ecological plight—perhaps the most notable of which is how industrial-consumer capitalism, which dominates the planet, fuels and necessitates voracious consumption for its very survival, and significantly shapes and limits our options. It is a system that mines the planet’s environmental resources, damages the biosphere, and exacerbates socio-economic inequities and vulnerabilities in the process.

This system draws upon and helps reproduce multiple axes of difference—race, class, gender, and nation among them. They are differences with profound implications for how people live and die across the planet. (A recent report by the humanitarian aid and research organization DARA, for instance, found that 400,000 deaths each year today are attributable to climate change, with air pollution causing another 1.4 million fatalities annually.) As such, these differences are inextricably tied to unjust structures that embody privilege and well-being for some, and disadvantage and harm for others.

The focus on individual consumption also should not obviate critical attention on large institutional actors—say, the U.S. military, the world’s single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Nor should it obfuscate how the very organization of the places we live and work, and the larger social networks in which we are implicated, shape what we do and pressure us to engage in behavior we wouldn’t pursue were other choices available. (Think about how unsafe streets and inadequate public transport compels many to drive.)

Yet, despite the importance of such factors, we should not make the mistake of pretending that we have no options, and that our individual choices don’t have implications for the viability of the systems in which we are implicated, and the many institutions with which we interact—willingly or not. As such, the call to challenge the twenty percent’s rapacious resource use is not an effort to reduce individuals to consumers. It is necessarily tied to our responsibilities as citizens, as members of political-economic communities given that any project of social transformation requires engaging both the individual and the collective. Just as it would be intellectually, ethically and politically illogical to contend that individual racist behavior is inconsequential and that its scrutiny is a diversion from the struggle against structural racism, it is unacceptable to suggest that individual consumption—especially that of a grossly unsustainable sort—is meaningless and unrelated to systemic injustice and its reproduction.

For this reason and more, dangerous levels of soil depletion, diminishing supplies of potable water across the planet, the rapidly decreasing viability of the world’s fisheries, high extinction rates of plant and animal species, and rising global temperatures (among other signs) are not simply environmental matters. They are urgent issues of human rights and social justice.

For those moved to resist the status quo, and champion radical change in response, many posing as sympathetic allies advise them to take a careful, gradual approach. These purveyors of caution are among those who today place their hopes in technological salvation, some sort of breakthrough discovery or invention that will somehow eliminate or at least greatly reduce the ecological damage associated with a particular practice or specific form of consumption, and thus allow us to continue largely our ways.

Fearful of what they and those with whom they most identify might lose, what these highly ambivalent allies actually seek to facilitate is a reworked status quo. It is a new version of the old, one which maintains established privileges and hierarchy, with simply a prettier veneer, its most brutal expressions muted.

This championing of restraint in a context demanding fundamental change is a longstanding problem, one the great writer James Baldwin, among many others, have encountered at different times and places. In an essay in Partisan Review (Fall, 1956), Baldwin forcefully addressed such “advice” when he criticized fellow writer William Faulkner’s call to “go slow” in the effort to overthrow the institutionalized system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow in the U.S. South. (“They don’t mean go slow, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall reportedly said in response. “They mean, don’t go.”)

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it,” Baldwin countered, “the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring, one clings to what knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he had long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

Transforming any social system—given its very nature—is necessarily a highly disruptive process in that, for better or for worse depending on where one is situated on the spectrum of privilege and disadvantage, it is part of the very fabric of life. As such, fundamental change requires a willingness on the part of those of the privileged classes who profess to support a different world, one that is just and truly sustainable, to move to a position of discomfort, to challenge the very sources of their ecological privilege, nor merely the symptoms. Only in this way can a system that is unjust—and thus limited in terms of the distribution of its benefits—be eradicated so as to bring about Baldwin’s “higher dreams” of privileges enjoyed by all.

For those of us who gain from—and help reproduce—the institutionalized injustice, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how our comfort and prosperity are tied to the socio-economic and ecological insecurity experienced by so many. This means that we, the twenty percent, have to give up things—our ability to have lots of “stuff”; to consume the planet’s resources without thought and to dump the detriments on socially distant, unseen peoples and communities; to travel wherever and whenever we’d like in manners that exact high social and ecological costs; to have our wants satisfied before the needs of others are met.

It also requires that we abandon the illusion that a world order that facilitates our unjust privileges can and should be preserved, and that our rapacious levels of consumption are maintainable, that, somehow, contrary to everything the natural sciences tell us, we will not have to reap what we sow. For privileged people of good will, this necessitates accepting the responsibility to be human in all that it entails. We thus must struggle not only on myriad fronts ranging from Wall Street writ-large to the Pentagon, but also with ourselves and those closest to us.

The ecological challenges we face as a planet are enormous, and ominous in terms of what they suggest for the well-being of peoples and places across the planet and the biosphere as a whole. In this regard, the ending of Baldwin’s retort to Faulkner could not be timelier:  “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His latest book is Dying To Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). Read other articles by Joseph, or visit Joseph's website.