A cursory look at human history or the genetic behavior of monkeys confirms that it is unwise for societies to permit the wealth gap between the rich and the majority to become too wide. Especially when the standard of living of the majority is falling.
Brexit, Trump, and the yellow vests are examples of increasing social unrest. Anecdotally I’m also seeing a meme emerge on the internet that can be summarized as “eat the rich, save the planet”. This meme is supported by some intellectuals like Kevin Anderson who argue that climate change can be addressed by focusing on reducing CO2 emissions from the rich.
We’ve been warned that to maintain a climate compatible with civilization we have 10 years to cut our CO2 emissions in half and 30 years to reduce them to zero. As Tim Garrett has shown, CO2 emissions are proportional to wealth, so to reduce CO2 emissions we must reduce the total wealth of civilization.
We also know (here and here) that the net return from our energy sources is declining due to the depletion of low-cost non-renewable reserves which means our productivity and thus ability to grow wealth is declining and this decline will accelerate.
Governments have responded to declining economic growth by reducing interest rates and increasing debt. This has deferred the reduction in our standard of living necessary to balance the books, but has also increased the wealth gap because low-interest rates have created a bubble in the value of most assets, and the rich own a disproportionate share of assets.
An individual cares primarily about their own wealth, not the total wealth of civilization. We could in theory keep individuals comfortable and maintain a healthy(er) planet by reducing our population without reducing our per capita wealth. Unfortunately, reproduction is the primary goal of our genes and we therefore don’t even discuss the obviously optimal solution of population reduction. To be fair on its potential effectiveness, we should have reduced our population back in 1970 when we were warned by our experts. It’s never too late to do the right thing but given that even the Green party doesn’t have a population reduction platform it is probable that any population reduction will be involuntary rather than voluntary.
The uniquely powerful human brain exists because it evolved to deny unpleasant realities. Topics don’t become much more unpleasant than overshoot so we collectively have not acknowledged, and do not discuss, and do not act, on any of the issues associated with overshoot.
- The total wealth of civilization must decrease to maintain a planet compatible with civilization.
- The total wealth of civilization will decrease due to the depletion of non-renewable resources (especially energy).
- We are doing everything possible to prevent the decline of total wealth but our actions have increased the wealth gap and social unrest.
- We do not discuss or act on the only “good” solution, population reduction.
- We aggressively deny our overshoot predicament.
Governments react to pressure from their citizens, they do not lead their citizens. I sense some bubbling optimism about the yellow vest movement from people who seek fundamental change. A key question then is are movements like the yellow vests good or bad for our future prospects?
Put more succinctly, will eating the rich save the planet?
The answer lies in how we close the wealth gap.
If we close the wealth gap by taxing the rich and redistributing their wealth to the less fortunate we will temporarily reduce social unrest but will worsen our overshoot predicament. This is because the poor will tend to spend the liquidated assets of the rich which will increase the total consumption of energy and other resources.
In addition, the spending of liquidated assets will increase inflation because there are far more paper assets than real assets in our economy, and this inflation will be a new source of social unrest.
While it is true that total wealth will decrease no matter what we do, there are two paths we can take. The first path is deflation which means people have less money but the money is still worth something. The second path is inflation which means people have money but it is worth less. I think inflation is more corrosive to the social fabric than deflation. Inflation caused a modern civilized country to blame and exterminate 6 million members of a minority tribe.
If on the other hand, we close the wealth gap by taxing the rich and paying down public debt, then we benefit everyone, rich and poor, by helping to stabilize the currency in a shrinking economy. This is important because all modern currencies are debt-backed fractional reserve systems that tend to become unstable without growth.
So to answer our question, will eating the rich save the planet, we need to know what the yellow vests marching in the streets want.
Do they want the rich to be pulled down to their level?
Or do they want to be pulled up closer to the rich?
I suspect they want the latter. If true, this means the yellow vests are acting to worsen our overshoot predicament.
What we need is green vests marching in the streets demanding that our governments acknowledge our overshoot predicament and manage the required and inevitable decline in a fair and humane manner.
This of course requires citizens to understand what’s going on.
And that requires us to find some way to break through our tendency to deny reality.
And that requires us to study and communicate Varki’s MORT theory.