What if climate breakdown were closely linked to the social crisis around the world? Those with political and financial power are promoting a model of excessive consumption, imitated by the middle classes, despite its devastating effect on the planet. If those at the top supported degrowth, the rest would follow.
The three or four generations alive at the turn of the third millennium are the first in the history of humanity, since bipeds first started roaming the planet, to come up against the limits of the biosphere. This meeting is taking place in the context of a major ecological crisis.
The first feature of this crisis is renewed concern on the part of climate scientists. For several years now, these have been working with the hypothesis that climate change may be irreversible. Until recently, it was thought that gradual warming would occur but that when humanity realised the gravity of the situation it would be possible for us to row back and redress the climatic balance.
Climate scientists say that it is possible we are reaching the threshold where the system slips into irreversible disorder. This concern is fuelled by several observations: in Greenland, glaciers are melting much faster than our models predicted; the oceans may be pumping less carbon dioxide; warming already underway is accelerating the melting of permafrost, a large layer of frozen earth in Siberia and Canada, and threatening to release the enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane it contains.
Why are societies not moving towards policies that would prevent the deepening of the ecological crisis?
Their second observation is that the phenomenon of climate change is the aspect of the ecological crisis best known to the general public, but it is only one part of it. Equally important is an erosion of biodiversity on such a scale that experts are calling the species loss our era is experiencing ‘the sixth extinction event’. The fifth extinction event, 65 million years ago, saw the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
A third observation, which is perhaps less palpable or less well understood than the issue of climate change, is the widespread chemical contamination of our environment, which is disturbing for two reasons. On the one hand, food chains are adulterated by chemical pollutants, albeit in small doses. On the other, it is becoming clear that the oceans — the planet’s largest ecosystems, which seemed almost infinite in their capacity to regenerate — have been increasingly weakened, either by the pollution or the degradation of one of their distinctive ecosystems.
The warnings are not new
All this explains the political urgency of our time, but the warnings are not new. Rachel Carson sounded the alarm in 1962 with her book Silent Spring and ecological issues became a flashpoint of public debate in the 1970s. Since then, international conferences, scientific articles and climate campaigns have amassed a body of knowledge that confirms the general trend.
Why, then, are societies not moving towards policies that would prevent the deepening of the ecological crisis? To answer this crucial question, we must analyse how power relations are structured to block necessary policies.
Over the past 20 years, capitalism has been characterised by the return of poverty in rich countries. The decline in the poverty rate had been continuous since the end of the 1940s, but in Western countries this stopped and, in some cases, reversed. The number of people living in precarity, that is to say slightly above the poverty line, is increasing steadily. Globally, the number of people living in absolute poverty, on less than 2 dollars a day, remains at around 2 billion, while the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that 820 million people are malnourished.
Another feature of the social crisis is the increase in inequalities over the past 20 years, which has been confirmed by multiple studies. One of the most telling, led Carola Frydman and Raven E. Saks, economists at Harvard and the Federal Reserve, compared the ratio of the salaries of the top three executives of the US’s 500 largest companies to the average salary of their employees. This indicator of the development of inequalities remained stable from the 1940s to the 1970s: bosses earned approximately 35 times the average salary of their employees. In the 1980s, there was a disconnect, and the ratio grew fairly steadily until bosses’ pay reached around 130 times that of the average employee in the 2000s.
A very unequal society generates enormous waste, because the wastefulness of the oligarchy — itself prey to the rivalries of conspicuous consumption — serves as an example to all of society
These studies show a major break in the workings of capitalism over 60 years. During what was called the ‘trente glorieuses’ (1945-75), collective enrichment made possible by a steady rise in productivity was quite fairly distributed between capital and labour, keeping levels of inequality stable. From the 1980s, a set of circumstances we need not analyse here led to an increasingly pronounced disconnect between the owners of capital and the bulk of ordinary citizens. A class of oligarchs is accumulating income and inheritance to an extent that has not been seen in a century.
How do the super-rich use their wealth?
It is essential that we examine the concrete ways in which the super-rich use their money. Money is no longer hidden as it was in the time of the austere Protestant bourgeoisie Max Weber described: on the contrary, it fuels the outrageous consumption of yachts, private jets, huge residences, jewels, watches, exotic trips — a gaudy jumble of lavish squandering. With Nicolas Sarkozy, the French began to discover a distressing example of this flashy behaviour.
Why is this a driver of ecological crisis? To answer, we must turn to the great economist Thorstein Veblen, whose thinking Raymond Aron rated alongside that of the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and the political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. Although largely forgotten, Veblen’s thought nevertheless has striking relevance today.
In summary, Veblen said that the tendency to compete is inherent in human nature. We have a propensity to compare ourselves to others, and each try to show off some small superiority through our external traits, a symbolic difference to the people around us. Veblen did not claim that human nature could be reduced to this trait, and he did not judge it from a moral point of view; he just observed it. Drawing on the testimonies of the ethnographers of his day, he noted that this form of symbolic rivalry can be observed in all societies.
The middle classes will not agree to consume less if the current state of inequality persists and the necessary change is not adopted fairly
He went on to argue that all societies comfortably produce the wealth necessary to satisfy their needs in terms of food, housing, education of children, socialising, etc. However, they generally produce a quantity of wealth far greater than that needed to satisfy these needs, in order to allow their members to distinguish themselves from one another.
Veblen noted that there are often several classes in society, each governed by the principle of conspicuous consumption. Within every social class, individuals model their behaviour on that of the class above them, which demonstrates what is good, what is chic. The social class being copied takes as its example that one rung above it on the wealth ladder. Imitation reproduces itself from bottom to top, so that the upper class defines the general cultural model of what is prestigious and imposed on others.
What happens in a very unequal society? It generates enormous waste, because the wastefulness of the oligarchy — itself prey to the rivalries of conspicuous consumption — serves as an example to all of society. Each person, at his own level and within the limits of his income, seeks to acquire the goods and symbols with the most value. Media, advertising, films, soap operas and ‘society’ magazines are all tools for disseminating the dominant cultural model.
How, then, does the oligarch class block the developments necessary to prevent the worsening of the ecological crisis? It does this directly, of course, by pulling the levers of power — political, economic and media — at its disposal, which it uses to maintain its privileges. And, equally importantly, it does it indirectly, through the model of consumption that permeates all of society and defines normality.
Preventing the worsening of the climate crisis and even beginning to restore the environment is in theory quite simple: humanity must reduce its impact on the biosphere. Achieving this is also, in theory, quite simple: it means limiting the extraction of minerals, timber, water, gold, oil etc, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, chemical waste, radioactive materials, packaging and so on. This means limiting the overall material consumption of our societies. This reduction is the most powerful lever we have to change the ecological situation.
Who will reduce material consumption?
Who is it who will have to reduce their material consumption? An estimated 20-30% of the world’s population consumes 70-80% of the resources drawn each year from the biosphere. The change must therefore come from this 20-30%, that is to say, mostly, the peoples of North America, Europe and Japan. In these overdeveloped societies, we will not suggest that the poor, those on the minimum wage or the low-waged reduce their consumption. Neither is it just the super-rich who must make this change — even if Sarkozy, Vincent Bolloré, Alain Minc, Bernard Arnault, Arnaud Lagardère, Jacques Attali and their parade of oligarchs do without their chauffeured limousines, shiny watches and shopping in 4x4s in Saint-Tropez, there are not enough of them to sufficiently alter the collective climate impact. It is to the middle classes in the West that we must suggest this reduction in material consumption.
Here it becomes clear that inequality is the central issue. The middle classes will not agree to consume less if the current state of inequality persists and the necessary change is not adopted fairly. Recreating the feeling of solidarity essential to achieving this radical social reorientation obviously presupposes a rigorous tightening of inequalities — which would also transform our existing cultural model.
Proposing to reduce material consumption may seem provocative given the ideological water we are swimming in, but today, increasing global material consumption is no longer associated with an increase in collective wellbeing — on the contrary, it leads to its deterioration. A civilisation that chooses to reduce material consumption would also be opening the door to other policies. Enabled by the transfer of wealth produced by the reduction of inequalities, such a civilisation would be able to encourage human activities that are socially useful and have a low ecological impact. Health, education, transport, energy and agriculture are all areas where the social need is great and the opportunity for action significant. It is a question of revitalising the economy through the idea of human utility rather than through an obsession with material production, of promoting social ties rather than individual satisfaction. As we face the climate crisis, we need to consume less in order to distribute better, and to live together better rather than consuming alone.
Journalist, author of How the rich are destroying the planet, Seuil, Paris, 2007. This text first appeared in Manière de voir #99.