The post below summarizes a book review and interview with Kempf in Truthout.org 15 March 2007 by Leslie Thatcher.
Kempf's thesis is that the "oligarchy" of the hyper-rich and powerful is responsible for worldwide environmental destruction -- directly, through their control of the levers of power, and indirectly, through our imitation of their conspicuous consumption.
He begins with the evidence of what biologists call "overshoot" (a population peak that exceeds carrying capacity). In 1950 human beings appropriated 50% of net natural productivity. By 2003, humans grabbed 120%, consuming resources faster than the Earth can reproduce them.
In nature, such peaks are followed by species collapse. In our case, there is a good chance the human species will take much of the biosphere down too. Among possible precursors are new diseases such as bird flu; mass dieoff in the 2003 heat wave in Europe; overuse, overkill and pollution of major sources of food and water; soaring species extinction; and the Katrina disaster in which storm and surge was compounded by longtime ecosystem damage, pollution and governmental inaction.
The alarm has sounded many times. Why then is necessary change resisted? Why is so little being done? According to Kempf, "if nothing happens even though we're entering an ecological crisis of historic gravity, it's because those who have power in the world want it to be this way." The poor are caught in a vicious cycle in which environmental and social crises feed on each other. They are the first to be robbed of traditional food sources, driven out by drought or flood, and abandoned by the state. Which is being systematically weakened by deliberate policy (SAPs, privatization) or neglect (underfunding of support programs, unregulated financial markets, dispossession of peasants, environmental refugees, economic migrants, and the homeless).
In an era of unprecedented growth in world trade, chronic poverty and instability have re-emerged in developed countries. Globalization, despite apparent gains in China and India, has done little to help the poor of the South. Trade booms and green revolutions are far outweighed by planetary degradation. Indeed, if the costs of waste, pollution and sickness were included, China's environmental agency estimates that its GDP would be negative!
Kempf coolly stacks statistic on statistic, citing unimpeachable capitalist sources like Forbes, the Economist, and the Financial Times. Then he breaks into outrage, quoting Drucker on obscene executive compensation (which has risen from 20x to over 160x the average wage) , and St. Augustine on governance ("If there is no justice, what are kingdoms but vast systems of robbery?"). The planetary elite emerge "not through success in production, but through constant redistribution of collective wealth", and live in fortress communities, "separated from the plebians. They are not aware of how the poor and wage-earners live; they don't know and don't want to know."
This predatory and greedy controlling class, wasting its rents, misusing its power, congeals as an obstacle on the way. It bears no proposal, is animated by no ideal, delivers no promise ... is blind to the explosive power of obvious injustice. And blind to the poisoning of the biosphere that growth in material wealth provokes, a poisoning that means a degradation of the conditions for human life....
Consumption drives society: "material growth is the only way the oligarchy can make societies accept extreme inequalities... growth creates a surplus of apparent wealth that allows the system to be lubricated without changing its structure" -- but immaterial growth (aka quality of life, culture), and reducing consumption are the only way to avoid environmental disaster. In the words of the comic Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Nor, as recent psychological studies in the UK and US show, does money make happiness.
Manufactured consent is essential to consumerist society. Democracy can be discarded. The terrorist "emergency" is the latest excuse to intensify "security", criminalize dissent, expand surveillance and imprison the poor. "The hyper-rich will attempt to maintain their excessive advantages by force as they did after Hurricane Katrina, when armed forces were sent -- not to help the drowning poor - but to hunt down looters." Environmental disaster may soon be invoked as another "pretext to persuade the people to accept a restriction of freedoms -- without, however, touching inequality".
Kempf says we must challenge the prevailing economic myths:
- that growth will solve social problems
- that technology will solve ecological problems
- that high unemployment is inevitable ("a construct whereby capitalism keeps workers docile and salaries down")
- that Europe, embodying fratenity and diversity, is the natural ally of "the obese power" of North America.
- a green left, based on equality and ecology
- a renewal of investigative reporting, concern for civil liberties and the public good
- global solidarity.