How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth

We've got to think about our choices for the future collectively, seeking cooperation rather than competition.

The following is reprinted from the new bookHow the Rich Are Destroying the Earthby Herve Kempf and published by Chelsea Green.

There is an emergency. In less than a decade we will have to change course -- assuming the collapse of the U.S. economy or the explosion of the Middle East does not impose a change through chaos. To confront the emergency, we must understand the objective: to achieve a sober society; to plot out the way there; to accomplish this transformation equitably, by first making those with the most carry the burden within and between societies; to take inspiration from collective values ascribed to here in France by our nation's motto: "Liberty, ecology, fraternity."

What are the main obstacles that block the way?

First of all, received wisdom -- prejudices really -- so loaded that they orient collective action without anyone really thinking about them. The most powerful of these preconceived ideas is the belief in growth as the sole means of resolving social problems. That position is powerfully defended even as it is contradicted by the facts. And it is always defended by putting ecology aside because the zealots know that growth is incapable of responding to the environmental issue.

The second of these ideas, less cocky although very broadly disseminated, proclaims that technological progress will resolve environmental problems. This idea is propagated because it allows people to hope we will be able to avoid any serious changes in our collective behaviors thanks to technological progress. The development of technology, or rather of certain technical channels to the detriment of others, reinforces the system and fosters solid profits.

The third piece of received wisdom is the inevitability of unemployment. This idea is closely linked to the two previous ideas. Unemployment has become a given, largely manufactured by capitalism to assure the docility of the populace and especially of the lowest level of workers. From a contrary position, the transfer of the oligarchy's wealth for the purpose of public services, a system of taxation that weighed more heavily on pollution and on capital than on employment, sustainable agricultural policies in the countries of the South, and research into energy efficiency are immense sources of employment.

A fourth commonly associates Europe and North America in a community of fortune. But their paths have diverged. Europe is still a standard-bearer for an ideal of universalism, the validity of which it demonstrates by its ability to unite -- despite problems -- very different states and cultures. Energy consumption, cultural values -- for example, the critical significance of food -- the rejection of the death penalty and torture, less pronounced inequality and the maintenance of an ideal of social justice, respect for international law, and support for the Kyoto Protocol on climate are some of the many traits that distinguish Europe from the United States.

Europe must be separated from the obese power and draw closer to the South, unless the United States shows it can really change.

The Oligarchy Could Be Divided

Then there are the forces at work.

The first, of course, is the power of the system itself. The failures that will occur will not in themselves be sufficient to undo the system, since, as we have seen, they could offer the pretext to promote an authoritarian system divested of any show of democracy.

The social movement has woken up, however, and may continue to gain power. But it alone will not be able to carry the day in the face of the rise of repression: it will be necessary for the middle classes and part of the oligarchy -- which is not monolithic -- to clearly take sides for public freedoms and the common good. The mass media constitute a central challenge. Today they support capitalism because of their own economic situation. They depend, for the most part, on advertising. That makes it difficult for them to plead for a reduction in consumption.

On top of that, the development of free papers that depend solely on advertising further increases the pressure on widely distributed paid newspapers, many of which have entered the stables of big industrial groups. It's not certain that the information possibilities generated by the Internet, although immense -- and for as long as these remain open -- will be adequate to counterbalance the weight of the mass media should it wholly become the voice of the oligarchy.

Nevertheless, not all journalists are totally enthralled yet, and they could be galvanized around the ideal of freedom.

The third, wobbly force is the left. Since its social-democratic component became its center of gravity, it has abandoned any ambition of transforming the world. The compromise with free-market liberalism has led the left to so totally adopt the values of free-market liberalism that it no longer dares -- except in the most cautious terms -- to deplore social inequality. On top of that, the left displays an almost cartoonish refusal to truly engross itself in environmental issues.

The left remains pickled in the idea of progress as it was conceived in the nineteenth century, still believes that science is produced the same way it was in the time of Albert Einstein, and intones the chant of economic growth without the slightest trace of critical thinking. Moreover, "social capitalism" rather than "social democracy" is undoubtedly the more apposite term.

Nonetheless, can the challenges of the twenty-first century be addressed by the currents of tradition other than the one that identified inequality as its primary motive for revolt?

This hiatus is at the heart of political life. The left will be reborn by uniting the causes of inequality and the environment -- or, unfit, it will disappear in the general disorder that will sweep it and everything else away. And yet, let us be optimistic. Optimistic, because there are ever more of us who understand -- unlike all the conservatives -- the historical novelty of the situation: we are living out a new, never-seen-before phase of the human species' history, the moment when, having conquered the Earth and reached its limits, humanity must rethink its relationship to nature, to space, to its destiny.

We are optimistic to the extent that awareness of the importance of the current stakes becomes pervasive, to the extent that the spirit of freedom and of solidarity is aroused. Since Seattle and the protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction, toward a collective concern about the choices for the future, seeking cooperation rather than competition.

The somewhat successful, although still incomplete, battle in Europe against GMOs, the international community's continuance of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 despite the United States' withdrawal, the refusal by the peoples of Europe to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the general recognition of the urgency of climate-change challenge are signs that the wind of the future has begun to blow. Despite the scale of the challenges that await us, solutions are emerging and -- faced with the sinister prospects the oligarchs promote -- the desire to remake the world is being reborn.

Herve Kempf is the environmental editor of Le Monde, France's most influential newspaper and the author of the new book, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth.
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