Earth is overpopulated, but in only one sense: there are too many rich people. The rich are the main drivers of the climate crisis, not the masses of workers and the poor whose existence is commonly blamed for climate change and other environmental problems.
To solve the climate crisis, the rich must be abolished, for two main reasons. First, the lavish lifestyles of the rich and powerful are highly energy- and resource-intensive—think of all those mansions, petrol-guzzling cars and super-yachts, and regular long-distance flights, often in their own private jets.
According to a September 2020 report by Oxfam, Confronting Carbon Inequality, between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 percent of the world’s population produced 52 percent of all consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions. The richest 1 percent were responsible for 15 percent of the total, more than double the 7 percent of emissions produced by the poorest half of the world’s population.
Eliminating the energy- and resource-intensive lifestyles of the wealthiest segment of the population would be by far the most effective way to reduce emissions rapidly. British climate scientist Kevin Anderson provided this useful explainer in a 2018 interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!: “If that 10 percent of high emitters reduce their carbon footprint ... to the level of the average European citizen, that would be equivalent of a one-third cut in global emissions, even if the other 90 percent did nothing”.
The immediate and significant reduction in consumption that would flow from this would also help offset all the energy and resources required to build a livable and sustainable future for everyone else. The poorest half of the world’s population currently have a very small environmental footprint. The “sustainable” lifestyles of the poor, however, stem from their lack of access to many of the basic amenities that people in developed countries take for granted.
Any genuine, just solution to the climate crisis must involve lifting masses of people out of poverty. To do otherwise is to leave billions exposed to the life-threatening impacts of climate change that are already being felt—such as rising sea levels, heatwaves, droughts, cyclones, floods and fires. The transition to a more equitable and sustainable society will involve a massive investment not only in renewable energy, but also housing, public transport, health care, and so on.
Over time, we can expect that the greening of our basic infrastructure (for example, housing that is better designed and insulated against temperature extremes) will lead to a decline in energy and resource consumption at the same time as the living standards of the majority of people increase. In the transition period, however, demand for energy and resources will spike as we address the most urgent challenges of both poverty and sustainability.
The need for increased access to air conditioning is one example. A 2018 report by the International Energy Agency, The Future of Cooling, estimated that in a world 2 degrees warmer than the 20th century average, an additional electricity supply “equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU, and Japan today” will be required to meet higher demand for cooling. For the world’s poorest people, the majority of whom live in the hottest areas of the planet, air conditioning isn’t some luxury they can do without. In a warming world it can be a matter of life or death.
Another challenge will be managing the transition to renewable energy in a context of the scarcity of the rare earth metals required for the production of solar panels and wind turbines, and the lithium needed for batteries. A 2018 paper by environmental consultancy Copper8, Metal Demands of the Dutch Energy Transition, found that “global production of six rare metals used in solar panels and wind turbines” is grossly insufficient to meet global energy demands. In the short term then, we will continue to rely to some degree on fossil fuels, highlighting the need to actually reduce demand for energy to enable us to make the transition without causing further significant damage to the climate.
Sacrifices will need to be made in some areas. And the simplest, fairest and most effective thing would be simply to abolish the completely superfluous luxury in which the richest few currently live.
The second reason we must abolish the rich is that it’s they who are invested (either directly or indirectly) in the industries most responsible for continuing high emissions. Due to their sheer financial clout and their connections and influence over the political elite, the global capitalist class are free to steer the economy in whichever way best suits them. And for now, a rapid decarbonisation of industry doesn’t appeal.
The reason for this is simple: it’s much more profitable for them to preserve the status quo. To the rich, the threats posed by climate change must seem very distant indeed. They aren’t the ones who are currently feeling the early, destructive effects of a warming world—their immense wealth offers a high degree of protection from this. In contrast, the piles of cash they are amassing from the “business as usual” of capitalism are very real and tangible.
It’s not only the fossil-fuel barons we have to worry about. Whether or not a particular member of the capitalist class is directly involved in the fossil fuel industry, their wealth and power are almost certainly tied to emissions-intensive activities of some kind.
In Australia, only 33 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity generation. The rest arise from things like transport, manufacturing (e.g. of cement, steel, aluminium, plastic, paper etc.), and agriculture (e.g. methane emissions from livestock and the production of nitrogen fertiliser). And the short-term profits flowing from these industries don’t matter only to those directly running businesses in these areas. They also matter, for example, to the big banks and investors who have loaned out their money, in the expectation that they will get a return.
It’s the economy as a whole, not just the “fossil-fuel economy”, that needs to undergo a major, rapid change. Much of the basic infrastructure of the capitalist economy in countries like Australia today has to be retired, rebuilt or retooled if we’re to reduce emissions at anywhere near the rate required. The rich—the people who own, run and profit from the destructive status quo—are the biggest barrier to this.
The greed of the rich is driving us to catastrophe. They must be abolished so we can get on with the job of building a more just, equitable and sustainable economy and society.