In Which We Pick on Picketty, Part II

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Yesterday I said I’d explain what the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s book and the writings and speeches of others on inequality have to do with consumerism and its impact on the environment. So let me get right to the point: All of this focus on unequal distribution of wealth is causing us to take our eyes off the environmental ball at a time when swift actions could help mitigate the extent of future ecological catastrophes.

In all probability, within a few decades, it will make very little difference to us whether the median annual income is $50,000 or $100,000, because we’ll be too busy struggling with resources wars, eco-refugees, droughts, floods, water shortages, hurricanes, wildfires, and on and on, to care about such trivialities.

In the meantime, putting more money into the hands of the middle class will almost certainly exacerbate our environmental ills. Why? Because middle class people are likely to spend much of their additional income on stuff they could actually live quite well without, and that sort of over-consumption is the very foundation of human-caused environmental problems.

Keep in mind that everything that goes into producing, transporting, using, maintaining, and disposing of our possessions inflicts costs on the environment, even though most of those costs occur out of sight. We deplete resources and produce waste (including pollution) during every step of a product’s lifecycle: from the extraction, transportation, and transformation of resources; to the manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of finished goods; and finally to the disposal of used-up or broken-down trash.

I don’t mean to say that unequal distribution is a frivolous issue. Wealth translates readily into political power, so the concentration of wealth in a tiny fraction of the population is a danger to democracy. And clearly, there are too many people within the United States and around the world who work hard but barely scrape by—even in good times. When misfortune strikes, these folks lack the reserves to cope with the consequences of adversity.

So thinking about the unequal distribution of wealth and what to do about it is certainly worthwhile—as long as we keep the environmental consequences of overconsumption centermost in our minds.

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In Which We Pick on Picketty, Part I

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A few months ago, I heard that a new book about economic policy had become a best seller. Having been told by a literary agent, a few weeks earlier, that Americans won’t read books about policy (economic or otherwise), I wondered why Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was such a huge success.

So I decided to read the dang thang.

Now, by calling it a “dang thang,” I mean no disrespect. As a matter of fact, I admire Piketty and his work. His meticulous construction of a case for raising taxes on the rich is most impressive. I would have thought, however, that his meticulousness (700 pages worth) would have driven away readers in droves.

So why didn’t it?

Well, maybe because the book focuses on inequality, and inequality is a hot topic. In recent years, prominent individuals, including Pope Francis, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and President Barack Obama have spoken frequently and passionately about inequality. In 2011, media coverage of Occupy Wall Street protests brought unequal distribution of wealth to the attention of the U.S. and much of the world. And just today I read a piece, in Politico, by self-described “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer, in which he warns his fellow “0.1%ers,” that “The Pitchforks Are Coming . . . For Us Plutocrats.” Here’s a bit more of Hanauer’s spiel:

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.[1]

So, the most likely reason the book is a bestseller, I suspect, is that Piketty demonstrates, in overwhelming detail, the inherent tendency of free-market capitalism to leach wealth away from the masses and up to the zillionaires—precisely when people are particularly concerned about inequality. And because the topic of inequality is au courant (as Piketty, the Frenchman, might say), some people might buy the book—with no intention of actually reading the dang thang—thinking that, if nothing else, the book would make a dandy soporific on a restless night when the sandman fails to appear. And there might be a bit of the bandwagon or keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect, too: Everyone buys Picketty because Everyone is buying Piketty.

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Well, Dear Reader, if you’re wondering, about now, what any of the above has to do with consumerism and its impact on the environment (which is, after all, the ostensible topic of this blog), I assure you that there is a connection. Unfortunately, I’m out of time and energy so I can’t tell you now, but I will do my best to get back to it tomorrow. So please join me then for another death-defying episode in the Thrill-a-Minute Adventures of sallywengrover.wordpress.com!

 

[1] Hanauer, Nick. “The Pitchforks Are Coming . . . For Us Plutocrats.” Politico. July/August 2014. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014_full.html#.U7BYkRZ0EpE

So why am I blogging?

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Let me begin, Dear Reader, by explaining that this blogging business goes against my grain. In the past, I’ve been shy about expressing my opinions, especially when they imply criticism of other people’s opinions and values.

Nevertheless, I intend to speak out—as often and as forcefully as I can about the ecological impact of consumerism—because I’m convinced that our out-of-control consumption is causing the environment to unravel at an accelerating rate. If we hope to inhabit a planet that is healthy enough to afford decent lives in the decades to come, we’d better start shifting our values from maximizing consumption to nurturing living things now.

For consumption-reduction to have a significant environmental impact, a whole lot of people must make that shift. My blog alone won’t bring about the shift, of course, but, with any luck, a rapidly expanding chorus of voices will succeed in spreading the message and produce a critical mass of shifters, intent on bringing us back from the environmental brink.

Uh, My First Post

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Well, I mean, welcome, to the blog that I’m trying to set up (in fits and starts) this lovely, one-of-a-kind day in mid-June.

Just so you know what you’re in for, my future posts will generally be about environmental issues. Those issues tend to be troubling (if not downright depressing) and the last thing I want to do is bring you down or instill hopelessness. For that reason, I will attempt to lighten things up for you in ways that I have learned to lighten things up for myself. (Stick around. By the end of this post, you’ll have an inkling of what I mean.)

As I suspect you know, Dear Reader, the environment is unraveling at an accelerating rate. In all likelihood, things will get worse before they get better. Still, we can begin to turn things around for ourselves, future generations, and other species by shifting our goals from accumulating stuff to nurturing living things.

So whaddya say we go outside tonight and dance in the streets? As the light of day dims, howzabout picking up a twig and leading an orchestra of crickets in a summer serenade, with lightning bugs blinking to the beat? Whaddya say, starting tonight, we express our passion for the living world around us and begin to ease it back from the brink.