We are ruining the planet to such an extent that it prompted scientists to proclaim the start of a new geological period. The Anthropocene, they called it, emphasising the influence of humanity on the environment. “Influence” is perhaps too soft a term to describe what George Monbiot calls a “full spectrum assault on the living world,” from the irreversible warming of the oceans and the desertification of biodiversity hotspots, to the weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and the possible advent of a sixth mass extinction.
And, of course, there is climate change. Here again, the term “change” is dangerously too mild for the kind of life-threatening chaos a breakdown of climate stability would imply. Maybe talking of climate change was fine in the 1970s when the risk of an inhabitable “Hothouse Earth” scenario was low. But time has passed and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have risen. Now, we contemplate almost fifty years of inaction, with 74% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions having occurred since 1972, the year “Limits to Growth” was published.
We fucked up. That’s the feeling many people get when they read these numbers. But there is something wrong with that feeling. It is not really “we” who have fucked up. It is unfair to lay the responsibility of the planetary crisis on a homogenous humanity, as if we all equally participated in the mess. And this is the main point I want to make: “we” are not all in the same boat facing a common human predicament, as the discourse of the Anthropocene would suggest.
In 2021, the bottom half of the world population owns less than 2% of global wealth. Compare this to the richest decile (around half a billion people) that owns 76%, or even to the top centile (only 51 million people) that claims 36% of all existing wealth. With their crumb of world wealth, the poorest half of humanity causes only 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions while the richest 10% generate almost half of all emissions. Let that sink in: the top 1% richest individuals (16.8% of global emissions) emit more than the 2.5 billion poorest individuals.
Take into account historical emissions and the picture gets worse. Europe and North America are the source of half of all greenhouse gases emitted since 1850. Looking at CO2 emissions in excess of the carbon budget that would limit global warming to 1.5°C, the G8 nations (representing less than 15% of world population) are responsible for 85% of the emission overshoot.
Similar patterns emerge when looking at other environmental pressures. Upper-middle countries (representing half of world population) are responsible for 80% of total material consumption. The one billion richest individuals consume 72% of global resources, while the 1.2 billion poorest accounts for just 1%. The bottom half of the population uses only 20% of the world’s final energy footprint, which is less than what the top 5% consume. Consumption in the United States alone accounts for 14% of global biodiversity loss. Overall, the world’s top 10% richest accounts for between 25% and 43% of all environmental damage.
So much for a “shared” responsibility. The collapse of ecosystems is not a “we” problem; it is the collateral damage of the lifestyle of a privileged few.
Now, I can hear your objection: there is also an elite class in the global South. That’s true, but far less than in the global North. In 2020, there were 142 billionaires in China and 39 in India. Compare this to the 358 billionaires living in the United States, which is 40% of all billionaires in the world (the net worth of American billionaire is more than twice the one of Chinese billionaires). Considering wealth in general: the United States owns 29.4% of global wealth, and almost 70% of that wealth is owned by the 10% richest Americans. This explains why the footprint of the upper decile in North America (73 tonnes of CO2e per year per person) is more than twice the one of the 10% richest Europeans, or ten times more than the 10% richest Africans. Yes, we should make sure that the phrase “the rich” is understood as affluence wherever it is found, but saying that we should not target rich countries because there are rich people living elsewhere would be like saying we should not target SUVs because smaller cars pollute too.
Here is my point: we should not be afraid of talking about rich and poor because the biocrisis is undoubtedly a class problem. The production decisions and consumption habits of elites sitting in the old capitalist economies of the OECD are the main driver of planetary spoilage. Some call it an “imperial mode of living”: a situation where the high-impact livelihood of a minority of rich people undermines the basic conditions of existence for everyone else, starting with the most vulnerable.
That’s where the picture goes from bad to scandalous. The accumulation of wealth by the elites of wealthy nations have not only single-handedly wrecked the Earth, they have done so by exploiting the poorest countries. Marxian economists in the tradition of world system analysis call it “unequal exchange”: a situation where prices are systematically lower in the South than in the North, resulting over time in a net appropriation of labour and resources from poor to rich regions (1). This arrangement is no accident. Powerful nations exert economic and political pressures to keep Southern prices low so they can import cheaply. But this doesn’t work the other way around: the stuff they sell to poor countries is sold at a high price. If you’re a low-income nation, this is a twofold squeeze: under-priced exports and over-priced imports.
Twenty years ago, making such a claim would have had you sectioned as a conspiracy theorist. But in the last few months, three empirical studies have put numbers on these global patterns of unequal exchange (2). In 2015 (last year of study in the most recent article from March 2022), for every unit of material that the South imported from the North, they had to export five units to pay for it (the ratio is 5:1 for land, 3:1 for energy, and 13:1 for labour). This resulted in a net appropriation of 12 billion tons of raw materials, 822 million hectares of land, 21 exajoules of energy (equivalent to 3.4 billion barrels of oil), and 188 million person-years equivalent of labour (equivalent to 392 billion hours of work). Put money numbers on this drain, and you realise that in only one year, the global North has unfairly appropriated $10.8 trillion from the South, enough money to end extreme poverty 70 times over.
Now that we know these numbers, we should acknowledge that economic growth in rich parts of the world is not only ecologically unsustainable and socially unfair, it is downright abusive. Even calling it “economic growth” is deceitful. This is not wealth creation, this is accumulation by dispossession and contamination (3). Affluent countries bully poor ones into becoming a cheap, all-you-can-extract buffet so that they can sustain a destructive way of life that not only deprives the South from access to the resources they need for their own development, but also adds the extra burden of environmental degradation, more than 90% of which is suffered by low-income countries. The unequal exchange is the insult; the pollution is the injury. It’s a full-fledged beating.
This new diagnosis changes everything. It disproves the prevailing discourse of development that calls on so-called “least developed” nations to grow out of their misery like one would expect a hatchling to fly out of the nest. Whether we call it “inclusive,” “participatory,” or “climate resilient,” this is not going to work since the South is maintained into underdevelopment by the overdevelopment of the North. The fable of grow-yourself-out-of-poverty reminds me of a famous sentence from Simone de Beauvoir: “Her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.” The global South cannot develop if its resources are being captured and squandered. To fly, the cutting must stop. Translation: to end poverty, rich regions of the world must reduce their levels of production and consumption.
This is the idea of degrowth, a planned reduction of production and consumption in affluent regions of the world to reduce environmental pressures as to – among other things – safeguard natural resources for those whose needs remain unmet (4). If we’re talking about climate change, this means cutting emissions as fast as possible in order to preserve as much carbon budget as we can for the countries who have used it the least and who today need it the most. At this point, and after twenty years of insignificant results, any mention of decoupling and green growth should be perceived as malignantly suspicious. The numbers speak for themselves: when the GDP of affluent nations gets bigger, the beating intensifies (5). Implications: for the beating to stop, it is not enough to surrender the pursuit of endless growth, it is also necessary to drastically reduce material standards of living.
Until now, the mention of “degrowth” has led to a puzzlement about whether or not Northern consumers are ready to abandon ecologically-intensive lifestyles, and whether or not Northern producers are ready to abandon ecologically-destructive yet highly lucrative activities. This usually comes with a flurry of worries ranging from unemployment, austerity, and the collapse of financial markets. From the perspective of Northern welfare, these are all legitimate concerns. But regardless of how difficult these challenges might be, they seem unimportant when put in perspective with the current thrashing of the global South. As difficult as it is, it is a moral imperative: old capitalist nations must radically transform their economies to be able to organise the downscaling of their levels of production and consumption (degrowth). And in doing so, they might also start thinking about which economic system will, in the longer term, best enable them to prosper without growth (post-growth).
The world is a smaller place than you think. As Kenneth E. Boulding (one of the founding figures of the heterodox school of ecological economics) put it, our planet is like a spaceship where there is no such thing as away. In a finite world, the too-much of a minority of affluent consumers quickly becomes the not-enough of everyone else down the line. The richest accumulate material privileges while the poorest bath in pollution and waste. If you think there might be something wrong with that, there is only one way forward: degrowth in the North to enable the further development of the South. It’s a message difficult to hear because it runs counter to everything we’ve been told about growth and development. But it might be one of the most important messages of the century.
1) For more information, see Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (2004). The short book Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street (2016) by Alf Hornborg is also a good way to understand the concept of “ecological unequal exchange,” which was developed by the author in “Towards an ecological theory of unequal exchange: articulating world system theory and ecological economics” (1998).
2) I have summarised each one of them in different Twitter threads: “Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: Drain from the global South through unequal exchange, 1990–2015” by Hickel et al. (2022); “Plunder in the Post-Colonial Era: Quantifying Drain from the Global South Through Unequal Exchange, 1960–2018” by Hickel et al. (2021); and “Global patterns of ecologically unequal exchange: Implications for sustainability in the 21st century” by Dorninger et al. (2021).
3) The term “accumulation by dispossession” comes from David Harvey (see, for example, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” 2004, and The new imperialism from 2003). The term “accumulation by contamination” was coined by the people behind the Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade project, following the work of Juan Martínez-Alier, notably The environmentalism of the poor: a study of ecological conflicts and valuation, 2002.
4) For more about degrowth, a good place to start is this review article from 2018: “Research on Degrowth.” A list of the 500+ academic articles published on the topic can be found here, additionally to further recommendations for readings about degrowth.
5) The most extensive review of the empirical literature about decoupling is “A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource us and GHG emissions” (2016) by Helmut Haberl and colleagues. See also, the 2019 report “Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth,” and T. Vadén et al.’s “Decoupling for ecological sustainability: A categorisation and review of research literature” (2020).