Engaging with the Plutocene
Marko Ulvila and Kristoffer Wilén
When critical discussions around the concept of the Anthropocene gained popularity and alternative terms such as Capitalocene or Chthulucene emerged, we decided in early 2016 to chip in to the debate with yet another cene, the Plutocene. Pluto in this case comes from the Greek ploutos (πλοῦτος), meaning wealth and rhymes with the word plutocracy. So many statistics had over the years pointed to the fact that global environmental changes are by and large caused by the high-consuming high-income minority, and therefore it is only fair to engage with that section of the global society in the context of global environmental problems.
Though the wording seemed to us totally novel, a quick internet search revealed that some time ago an Italian scholar Marco Morosini had used plutocene in his blog on climate justice https://www.avvenire.it/opinioni/pagine/clima-e-giustizia-nellera-del-plutocene. And a few years later another scholar Andrew Glikson would use the word in a title of a book with another meaning, namely a world spoiled by plutonium-based radiation – https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319572369. Nevertheless, it seems that Plutocene as a way of depicting the era of the the rich is gaining some popularity.
Income differentiated contributions to climate chaos has been well studied over the years and thus provide a compelling case for plutocene. Most recently, in 2015 French economists Lucas Cancel and Thomas Piketty made thorough use of global income statistic and greenhouse gas elasticities and concluded that the richest 10% of the global population were responsible for approximately 45% of CO2e emissions, while the poorest 50% were responsible for 13%.
Such differentiation is important, because much of the discussion about environmental sustainability and social equity is trapped within a nation-state framework or in the idea of all of humanity, the anthropos. We argue that an income-based class perspective would provide a much more useful basis for the discussion on how to move towards ecologically sustainable and socially equitable post-growth societies. Income is strongly related to both the fulfilment of basic needs and the scale of environmental harm, and can thus be used as a helpful proxy for creating a clearer, class-based understanding of the issue. Further, such a perspective is also better suited to engaging with solutions.
Income = Environmental harm
We argue that monetary income and environmental harm are so strongly related that income serves as a very useful indicator for environmental sustainability and unsustainability. Income is almost equal to consumption and consumption is almost equal to environmental harm.
One way to assess the relationship between the formal economy and environmental impact is to look at the Ecological Footprint and GDP. When they are presented in a scatter plot for 126 countries, a strong relation between the two emerges. A per capita income of 10,000 USD per year at purchasing power parity seems to be an important threshold. With a higher national income, no country manages to stay within the annual 1.8 gha per capita sustainability threshold based on biocapacity (NEF 2012). The result of the scatter plot of per capita Ecological Footprint in relation to per capita GDP is presented in Figure 1. The same kind of outcome can be seen when looking at the per capita levels of the material footprint (Wiedmann et al. 2013).
Figure 1. Ecological footprint and GDP per capita of 151 countries.
Source: Based on data from Abdallah et al., 2012.
A similar pattern emerges when households and greenhouse gas emissions or material footprints are studied. For example, in the case of Finland, on a per capita basis both have a strong relationship with the incomes of the households. The richer the people, the more they pollute and consume natural resources. In Figure 2, data is presented from a household consumption survey conducted in 2012.
Figure 2. Greenhouse gas emissions and material inputs (kg) of households by income deciles in Finland, 2012.
Source: Based on data from Nurmela and Mäenpää, 2014.
In this case from Finland, the members of the richest decile (ten per cent of the population) generate 2.4 times more CO2 emissions and 2.8 times more material flows than the poorest . In the data set the correlation between income and greenhouse gas emissions (for 1 euro consumed = r=0.89) and natural resource usage (r=0.91) is so strong and clear that this case can be considered very sound.
At the global level, the environmental impacts of the different income groups vary tremendously, because of the vast income differences. According to the report Extreme Carbon Inequality by Oxfam (2015), the world’s richest 10% currently produce half of the global carbon emissions, while the poorest 3.5 billion are responsible for only a tenth. The distribution that visualises perfectly the justification for the term Plutocene is presented in a graphical form in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Global income deciles and associated lifestyle consumption emissions (source: Oxfam, 2015, p. 4).
Four income-based classes: over-consuming, consuming, sustainable, and struggling
Since 1990’s there have been several discussions on environment with an income-based class perspective. The first such case, to our knowledge, was presented by Alan Durning in his book How Much is Enough in 1992. He described three ecological classes and called them consumers (1.1 billion people), middle (3.3 billion) and poor (1.1 billion). He used the per capita share of gross national product at purchasing power parity as the measurement. The threshold for consumers was set at USD 7,500 per capital annually, and at USD 700 for the poor.
David C. Korten subsequently used Durning’s figures but renamed the categories social-ecological classes, and called them overconsumers, sustainers and marginals. He found Durning’s figure where roughly 60% of the world’s population are members of the sustainer class encouraging as their basic needs are being met in more or less sustainable ways. In that context, he commented that the problem with the dominant development paradigm is that it ‘has pursued a development vision that defines prosperity in terms of bringing both sustainers and marginals into the overconsuming class. In a finite world this is a physical impossibility’.
Some years later, Brian Czech also divided humanity according to three classes. He designated them the liquidating class consisting of the richest one per cent of humanity, the amorphic class comprising the next 19 per cent, and the steady-state class embracing the bottom 80 per cent. While Czech’s focus on the richest one per cent makes good sense, we find that the way he has grouped together those people struggling with hunger and mere survival with the low-income world majority to be wholly disproportionate.
A useful calculation of the world consumer class was made by Matthew Bentley in 2003 whereby he defined a member of the consumer class as a person who has an annual share of the gross domestic product exceeding USD 7,000 in terms of purchasing power parity. His finding about the consumer class in selected major countries from the year 2002 indicates, for example, that in both the US and China there were some 240 million members in the consuming class. On the global scale, nearly an equal number of consumers are located in the developed and developing groups.
Building on the earlier work described above, we have developed a somewhat more informed income-based classification applying two criteria. The first is the fulfilment of basic needs. The idea here is that the fulfilment of basic needs is a fundamental human right, also enshrined in international treaties. The dividing line can be roughly established by incomes. With very low incomes, needs for safe and sufficient food, water, shelter and other essentials are not met, but after a certain threshold they are. The second criterion is environmental impact. This rests on the empirical finding that income is strongly associated with environmental damage (see above). With increasing income, environmental damage increases. We have applied the three elements to form four classes that we call struggling, sustainable, consuming, and over-consuming. The result is presented in Table 1 below.
For the purposes of this study, we have estimated the numbers for the four classes in current world population terms of more than 7 billion people. The 2015 report by French economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty provides the most recent and comprehensive income-based figures, produced in the context of climate protection and CO2 emissions. Their report builds on two large datasets by Lakner-Milanovic and Anand-Segal, and combines their national income distributions into a global presentation. In their report, the number of people belonging to the high income and high emission groups in geographical regions and the World as a whole are given for the top decile as well as for the top 28% of the surveyed population). In terms of our nomenclature, the top 10% belong to the over-consuming class and the next 18% to the consuming class. The figures along with their income thresholds for the two groups are presented in Table 2. Due to different infrastructures among regions, the thresholds also differ. A certain income results in more or less emissions, depending on the region’s/country’s infrastructure.
Table 2. Number of people belonging to the consuming and over-consuming classes in regions or large countries around the year 2013 (millions) with related rounded income thresholds.
The second dataset is for the group that we call the struggling class. It is drawn from the same source, by including all the people in the poorest category and two-thirds in the second poorest. They form about one-third of humanity and are mainly found in Sub-Saharan Africa, India and other developing countries in Asia. For the industrialised regions, we have included an additional 5% of their population in the struggling class because homelessness, unemployment and inadequate access to healthcare deny at least this many people a dignified life in the high-income societies as well. This adds up to some 1.9 billion people.
The remaining number between these two groups, we have named the sustainable class. The members of the sustainable class have their basic needs met by livelihoods that do not cause excessive industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and they lead ways of life whereby they do not consume an excessive amount of energy or non-renewable resources. By uncovering this sizeable class of some 3 billion people falling between annual per capita income shares of around EUR 700 and 6,000, we hope to shed some optimism on the otherwise gloomy prognosis for the future, namely that more than one-third of humanity seems to be able to live quite sustainably and decently. In reality, this class faces constant challenges with the lure of the ‘consumer paradise’ on the one hand, and their precarious existence on the lower ladders of power structures on the other. Both of these classes are also threatened by commodification, enclosures, and dispossessions.
The number of people belonging to these classes and their relative share in the World and its regions is indicated in Figure 4. As issues such as basic needs and environmental sustainability cannot really be measured, the graph below and the numbers above should primarily be seen as an invitation for further debate rather than definitive outcomes.
Figure 4. The shares of the four classes globally and across regions in 2013.
Looking at the shares, we can see that North America is dominated by the over-consuming class, while in the EU and other rich countries the consuming class is the biggest with a sizeable over-consuming population. The sustainable class has the largest share in Latin America, China, and the Middle East and North Africa regions. Sub-Saharan Africa, India and other developing countries in Asia have members of the struggling class as the most numerous group.
One point worth noting here is that the regions we have found to be predominantly inhabited by members of the sustainable class bear a similarity to the outcomes of the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation. The top ten countries in their ranking, which is based on the efficient use of an ecological footprint for achieving reported life satisfaction and measured longevity, fall in the same regions. The countries are Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Panama, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Ecuador
Gender and the Income-based classes
The presentation of the three main classes above does not take account of gender, since the income statistics used did not readily encompass gender-specific data. However, gender differentation is very real and should be part of any exercise like this (e.g. Salleh 2010). As gender differentiated data is difficult to find, we will proceed to discuss the gender aspects of the classes using some rough estimates.
Gerd Johnsson-Latham has studied gender and consumption and made pertinent observations. Even though the family is often taken as a single socio-economic unit, she observes that it seldom represents a balanced distribution unit and the differing access to resources and consumption is most pronounced in poor families. She concludes, ‘If women’s consumption levels were to be the norm, both emissions and climate change would be significantly less than today’.
In Table 3 below, we present a scheme for the gender composition of the three classes. Our estimate is that two out of three members of the over-consuming class are male, and similarly two out of three members of the struggling class are female. The sustainable class would have an equal share of both genders.
The purpose of this scheme is to highlight the fact that the consumption patterns in classes differ considerably in gender terms. This has to be kept in mind when thinking about the transformation agendas for more sustainable futures.
Class-wise transition and transformation scenarios
Using the classes established above, we next present different transition scenarios for each one. The best ideas for moving towards more sustainable and socially equitable futures in the Anthropocene/Plutocene would have a far better impact when applied to a class-based understanding of society and political alternatives.
Consideration of the Plutocene makes degrowth the obvious future scenario for the consuming and over-consuming classes. For the struggling class, empowerment is an appropriate response, while the sustainable class can continue in a steady-state fashion. For the members of the over-consuming class, an immediate degrowth scenario (here mainly referring to a decrease in consumption) is needed in order to reduce their ecological footprint to an acceptable level. This would most likely also lead to a contraction in their monetary wealth/income as measured in GDP terms because phasing out fossil fuels would reduce energy input into the economic process considerably. Such a degrowth scenario is being welcomed by an increasing number of scholars and actors. Proponents of degrowth argue that the current economic growth is unsustainable over the long term because it depletes natural resources and destroys the environment, and because it fails to help populations improve their wellbeing significantly. The challenge is to devise degrowth policies that would be equitable and that would bring about the changes in a democratic and incremental manner, rather than through collapse and inflicting an unfair burden on the least powerful.
For the sustainable classes, a steady-state scenario embracing the economics of permanence would be the most appropriate. Such communities and societies would continue to change and evolve, but within the current level of environmental impact and by maintaining further improvement in human dignity for all, right down to the last person, in accordance with the last-person-first principle. The phrase steady-state economy originates from ecological economics, most notably the work of Herman Daly.
An older definition of a similar idea was provided by the Gandhian economics of J. C. Kumarappa in 1948 with the idea of an economy of permanence as the desirable societal goal for a liberated India. Observing the ‘natural economy’, Kumarappa noted that nature ensures the cooperation of all of its units, each working for itself and in the process helping other units to get along.
For the struggling classes, the case would be primarily for an empowerment scenario. The current hunger and poverty within the struggling classes is clearly a symptom of powerlessness. Successful transformation would call for a situation where the poor would have the right to natural resources that they depend on, the right to have basic needs met through their own efforts whenever possible, and the right to an equal say in matters that affect their lives through the political process. When all these positive changes take place and some people find their income increased, thereby also raising the GDP, then that growth would be justified.
In this text we have argued that a class analysis might help in re-politicising the debate on ecological sustainability and social justice, with an emphasis on the massive environmental damage caused by the wealthy minority. Understanding our era as the Plutocene could foster political analysis, which could improve the chances of challenging the vested interests and business-as-usual attitude which stand in the way of moving towards a post-fossil economy, and degrowth and post-growth futures. This could help in reducing the negative effects brought about by the Plutocene/Anthropocene era.
The transformation elements we have presented in this text point to various directions for different classes. This begs an obvious question: even if we agree with the approach, how could such major changes take place within a relatively short time frame?
Our view is that cultural and political change is likely to happen when the members of the classes that have the most to gain from the transformations to just and sustainable futures rise up and force these changes. For this reason, we should take a keen interest in the popular movements of the struggling and sustainable classes. An important contemporary gathering place for such movements is the World Social Forum process, where many members come together and energise each other around the slogan ‘Another World is Possible’. The non-hierarchic structure of the ‘open space’ created by the forum and the minimalist joint agenda of non-violence and rejection of neo-liberal corporate capitalism resonate well with the content of this chapter. Added to this, recent large gatherings and movements with a clear focus on re-politicising the debate on societal and environmental issues and calling for real democracy are significant landmarks in such processes.
Transformation towards sustainable futures should be seen as a journey leading to something clearly better than what we have now. There is no need to be fearful or anxious. Embracing degrowth should be an empowering experience for the over-consuming classes, as by giving up unnecessary but environmentally and socially costly luxuries one can discover much more valuable things in life. Moreover, lending support to, and calling for, political and structural transformations towards sustainability will be saluted by the world majority and future generations. In short, there are plenty of rewards in store in the sustainable futures.
Marko Ulvila engages with various aspects of society as a writer and an organizer. He takes special interest in democracy, ecological sustainability and global equity. Over the years he has been part of a number of civil society processes in Europe, East Africa and South Asia pertaining to environment and post-growth futures. The World Social Forum, the Green Party and the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam Network are particularly dear to his heart. In 2009 he co-edited the book Sustainable Futures: Replacing Growth Imperative and Hierarchies with Sustainable Ways (Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, 2009). Currently Marko chairs the Siemenpuu Foundation in Finland.
Kristoffer Wilén is a Ph.D. student at Hanken School of Economics (Helsinki, Finland). He is mainly working within the fields of political ecology and social ecological economics. His research interests include: the political dimensions of human- environmental relations, the post-political climate and neoliberalisation of environmental debates, subjectification and power within consumption and work, and the commodification and economisation of everything in market(ing) society – and some of the alternatives to this: degrowth, commons, solidarity economy.
The text is based on an article Engaging with the Plutocene <http://slate.kapsi.fi/Ulvila_&_Wilen_(2017)_Engaging_with_the_Plutocene.pdf.> that has appeared in book Sustainability and Peaceful Coexistance for the Anthropocene, ed. by Pasi Heikkurinen (Routledge 2017).
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