they have. What many now understand is that, in social and environmental terms, social, environmental and economic justice cannot be achieved alongside the existence of the rich.
hotels, clubs, residences, staff and advisers to ensure that theirs is a safe and sealed world away from the prying eyes of the masses. What damaging mindset is generated by societies that have allowed or encouraged the growing ranks of the wealthy?
Rising inequality, as many now agree, is bad for us all. One reason for this is that the wealthy are able to outbid and out-consume others who are on merely mortal incomes. London’s skyline is now puffed up with more than 400 skyscrapers, already built or under construction. Many of their thousands of apartments are bought purely for investment and lie empty for much of the year. The most recent estimate, by a University of York study, is that half of homes in London’s ‘prime’ property areas are underused according to their extremely low use of utilities. Yet of course the city desperately needs homes: as more than 300,000 people languish on the waiting list for public housing, many thousands more compete for over-priced and overcrowded private accommodation. When a few have so much, the result is their ability to damage social environments for many others, even to see construction of homes pitched solely at the wealthy.
Reality television shows regularly highlight the excessive consumption of the bunkers and fortress homes of the super-rich, but in my own research I have seen homes with 10 bedrooms, personal cinemas, underground swimming pools and even car lifts to subterranean garages. In many cases beds and indeed houses lie empty for much of the year, their owners’ rare visits timed to coincide with key cultural events and arts openings. More remarkable still is the creative destruction that accompanies more extreme cases – the demolition of extensive and often prized residences. The next step is often construction of a much larger home capable of supporting grander parties and with expanded wall space for prized modern art canvases and sculptures bought more for investment than for aesthetic reasons. Everything, including kitchen sinks, is regularly thrown out and replaced to maintain a look that is of the times. These lifestyles and homes offer standards now gawped at by many – considered the glittering potential prize of social escape and total luxury. Yet the cost is clearly huge. The excessive consumption habits of the rich show that luxury is untenable at a time of profound necessity and our increasing realisation of ecological limits.
Such attitudes matter because they infect our public life and damage our grossly unequal societies. Think tanks and complicit politicians defend excessive wealth and the inequality that goes alongside it. In ecological terms we know that affluence is costing us the Earth and that those with less are affected worst and first. For the rich the dream is of escape – from taxes, from social obligation and even from nations. The latest news on the rich is the purchase by Silicon Valley billionaires and others of estates in New Zealand’s more rural areas as bolt-holes in case of environmental or political apocalypse, and of attempts by billionaires to create cities in the sea free from tax and social responsibilities.
The excessive consumption habits of the rich show that luxury is untenable at a time of profound necessity and our increasing realisation of ecological limits
Where do readers of Resurgence & Ecologist fit into this unhappy picture? Working towards a celebration of connection to environments, to society and to meaning are values that require emphasis in our public culture. Yet the expansion of the ranks of the wealthy militates against this. Small attempts at bringing harmony, happiness and an ethic of sustainability become rather like the comedian Sean Lock’s suggestion that personal environmental efforts often feel like bringing a dustpan to clean up after an earthquake.
Strenuous efforts at valuing that which is finite around us are common to many readers. Yet we know that rising living standards and private incomes unleash countless forms of waste and over-consumption on a fragmenting and damaged world. In this sense our consciousness must be aware of the need to engage and challenge excess as a moral issue that binds us together, despite the rhetoric of personal wins and choice.
Cicero is noted for his suggestion that to have a library and a garden is to have everything we need. For the global super-rich, such ecological groundedness and erudition is twisted into the bloated wings attached to several homes, and extensive lawns patrolled by private security guards. The attitude towards such excess is striking: I am rich because I am the best. If I am the best, then I must have the best. The costs of such ambition are increasingly evident. In one story I heard, a couple asked, of a preserved stately home chosen for their wedding reception, whether the undulating gardens could be flattened to ensure a good wedding photograph. The message to be taken from this question is surely useful.
The costs of hyper-consumption are plain to see – unending air miles in private or chartered jets, diamond-encrusted baubles, edible gold leaf cocktails designed to coax money from the wealthy. The rich themselves rely on a support system of
The film director Woody Allen once joked: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” For the rich an anxiety about death is met not with a sense of common humanity and obligation, but with attempts at building wealth, ego excess (foundations and gifts for named wings of museums in some cases), or a strong interest in living for ever through technological advances. One of the very real problems that we face as a global society is that those with money and power have a tendency to choose to give a little of what they have, rather than changing or improving the mechanisms by which such unnecessary wealth is generated in the first place. We must all have less if the world around us is to survive. The message for the super-rich is that they need a lot less.
Rowland Atkinson is Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield.
Resurgence & Ecologist