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World’s super-rich are wrecking the planet

By: | February 2, 2017

But they plan to survive civilization’s collapse.

Ed Finn
The Nonagenarian’s Notebook

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On Jan. 1, 2017 scientists adjusted the Doomsday Clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, citing alarm over Trump's "'ill-considered comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal' and his appointment of cabinet members who dismiss global warming as a hoax," writes Ed Finn. Photo by Krissy Venosdale / Flickr.

To the greedy, all nature is insufficient.
               —Seneca.

We now live in a world in which eight men are as rich as 3.6 billion people — half of the planet’s inhabitants. In this country, two billionaire businessmen, David Thomson and Galen Weston Sr., hold more wealth than the 11 million lowest-income Canadians.

This vast and widening financial gap between the superrich and the poorest half of the global population was exposed in mid-January by the anti-poverty organization Oxfam. Its report was distributed to the business and political elites who had gathered for their annual conference at Davos, Switzerland.

They were scolded by Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few,” she told them. “Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty. It is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.”

Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty. It is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy. –Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International

This warning came from other sources than Oxfam. Richard Edelman, president of one of the world’s biggest marketing firms, Edelman, told the delegates that trust in corporations, governments, and the commercial media has fallen sharply in recent years. He said that the firm’s 2017 Trust Barometer survey found that “CEO credibility is at an all-time low, and government leaders have become the least-trusted group of all.”

I’ve since scoured through the recorded discussions that followed this exposure of colossal inequality and the upsurge of anti-business and anti-government populism. The delegates were obviously worried. They even agreed that corporations should start treating their workers and customers decently, and should commit to paying their fair share of taxes and a living wage to employees. But nowhere did I find a realization that the root of their concern about the rise of anti-elitist populism is the dominant global economic system that they collectively manage, manipulate, and massively profit from.

Poverty and inequality are the inevitable consequences of uncontrolled capitalism. When individuals are free to compete without constraint for the largest share of wealth and power they can accumulate, it’s not at all surprising that eight of them wind up richer than half the world’s population. 

Nor is it surprising that an economic system that pollutes the environment, depletes resources, and threatens a planetary holocaust should be allowed to do so without limitation — as long as it fulfills its main purpose: turning millionaires into billionaires.

The Doomsday Clock

Each year since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published an image of a “Doomsday Clock” that indicates how near they believe the planet is to a global catastrophe. The decision to move or not move the minute hand is made each year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which includes 15 Nobel laureates.

On Jan. 1, 2017, they moved the minute hand from three to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to doomsday since the Cuban missile crisis. Initially, the Doomsday Clock was solely focused on assessing the danger of a nuclear war. But in recent years the scientists have become just as concerned about unchecked global warming. 

It’s no coincidence that the latest adjustment of the minute hand came just after Donald Trump was elected to the presidency of the United States. The scientists are alarmed by “his ill-considered comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal” and his appointment of cabinet members who dismiss global warming as a hoax.

“Human activity is the primary cause of climate change,” they asserted, “and unless carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically reduced, global warming will threaten the future of humanity. . . The longer it takes to create a net-zero-carbon-emissions world, the more the planet will warm to catastrophic levels.”

In an essay she wrote in 2015 for Harper’s magazine, Rebecca Solnit described the depletion of the world’s resources and the contamination of the air, water and soil as “a war against Nature.” She noted that a wholesale conversion from fossil fuels to a renewable energy system is now technologically achievable – that the only obstacles remaining are the oil and gas companies’ determination to extract and profit from every last drop of fossil fuel, and the refusal of governments to stop them.

Poverty and inequality are the inevitable consequences of uncontrolled capitalism.

“This war against Nature is not endless,” Solnit wrote. “It will end soon in victory (for Nature’s defendants), or later in defeat. Victory would mean not having destroyed the Earth as much as we might have – a modest achievement, but one that would expand the margin of survival for species, places, and billions of people. Defeat will mean that future generations will curse this turning point in our history and look back on the world as it was in 1980 as an almost unimaginable paradise of stability and abundance.”    

She singled out the U.S. Republican Party as the greatest political obstacle of all. “A few dozen people in the Senate – mostly wealthy, mostly white, mostly male – and a few hundred more in the House are on a rampage against environmental sanity. Some Democrats are good on this issue, but they don’t together represent a blockade (against environmental devastation). “If Democrats are good at one thing, it is yielding.”

Now that the Republican Party controls all the branches of the U.S. federal government, with a fanatical climate change denier in the White House, that country’s war on Nature is bound to continue, and likely intensify. “Since perpetrating this war is clearly unconscionable,” says Solnit, “pretending that there is no war has been the principal strategy of its (political and corporate) generals. They claim that pumping billions of tons of carbon into the upper atmosphere has no consequences, that the extraction processes – from mountaintop coal removal to fracking to pulling petroleum out of remote fragile places such as the ocean floor – are harmless.”

Other countries are not led by such climate change scoffers, but the carbon emission reduction efforts of most of them, including Canada, fall far short of the level that is urgently needed.  The Trudeau government’s approval of more tar-sands pipelines, combined with its meagre carbon tax proposal and the failure to prioritize conversion to clean renewable sources of energy, is disheartening – but not surprising. The fossil fuel corporations wield just as much political influence in Canada as they do in the United States.     

From deniers to believers 

But is this denial of global warming — and, left uncurbed, its inevitably cataclysmic effects — really a belief that is widely held by the world’s corporate and political leaders? They may be avaricious and heartless, but they’re not stupid. They may claim to be climate change skeptics, and many still are, but a large number – perhaps even the majority of them – have secretly become believers. They can’t dispute the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is a real and mounting threat to the planet and to life on the planet.

So why, you may ask, do they stubbornly persist in carrying on with a ruthlessly competitive economic system that contaminates the environment, worsens poverty and inequality, and dooms billions of people to eventual near-extinction?

The obvious answer – one that I’ve cited many times in the past – is that neoliberal capitalism is now so deeply entrenched in both law and practice that even the most intelligent and ethical CEOs are unable to humanize it on their own. Their legal charters and corporate mandates oblige them to make the maximization of profits and shareholder dividends their one and only objective. That sole fixation trumps everything else (no pun intended), including the broad public interest and even the survival of what now passes as civilization.

To exist and operate, a corporation first has to obtain an operating charter from the appropriate government. So, theoretically, a corporation’s activities could be altered or terminated by a revision or revocation of its charter. That has happened a few times in the past, but never in recent times – not since multi-national corporations gained so much power and influence that no government now dares to defy or antagonize them. To do so would risk the exodus of more production and jobs to low-wage and low-tax countries, or even a capital “strike.”     

The enshrinement of profit maximization is built into our business legislation, as it is in the United States and elsewhere. Our courts uphold this principle. In a noteworthy case in 2004 (the People vs. Wise), Canada’s Supreme Court ruling was based on the Canadian Business Corporations Act. The relevant section of this Act states that corporate directors and officers “owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporation’s interests are not to be confused with the interests of the creditors or those of any other stakeholder.” Presumably including the interests of workers and pensioners.

And there you have it. Any CEO or board of directors rash enough to deviate from the pursuit of profits for any reason – for the benefit of employees, customers, society as a whole, or even the planet – would be severely chastised. Either they’d be sued by major stockholders under the Act, or the fall in profits would leave them vulnerable to a hostile takeover.

With both corporations and complicit governments thus locked into a perpetuation of environmentally destructive capitalism, the most perceptive CEOs and investors have secretly started to prepare for Armageddon. They want to give their families a chance to survive capitalism’s deadly assault on the environment.

In my earlier series on neoliberalism, it never occurred to me to include corporate leaders on my list of would-be “survivalists”. I described these groups as consisting of former activists who had lost hope in stopping global warming, but who were determined to survive the impending collapse. So they have prepared “annihilation shelters” stocked with the essential foods and materials needed to weather Nature’s onslaught.     

“Survival of the richest” 

Then came an eye-opening report in the Jan. 30 issue of The New Yorker, by Evan Osnos. It is aptly titled Survival of the richest, and subtitled Why some of America’s wealthiest people are prepping for disaster.

Osnos tells us that “survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.”

You’ll have to read the full text of Osnos’s essay to grasp the extent to which this conversion to survivalism has spread among  many of the CEOs, financiers, bankers and big investors – the same capitalist kingpins whose devastation of the planet is causing the catastrophe they now plan to outlive.

It is bitterly ironic that those most likely to live through such a calamity are the ones whose greed and power precipitated it.

Osnos says it’s difficult to find out how many wealthy people have become survivalists, because most of them don’t like to talk about it. But he was told by Steve Huffman, co-founder and CEO of Reddit, that he and at least half of his fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some “apocalypse insurance” in the form of “a hideaway somewhere in the U.S. or abroad.”

One of them has bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and stocked it with generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Others have bought houses or cabins in New Zealand, which has become a favoured refuge from a global catastrophe. In the first week after Donald Trump’s election, 13,401 Americans registered with New Zealand’s immigration authorities seeking residency there.

Other wealthy survivalists have built luxury complexes underground in abandoned nuclear missile silos. One of them, Larry Hall, paid $300,000 for a silo and another $20 million to create 12 private apartments that he has sold for $3 million each. They are stocked with enough food to sustain 75 people for five years, mainly by raising tilapia in fish tanks, and hydroponic vegetables under grow lamps. 

Opulent survival shelters like this are beyond the financial capacity of most victims of an apocalyptic event. It is bitterly ironic that those most likely to live through such a calamity are the ones whose greed and power precipitated it. Had they devoted as much of their wealth in the past to averting an apocalypse as they are now spending in an effort to survive it, we would all be facing a much brighter future.

We have been burdened, however, with an insane and apparently unstoppable global economic system that is herding the human race ever closer to the abyss. Uncontrolled capitalism enriches a few and impoverishes billions. It contaminates. It rewards avarice and punishes charity. It foments inequality. It enshrines competition and dissuades co-operation.

Capitalism, in short, is the worst possible economic system for a world that depends on clean air and water and the preservation of non-renewable resources.

And yet capitalism’s social, economic, and environmental vandalism is not only tolerated by governments that are supposed to serve the public interest, but actually supported and encouraged by them.

No doubt many of these neoliberal political flunkeys will be allowed to join the business bosses in their survival bunkers.

Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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