Book review

How the Rich are Destroying the Earth

by Hervé Kempf, Green Books, 2008

First published last year in French, this book has already drawn much praise, and has been translated into several languages.

It draws attention to something not generally pointed out, when discussing the World’s growing problems: the extremes of wealth of a small elite, and their rate of growth. Its theme is that this creates pressure to ‘grow’ the ‘economy’, despite the destructive results of this growth.

He argues that this results from the efforts to ‘climb the social ladder’, which involves aiming to increase material possessions despite existing superfluity of them – except for the poor majority – this despite the growing awareness of the growing threats to the future – perhaps in the extreme, even of life on earth.

To explain this anomaly, he asserts that ‘the powerful of the world want it that way’. They control ‘a system of power that has no other objective than to maintain the privileges of the ruling classes’. His reasoning is influenced by the theory developed by Thorstein Veblen in 1899, that the urge to emulate the successful – to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ – leads to ‘conspicuous consumption’, without limit.

He notes that this leads to ‘a torrent of waste’, with the hyper-rich excelling in this, since their wealth far exceeds their ability to afford all they could possible need, as they retreat into a world cut off from the reality of ordinary mortals, to which they are blind, and compete among themselves to own the most, and most expensive, luxury houses or the biggest, most sumptuously furnished yacht or yachts, etc. How else to spend their millions?

But gross that this may be, it would not alone threaten the future of the world. There are too few of them.

Veblen noted that in many ‘primitive’ societies they produced a surplus which was then used up in competitive gifting, the ‘potlach’, in various forms. In these societies, however, there was no great difference of wealth. Kempf points out that the greater the levels of inequality, the harder people work to ‘climb the ladder’, and increase the waste and pollution.

He notes that not only do the hyper-rich stand at the peak of conspicuous consumption, but also, by the power deriving from their wealth, they control the economic and political forces to maintain their wealth, promoting the ideology of ‘economic growth’ as the solution to social and economic problems, rather than their cause.

Kempf is aware of the oligarchs’ power over the media to promote or suppress ideas, and suggests that they want to get rid of democracy and civil rights and liberties to preserve their own privileges. Certainly the ‘war on terror’ is a powerful weapon for this, with the criminalisation of protest and the huge growth of prison populations in the USA and Britain in particular, as he documents. He suggests the possibility that the elite actually desire the apocalypse, as at least some religious extremists do proclaim. He writes: ‘Violence is at the heart of the process on which a consumption society is based, Jean Baudrillard noted: "Using objects only leads to their slow loss. The value created by their violent loss is much more intense."’

Noting that ‘we cannot hope to reduce material consumption in a democratic society unless it is done equitably’, he argues that enough popular pressure must be exerted on the rich to force them to accept negotiated change, or they will impose emergency measures to enforce change without touching inequality.

He attacks the ‘received wisdom’ that growth is needed to solve the social problems, that technological progress will solve the environmental problems, and that ‘unemployment’ is inevitable. He points out that the concept of this has been manufactured by capitalism, to ‘assure the docility of the populace and especially the lowest level of workers’.

He suggests that transfer of the oligarchy’s wealth for public purposes, with a system of taxation weighed against pollution and on capital instead of on employment could favour sustainable agricultural practices and development of energy efficiency, employing great numbers; but does not challenge the idea that ‘employment’ should be valued over leisure.

Very aware of the control of the media and the threats to freedom, he is nevertheless optimistic that the spread of awareness and protest around the world may yet ‘swing the pendulum’.

I see the one thing missing from his analysis as the role of the money system itself in all this. I was struck just after the last World War by an article I read, praising the then-new idea from America, now universal, of ‘planned obsolescence’: making goods deliberately short-life and unrepairable, with fast-changing fashions to keep people happy to throw away and buy the latest style or ‘improved’ product. This was promoted as a solution to the growing problem over there of unemployment, as the huge increase in productivity developed during that war was converted to peacetime products, and threatened to ‘saturate the markets’ – i.e. create abundance! – and so threaten capitalism with collapse.

I have been very aware of the fast-growing levels of waste resulting from this, and of the root of the problem in the debt-based money system, which by its nature creates both the huge wealth of the elite as well as the growth of debts faster than the means to discharge them, causing the accelerating race to ‘grow the economy’ in order to stave-off the collapse now happening. This cause underlies the destructive rise of inequality Kempf so well documents and condemns.

Brian Leslie