Sustaining the One Percent

By: Janki Gupta

Wealth inequality is at an all time high. 82% of the wealth created in 2017 went to the richest one percent of the global population. The global impacts of neoliberalism and this wealth polarisation can be seen in almost every social sphere and have been the subject of widespread social scientific study. One aspect that is sometimes overlooked is the deep correlation between wealth inequality and environmentalism.

Environmental sustainability campaigns have increasingly targeted middle-income citizens and called on them to alter their consumer habits. Yet, data suggests that the richest one percent of the global population are responsible for the production of double the carbon emissions produced by the poorest 50% of the global population over the past 25 years. Moreover, data shows that a mere 20 companies (mainly in the oil and gas sectors) are responsible for 35% of global carbon emissions. 

While policy and advocacy efforts largely focus on the behaviours of average individuals, it seems that a more productive way to quickly mitigate anthropological environmental impacts would be to target corporations and the one percent. Because multi-national corporations and the one percent consume and waste significantly more resources per unit proportionally, they possess the ability to reduce their environmental impact by a significantly larger margin. As the data suggests, halting (or perhaps changing) the activities of only 20 companies could reduce our total carbon emissions by 35%. Of course, this would in effect require changes in consumer behaviour- but given the present circumstances, these changes seem inevitable anyhow. By eliminating, or at least reducing, harmful production methods and goods from the supply chain, environmental policy will not have to rely on the fickle and mainly self-interested demands of consumers. After all, by depending on “environmentally-inclined” consumer demands to curb production, environmental campaigns call on people to pay more or forego their self-interest for an intangible, unobservable, miniscule benefit. While some corporations have opted to brand themselves as environmental leaders, these are few in number and they have the advantage of an “elite” consumer base that has the financial ability and social motive to pay more for associated production costs and mark-ups.  

Governments have done little to save individuals from this tragedy of the commons and to force these high-emitting individuals and corporations to significantly reduce their environmental impacts. If high-polluting production practices and goods were regulated at the governmental level, individuals would not be faced with the dilemma of trying to weigh the morality and financial advantages of their purchases at the cash register. 

Most Canadian environmental policies that are aimed at corporations, like emissions trading and carbon taxes, largely focus on penalizing those companies who are polluting and using resources beyond industry standards per unit of production. Programs such as carbon offsets permit companies to continue unsustainable practices, by balancing out excess emissions, so that they meet industry standards; rather than encouraging corporations to reduce their output to below standard levels. The focus on relative performance, as opposed to absolute performance, has resulted in few attempts to put these industry standards into question and require the imposition of standards that are sustainable. Presently, there is little incentive for governments or industry to change these standards and risk profit losses. 

Semantically, the moral burden to fight climate change has fallen on the shoulders of citizens. A lack of government action has forced environmental movements and campaigns to resort to focussing on changing individual consumer behaviour, and abandoning attempts to convince governments to impose stringent industry requirements. Until there is enough public pressure on governments to impose this burden on the large polluters and hold them responsible for their proper share, governments will not be inclined to uproot status quo industry practices and risk altering economic activity. As such, if this inaction continues, the wide scale reduction of anthropologic impacts on the environmental may be farther in the future than most of us hoped. 

As a society we should question why the burden to fight climate change has fallen on the shoulders of citizens, when their individual contributions to the problem are miniscule compared to that of corporations and the one percent. I am not suggesting that the collective actions of average citizens don’t matter or that environmental campaigns should stop focussing on changing consumer behaviour. Rather, I suggest that these efforts by global citizens need to be coupled by government intervention and changed behaviours by the largest contributors in order to have any significant and sustainable impact. 

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