Looking for Planet B – The super-rich, the environment and social injustice

The unchecked lifestyle choices of the globe’s super-rich, and its affluent more broadly, are a curse on our planet.

In 1958 Shirley Jackson wrote about the retreat of an affluent family into their palatial home. Preparing for the end of the world she describes how the world outside ‘was to be plundered ruthlessly for objects of beauty to go in and around the house; infinite were the delights to be prepared for its inhabitants.’ (P. 8  Jackson, S. (1958) The Sundial, London: Penguin). Post-war North American affluence pales into insignificance beside the excesses and gross consumption of today’s consumer societies and the habits of its wealthiest. In 2010 Oxfam reported that 388 people owned as much as half of the planetary population. By 2014 the figure was 85, by 2016 it was 62 and, in the latest revision, the organization found that a mere 8 people commanded wealth unparalleled since pre-Biblical times.

There is rising concern not only at the level of power and influence that such riches command, and how such power is used in the pursuit of further wealth, the erosion of support for the poor and massive over-consumption of fossil and other resources. Worse still, opulent lifestyles, privileged social networks and secluded homes feed a mechanism described by a US sociologist as the ‘toilet assumption’: our damaging human effects and the increasingly denuded world outside are rendered invisible. What prospect for reform and healing if the harms we do remain unseen?

The rise of the world’s super rich and the concentration of global wealth has come at a bad time for the planet. The popular political formations, themselves forged of these conditions, are offer images of continued economic growth, public denial of harm and denigration of the conscious. Those with achieve a disproportionate take on resources and lead profligate lifestyles – multiple residences, private jets, extensive cohorts of staff, gourmet delights alongside endless rounds of newly accumulated clothes, precious metals and jewels. The world’s rich are not sustainable. This is not simply because of what they themselves do and own but because of their lead and influence within a culture fixed upon fashionable rounds of consumption, disposability and the signaling of success through monetary worth and acquisition of status goods. The revelation that SUV drivers globally form the equivalent of a seventh nation in terms of pollution in their own right is likely to lead to a morally inflected discussion among communities and calls to shame those making personal choices with public and planetary consequences. The hyperactive flightpaths of celebrities, the rich and academics have come under scrutiny. Yet the rich are not only a problem because many would like what they have. What many now understand to be needed to face-down multiple climate crises and injustices, in social and environmental terms, will not be achieved unless excess is more firmly regulated, or their lives become more firmly embedded in the communities that increasingly censure them.

Rising inequality, as many now agree, is bad for us all. One reason for this is that the wealthy are able to outbid and out-consume others on merely mortal incomes. London’s skyline is now puffed-up with more than 500 skyscrapers at some stage of construction. Many of these apartments are bought purely for investment and lie empty for much of the year. The most recent estimate is that half of homes in London’s ‘prime’ property areas are under-used according to their extremely low use of utilities. Reality television shows regularly highlight the excessive consumption of the bunkers and fortress homes of the super-rich, but in my own research I have seen homes with ten bedrooms, personal cinemas, underground pools and even car lifts to sunken parking. In many cases beds and indeed houses lie empty for much of the year, visits timed to coincide with key cultural events and arts openings. More remarkable still is the creative destruction that accompanies more extreme cases – the demolition of extensive and often prized residences. The next step is often construction of a much larger home, capable of supporting grander parties and with expanded wall space for prized modern art canvases and sculptures bought more for investment than aesthetic reasons. Everything, including kitchen sinks, are regularly thrown out and reinstalled to maintain a look that is of the times. These lifestyles and homes offer standards now gawped at by many – considered the glittering potential prize of social escape and total luxury. Yet the cost is clearly huge. The excessive consumption habits of the rich show that luxury is untenable at a time of profound necessity and our increasing realization of ecological limits.

Cicero suggested that to have a library and a garden is to have everything we need. For the global super-rich such ecological groundedness and erudition is twisted into the bloated wings attached to multiple homes and extensive lawns patrolled by private security guards. The costs of hyper-consumption are plain to see – unending air miles in private or chartered jets, diamond encrusted baubles, edible gold leaf cocktails designed to coax money from the wealthy. What damaging mindset is generated by societies that have allowed or encouraged the growing ranks of the wealthy? Such attitudes matter because they infect our public life and damage our grossly unequal societies. Think tanks and complicit politicians defend excessive wealth and the inequality that goes alongside it. But in ecological terms we know that affluence is costing us the earth and those with less are affected worst and first. For the rich the dream is of escape, from taxes, from social obligation and even from nations. The latest news on the rich is their purchase of estates in New Zealand as bolt-holes come environmental or political apocalypse and attempts by billionaires to create cities in the sea free of tax and social burdens.

Working toward a celebration of connection to environments, to society and meaning are values that require emphasis in our public culture. Yet the expansion of the ranks of the wealthy militate against this. Indeed the actions of many millions among the affluent middle classes are also part of this story. Attempts at bringing harmony, happiness and an ethic of sustainability become rather like comedian Sean Lock’s suggestion that personal environmental efforts often feel like bringing a dustpan to clean up a volcano. Strenuous efforts at valuing that which is finite around us is increasingly common. Yet we know that rising living standards and private incomes unleash countless forms of waste and over-consumption on a fragmenting and damaged world. In this sense our consciousness must be aware of the need to engage and challenge excess as moral issues that bind us together, despite the rhetoric of personal wins and choice. The one percent are not with us on these issues.

Woody Allen once said ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying’. For the rich an anxiety about death is met not with a sense of common humanity and obligation, but with attempts at building wealth, ego excess (foundations and gifts for named wings of museums in some cases) or a strong interest in living forever through technological advances. One of the very real problems that we face as a global society is that those with money and power have a tendency to choose to give very little of what they have, rather than changing or improving the mechanisms by which such unnecessary wealth is generated in the first place. We must all have less if the world around us is to survive. The message for the super-rich is that they need a lot less.