Tesla makes a battery-powered product called a Powerwall that pairs with solar panels to meet your home energy needs. This “must-have item for any truly green home” goes for over five thousand dollars. Most people can’t afford that up front, so even though solar may save money and help the planet in the long run, use of the Powerwall is restricted to people with cash to burn.
If your understanding of sustainable consumption were limited to just this example, you’d come away thinking that rich people must be a much more eco-friendly bunch than poor people. But you’d be missing the forest for the trees. While the wealthy have an ever more dazzling array of green consumer products at their fingertips, the impact of those gadgets is nothing compared to the overall ecological destruction wrought by luxury consumption habits.
A new paper called “Measuring the Ecological Impact of the Wealthy: Excessive Consumption, Ecological Disorganization, Green Crime, and Justice,” published by researchers Michael J. Lynch, Michael A. Long, Paul B. Stretesky, and Kimberly L. Barrett, takes a long hard look at the role of the rich’s consumption habits in destabilizing the climate.
The researchers contend that when a person has vastly more money than they need to live, “acquiring property and consuming excessively become marks of distinction, and to earn those marks, the leisure class must consume.” This leads the rich to buy, build, and operate things like superyachts, super homes, luxury cars, and private jets. It would take an awful lot of Powerwalls to offset the damage done by the proliferation of these luxury consumables.
The researchers estimate that there are about three hundred superyachts in operation around the world. A person has to have individual wealth upward of $30 million in order to afford even the smallest one; the upper price is close to $1 billion. These things guzzle oil and spew pollution. Tally it up, and the world’s superyacht fleet uses over thirty-two million gallons of oil and produces 627 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year — all of it for the personal enjoyment of the extremely rich. The world’s superyachts consume and pollute more than entire nations.
Super homes, which the researchers define as homes greater than twenty-five thousand square feet, are similarly devastating for the environment. The average square footage of these homes is closer to forty thousand, and their average price is just under $28 million. The researchers couldn’t calculate the entire ecological footprint of these homes, so they just stuck with the impacts of wood sourcing, assuming it was all of standard wood stock (of course, many luxury homes use hard-to-source exotic materials, too).
The average home, they concluded, requires harvesting twenty trees, while a super home requires 380 trees. An average home results in 74,880 pounds of carbon sequestration loss, while a super home results in a loss of 1,422,720 pounds. The carbon footprint of super homes is astronomical — all so the rich can have some extra space to roam around in. The fact that a few of them now boast Powerwalls hardly puts the mind at ease.
Tesla doesn’t just make the Powerwall; it also, of course, makes luxury electric cars. But rich people have been buying expensive cars since long before Tesla’s rollout, and while a pricey electric car is becoming something of a status symbol in select circles, so far the vast majority of the wealthy are sticking with gasoline cars: as long as it costs a fortune and looks like it, sustainability is of little importance. These cars come with all sorts of gadgets and features, far beyond what is necessary for driving, and they tend to be larger than average cars. Their size and their frequent use of uncommon materials makes them far less sustainable to build, and their carbon footprints are larger, too.
The researchers focused solely on the efficiency of luxury cars, comparing them to popular cars that sell for a fraction of the price. They found that the latter category were over 60 percent more fuel efficient than luxury vehicles. “Compared to top 10 selling vehicles,” the researchers concluded, “a luxury vehicle produces, on average, 373.98 more pounds of CO2 emissions per 1,000 miles traveled.”
High-income groups also drive twice as many miles annually as low-income groups. The rich could certainly get by with a Hyundai Sonata or a Nissan Altima, but their desire to be seen driving a Jaguar or a Bentley means more pollution for everyone.
And, finally, there are private jets. There are only about fifteen thousand of them registered in the United States. The entire fleet is in operation a total of 17 million hours per year, burning roughly 345 gallons an hour. Jet fuel produces twenty-one pounds of carbon emissions per gallon. That means that the carbon footprint of the United States’ private jet fleet is about fifty-six tons per year. The entire nation of Burundi produces less than half the carbon emissions than the US elite does with its private jets alone — to say nothing of their luxury cars, their super homes, and their superyachts.
These rich people belong to the capitalist class, which means that together they own the vast majority of the world’s productive assets. Their luxury consumption habits constitute only a fraction of their contribution to the destabilization of the planet. They own mines and factories and fossil fuel companies, and banks that invest in harmful extractive practices, and shipping operations that guzzle more fuel than they could ever dream as individuals. Their consumption habits are only the tip of the iceberg.
Still, it’s astonishing that they can get away with all this conspicuous consumption without anyone batting an eyelash. As the seas rise, the temperatures soar, and the weather becomes more erratic and violent, these same elites will migrate to safe places — or, if worse comes to worst, retreat to doomsday bunkers — and be spared the worst effects of the chaos they’ve sown.
At the very least, the researchers conclude, society should develop policies to curb the conspicuous consumption of the rich. Perhaps building a home so big it requires the razing of a small forest should be considered a form of “green crime.”
In the end, however, there will be no true resolution to the climate crisis without a fundamental alteration in the economy. As long as we produce for profit — not for public well-being and the common good — the earth will be a casualty in the pursuit of money, and the poor will suffer.
“As a result of the inherent contradiction between capitalism and nature,” observed the researchers in a prior publication, “the capitalist system must be seen as a crime against nature.” And for this crime, the only real justice is socialism.