Excerpt: How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth

I had just finished writing a story about the “soldier of the future,” and I was on the bus to Heathrow Airport when I heard the news on the radio. The reporter explained that, according to Swedish experts, a high level of radioactivity that could have arisen from a nuclear-power station accident had been detected in that Scandinavian country.

It was April 28, 1986, the day after the Chernobyl accident. For me, that news suddenly reawakened a feeling of forgotten urgency. Ten or fifteen years before, I had read Ivan Illich, La Gueule ouverte (“Open Mouth,” the first environmental magazine, founded in 1972), Le Sauvage (another ecology magazine, associated with Le Nouvel Observateur, that came out in 1973), and had been enthralled by ecology, which seemed to be the only real alternative at a time when Marxism was triumphant.

Then life pushed me in other directions. As a journalist, I was immersed in the microcomputing revolution. At a time when Time magazine crowned the computer “Man of the Year,” I, along with my colleagues from Science et Vie Micro, was discovering the arcana of the first Macintosh, Minitel’s messageries roses (literally, “pink messages,” an online service of France Telecom) that prefigured adult Internet forums and chat rooms, and the adventures of a young guy named Bill Gates who had just concluded a smoking deal with IBM.

Then suddenly, Chernobyl. There was an overwhelmingly obvious need: to think about ecology. And there was an exigency: to report about it. I began to do just that. Since then, I have always been guided by two rules: to be independent, and to produce good information that is precise, pertinent, and original. Also, I held back from doomsdayism. While I was among the first to write about climate issues, the genetically modified organism (GMO) adventure, and the biodiversity crisis, I have never exaggerated. It seems to me that the facts, presented with tenacious attention to such obviously important subjects, are sufficient to speak to our intellect. And I believed that intelligence would be sufficient to transform the world.

However, after having believed that things would change, that society would evolve, and that the system could improve, today I make two observations: First, the planet’s ecological situation is worsening at a speed that the efforts of millions—but too few—of the world’s citizens who are aware of the drama have not succeeded in slowing down; and second, the social system that presently governs human society—capitalism—blindly sticks to its guns against the changes that are indispensable if we want to preserve the dignity and promise of human existence.

These two observations led me to throw my weight—however minimal it may be—onto the scales by writing this book, which is short and as clear as possible without oversimplifying. You will read an alarm here, but above all, a double appeal upon which the future success of everything depends: to ecologists, to think about social arrangements and power relationships; to those who think about social arrangements, to take the true measure of the ecological crisis and how it relates to justice.

The comfort in which Western societies are immersed must not conceal us from the gravity of the moment. We are entering a time of lasting crisis and possible catastrophe. Signs of the ecological crisis are clearly visible, and the hypothesis of a catastrophe is becoming realistic.

Yet, in reality, people pay little attention to these signs. They influence neither politics nor the economy. The system does not know how to change trajectory. Why?

Because we don’t succeed in seeing the interrelationship of ecology and society.

However, we cannot understand the concomitance of the ecological and social crises if we don’t analyze them as the two sides of the same disaster. And that disaster derives from a system piloted by a dominant social stratum that today has no drive other than greed, no ideal other than conservatism, no dream other than technology.

This predatory oligarchy is the main agent of the global crisis—directly, by the decisions it makes. Those decisions aim to maintain the order that has been established to favor the objective of material growth, which is the only method, according to the oligarchy, to make the subordinate classes accept the injustice of the social situation.

But material growth intensifies environmental degradation.

The oligarchy also exercises a powerful indirect influence as a result of the cultural attraction its consumption habits exercise on society as a whole, and especially on the middle class. In the best-provided-for countries, as in developing countries, a large share of consumption answers a desire for ostentation and distinction. People aspire to lift themselves up the social ladder, which happens through imitation of the superior class’s consumption habits. Thus, the oligarchy diffuses its ideology of waste throughout the whole society.

The oligarchy’s behavior leads not only to the deepening of the crises. Faced with opposition to its privileges, with environmental anxiety, with criticism of economic neoliberalism, it also weakens public freedoms and the spirit of democracy.

A drift toward semi-authoritarian regimes may be observed almost everywhere in the world. The oligarchy that reigns in the United States is its engine, using the fear that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks elicited in U.S. society.

In this situation, which could lead to either social chaos or dictatorship, it is important to know what is right for us and for future generations to maintain: not “the earth,” but “the possibilities of human life on the planet,” as philosopher Hans Jonas calls them; that is, humanism, the values of mutual respect and tolerance, a restrained and rich relationship with nature, and cooperation among human beings.

To achieve those goals, it is not enough for society to become aware of the urgency of the ecological crisis—and of the difficult choices that preventing the crisis imposes, notably in terms of material consumption. What is necessary is that ecological concerns be articulated in a radical political analysis of current relationships of domination. We will not be able to decrease global material consumption if the powerful are not brought down and if inequality is not combated. To the ecological principle that was so useful at the time we first became aware—”Think globally; act locally,”—we must add the principle that the present situation imposes: “Consume less; share better.”

Herve Kempf is the author of How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth.

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