Heat The Rich

How the wealthy cause climate change

Indi Samarajiva
Jan 13 · 5 min read

Since Malthus and forever, people have been terrified of the poor. Like rats, the idea was that poor people would reproduce endlessly and eat the earth. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, it was the rich. Perhaps we should eat them (me, gulp).

Culpability for climate change is not equally distributed across the Earth. If you took a flight this year, you’re already worse than most Africans. If you eat as much beef as the average American, same damage. We have long been told that the problem is overpopulation, but it’s not. The problem is overconsumption.

The richest 10% are responsible for 50% of lifestyle emissions (ie, the daily choices of our lives, like getting cheese with that). The richest 1% may emit 30 times as much as the poorest 50%. You can read those stats, but it really sinks in if you see it for yourself.

Here is that reality, in three pictures.

You Are What You Eat

A family in Chad (Africa), vs a family in North Carolina (America)

This GIF shows two families. First is the Aboubakar family with their food intake for a week. Their carbon emissions are virtually nil. Dry rations, some lime, spices, water.

Second is the Revis family from America. Their carbon emissions are off the chart. They eat a greater quantity of food, which is transported further and processed more. They also likely have worse health outcomes.

You can see families from all over the world posing with their weekly bread in the book Hungry Planet (via Time). It’s staggering, how some have so much and some so little.

For the longest time, we thought that this was desirable, that everyone should aspire to more. But now we’ve gotten the bill, and that’s staggering too. The bill is climate change. And the rich are the least likely to pay.

You Are Where You Live

The division between rich and poor in South Africa

For years, the fear was that masses of humanity would literally overrun the Earth. But that hasn’t happened. In the next century, the human population will stabilize and eventually decline. Instead, it is our greed that has overrun the earth. And it’s the greed of a few.

Rich people simply use more space. We have bigger houses, we want bigger airline seats, we require expanses of agricultural land for the food we eat and vast transportation networks for the stuff we want.

Johnny Miller’s ‘Unequal Scenes’ tries to visualize this from the air. See the image from South Africa above. The rich, at left, have bigger houses, biologically dead lawns, sterile pools and of course parking. The poor, at right, are compressed and crammed. They simply take up less space per capita, and dramatically fewer resources.

As with food, the assumption has been that more is better. More land, more lawn, more homes. But the bill for that has come due as well. Again, the bill is climate change. The land use, the water use, the emissions; it all adds up and it’s all coming due.

You Are How You Move

The final image I want to show pertains to transportation. How we move. Starting from America, we have pursued the idea of private, car-based transportation and this has turned into a tragedy of the commons. If you’re rich you can buy a car and use roads and parking for free. The result has been the destruction of our cities and, ultimately, the earth.

The image above shows the amount of space it takes to move the same amount of people by car (left) or bus (right). A car lane can transport 600 people an hour but 10,000 people can be moved by bus. Metros or subways can push well over 25,000. It doesn’t matter how much self-driving or AI you throw at the problem, that actually makes it worse.

More roads mean more traffic. More efficient cars (ie, self-driving) just means more traffic. No matter how much technology you throw at it, cars will never be as efficient as the ancient technologies called ‘bus’ and ‘train’. We are already in a future where cars move at walking speed, emitting carbon and requiring huge amounts of space just for their storage. The rich have literally imposed their deadly metal living rooms upon the world.

Cars are a private good that has destroyed the public commons. Through traffic, through huge amounts of road deaths, and through their contribution to climate change.

The Bill

In short, the rich eat too much and take up too much space to live and move. It has been their greediness and not the breediness of the poor that has imperiled the earth. If we want to fight this problem, the way we look at it has to change. And that means changing who we blame.

Pulling back from the brink of climate ruin means taking a hard look at inequality, and what we think is good or bad. Do we want to grow like cancer, or at some point do we need to say enough? We have been telling the poor to aspire to be rich, but now it seems that the rich must aspire to be poor.

We should not be overeating and eating meat every day. That is not wealth, or health. We should not be living in suburbs and McMansions, we need walkable, livable cities. And we should be walking/wheelchairing and taking the bus or train.

The bill for our rich lifestyles has come due, and it will impoverish us all if we don’t pull back from the brink. Either the rich will change or the climate will. I say change the rich.

Indi Samarajiva

Written by

Colombo liberal. Writer, father. Founder of YAMU and Kottu. Contact: indi@indi.ca

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