Kills Bill or saves Bill the planet?

Climate change has been relegated to the category of old news. Yes, we know it. We can no longer eat or fly, and the greatest sin we can commit as consumers is to bring yet another generation of over-consuming kids into the world. After three years of climate studies, I am beginning to wonder if there is even a single way out of this doom scenario. So let us look for something positive today; who will save us from Armageddon coming in the form of climate change? Already you hear many calls like the one from Sylvia Earle, in the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, who points out that there is no panacea otherwise:

“no one can do everything, but everyone can do something and sometimes big ideas can make big differences.”

However, is it fair to put the burden of answering an issue of this magnitude on the individual? No, I certainly do not think so and yet many stakeholders make it sound that way. British Petroleum once invented your carbon footprint. This shows you that if everyone lives the way you do, we will never be able to keep the world going sustainably. So we are the problem, that might be true, but we individuals cannot solve it. So if the individual is not the solution, what is left for us?

Let us go through them. First of all, there is the sum total of the individuals addressed by Sylvia Earle, or the masses. A characteristic of this group is that we are slow to respond to change, even when the urgency is evident. We believe that there are surely others who will solve our problem. And if we react at all, it is often on the basis of the adage, too little, too late. After all, the masses are nothing more than the sum of all those individuals who, rather than saving the future for the next generation, are trying to make the best of today and who consider making it to the end of the month an achievement in itself. In itself, not a bad thought when you consider that economics as a science has always tried to convince us that taking care of yourself in the most optimal way leads to the most beneficial situation for the greater good. Unfortunately, this line of thinking does not work with problems that fall prey to the concept of the tragedy of the commons. In short, the masses only react when they actually see that stopping climate change is better for them. And that will only come about when we experience the direct consequences, meaning that it will always be too late.

Then we turn our gaze to the government and pretend for a moment that it is not us. Yes, the urgency is now felt very strongly and sometimes even imperatively, and some politicians have started to make the appropriate and desirable noise. Especially when individual citizens take up the gauntlet and force the same government through a lawsuit to hold them responsible for more measurements they agreed to take in order to create a small chance that the Paris climate objectives will be achieved. But real changes? Why should they, apart from some small activist groups, the population only demands limited change. And it is the silent majority of the population that holds the key to the next re-election for the politicians, for the aspired ticket to power. It is only logical that politicians appease the voters with half-measures that affect our wallets, preferably as little as possible. After all, you only have to promise that you will immediately abolish all coronation measures in our little country, and you will be rewarded with no less than eight seats in parliament. A more extensive election programme is not even necessary, let alone measures to save the climate. The result is that we end up with a government that is trying to save both the coal and the goat. Emissions regulations are slow to be adapted, and if they are implemented at all, it is often in a diluted to a form where it does more harm than good.

Okay, so the government does not seem to be an option either, at least not without first rallying the masses, and we just discussed that that might go too slow if at all. The latest trend in many opinion pieces is the appeals in which the arrows of hope are directed at the corporations. And especially the large, internationally operating corporates. The directors of these companies are urged to take responsibility and step away from the never-ending pursuit of shareholder value, once introduced by Milton Friedman. They must act in together and work towards a new world in which the interests of society, a sustainable and cyclical economy take centre stage and simulatinously taking responsibility for all harm done in the history of the company. Believe it or not, it also seems as if the corporates are actually responding to this call. Never before have so many annual reports been provided with a separate section on the sustainability policy pursued, and even separate sustainability annual reports see the light of day on a large scale. If you then zoom in on all this verbal violence, it turns out that it is mainly about window dressing, not deeds but words, so to speak. Sustainability labels are used all over the place, and their main purpose is to give a ‘feel good’ feeling to an ignorant and naive consumer who, in turn, wants to be disturbed as little as possible in his consumption pattern. Deeply radical transitions are still being held back by corporates, with outdated argument about the necessary value creation for shareholders still being put forward time and time again. And the few chairmen of the board who actually promise and strive for change are slaughtered by the shareholders in no time. Because making delicious desserts in an ecologically responsible way is fine, but our wallet comes first. Because if we do not do it, the competition will anyway.

Has that exhausted our portfolio of lifesavers? I do not think so. There might be a positive side of our capitalist economic system that we not yet have explored. A side in which wealth accumulates and accumulates in a very small group of the super-rich, a group of super-rich that may have exactly the qualities needed to act directly and impactful! They can act swiftly as individuals without mobilising collectives, are not accountable to voters, do not need to circumvent regulations with corresponding interest groups, have almost infinite resources at their disposal and have absolutely no problems with intervening shareholders. In short, the ideal knights in shining armour. Fortunately for us, we are seeing the emergence of a small group within these super-rich who have now also embraced the need to change course in an attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change, hopefully they can be the quick change we need. This of course means that we will conveniently forget about the ethical dilemmas that arise from the fact that they have donned this shining armour by initially behaving like the classic and oh so successful highwayman of our time. After all, someone has to save our planet! The lesser of two evils, so to speak. But are we sure it is the lesser evil? Do we really want to put our future in the hands of so few individuals, won’t that make them even more powerful, even less controllable! Questions to which I do not know the answers.

So what positive message could we find in this blog? I would think that we are not yet without a chance, and that is quite something! Unfortunately, as ordinary citizens, we can contribute very little to the solution of the big giant, so we are left with little choice but to listen to the wise voice of Sylvia Earle, who continues her appeal with:

“That is what you can do right now. Look in the mirror, figure it out and go for it”.

And with this quote, I wish you all good luck with saving your piece of the world.

4 thoughts on “Kills Bill or saves Bill the planet?

  1. Hey Jasper! I agree that it sometimes feels like our only hope is the rich and powerful, but I actually think philantropy is not as harmless as it seems.
    Firstly, the super rich are very bad for the environment. I found this article interesting: https://decorrespondent.nl/11695/we-kunnen-de-klimaatcrisis-niet-stoppen-zolang-er-miljardairs-zijn/5547550744945-3e34ea05

    Summary of the main points:
    -the super rich consume way (!) more and more carbon intensively than the rest of the population;
    -the extremely unequal division of bbp makes it that economic growth is, contrary to what capitalists say, very innefficient at improving living conditions;
    -property is divided along the same lines as bbp. The fact that the super rich own most of the capital, means that the rest of us need to maximise production out of the lands and products which we rent. This makes us go over planitary boundaries;
    -In more egalitairian societies, there is less consumerism. Probably because consumerism is tied to classism.

    Secondly, I ideologically disagree very much with the rich having to save us. Philantropy is used to justify the immense gaps in wealth (‘it is good that there is rich people, look at the money they give away!’) , but it actually makes public funds be distributed less democratically. People can deduct the money they spend on philantropy from their taxes. For the rich, these taxes are high, so a large part of the money they spend is subsidized by the government. But, in stead of when the rich would have paid their taxes, the public now doesn’t have a say over what the money will be spend on, leaving it up to the whims of the rich.

    Perhaps there are a few super rich people which have a positive impact on the environment, but in general, I think that we should actually fight the system which allows for people to have so much.

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  2. Hi Jasper, I really enjoyed this read! I do think that, while we can all agree on the damage/destruction/injustice that capitalism causes, sometimes we should also consider the “positive” effects that can emerge from it – in a very cliché way, try to make something good out of a bad situation.

    This is, of course, under the assumption that we are “trapped” in capitalism and cannot change the system radically, or at least that we cannot change it soon enough to fight the climate crisis, and hence that we are left with no choice but to fight the climate crisis within the system that caused it in the first place. In that case, from a purely utilitarian perspective (i.e., removing all ethical/moral considerations associated with the means of the action and solely considering the outcome) I do see how relying on the “help” of the top % richest humans to solve certain “symptoms” of the climate crisis is a valid choice.

    However, I personally believe, that, despite all the above assumptions, this would still be somewhat of a Platonic solution. As philanthropic as one may claim to be, as humans, we are unable to fully empathize with a situation that is very far from our own reality, that does not deeply affect our personal sphere (you mentioned this also in your piece). And here, we are talking about people who have accumulated an amount of wealth, power, independence from society, that places them in their own bubble (or, in their own mansions!), very far from the cruel reality that exists in the “outside world”.
    So this makes me wonder – can they really feel the urgency of the climate crisis, can they truly understand what social injustice, inequality, mystery, destruction (all interconnected with climate change) mean? And if they are (intrinsically) unable to grasp that, will they ever be willing to help, in a meaningful, impactful way, in the long run? What if their “help” requires significant (monetary) sacrifices on their part – would they be willing to “save the world” then? I personally don’t think so…

    This is just my personal view, and am probably being a bit too pessimistic – guess I just don’t trust Bill:)

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  3. Hi everyone! I would urge you all to check out this brief video about why the billionaires won’t save us: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_634hXz32pY, as well as more of the great content from that Youtube-channel.

    A few comments to what has been said.

    I want to add to Pieter’s point about how we view the act of philanthropy. The technical issues of government subsidization and lack of democratic control are surely true. Furthermore, the fact that we see philanthropy as an act of giving is predicated on the fact that these resources are legitimately theirs to begin with. Capitalists are rentiers, inherently exploiting the work of laborers. There is nothing but the power accumulated by the capitalists that necessitates that the means of production should be privately owned, as opposed to collectively shared in a true economic democracy.

    Alessandra says that we can all agree about capitalisms ills, and should look at some of its bright spots. I don’t think we all agree about capitalisms ills, and people trying to highlight what they perceive as its positive sides is my mainstream experience: in the media, in my general community and at AUC. Also in this school do I find myself on the fringes as an anti-capitalist, as I by no means experience this to be a norm of opinion. The only thing I experience here is that there is a handful of other anti-capitalists, which is very rare elsewhere, and their (my) presence and outspokenness make people feel uncomfortable and as if the existence of this position alone is at the exclusion of other opinions, despite pro-capitalism being the norm. I strongly disagree with the idea of solving the problem with the tools that created it, and alternative possibilities abound. By this I don’t mean a cessation of trade, finance and money – these can be designed in ways to benefit society. What I mean is a cessation of capital accumulation, private (as opposed to personal) property, trade liberalization and financialization. If we are to survive on this planet I believe we must dare to be polemical, and fear of criticizing capitalism will hold us back from being able to enact the changes that are necessary for organized human life.

    Finally, Jasper, I believe that you accurately point out the corruption of corporate greenwashing and the pitfalls of representative election cycles. However, I am wary of you buying into the narrative of oligarch saviors, a form of totalitarian thinking in my view, yet don’t mention the freer and more people-centered suggested approaches such as deliberative democracy and mass movement politics. The former has had multiple good preliminary results in regards to both environmental policy and other policy issues in countries such as France, Belgium, the UK and notable Ireland. As regards to mass movements, you mention “small activist groups”, but I don’t think that accurately sums up the nature of the surge of activism that happened during the rise of Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion a few years ago, and of which we have still by no means seen the ultimate outcome. It is also disregarding of the vast array of historical examples of the power of mass movements, which have given us: democracy; the welfare state; increased rights for women, LGBTQ+ people, and marginalized ethnic groups; decolonization (among other things). You could point to the last election results in the Netherlands, and say that the movements have not had real impact, but I believe this would place too much emphasis on the electoral process as the end-all be-all of politics, and does not consider that it takes time for movements to build momentum, which has always been the case. And the momentum built by the environmental movement globally over the past few years is nothing but remarkable.

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  4. Hey everybody, thanks so much for your responses. I have to admit that I intentionally wrote this blog post as if I myself agree with its conclusion. I can luckily say that I do not, however, what I was trying to achieve by writing this is that I wanted to start the conversation on how we can actually save ourselves from the awful position we have ended up in. I am super happy to see what Vebjorn wrote and after looking into it a bit more I do indeed see that progress is made in countries across Europe.

    I must also agree that the groups I mentioned earlier are a lot more impactful than I gave them credit for. However, and that might just be my pessimistic mind speaking, I am still not convinced that we can change quickly enough just through the political system we have in place right now. I do agree that history shows that mass movement can be incredibly impactful! And that is amazing, but it also shows how incredibly slow this goes and the near limitless challenges its vases. So my question is not so much can it change the world but more will it change in time.

    The same is counts for Pieters second point, I agree! You are right we should not be happy with some of the rich giving back a little since they should not have had it in the first place and philanthropy should not have a place in a functioning society, however, what else? What is the solution? I don’t think either that Bill and his friends will save our planet, but what else will be in time to turn us around.

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