Book Review: How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth

“It isn’t necessary to exaggerate,” writes French author Hervé Kempf, describing his previous attitude as an environmental journalist. “…the facts, presented with tenacious attention, are sufficient to speak to our intellect.”

As recently as two years ago, Kempf admits he would have avoided what he dubs “doomsdayism” in the firm belief that society would evolve and capitalism make the changes necessary to preserve human dignity and human life.

Kempf has since changed his both his tone and his mind. His new book, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (Copyright 2007 by Editions de Seuil), may appeal to the rising number of disenfranchised based purely on its title. Others, who actually read it, will be profoundly impressed by Kempf’s factual integrity and his ominous prediction of an impending catastrophe that not even Western material complacency will be able to ignore.

Material growth precipitates environmental degradation, and thus (Kempf points out) it is impossible to separate social from ecological issues. The rich, whom he calls the oligarchy, see in the current social unrest a threat to their privileged status, and respond by instituting even stricter, authoritarian governments – a trend that can be seen from Canada and America to Australia and even France.

Reviewers are calling it everything from industrious to pugnacious. Kempf, who recalls the Kyoto pact established in December of 2005 in Montreal as, “the ideal of a policy for all humanity”, goes on to mention the current Sixth Great Extinction – a period the eminent U.S. conservation biologist Michael Soulè calls the “Anthropozoic, or Catastrophozoic Era”; a period during which man drives extinction.

The book went to publication before the much-maligned global warming “hockey stick” graph was vindicated, after six years of disrepute, but Kempf and the environmentalists he cites nonetheless recognize global warming as a valid human artifact.

The new Kempf, however, is less focused on environment as the ‘cause célèbre’ than the unfortunate conjunction between the accumulation of wealth and environmental degradation, which he describes as merely two sides of the same coin.

Kempf’s questions (why is the system incapable of change?) provide honest answers. Government is like an accountant who hides the losses until the company is forced to file bankruptcy, and the wealthy elite in power have been trained in economics, but are largely ignorant about science, including social and environmental sciences. Their lifestyle, imitated by many, yet achievable by none but themselves, drives consumption and production, prevents the middle and lower classes from saving, and decimates the environment, because production uses finite resources to achieve the illusion of infinite prosperity.

Kempf goes on to explain the globalization of poverty, which is occurring even in developed nations, and the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. From 1990 onward, he points out, a consolidation of wealth has occurred that rivals pre-WWII levels, with the top 10 percent in developed countries taking away 40 percent of annual wages – a situation unrivaled in the last five decades or more.

This situation, Kempf notes, also leads to a disturbing inequality between generations, with young people precluded from achieving the kind of security their grandparents – and even parents – found within the system. As insecurity breeds unrest, the decades to come will display the kind of turmoil that only disequilibrium (in society and nature) can generate.

Democracy is in danger, Kempf warns, and the real threat is not terrorism but wealth, which seeks to protect its privileged status by imprisoning the poor, making political protest illegal, buying out the media to prevent the dissemination of its wealth-building tactics, and instituting a sort of all-seeing surveillance that curbs unrest at its source – the individual.

The French Revolution introduced the ideal of democracy, or equal rights for the common man. Two hundred years later, Kempf describes a situation that might well lead to another revolution, this one global. It may rephrase the original Revolutionary slogan by substituting the word ecology for the word equality (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). It may even arrive within the decade, spurred by the implosion of America’s economy. Hopefully, it will arrive in time to save the environment, since fraternity without a sustainable ecology is a tarnished dream at best.

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