Why limiting wealth to fight climate change isn't a good idea
George Monbiot, environmentalist and writer, wrote an article recently in the Guardian talking about why we need to limit wealth to help fight climate change and save the environment. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/19/life-earth-wealth-megarich-spending-power-environmental-damage
While his desire to want to help to save the environment should be applauded his ideas about how to do it are way off. Yes, the economic development of the world has contributed towards environmental harm but surely we have to trade that off with the huge gains in living standards seen over the last two centuries? Talk of limiting wealth can only really come from a very privileged position of wealth, to begin with.
We today live with a level of wealth that is incredible compared to earlier generations. It is hard to appreciate what life was like before the technological achievements of the last fifty and a hundred years became reality. What is was like to have to spend hours of labour cleaning your clothes in a sink, to not be able to quickly switch on an oven to cook your food instead having to spend more hours preparing a heat source and keeping it warm... All these things have come from people chasing wealth, the desire to do more with less and to live easier and better lives.
It's true, increased wealth since 1800 has produced more CO2. But you have to balance that with incredible improvements in human living standards. Limiting wealth makes no sense. What is wealth? It's using a washing machine, not spending hours washing clothes in a sink. Wealth isn't fundamentally 0s in your bank account, it's the time saving and life improving technologies we use. Money is just a byproduct of creating something somebody wants to use. That incentive has produced pretty tremendous improvements in the services/ products we use.
The industrial revolution was originally powered by burning coal and then other fossil fuels. So industrial development naturally increased CO2 emissions. However, as we are aware with the problem of CO2 today we can move towards new carbon neutral energy sources. In fact, as cheaper renewable energy sources become available it makes economic sense to not use fossil fuels, as well as environmental sense. Capitalism needs rules and regulation, it relies on individuals and organisations acting ethically. Sitting back and just letting the market let rip won't work. But we can use the law to move towards a carbon neutral economy while keeping the huge social gains from capitalism.
When somebody like George Monbiot talks of limiting wealth you have to ask what that even means in reality? How do you limit a person's desire to live an easier and better life? You end up with a pretty dystopian image. If you're talking about new types of taxation then that's fine, plenty of arguments to be had about taxing assets above a certain amount especially when inflated by monetary policy. But straight up limiting wealth? So do we ban second or third homes? Foreign trips? Excessive clothes purchases? And very quickly you're entering a far more authoritarian world that starts destroying incentives to provide better products and services to all people.
As the above graph shows, environmental damage goes into reverse and we actually start to improve the environment past a certain point of economic development. This is because societies develop the wealth and technology to start to power the economy without using CO2 intensive industries and fuel sources. No doubt, also because people begin to realise that the environment matters and has a huge impact on our mental and physical health. And so we begin to prioritise the environment again. It's easy to think of non- industrial world as some sort of green utopia before the advent of pollution and smoke. The reality is no such thing. Life prior to industrial development for most humans was nasty, brutish and short. It's why humans were desperate to improve the situation even at the cost of the environment. Then once greater levels of wealth were achieved people began to focus on the environment, it's why it was the 19th Century, the age of the industrial revolution, that you first started to get public parks and green spaces created across the UK.
Countries in the world that have experimented in creating coercive and controlling systems to manage society for the greater good have often found things heading south pretty quickly. Of course, there is a balance to be had between individual freedom and the needs of the community at large. And finding that balance is the purpose of government and civic leaders. But we are already tackling environmental damage via our institutions and by individuals changing their behaviour. CO2 emissions are decreasing in the UK and other Western countries. Rivers, lakes and other natural areas are vastly improved compared to fifty years ago.
There's much more to do, but we can only do it with the combination of creativity that comes from wanting to improve our lives and through deliberative and educated government policy to help steer our societies towards a carbon neutral and pro- environment economy.