You elders may remember the famous radio sketch by Jack Benny: the mugger says, “This is a stick-up! Your money or your life!” A long pause ensues. “Look, bud, I said, Your money or your life!” Jack: “I’m thinking it over!”
The ultra-rich could understand Jack’s quandary. Their lives are circumscribed by money and all its attendant privileges. Writer George Monbiot has cataloged some of their more outrageous excesses, behavior that inevitably attacks the environment. He says these people are committing ecocide, the impunity to get away with destroying the natural world on which we all depend.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that when Google convened a meeting of the rich and famous at the Verdura resort in Sicily in July to discuss climate breakdown, its delegates arrived in 114 private jets and a fleet of mega-yachts, and drove around the island in supercars. Even when they mean well, the ultrarich cannot help trashing the living world. . . .
Surplus money allows some people to exercise inordinate power over others: in the workplace; in politics; and above all in the capture, use and destruction of the planet’s natural wealth. If everyone is to flourish, we cannot afford the rich. Nor can we afford our own aspirations, which the culture of wealth maximisation encourages.
People of less wealth and the best intentions are still captive to the consumption culture which drives so much of the world economy. The president is our prime exemplar, a man of less wealth than the ultras and certainly without good intentions. When questioned last Monday about his fondness for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump said, “Saudi Arabia pays cash.” The cash nexus seems to motivate everything he does.
An interviewer asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” he said. Bill McKibben would agree. He has an interesting piece in the New Yorker claiming that the big banks like JPMorgan Chase, the biggest of them all, are the true sources of capital for the fossil fuel industry, to the tune of $196 billion over the past three years. Much of that money goes to “fund extreme new ventures: ultra-deep-sea drilling, Arctic oil extraction, and so on.”
It’s kind of a Hail-Mary pass, says McKibben, but what if that flow of money could be disrupted, just as some of the largest corporations and pension funds through pressure have divested themselves of “socially undesirable” organizations? Almost twenty years ago the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) took successful action against Citigroup to slow down the deforestation in the Amazon—showing celebrities cutting up their Citi credit cards. Lately it has publicized and ranked the investments of the largest banks in terms of their damage to the climate.
Some envision campaigns to pressure the banks to disinvest. “Chase’s retail business is a huge part of its enterprise, as is the case with Citi, Wells Fargo, and the others.” The new generation of consumers cares a lot about climate and may well have the clout to demand action. Their protests will finally learn to address the distribution of wealth and power.