The Weight of the One Percent

Environment hurt more by super-rich than population growth
March 1, 2012

Last October, two things happened that captured media attention. One was the run-up to the birth of the United Nations-selected seven billionth person on Earth. While this was a rather absurd exercise, given the impressive inaccuracy of demographic projections, it does have its symbolic and rhetorical uses. Indeed, there are a whole lot of us, the numbers are climbing rapidly, and the more of us there are, the more impact we’ll have on the planet.

In response, there are some obvious things we should be doing (e.g., expanding women’s access to education and employment, increasing women’s control over reproductive choices, improving access to contraception) which would be good in themselves, and would help stabilize human numbers.

The other notable event was the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its solidaristic spin-offs around the globe. Rather than mashing us all into a giant, undifferentiated and dangerous “population” of 7 billion, the main message of the occupy movement, as expressed by its simple numerical slogan, is that the world’s various problems are substantially rooted in a key dividing line within the seven billion — specifically, a cut-off at the 6.93 billion mark, at which point we reach the rarefied heights of the one percent.

Within environmental circles, people paid a great deal more attention to the first of these, with much hand-wringing and nail-biting over the arrival of Danica May Camacho in Manila. But they should be spending a lot more time worrying about and acting on the problem of the growing income divide between the 99% and the 1%.

Ian Angus and Simon Butler were among the few environmentalists who made the connection between these two events in an article that appeared on the U.S. environmental news-site Grist and the progressive online news-site Common Dreams, among others. They focus on the 1%’s disproportionate ownership of capital (making them responsible for corporate environmental harm) and their control over U.S. politics (making them responsible for lax environmental regulation, the subsidization of environmental damage, and for the shocking amount of damage done by the military — particularly the U.S. military, given its scale and energy-intensity).

All of this is true. Much of the environmental impact of inequality can indeed be explained through the ownership and control of corporations, and through the (resulting) grossly disproportionate influence that the 1% exert in politics. Indeed, the Canadian government’s disgraceful lack of positive action on climate change, including its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, is a reasonable indicator of its accountability to corporate interests.

However, three other dimensions ought to be added to their claim that focusing on the 7 billion, rather than on the one percent, is environmentally misguided. A system that produces such incredible inequality as does ours produces unique channels of environmental destruction. Having so much of our social wealth accumulating in the hands of such a tiny minority means not only that most of us are more stressed, less secure, sicker, and less politically powerful than we would be with reduced inequality. It also means that we are accelerating our way toward some extremely unpleasant, perhaps catastrophic, environmental outcomes, of which climate change, while perhaps most pressing, is just one.

The three dimensions that need to be added are 1) the wasteful consumption of the wealthy; 2) the impact of the 1%’s spending patterns on those of the bottom 99%; and 3) poverty-related environmental impacts.

Wasteful Consumption

The occupy movement has made the statistics on global and national inequality fairly well-known. In Canada, the top 1% (about 246,000 individuals) gets about 15% of the nation’s pre-tax income, including capital gains (up from 8.3% in 1982, and rising fast). In the United States, the top 1% (about 150,000 families) gathers up 23.5% of pre-tax income, including capital gains (this is up from 9% in 1974).

Globally, of course, we have a sense that the situation is worse, but data are harder to come by. The most reliable research gives us only the share going to the top 5% (and this covers the richest individuals, not the richest countries): 33%. This looks at income, rather than the (even more horrifically skewed) numbers on wealth distribution because the focus here is on consumption, which is influenced more by disposable income than it is by wealth.

In this context of gross and expanding inequality, and in particular the incredible expansion of incomes at the very upper tip of the distribution, we must consider the uncontroversial fact that vast incomes at the top end lead to some pretty profligate spending. So what kinds of consumption are we talking about among the super-rich? Well, let’s begin with the small stuff: the handbags, the wrist-watches, the bracelets, and the perfumes that are required accoutrement for the fashionable rich.

The World-Wide Fund for Nature estimates that the luxury market in fragrances and fashion accessories amounts to about $123 billion annually. Some of that value, of course, is ecologically “light,” meaning that, on a per dollar basis, it embodies relatively few resources and only moderate energy. Not so with the extraordinary resource-intensity of mining gold and precious stones, for example. Obtaining just one ounce of gold requires us to rip 30 tons of rock from the ground. It also requires drenching piles of ore in poisonous chemicals that make their way into rivers and lakes, and mercury that contaminates soils and bodies.

Now let’s jump up in scale. In order to appropriately convey a person and their fashion accessories from place to place, super-yachts are apparently required, the estimated market value of which totalled $8.2 billion back in 2002, and orders increased by 80% between 1999 and 2004. When that’s just not quick enough, one has to resort to personal or business jets, upon which the 1% spent $9 billion in 2009 (just from U.S. manufacturers), a troubling dip from the $12 billion they spent in 2007.

I could go on, describing grandiose, multiple home ownership, luxury travel, automobiles, and endless gadgetry and toys. You have a picture of this in mind, which is a commonplace part of our Hollywood-inspired image of the rich, but juxtapose it now with the environmental consequences of digging up the metals and shaping them, drilling for, refining, and burning the fuels, cutting the trees, growing the cotton, making the concrete, landfilling or incinerating the waste, and all of the other environmental implications you can conjure of this consumption. The glamour starts to fade pretty quickly.

In an economy that didn’t rely exclusively on market signals to make decisions about what kinds of things they want to produce and use at the expense of wilderness, clean air, clean water, scarce resources, and the like, it’s doubtful that we would be producing 35-meter pleasure craft, 7,000 square foot homes, villas that remain vacant for eight months of the year, or $32,000 cuff links make from gold-plated, melted-down, AK-47s (yes, they exist).

It’s important to acknowledge that, for every additional dollar received by the rich, they spend less of it on consumption than do middle-income earners. They are more likely to invest it or speculate with it — spending that has its own forms of environmental impact. People in the middle of the income distribution tend to spend more of every extra dollar, which might mean that a downward redistribution from the very top to the middle might actually mean more consumption in total.

However, in any conversation about human impact on the environment, there is an important ethical dimension relating to the question of human need. Humans are dependent on nature for the basics like food, shelter, clothing, and other needs, so we all have some necessary impact on nature just for survival. There are some prickly issues in drawing the line between a human need and superfluous and wasteful consumption, but you don’t have to have a degree in philosophy to make the case that the kind of luxury consumption engaged in by the super-rich is profligate and indefensible, certainly insofar as it results in pollution that kills people or makes them sick, draws down scarce resources that could be used for meeting real human needs, and puts species habitat at risk, contributing to the massive current wave of extinctions.

In the face of widespread commentary about how “the human species” is weighing too heavily on the planet, it is well worthwhile pointing out that just 1% of the population weighs (in the clinical language of social science) disproportionately. To be fair, some — maybe even many — of the rich hold “pro-environmental” attitudes. They give to organizations like Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes down to actual environmental impact. Sociological research suggests that attitudes predict one’s environmental impact very poorly.

What does predict impact? Income. The CCPA’s analysis of B.C. carbon emissions, released in 2010, shows that the top 20% of the population has the largest carbon footprint of any income quintile, and 2008 research, also from the CCPA, shows that the biggest jump in ecological footprints in Canada happens within the top 10% of income earners.

Dalhousie University’s Lars Osberg similarly suggests that the skyrocketing growth of incomes at the top in Canada can take the lion’s share of the blame for our rising carbon emissions in Canada. Statistically, the richer you are, the more you weigh on the planet, and the more likely that your weight is composed of stuff that nobody really needs.


Another troubling connection between the stretching of the income distribution, on the one hand, and environmental degradation on the other, has been highlighted by economist Robert Frank and his colleagues. Frank points out that, in contrast to the Econ 101 notion that we don’t compare ourselves to others when we make decisions about what to buy, our consumption patterns are in fact heavily influenced by what people just above us on the income scale are buying.

As Frank put it in a recent Slate article explaining the phenomenon of expenditure cascades, “The process begins with the completely unremarkable fact that top earners have been spending at a substantially higher rate than before. They’ve been building bigger mansions, staging more elaborate weddings and coming-of-age parties for their kids, buying more and better of everything… The important practical point is that, when the rich build bigger, they shift the frame of reference that shapes the demands of the near-rich, who travel in the same social circles. And when the near-rich build bigger, they shift the frame of reference for the group just below them, and so on, all the way down.”

The result has been a shift in what middle-class people think is normal and appropriate consumption. The median house in the U.S. in 1980 was about 1,595 square feet. By 2007, this had grown to 2,277 (about a 50% increase). It has since dropped by 100 square feet. In Canada, the annual growth in total housing area (square feet) has consistently outpaced the growth in the number of homes being built since at least 1990, suggesting a similar swelling of house size.

This growth wasn’t because the middle class was getting richer (which it wasn’t). Nor were middle class families packing more people into a single house. It was because their frame of reference was shifting in response to people at the top getting extravagantly richer, and spending more lavishly. Developers stoked this inflation by building large, single, detached homes during an era of irresponsible lending, rather than smaller, dense, affordable units.

This process of emulation doesn’t just apply to housing, but to all forms of consumption that are subject to social comparison: automobiles, clothing, gadgetry, and so on.


The disproportionate environmental impact of those who are super-rich doesn’t mean environmentalists should celebrate poverty, because very low incomes are associated with another set of environmental problems, which derive largely from the poor lacking the capacity to make environmentally-friendly choices. As we’ve seen, lower incomes normally mean lower impact on the environment, but, at the lowest end, an increase in income or in social provisioning of decent housing would actually reduce an individual’s environmental impact.

Mostly, in the North, the potential improvements are home-related, like insulating your house, or replacing dying or dead appliances and cars with energy-efficient ones. Certainly, a redistribution of income from the top to the bottom would result in environmental benefits at both ends.

This bit of common sense is borne out by a study by Andrew Jorgensen at Washington State University, who examined a variety of factors that, in wealthy countries, affected ecological footprint (the amount of land it takes to support an individual’s or a nation’s average lifestyle). He found that the more inequality, the higher the ecological footprint. That is, in the wealthy nations of the world, such as Canada, the more you move very poor people up toward a decent income, and very rich people down away from an obscene one, the lighter your society will be on the planet.

Rather than following the path pointed to by the signpost of the 7 billion, which leads us to often draconian policy options focused on controlling reproduction in the South, environmentalists can better serve the planet, as well as social justice, by joining the occupy movement activists in a call for a reining in on the power, privilege, wealth, and environmental weight of the one percent.

(Mark Hudson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Global Political Economy Program at the University of Manitoba, where he teaches environmental sociology. He is currently researching public participation in Canadian natural resource management, the international governance of the hazardous waste trade, and “ethical” consumption.)