Kempf, H. How the Rich are Destroying the Earth

How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, Sydney, Finch, 2008, 128 pp + xvi

A sizable literature seeking to diagnose the global predicament has emerged over the last forty years. But despite this it is clear that our inability to rein in economic growth, reduce our demands on the global system and, generally reduce the scope and nature of human impacts is continuing to drive a planet-wide process of deterioration. We have known this for some time so it’s legitimate to consider why we allow the process to continue virtually unimpeded. A couple of clues lead us into the arena that Herve Kemp has chosen to explore, and they can be framed as questions. First, why is it that the bulk of futures work over this period has had little or no effect? Second, how is it that, after more than fifty years, the message articulated so clearly in Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, has still not been understood or accepted and its implications more widely implemented?[1]

Kemph’s answer is likely to be resisted by those who favor “free enterprise” and the market system, i.e., those who might broadly fall under the umbrella of “right wing conservatism.” On the other hand, his answer will resonate powerfully with those who see society as the locus of struggles for power, wealth and privilege, i.e., those who identify broadly with radical politics and “the Left.” Yet both groups could gain much from this book if they were prepared to look beyond their traditional boundaries of concern.

Kemph begins with an overview of the ecological crisis, then loses no time in asserting, quite rightly, that this is a “direct consequence of the present economic system.” In other words, environmental challenges such as global warming cannot be separated from the broader social, political and economic crisis. The question he then asks is ‘why is the system so stubbornly incapable of changing?’ And he provides a three-fold answer, as follows.

  • The dominant framework for explaining the world today is the economic representation of things.
  • Leadership elites are ignorant. Trained in economics, engineering, or politics, they are frequently ignorant of science and virtually always lack the slightest notion of ecology.
  • The lifestyle of the rich prevents them from sensing what surrounds them.

To drive the point home he comments that “if nothing happens even as we enter an economic crisis of historic seriousness, it’s because the powerful of the world want it that way.” He critiques those who associate with “ecology” for failing to understand the dynamics of social systems, and “the Left” for failing to understand ecology. The argument is then developed in two ways. First, a general critique of capitalism that, in his view, “doesn’t know how to do anything but celebrate itself;” and second, a more specific critique of the implications of conspicuous consumption.

On capitalism, he continues,

all spheres of power and influence have been swallowed by capitalism’s pseudo-realism that asserts that any alternative is impossible and that the only end to pursue in order to soften the inevitability of injustice is to eke out ever more wealth.

Whether or not one agrees fully with this it does, I think, help to explain the relative marginalisation of a broad spectrum of work, including that which goes under the heading of futures, that has sought alternatives to the dominant trends. This reminds me of Gus Speth’s reflections on his experience as Jimmy Carter’s principal environment advisor as both are indicative of the obstacles facing anyone who attempts to challenge the system. In a 2008 interview Speth noted that “we pushed the global warming issue hard, starting in 1979 but failed to get it on the agenda.” Looking back, his conclusion was that “we were trying to do environmental policy and activism within a system that was simply too powerful.”[2]

Kemph then draws on sociologist Thorsten Veblen who suggested that the central drive of social life is ‘ostentatious rivalry.’ The purpose of this is ‘to exhibit prosperity superior to one’s peers.’ The fact that society is divided into different ‘layers’ or classes, ‘excites an overall or general competition.’ As a result “the race for distinction pushes society to produce much more than what ‘useful purposes’ would require.” Kemph suggests that this “race for distinction” has become pathological. Moreover, since each group aspires to the consumption standards of the group immediately above, this pernicious doctrine is spread throughout the entire society. Unfortunately, those at the bottom of the heap, end up with very little; and even more unfortunately, the system itself continues to run unchecked along its ponderous and ever more destructive path.

After summarising some aspects of the lifestyles of the ultra-rich (yachts, aircraft, hideaways and expensive baubles) Kemph asserts that the “present characteristics of the global ruling class [are] the essential factor in the environmental crisis.” The main reason for this judgement is that “this class opposes the radical changes that we would have to conduct to prevent the aggravation of the situation. How? Indirectly, by the status of its consumption: its model drags general consumption up by impelling others to imitate it. Directly, by control of economic and political power that allows it to maintain this inequality.”

In this view the only way to maintain the system is to maintain growth. Thus promoting growth has become “the great taboo” of contemporary life because it is “the oligarchy’s only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.” Moreover, it is growth that “creates a surplus of apparent wealth” and this “allows the system to be lubricated without modifying its structure.”(emphasis added.)

Much turns on who are to be identified as “the rich.” While Kemph is clear that the “hyper-rich” and associated “upper classes” are, in effect, sponsoring and leading the system, considered from a world perspective the rich also include the one billion people who live in the developed nations and consume some 80% of global wealth. Few of these people, however, have either the leverage or the desire to curb their consumption unless that of “the oligarchy” is also greatly reduced.

So this is the great dilemma. Stratified societies appear to be driven by those “at the top”—privileged groups who see themselves as “an aristocracy” remote from others and, sadly, who seem to care little about them. Indeed, considering the examples of the US and Dubai, the most affluent societies do appear to be the most unequal.

The last step in Kemph’s argument is that back in the 1990s “freedom” was in favor as a general ideology because it stood in opposition to the Soviet collectivist model. But, after the collapse of the USSR, capitalism has reigned supreme and, as a result, “no longer needs democracy.” But there are huge drawbacks to this new dominance. To elucidate, Kemph refers back to the writings of de Tocqueville who argued that: “what makes the new despotism possible is individualism, self-absorption and obliviousness to one’s fellow citizens. That’s precisely what capitalism promotes: its ideology exalts each person’s pursuit of his own interests, claiming that the sum of individual behaviors leads by a sort of magic – the ‘invisible hand’ – to an overall optimum.”

So the overall argument that started with the progressive destruction of the global environment returns, in the end, to questions about the uses of power and wealth in stratified societies. The “solution,” if indeed there is one, is to “revitalise democracy.” The obstacles to this include the continuing belief in growth, an over-optimistic view of value of technological progress and the (false) belief in shared fortunes between Europe and the US. The main forces at work are the system itself, the mass media, and the Left.

In spite of his distinctly downbeat analysis, offering no simple remedies for the system-wide dysfunctions that he has described, Kemph ends on an upbeat note. He goes for optimism “because there are ever more of us who understand … the historical novelty of the situation.”

While I found many of Kemph’s arguments compelling, this conclusion struck me as rather disingenuous; for while the act of describing a difficulty may be useful, being able to resolve it is something else entirely. Nevertheless, what the author has done here is to provide a socio-political analysis of the global predicament from the point of view of a French intellectual who is as keenly aware of the contributions of ecological science as he is of social and political phenomena. As such it’s a valuable addition to the literature and a pointer toward more inclusive, multi-domain approaches to the global predicament.[3]

Still, identifying more effective points of intervention into the system he describes will require sharper tools and more effective strategies. One of these, which Kemph mentions almost in passing, is the need to “change the cultural standards of conspicuous consumption.” How might this be done? One way would be to de-legitimise some of the means by which such consumption is maintained and propagated.[4] Another is to find and publicise new models of “rich and famous” people, who subscribe to different, non-material, values and who demonstrate a real concern for the plight of humanity.[5]

Additional strategies might focus on the mass media and its potential to better inform the currently affluent of their increasingly precarious situation. More specifically, a great deal more could be said and done to de-throne the “great God of growth” and to be much clearer about exactly how and when growth becomes dysfunctional and destructive. Beyond this there is a need to examine and explore pathways beyond or around “overshoot and collapse” futures. Again, there is a growing literature on how we might navigate the dangerous waters ahead. Some accounts replace notions of “collapse” with more optimistic ones of “descent,” implying a greater measure of control and human agency. Either way, it’s time for work of this kind to emerge from the background, as it were, and be taken up and propagated more widely within the mainstream.

Above all, we can appreciate what Kemph calls the “historical novelty of our situation” and recognise that we are indeed at a genuine turning point in human affairs. As he suggests: “we are living out a new, never-seen-before phase of the human species’ history, the moment when, having conquered the Earth and reached its limits, humanity must rethink its relationship to nature, to space, to its destiny.”


[1] Packard, V. The Waste Makers, London, Penguin, 1957, drew attention to the phenomenon of ‘planned obsolescence,’ one of the strategies adopted to increase consumption that also created new sources of waste that became problems in their own right.

[2] Else, L. Swimming Upstream, New Scientist, 11th October, 2008, p. 48. Speth goes on to say that “Carter took it very seriously and I think he would have done something had he stayed in office. I have a copy of a news story in the New York Times in which I called for capping carbon dioxide concentrations at 50 per cent above pre-industrial levels. We’re likely to fly right past that number shortly.”

[3] See Slaughter, R. The Biggest Wakeup Call in History, forthcoming, for a multi-domain approach to the global emergency provided, in part, by Integral theory and practice.

[4] Such as Wish Magazine, published monthly by the Australian newspaper. This is a ‘high end’ publication that shamelessly promotes the “lifestyle of the rich and famous” implying that everyone can and should emulate them. Misguided media displays of this kind are exactly what reinscribes conspicuous consumption and ensures its continuation. As such they work directly against our common shared interests in moving towards a safer, saner world.

[5] Billionaires Bill and Melissa Gates are often cited as examples of super-rich individuals who have devoted a substantial part of their fortune to improving standards of health in the Third World. On the other hand such humanitarian work does little to change the structure of the overall economic system nor to challenge the out-dated assumptions that drive it.