[Translated from Le Devoir (Québec)]
THE RICH ON TRIAL
By Louis-Gilles Francoeur
** Is capitalism the cause of ecological and social crises? **
Le Devoir (Québec)
January 7, 2007
What do global warming, pollution of the atmosphere, streams, rivers, and oceans, depletion of resources, the accelerated extinction of species, deforestation, the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, and, soon, the infinitesimal and practically undetectable pollution of nanomaterials have in common? Capitalism as prime cause and the oligarchy that profits from them, answers Hervé Kempf in a shocker of a book published this week in Paris by Éditions du Seuil.
A journalist specializing in the environment at the Paris daily *Le Monde*, Hervé Kempf visited the four corners of the planet and chatted up, as only an environmental chronicler can do, the cream of the scientific community, "rather calm and ponderous folks." But from these contacts and the files he has patiently compiled for his newspaper, he draws two principal conclusions, he writes at the beginning of Comment les riches détruisent la planète ('How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet'), which will be available in Québec on Feb. 6.
First, he explained in a telephone interview yesterday, the ecological situation of the planet is worsening at a rate that neutralizes all the efforts of millions of citizens and ecological activists, to the point where the planet risks passing the point of no return "in the next ten years," he thinks, based on the speed at which negative reports are accumulating.
The second conclusion of this veritable attempt at a global explanation of the environmental crisis is that "the social system that currently governs human society, capitalism, is blindly resisting the changes that must be effected if we wish to maintain the dignity and promise of human existence."
Just as the different facets of the global environmental crisis are reacing more and more synergistically -- warming is accelerating the rate of species extinction just as the use of fossil fuels is causing pollution and consumption is causing resource depletion -- the planetary ecological crisis and social crisis are two intertwined facets of the same problem.
"One cannot understand the concomitance of the ecological and social crises if one does not analyze them as two facets of the same disaster, one that results from a system directed by a dominant stratum that today has no motive but greed, no ideal but conservatism, no dream but technology. This predatory oligarchy is the principal agent of the global crisis," writes Kempf. Contemporary capitalism, he added in our interview, has lost its old historical justifications, whether wealth or innovation, because it has become a financial capitalism, decried even by capitalist economists. This capitalism, which destroys jobs via downsizing, new technologies, and globalization, increases everywhere the gaps between rich and poor in every country as well as between countries, states the journalist.
The oligarchy at which he takes aim is not content to consume and blindly waste the material resources of the planet with its big cars, its airplane trips, its unbridled consumption of living things, its uselessly immense houses, and its relentless wasting of energy. It also, adds Hervé Kempf, engenders a model of hyperconsumption that the lower classes and especially the middle class are now attempting to imitate, just as the developing countries are attempting imitate the Western countries, even if, instintively and rationally, everyone can clearly see that "this ideology of waste" and its pressure on global resources will inevitably abruptly run out.
The way things are going is forcing the human race to confront the unprecedented fact that it has reached or will soon reach the limits of the planet, which may turn against humanity and threaten its very existence. But the drift is all the more difficult to stop, Hervé Kempf thinks, in that it relies on a semi-authoritarian regime more and more institutionalized at the global level. It even relies, he says, on crises like that of September 11 so as to cut back sharply on hard-won human rights and neutralize, or even eliminate, democratic mechanisms that allow for free public debate on possible projects and social choices that upset the economic game.
Hervé Kempf denies he is trying to turn the global ecological discussion from green to red.
"I'm not a Marxist," he says, "and I never have been one, because that ideology does not respect human rights. But Marxists do not have a monopoly on social discussion, and you can't just close your eyes to phenomena that are documented, calculated, right before your eyes. I see that there are two crises, one ecological, the other social. And I see that they are acting in synergy. And I see that a minority is benefiting from them. And I draw conclusions."
But he also sees that a large part of the European left has not understood how deep are the connections between the two problems, like many ecologists who limit themselves to an environmental approach and miss half the problem, and perhaps its principal cause.
"If you want to be an ecologist," he write laconically, "you should stop being simple-minded," because "the social dimension remains the ecological unconscious" if one doesn't dare analyze things from the point of view of power, domination, and wealth.
"We must," he writes, "get out of this hiatus. We need to understand that the ecological crisis and the social crisis are two facets of the same disaster. And that this disaster is being created by a system of power that no longer has any end except the maintenance of the ruling class's privileges."
If he does not address in his book the impact on the planet's decline of run-away demographics on "biological services," Hervé Kempf acknowledges at once that this factor has certainly had an impact that is globally larger than all the hyperconsumption of the oligarchy, made up of a few hundred thousand millionaires and billionaires who control the main part of the revenues and financial resources. But, he explains, it's this oligarchy that is creating a model that is unsustainable for the planet, one whose indirect impact on other social groups goes far beyond its direct consumption. "And," he says without smiling, "all humans do not have the same impact on the planet at their birth: a Westerner weighs much more on the fate of the planet than a baby in Niger or India."
It's to put an end to this race for ostentatious consumption that he recommends radical controls on wealth by means of a "maximum ceiling for salaries and the accumulation of the world's wealth," a sort of accompaniment to a minimum salary, but from the top down.
"Everyone knows," Kempf comments, "that China will not be able to attain a level of consumption per inhabitant comparable to that of Americans, with two cars per family, three televisions, four computers and laptops, and a house three times too large for its inhabitants, which uses enough energy for the needs of twelve or even twenty people on other continents." The environmental chronicler proposes that this oligarchy, which has globalized poverty, be forced to reduce its consumption so as to feed no more this unsustainable dream, which is sapping the critical faculties of the entire planet to the point that it is closing its eyes to the wall that it is running into at full speed.
And the journalist, known for his rigor and seriousness, nevertheless concludes: "The ecological preoccupation is going to have to include a radical political analysis of the present relations of domination. We shall not be able to diminish global material consumption if the powerful are not brought down and if inequality is not fought. To the ecological principle that is so useful in making people wake up -- 'Think globally, act locally' --, we need to add the principle that the situation demands: 'Consume less, distribute better.'"
Ecologists, he adds, have not often put on trial the "ecological poverty" that sticks the poor next to polluted, dangerous industrial zones, alongside noisy highways and activities, in unhealthy houses and in areas generally with the least accessible public services, including public transport. It is false, he says, to claim that the economic system should grow more in order to bring these people out of poverty or to allow the poor countries to acquire more wealth. The economic system is moving in the other direction, toward monopolizing weath and power at the expense of the poorest and the middle classes, which dream -- more and more in vain -- of lifting themselves into the cocoon of the present financial oligarchy, Kempf maintains.
That's why, he says, we need to "bring down the rich" rather than lift up the poor, in order to begin to respect the thresholds of irreversible deterioration of the planet's resources.
He attacks, moreover, the concept of sustainable development and the alibi that it has come to represent for governments and businesses that use it to justify other demands on resources in the name of this new rationality, supposedly harmless for the planet. Sustainable development, he writes, has become "a semantic weapon to deprive the obscene word 'ecology' of its meaning. And is there any need to develop more in France, Germany, or the United States?" The concept has a meaning, he concluded yesterday in our interview, but only for the developing countries, since it can be useful to them in avoiding development that is as brutal and anarchic as what we have seen in the West. But in the West, he says, the primary environmental responsibility "consists in reducing our consumption of material wealth" in order, rather, to reach a level of well-being based on values, on knowledge, and, in brief, on wealth that is immaterial, but nevertheless very real.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Home page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/