Wealth and environment

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This is a work
in progress

While the whole world - rich and poor, human and non-human - suffer from the effects of the damage that humanity is doing to our shared environment, it can be shown that it is the more wealthy of humanity that is responsible for most of the damage.

While all share the same damaged world, the rich can afford to pay for those things - air conditioning, insulated homes, properties in places less impacted by climate change - better than the poor. Non humans have to simply take what they get: habitat damage, habitat loss, more frequent flooding, more frequent and fiercer fires, more frequent violent weather, etcetera.

This page was started 2024/02/19
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

No amount of wealth is worth putting our beautiful environment at risk.
Clare, Mid-North South Australia
Wealth correlates with consumption and greenhouse emissions. It is disproportionately the wealthy who are causing the environmental problems that we are seeing in the twenty-first century.

Wealth and greenhouse emissions

Emissions related to wealth
The graph on the right, from the World Inequality Report 2022, shows that the most wealthy 10% of people are responsible for almost half (48%) of the world's (greenhouse) carbon emissions.

It also follows from the graph that:

  • each person in the top 1%, on average, is responsible for more than 70 times the emissions of each person in the bottom 50%;
  • each person in the top 10%, on average, is responsible for 20 times the emissions of each person in the bottom 50%;
  • each person in the middle 40%, on average, is responsible for more than four times the emissions of each person in the bottom 50%.

Wealth is power

Power comes with wealth. The wealthy can make big political donations and employ professional lobbyists to give them an advantage over the rest of us. This gives them access to government ministers and leverage for favourable decisions. Political donations from wealthy fossil fuel companies has a strong influence on politicians; one need only look at the way Australian governments (both Labor and Coalition receive big donations from fossil fuel companies) look after the interests of the coal and gas industries and go slow on climate change action.

Of course, this is a form of corruption.

Wealth and consumption

Correlation of income with consumption
Consumption correlates strongly with wealth. It seems to be human nature to spend on 'things' in some sort of proportion to one's ability to pay.

It seems that most people give very little consideration to the consequences of their spending. I've written elsewhere on this site about the importance of always considering the consequences of our actions.

The graph on the right shows the strong correlation between income and consumption in Australia. People in the first quintile are 'struggling to make ends meet'; in fact they are not able to live within their income. People in the second quintile of income would generally live fairly comfortably within their means; they would likely spend what they need to spend to live comfortably and little more.

People in the fifth quintile consume twice as much as those in the second quintile, so, they probably spend twice as much as they need to live comfortably. The box on the right, labelled total, shows that people generally spend most of their income on consumption.

Any manufactured item has embodied or 'embedded emissions'; the emissions that were released into the atmosphere when the materials in the item were mined and that were consequent to the manufacturing processes involved in it's making.

I've written on conspicuous consumption on my jottings page and on my page about selfishness or altruism.

George Monbiot on wealth and environmental damage

For the sake of life on Earth, we must put a limit on wealth, The Guardian, by George Monbiot

Mr Monbiot wrote a piece that was published in The Guardian on 2019/09/19 that makes the point I was trying to make above. I will quote a part of it:

It’s not just the megarich: increased spending power leads us all to inflict environmental damage. It’s time for a radical plan.

Expensive boats, Dolphin Quay, Mandurah
Expensive boats
These boats are local manifestations of Mr Monbiot's point.
It is not quite true that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Musicians and novelists, for example, can become extremely rich by giving other people pleasure. But it does appear to be universally true that in front of every great fortune lies a great crime. Immense wealth translates automatically into immense environmental impacts, regardless of the intentions of those who possess it. The very wealthy, almost as a matter of definition, are committing ecocide.

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a worker at a British private airport. “I see things that really shouldn’t be happening in 2019,” he wrote. Every day he sees Global 7000 jets, Gulfstream G650s and even Boeing 737s take off from the airport carrying a single passenger, mostly flying to Russia and the US. The private Boeing 737s, built to take 174 passengers, are filled at the airport with around 25,000 litres of fuel. That’s as much fossil energy as a small African town might use in a year.

Mr Monbiot finishes with:
If everyone is to flourish, we cannot afford the rich. Nor can we afford our own aspirations, which the culture of wealth maximisation encourages.

The grim truth is that the rich are able to live as they do only because others are poor: there is neither the physical nor ecological space for everyone to pursue private luxury. Instead we should strive for private sufficiency, public luxury. Life on Earth depends on moderation.

Mr Monbiot said it all much better than I could. I read his piece after I wrote my piece above. George has probably made many of the points that I've tried to make and done it much better than I could. Why do I try? Because I care so much that I feel I must try.

References, related pages

Related pages on external sites...

World Inequality Report 2022, Coordinated by Lucas Chancel (Lead author), Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

The Distribution of Household Spending in Australia; Reserve Bank of Australia, written by Amy Beech, Rosetta Dollman, Richard Finlay and Gianni La Cava

For the sake of life on Earth, we must put a limit on wealth, The Guardian, by George Monbiot

Related pages on this site...

Climate change


Conspicuous Consumption


Selfishness or altruism

Corporate greed

The good and the bad

Wealth redistribution