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The Poor And The Privileged And A Proposal On Resource Use

By Farooque Chowdhury

07 May, 2012

Cutting class line and ideological spectrum looming environmental catastrophe makes its presence bold with each passing moment. Even the blind, ignorant, moron, and greedy can’t deny it.

The powerful, the rich blames the weak, the poor for the catastrophe. The poor are being made scapegoat. It is the law of power.

One of the “punishable” acts by the poor, as the powerful claims, is the number of the poor. It’s huge and big and overwhelming, it’s teeming billions in poor and poorer and poorest countries. And, to the powerful, it is the problem although they need poor in huge number.

“There are significant numbers of people in the wealthy countries”, writes Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University, “who believe that the great issues of resource depletion and global environmental pollution are caused primarily by the huge number of people on the globe…” Rapidly decrease the world’s population is their suggested solution. (“Reducing Resource Use and Environmental Degradation: A Modest Proposal”)

Fred’s observation is substantiated by The Sunday Times. Some leading billionaires including Bill Gates, David Rockefeller Jr, Warren Buffett, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey met “secretly to consider how their wealth could be used to slow the growth of the world’s population.” Described as the Good Club by one insider the billionaires were in complete agreement that “they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.” (“Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation”, The Sunday Times, May 24, 2009)

But, the reality is different. The issue of consumption by the rich can not be denied although the rich like to hide it.

The Royal Society in the UK in a recent report focuses on the impact of “human population and consumption on the planet”. It suggests richest countries to consume less, and a more egalitarian pattern of consumption. The wealthiest group must urgently reduce their consumption to save the Earth, the report concludes.

Sir John Sulston, Nobel prize-winning biologist and leader of the 23 academics who produced the report, said some persons are consuming far too much food while others starve.

The report, in one of its recommendations, expresses concern with “countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.” Contraception must be offered to all women who want it and consumption should be cut to reduce inequality, says the report.

While mentioning population and the environment are not separate issues, and reproductive health and family planning programs “urgently require political leadership and financial commitment” the report recommends to “bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.” It recommends that the most developed and the emerging economies “reduce material consumption levels”, and the need “to develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth.”

The Royal Society report shows a significant shift by establishment. Although it fails to discard the narrowly defined, now almost a cliché, population problem it raises the issue of unequal and wasteful consumption, now a well-recognized fact.

A single example exposes the magnitude of wasteful consumption. Amanda D. Cuéllar and Michael E. Webber at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, The University of Texas at Austin, estimated the energy embedded in wasted food annually in the US. In 1995 approximately 27% of edible food was wasted. In 2007 in wasted food, 2030 ± 160 trillion BTU of energy were embedded. The energy embedded in wasted food represents approximately 2% of annual energy consumption in the US. It was not a negligible quantity. The energy wasted in the perfectly edible food discarded in the US each year is more than the energy extracted annually from the oil and gas reserves off the US coastlines. In the US, 16% of the consumed energy is used to produce food and at least 25% of food is wasted each year. The waste is equivalent to about 2150 trillion kilojoules lost each year.

The population issue is by and large “tricky”, and a clumsy presentation of the issue ultimately echoes voice of the privileged. The correlation between super-high consumption by the rich and destruction of environment should be identified. And, the rich should not be hidden under the broad term “rich nations” as the poor in breadlines, the homeless poor, the poor looking for job are many now in “rich nations”. Similarly, poor, and even poorest “nations” are home of many ultra-rich, nouveau rich. Consumption of the rich in all countries, poor and rich, should be the issue.

David Satterthwaite in his paper “The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change” (presented in end-June 2009) showed the places where population grew fastest but carbon dioxide grew at slowest rate, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, population growth in sub-Saharan region was 18.5% of the world’s but the CO2 growth was only 2.4% while North America’s population growth was only 4% with as much as 14% of extra emissions. Places with very low emissions had 63% of the world’s population growth. About one-sixth of the world’s population is so poor that they produced no significant emissions. Households in India earning less than Rupees, Indian currency, 3,000 (£40) a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one-seventh of the transport fuel of households earning 30,000 rupees or more.

David’s findings help lessen the over-burdened population-mind frame and direct to “mindless” consumption of those, who own riches in unimaginable quantity and number.
About three years ago, George Monbiot wrote:
“Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to the developed nations. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for instance, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together. Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.” (“Stop blaming the poor. It’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet”, guardian.co.uk, Sept. 28, 2009)

With the help of an allegory George continues:
“I’ve been taking a look at a few super-yachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they are accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 litres per hour. But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres per hour when travelling at 60 knots. That’s nearly a litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.

“Of course, to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet skis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them blue fin tuna sushi and beluga caviar, and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime.”

Then, he raises the issue of the wealthy:
“Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3,000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry.”

He raises the population issue:
There are “dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less – they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance.”

Consumption of the rich is not overlooked by others also. Agrimonde, the joint report based on five-year modeling exercise published in January 12, 2011 by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) worked with the existing trend-based scenario, Agrimonde GO, and the current perspective change-based scenario, Agrimonde 1. The study on worldwide food and agricultural issues in the year 2050 said excessive food consumption, losses and waste should be reduced. Losses and waste that occur at the distribution stage, and at the time of final consumption was estimated at around 25% in the OECD zone. “[T]he rich must stop consuming so much”, said Hervé Guyomard of INRA. He pointed out that food amounting to 800 calories is lost per person each day as waste in richer nations.

While formulating Millennium Consumption Goals on April 25, 2011 Erik Assadourian, Transforming Cultures Project Director at Worldwatch Institute, suggested a better distribution of “wealth by raising taxes on the wealthiest members of society”.

Consumption by the rich leads George to ask:

“So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against super-yachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it?”

Then, he observes:
“It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.”

Contrary to the rich, the poor play vital role in circular economy, in zero carbon economy. The poor have almost nothing that can be wasted. Rather, to sustain their lives, they make maximum possible use of whatever they can collect: pieces of a discarded rag, thrown away cardboard box, plastic bottle, food thrown away by the rich. Shouldn’t there be a comparison between the quantity of CO2 emitted while a poor family, 4-5-6 persons, cooks and while a rich, a single one, drives simply for enjoyment or the size of land required feed a poor family and a single rich person?

But the fact is mostly ignored. Otherwise, it would have unmasked the face of a savage economy, which is totally for the rich. Consumption by the poor, insignificant compared to those of the rich, and essential for regeneration of capital, ultimately, in a sense, contributes to the environment. With this level of consumption the poor toil, produce wealth, and suffer. The rich thus tax the poor. It’s not an irony; it’s the rule of this predatory economy! What would have happened had the poor consumed like the rich?

With the sophistication of shameless appropriator the rich and the privileged love, conspire and scramble to possess everything between the sky and the seas: spacecraft, airplane, helicopter, yacht, automobile, island, ranch, palace, chateau, mountain and country houses, and what-not. They are hungry for diamond, they are hungry for gold. The blood of children, of humanity spilled and spent for the diamonds and gold is not the consideration of the rich. Their obscene obsession with consumption is mechanical in nature. Embodying all hunger, thirst, lust, and love thyself psychology their ideological heart of greed living within their life cycle of profit loves to indulge in eating, drinking, riding, flying, gambling and shopping that goes to the level of unnecessary, and makes deeper and wider footprint of destruction on environment. This reality compels any citizen concerned with environment to review environmental impact of consumption by the rich.
So, a modest and functional proposal has recently been made.

Citing estimate in the World Development Indicators (2008) of the World Bank, Fred Magdoff, co-editor of Agriculture and Food in Crisis (with Brian Tokar, 2010) says: “[The] wealthiest 10% of the [world population] use approximately 60% of the world’s resources. Because of the close correlation between resource use and pollution, the wealthiest 10% are, therefore, responsible for about 60% of the world’s pollution, contributing to global warming, water pollution, etc. […The] poorest 40% of the population use less than 5% of the world’s resources.”

Temporarily setting aside ideology, Fred observes: “[T]hese numbers lead to an absolutely inescapable conclusion. Trying to reduce the population of poor people will not help deal with this at all. It is the wealthy of the world that are overwhelmingly responsible for the resource/environmental problems we face.”

With this background, Fred, co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism: A Citizen's Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (with John Bellamy Foster, 2011), says: “The world ecosystem and its people desperately need a reduction in the consumption by the richest 10%.”

He, therefore, makes a “Modest Proposal” for immediate implementation, which is specific instead of a broad, sweeping comment. The proposal says: “enforce either a ‘no-child’ or a ‘one-child’ policy on the wealthy; immediately introduce a 100% inheritance tax on the wealthy; and lower the income of the wealthy by having a very modest maximum compensation (analogous to a minimum wage).”

Fred expects that following these measures approximately half of all resource use and pollution in the world can be rapidly reduced. “The previously wealthy would then either disappear (as they die out) or live a life in which they consume at the rate of the average person in the world.”

Fred’s modest proposal is based on the morality of humanity’s and the planet’s survival, upholds the principles of democracy and equity, and takes into consideration the current environmental divide.

Creative and productive environment can’t survive in a biased and dominated distribution structure. A trampled environment turned toxic or burned into ashes can’t support life in any form. Rather, destitution is created. History of nature and society puts the evidence. This fact makes Fred’s proposal rational and needs early consideration. Agrimonde, in its conclusion, reminded that in “a world of rare resources, the rarest of all may be time.” This makes Fred’s proposal an issue of urgent consideration.

Farooque Chowdhury from Dhaka contributes on socioeconomic issues.


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