The really inconvenient truth: Rich people did not cause climate change

I’ve noticed a common red line throughout the discussions on climate change, which is that you can address the problem and make society better in the process. The narrative tends to go as following: Climate change is caused by fossil fuels, but fossil fuels in general suck, as they cause a lot of pollution in the process. If we switch to alternatives however, we will generate a lot of jobs, unemployment will go down, our health will improve and we will dismantle the big corporations that are actually responsible for climate change.

There’s a number of problems I notice with this narrative. The general leftist narrative tends to be that “the rich” or “the corporations” are responsible for terrible atrocity X, but a socialist revolution would address these issues. This is an effective manner of shifting blame. It’s also part of an old socialist fallacy, the idea that the people are united in their rational self-interest, with the exception of a group of people who have been brainwashed or bribed into supporting an agenda that only benefits the rich. The kind of working poor who did not wish to join a Marxist revolution lacked “class consciousness”.

I must note that I consider myself an ecosocialist, but the problem I tend to encounter with most socialists is the belief that all social problems are interconnected and all of them can be solved by a kind of mass movement that simply corrects a societal ill, without requiring any significant changes to the kind of standard of living we take for granted. It seems to me that the attempt to fit climate change within a broader socialist worldview obscures a few far more inconvenient problems, in regards to the kind of lifestyle we take for granted.

I think we could consider this idea that climate change is merely the most recent inconvenient side-effect of capitalism to be a new kind of climate change denial. There are nameless entities out there known as “the corporations”, that have caused a global ecological catastrophe for which the average man in the street carries no genuine responsibility. In addition, we seem to imagine that we can address climate change, without requiring any sort of sacrifice from this average man in the street.

It’s not just the socialists who have taken over this mentality. It’s the big NGO’s and many of the self-proclaimed radicals too. Consider the simple fact that we have over seven billion people around the world now, who need to eat. When we look at the number of humans per square km of agricultural land, there are 120 times more of us than you would expect for a typical herbivore animal of our size. If you compared us to carnivores, there are 2470 times as many of us as our environment would normally sustain.

This is a big issue, that plays a major role in our global ecological crisis. There are 7.7 billion people around the world, who aspire to have the diet of an apex predator. And yet, the blame for the global crisis is shifted away from individual consumers, to nameless entities known as “corporations”, that are held responsible for the crime of functioning to satiate our greed. Even Greenpeace chooses to stay silent on the ecological consequences of our diet. It’s easy to rage against whaling or nuclear power, because most people don’t see how those options are connected to their own daily lifestyle choices. In contrast, if you were to point out the global meat industry, you’d insinuate that the kind of lifestyle people take for granted may be unsustainable.

We’ve seen similar outbursts of anger when Macron increased the fuel tax in France. The yellow vests began to riot in the streets and respectable environmentalists hurriedly sought to distance themselves from his policy choices. Surely there must be some way to address climate change, without impacting society’s poorest individuals. Well, the mistake here is in disregarding the simple fact that even France’s poorest rural citizens still have a standard of living far above that of nations with a low carbon footprint, like India, Nigeria, Kenya or Congo. Kenya has 29 motor vehicles per 1000 people. France has 569. If you have a car, you’re not a victim, you’re part of the problem.

We’ve succeeded in the Western world in granting most citizens a lifestyle that would have been reserved to noble men before the industrial revolution. The fact is that addressing climate change will require us to abandon a lot of those luxuries that we now take for granted, so addressing climate change will inevitably be unpopular. The people want to stop climate change, but whenever they find out what’s needed to stop climate change, they will revolt in anger. Surely there must be a nameless corporation or a rich man somewhere out there who is actually responsible?

You might have seen a recent study by Oxfam Novib, suggesting that the world’s richest 10% of people emit half of the world’s carbon dioxide. This sounds nice, but the problem is that you’re probably one of those people, or at least part of the wealthiest 20%. The lifestyle emissions of the richest global 10% clock in at 18 ton of CO2 per year. That seems like a lot, but it’s roughly what an average person in the United States ends up at. The reason is because fundamentally, the average American has the sort of stuff that the average wealthy American has: Central heating, refrigeration, a car, an annual holiday journey abroad, steak, warm showers and all the other luxuries you take for granted.

The inconvenient truth is that you might be a “junior level social media manager” a “customer support agent” or an “Agile Scrum developer”, aka a nobody, in your own society, but that still leaves you living like an aristocrat compared to the average person in a nation like Congo or Afghanistan. The inconvenient truth remains that the only societies that genuinely have a low carbon footprint today are societies that live essentially as we did before the industrial revolution genuinely took hold. People in nations with low carbon footprints don’t own cars, generally don’t eat meat except for bushmeat they capture, don’t have electricity, don’t have air conditioning or central heating, cook food with wood gathered in the forest, don’t have plumbing, don’t go on vacation and don’t have lights.

This is why the socialist response to global warming is seductive yet incorrect: The average hip young Western millenial thinks he is a victim of the rich, yet his own experienced poverty would still be seen as a form of wealth to people who live in genuine poverty, or even to his grandparents generation.

Ask yourself the following question: Who is willing to give up his car, the animal products in his diet as well as his annual journey by plane? Some people are willing to give up one of these. A very select few might give up two. How many would give up all three? And yet, that’s exactly what’s necessary if you genuinely want to address climate change. The average British guy would need to eat nine times less beef, pork and lamb, to keep temperatures under 2 degree by 2050. The reason is because the inevitable environmental impact of having such huge animals around in densities far above what would be natural inevitably has a massive climate impact.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if the Dutch government decided to ration air travel. Every person would be allowed one flight every three years, except for medical necessities. It’s egalitarian, it’s necessary and it’s fair. We don’t need flights, they’re a leisurely phenomenon we recently began to take for granted. It’s egalitarian, as every Dutch person would be equally affected. It’s also fair, because it means we stop placing the impact of our luxury on the world’s poorest people.

But what would happen? There would be riots in the street. There’s no public support for such moves. Climate change can be addressed, but people don’t want to pay for it. Americans are willing to pay 177 dollar to address climate change per year. People are perfectly eager to address the problem, until they realize what’s genuinely necessary. That’s when the riots start and that’s when there’s a villain out there somewhere who is genuinely responsible. It’s not you, it’s someone even wealthier. It’s not us, it’s the corporations that exist solely to satisfy our desires.

The Netherlands needs to reduce CO2 emissions by 2050 by 95%. Assuming a 95% per capita reduction in emissions, Dutch people would be left with a carbon budget reduce by around 90%, down to 1 ton per year. What does one ton of carbon a year allow you to do? One ton of carbon dioxide is the difference between a vegan diet and an average omnivore diet. It’s also equal to two round-trip flights between Barcelona and Amsterdam. What if you buy a Tesla? The battery takes 11 to 15 ton of carbon dioxide to produce, so your carbon budget for the next 11 to 15 years would be zero.

Now you might insist to me that these are problems that will be solved. You would be wrong. Some actions inevitably lead to greenhouse gas emissions and it’s futile to attempt to make them sustainable. In the wild, we had 250 million tons of wild vertebrates 10.000 years ago. By eliminating carnivores and practicing animal husbandry, we ended up with 1800 ton of vertebrates today, some of them are humans, most of them are the animals that we eat. These animals emit methane and other greenhouse gasses like nitrous oxide, simply by being alive. If you don’t count the emissions involved in feeding these animals or transporting them, you’re still left with an enormous ecological impact simply by virtue of the fact that these animals exist.

When it comes to air travel, batteries are no option. The energy density of these batteries would need to increase by three orders of magnitude, to allow them to transport people and goods at the speed that planes do today. We have solar airplanes today, but those airplanes are slow and can’t carry more than one passenger, at very high costs. Similarly, with their current carbon footprint electric vehicles are nowhere near sustainable. It’s perfectly fine and dandy among progressives to suggest that natural gas is not a genuine “transition fuel” but actually part of the problem. For whatever reason, it’s taboo to say the same thing about electric vehicles.

I don’t expect climate change to go unaddressed because people are right-wing conservative climate change denialists, or because it is physically impossible to solve. I expect it will go unsolved because hip young millennials in Western nations who imagine themselves taking the problem seriously insist on pretending that the problem is not them. Once people discover what’s genuinely asked of them, they conclude that the problem is “structural”. If the problem is structural, that allows you to say “it’s out of my control” and thereby deflect responsibility and wait for some sort of inevitable social revolution that will solve all of our problems.

There is of course one effective climate change solution that hip young millenials are willing to endorse, which is to forego having children. However, I tend to notice that the people who insist on not having children tend to be the kind of people who would not want to have children otherwise either: Highly educated young women. This is not new, in the early 20th century we saw a high number of upper-middle class women who abstained from having children too. They didn’t imagine lofty ideals for themselves in doing so, the concerns were practical: Abstain from childbirth and you remain attractive to men for a longer period. In addition, you end up with fewer responsibilities, thus allowing you to focus your life on stuff you genuinely enjoy.

This is the one case where people are willing to take an effective solution. If you take your post-industrial service economy lifestyle for granted, it’s probably best if you don’t reproduce, because otherwise your children end up growing up with the same mentality. Taken to its natural conclusion you would have to kill yourself of course, but the slow death of delaying parenthood is more socially acceptable.

In an effort to create a mass movement willing to address climate change, environmentalists made the decision of presenting the problem we face as one that could be addressed through subtle tweaks to an economic system based on permanent exponential growth and a human population density 120 times what would be expected of an animal of our size. Although climatologists now increasingly agree that humans have warmed the planet through agriculture and deforestation since the start of the Holocene, the idea that the burden we place on our planet is an inevitable aspect of the human condition is still taboo among most environmentalists.

And yet, when we look around us, that’s what we see everywhere. We are living on borrowed time and have been doing so for thousands of years, long before we began using fossil fuels. In Europe we began using fossil fuels, because we ran out of wood and peat to burn. Now our governments imagine they can stop burning fossil fuels, by burning wood again. In the Middle East, civilizations collapsed because of enormous deforestation and soil erosion. You might have noticed that the Green crescent does not look very green. There’s a reason for that.

As crude as it might sound, our ancestors have repeatedly bought themselves time, through horrific genocides. Europe was an overpopulated deforested continent when the first immigrants showed up in America. Those immigrants began murdering Native Americans at a scale unprecedented in human history. Mass death led to the return of forests where they had previously been chopped down. This drew carbon dioxide from the air and gave people fertile soils and new fuel to burn. It’s a little-mentioned fact, that American colonists began moving west in response to soil erosion. In Brazil today the same thing happens, as people move into the rainforest because the soils they abandon have been eroded by their agricultural practices. This process continues around the globe. The world’s wealthiest nations are now buying agricultural land in Africa, because this is where some of the world’s last untouched fertile soils remain. Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations use the land to grow food, Western nations tend to use the land to grow the biofuels they hope will reduce their dependence on oil.

The reason we’re alive today is because our ancestors discovered a method to temporarily escape ecological limits, by burning fossil carbon contained in the ground. They began using this carbon to artificially fertilize their soils and to produce the energy and heat that was previously produced by burning wood. A side-effect was the eventual dramatic increase in our standard of living, that we now take for granted. We are in fact so unaware of our dependence on fossil fuels, that we have arrived at the delusion that we can cling onto our current standard of living without them, if only we were not pestered by people richer than us or by nameless corporations.

5 Comments

    • I don’t have a strong opinion either way. I can’t help but shake the feeling that if it worked in a safe and cost-effective manner, we would have seem some governments pursue it on a significant scale, but nuclear energy seems to be dying everywhere.

      I suspect it might not be wise to pursue nuclear energy in a world that’s being plagued by growing political and climatic instability, but I must admit that I’m still undecided. Over the years I’ve learned that some subjects are too complex for me to form a definitive opinion on, this would be one of them.

  1. The other even more inconvenient solution would simply be a radical reduction in the population of humans on Earth without a commensurate reduction in per capita standards of living. If there were only 1 million people alive on Earth, I would be willing to bet that we could find a way to grant all of them a Western standard of living without placing an undue burden on the planet’s ecosystems.

    • This sounds nice in theory, but doesn’t really work out that well in practice. The reason we can have stuff like golf courses, opthalmologists and airports is because a lot of people use them, so the cost of having one is divided over a lot of people. If you have very few people, you would be unable to afford most services.

  2. Here’s a clear way to fix global warming via socialist revolution: with the newly acquired benevolent centralized power you can heavily invest into green energy to power carbon sucking facilities. Yes batteries suck which is why we’re going to keep using oil products, but we can “simply” overpower those carbon emissions with huge ass chemical plants. The issue of course is that this requires immense political will which is why a powerful government is needed. We don’t need world revolution either, just a union between superpowers. Pipe dreams, i know.

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