It’s not just that the richest 1% emit double the carbon of the bottom 50%. It’s that high status itself is associated with emitting more, quite publicly. As you get rich, you stop taking the bus, you drive a car, you drive a ‘sports’ car. The less efficient your car is (Lambo, SUV, cars following you) the more it signals wealth. As you get richer, you fly more, you fly private, and you begin emitting hideous amounts of carbon. And this is cool. This is desirable. This is #goals.
The rich will occasionally cover up their carbon with a Tesla just like they cover up their hoarding with conspicuous charity. But this is a paint job over an edifice of dirty deeds. Someone who proudly drives a Tesla is still not taking the bus and generally flies and consumes enough to obliterate any ‘savings’. Luxury ‘eco’ products are just green lipstick on a pig. Obscene wealth itself is the problem, as much as these people host fundraisers and talk about how concerned they are. You don’t see them giving up money or power, the love of which is the root of all evil.
The fact is that in modern capitalist society, high status is high carbon. It’s not a coincidence that the rich emit hideously more, that is wealth. The capture, use, and abuse of energy. I love rap, and you can see, in rap music, the id of an entire society. What do you do once you come up? Buy a car, fly private, literally light money on fire to show how much you have it. I don’t begrudge rappers this. The money they get from touring for white kids is the closest black people will ever get to reparations. Frankly I think private jets should be reserved for rappers and illegal for everyone else.
The more silent but deadly emitters are the people that own the companies rappers buy from, that own their ticket vendors, that own the rappers themselves. These silent but deadlies won’t shout about their wealth, but their emissions are even more obscene. Rich arms dealers and private equity rent-seekers don’t wear jewelry or drive red Ferraris, but they’ll quietly fly private, drive multiple vehicles, occupy massive amounts of land, and—unlike rappers—destroy the environment as part of their day job. All of the people that own these mining companies and who bury systems like healthcare in waste and rent-seeking, they’re the truly high status (and truly guilty), even if they don’t shout about it on TV. Like I said, silent but deadly.
This association of status with energy is not unique to right now, this is not a modern confection, the heady mix of status and carbon. As Vaclav Smil saysin his book Energy and Civilization, “energy is the only universal currency.”Everything else (including the number we put on it) is just a proxy. In our past, power was always associated with how many humans, draught animals, and then wood and coal you could muster. The exercise of power has alwaysrequired energy. In the longer view, the Kardashev Scale of intergalactic civilizations is simply how much energy they harness. Once you zoom out, energy is the only status. It’s only us bugs in the rug who associate power with its manifestations (Ferraris, speed of travel, property). The true nature of power is just energy.
This is precisely the problem we have now. Hypocritical Capitalism replaced hypocritical Christianity as the religion of White Empire. They’re not even pretending anymore. The religion of the Empire now centered in America is that greed is good, that following individual greed will lead to the greater good, through the invisible hand of markets. Disproven many times, but like any state religion, proof is unnecessary. The point is to just justify the ruling class taking your shit, which modern economists do just as much as ancient priests.
Greed manifests in many ways, but the ultimate impact is always emissions. It doesn’t matter if you drive a Tesla and recycle, this are vain obscenities like papal indulgences (the medieval European practice of buying absolution from sin). The wages of sin are carbon, and these are always paid in one way or another. The desire for status has always been there, but the organization of Imperial society around greed has sharpened this one human tendency (there are others) into such a sharp point that it scratches into the fossil record with its sheer heat. As Satan in the film Devil’s Advocate says,
These people, it’s no mystery where they come from. You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire, you build egos the size of cathedrals, fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse, grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold plated fantasies until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own god, and where can you go from there? And as we’re scrambling from one deal to the next, who’s got his eye on the planet? As the air thickens, the water sours, and even the bees honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity. And it just keeps coming, faster and faster.
You have to give the devil his due, especially as played by Al Pacino. He’s right on this one. Just look around any city. People used to raise cathedrals or stupas to the sky, those used to be the tallest buildings. Now it’s bank buildings, the financiers of climate collapse. 33 banks are responsible for financing most emissions, and they’re not hard to find. Just look up in any major city. You can see their logos burning up the skyline, eclipsing the stars as they eviscerate the living Earth.
I talk about rappers as the unconscious expression of this society, and I blame the absolute last. They deserve it. The fact is that the undeserving heirs of colonialism and slavery and ongoing capital colonialism and wage slavery actual have high status, even though they don’t display it so conspicuously. And in our greed obsessed society, status is expressed as carbon emissions, as much as we try to pump all the hot air into green balloons labeled ‘Tesla’ or whatever.
Elites will fly their private jets into Davos or COP27 or whatever bullshit event they use to pretend to care. They will fly around the world talking about climate collapse and making documentaries. And ordinary people within the core of White Empire will continue consuming and pretend like recycling (much of which gets dumped in the South) fixes everything. It doesn’t fix shit. ‘Personal responsibility’ won’t fix a society that’s rotten to the core.
The entire hierarchical organization of capitalist society is a pyramid scheme with a hot carbon diamond at the top and complete collapse at the bottom. They’re still encouraging people to clamber up the pyramid, while the foundation is obviously crumbling. From rap music to boardrooms, from TV to dream, our entire conception of status is inexorable linked to more emissions. Until we change that conception the emissions won’t change (indeed, ‘net zero’ has still led to emissions constantly rising, and lithium and other ‘renewable’ extraction is also damaging). Given that we (ie, the rich) can’t change that conception (we want our cake and eat it too), then the fact is that the climate will change.
Growth, wealth, the vaunted ‘the economy’ which must be preserved above human life at all times, these are all simply signals of status in capitalist civilization, and they are all simply proxies for high emissions. Unless there is a sustained movement for climate communism (ie, distributed resources for needs, not accumulation for wants), all the ‘progress’ in the world only leads to one place. A ruined world, full of carbon kings, with their hollow cardboard crowns.