For months have I been staring at the two graphs in the recent Oxfam report “Wealth: Having it all and wanting more”. They are outrageous for anyone who cares about ecological justice. To me they also tell another story, a story that many many people seem to have missed. It’s an aspect on how the ecological struggle should be framed. Let us start with the graphs:
We have no idea about the 1%
First things first: We have no idea about the 1% . What do they eat? How much really is the wealth they control? Where do they live?
We cannot even imagine the significant digits in their mindset. In one of his wonderful presentations, Neil deGrasse Tyson, when explaining big numbers, compares his wealth to Bill Gates’ wealth. (Watch a 2-minute excerpt here.) In short: It is simply unimaginable.
Similarly, during a huge corruption scandal in Turkey, phone calls between the then Prime Minister, now President/Sultan/Dictator Tayyip Erdoğan and his son were leaked. They had cash at home to get rid of due to expected police raids. So they gave them away, $35 million to one, $20 million to another… They carefully planned all the payments. Mind you, these were not the savings in a Swiss bank, nor investments, nor the properties they owned! It was only the cash they had at home!
I tried really hard to visualize how much space that would take. Of course, the banknotes I have seen in my life are of such small value (the biggest was a €100 banknote) that I failed to imagine properly.
The 1% is beyond our reach. We have no contact with them, not even in our imagination can we comprehend the wealth they control. (The SUV drivers you see downtown, the tourists in 5-star hotels, they have a comfortable life alright, but they are not the 1 percent.)
And then of course, we have the richest 80 people, the secular saints of capitalism. The 0,000001%. They have more wealth than 3.5 billion people combined.
Take a second to digest these facts.
The big WE: The 99%
Then there is the 99%, the creators of all the wealth in the world. The big WE. What Oxfam calls “the bottom 99%” in its report. We, in different degrees and in different times, suffer from what 350.org coined as “climate disruption”. We have to leave our land because our country will be under water. We survive food and water scarcities worldwide. We are the “last to rescue in case of emergency,” as was seen in New Orleans, USA, during the Katrina hurricane in 2005.
So when environmentalists talk about human-caused global warming, I rush to ask: Which humans? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, that -hopefully- leads to a discussion on capitalism-caused global warming.
But there is something more curious. Even when we understand that neither responsibilities nor risks are equal, there is a difference between what can be done to tackle it.
To be clear, I am talking about, or rather, against the population-control arguments and consumer-choice arguments within environmentalist discourse.
Which population is consuming what? Which population is it that you want to “control”?
In doubt, refer to the above-mentioned graphs: The economic effect of “controlling” 3.5 billion people is equal to “controlling” 80 people. Get rid of 80 people, you’ll save up an immense ecological footprint. But you have to very careful to cherry-pick the 80 ultra-rich people. Of course, it’s not exactly the 80 individuals in question here, it’s the social status of them, their structural role in the system. Their “seat” would be filled by the 81st ultra-rich when and if one of them disappears. It’s the seat, it’s the role of these 80 people who control almost all production.
Similarly, we can ask: Which consumers should be “responsible” for choosing this apple instead of that apple?
In doubt, refer to the above-mentioned graphs: If you convince all the 99%, each and every single one of them, you would have the power to affect less than 50% of the economy. It is virtually impossible for us to be economical majority. And every moment we spend in our obsessions on green products is not only insignificant, but also a diversion from actual solutions.
It is indeed comforting to think change is hidden in “responsible” choices within the system: Don’t make a baby. Pay more for products to become an ethical person. (read: “Buy your ethics here! Cheap!”)
But we must be realistic. Climate justice is not about the tiny changes in my carbon footprint. It’s about cutting carbon emissions by 65% in a few decades. It’s about wars, it’s about useless mega projects, it’s about the luxuries of the 1% , it’s about advertisements, it’s about the capitalist system. And the only realistic and responsible choice is to fight against it.
Where to look for climate justice
The path to a realistic solution lies in a correction of a sentence I wrote above: “It is virtually impossible for us to be economical majority.” This sentence is valid only after production. Because we are still the majority, and I’m not referring to numbers here. We are “the 99%, the creators of all the wealth in the world”, we have created all the wealth that the ultra-rich accumulated in their “pockets”, we have been collaborating to reproduce the socio-economic system that leads to these inequalities.
There is no shortcut to climate justice, because there is no shortcut to justice. (What makes climate justice so unique is its urgency, not its kind.) We will either continue deluding ourselves by perpetually congratulating each other for buying a second-hand sweatshirt instead of a new one, or we’ll get our facts right and prepare for struggle.