December 2006: Inequality and Icarus

What's inequality got to do with global warming? A lot
December 1, 2006

Recent statistics from the United Nations on the distribution of the world’s wealth tell us that the number of people with financial assets of $30 million or more has soared to 85,400, an increase of more than 10% over the previous year. These “ultra-high-net individuals,” we are informed, now control nearly a quarter (24%) of global wealth. At the bottom of the income pyramid, nearly a billion people in abject poverty still struggle to survive on $1 a day.

This shamefully inequitable sharing of the world’s resources flows inevitably from an economic system that rewards avarice and power and penalizes sharing and cooperation.

As Mahatma Gandhi once pithily remarked, “The world holds enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.” He quite rightly implied that the worst social and economic problems—poverty, hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, polluted air and water—have their root cause in the unfair apportionment of the planet’s wealth.

Millions of people, for example, could be saved from premature death if they had access to the medicines now denied them because they can’t afford the price. We recently learned that thousands of people die from black fever every year even though a curative drug was developed decades ago. But, because almost all the victims were poor, the big pharmaceutical companies decided it wouldn’t be profitable enough to put the drug on the market, so they shelved it.

This enshrinement of profit over human need is typical of the market capitalism that now reigns supreme in the global economy. If companies can’t profit from a product or service, if its investors and shareholders can’t fatten their bank accounts from it, then it doesn’t get done—regardless of how beneficial it would be to people in need.

The free-market system also demands instant gratification. It doesn’t suffice that a corporate decision will pay dividends some time in the future—not if the future extends beyond the next quarterly balance-sheet.

Corporate reluctance to get seriously involved in efforts to curb global warming is typical of this perverted mindset. Eminent climatologists can warn of the coming disruption of economic activity; scientists can warn that the cost of reducing carbon emissions now will be far less than the cost of repairing climate change destruction later. No matter. The warnings fall on deaf corporate ears. For CEOs and investors, immediate gain transcends the avoidance of future pain.

Fundamentally, in the long term, this is a suicidal way of doing business. It lavishes temporary riches on a privileged minority, but it makes life increasingly perilous and precarious for nearly everyone else—and ultimately for them, too.

They remind me of the chap who thought he could fly and decided to prove it by jumping off a 100-storey skyscraper. As he was falling past the 25th floor, he waved to someone in the window and shouted in triumph: “So far, so good!”

Well, it has been good so far for the world’s rich and powerful--and for them the fatal pavement is still decades away instead of just a few seconds. So perhaps this is not the right metaphor. A better one might be to compare a typical free-marketer to Icarus, the ancient Greek whose craftsman father fitted him with wings. Icarus learned to fly, all right, but became overconfident and flew too near the sun. The heat melted the wax that attached the wings to his body, sending him plummeting to his death.

This is a more apt comparison, since it is our business leaders’ dismissal of global warming that seems most likely to bring about their eventual downfall.

* * *

Going into another chilly northern winter, it’s not easy for Canadians to stay worried about global warming. All the more gratifying, then, that a recent poll found that most of us now put the environment at the top of our list of concerns in urgent need of government action. Even ahead of health care.

Many of us, of course, will do our best, as individuals and families, to reduce our personal CO2 emissions. But taking the bus instead of the car, turning down the thermostat, and not using our electrical appliances so much—as worthwhile as these personal adjustments may be—will not be nearly enough. Most of the climate-changing emissions are coming from factory smokestacks and industrial runoff pipes—pollution that can only (potentially) be controlled by governments.

Governments subservient to big business, however, no longer govern in the broader public interest. Oh, yes, they’ll occasionally dare to incur corporate wrath, as the Harper government did last month by stopping the income-trust tax hemorrhage, but generally they pretty much let the big corporations do whatever they like, regardless of how socially or ecologically destructive their operations may be.

What the rest of us get is political bombast: promises to out-Kyoto Kyoto and give us clean air and water (maybe as early as 2050)--but no actual measures to match the rhetoric. No strictly enforced anti-pollution laws. No hefty taxes on CO2 emissions. No end to the huge subsidies and tax concessions showered on the big oil companies. No substantial support for fossil-fuel alternatives.

We can only hope that rising public concern about global warming manifests itself in the polling booths in the next federal election—and that it produces a new government that will really crack down on the worst global warmers. If not—if the freedom of the market continues to include the freedom to broil the planet—then I suppose we should try to enjoy our Canadian winters while they still arrive, instead of complaining about them.

We’ll surely miss them when they’re gone.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)