Slaves and Bulldozers, Plutocrats and Widgets

There is not an industrial company on earth, not an institution of any kind – not mine, not yours, not anyone’s – that is sustainable. I stand convicted by me, myself alone, not by anyone else, as a plunderer of the earth. But not by our civilization’s definition. By our civilization’s definition, I’m a captain of industry and in the eyes of many, a kind of modern-day hero.

— Ray Anderson, (1934-2011) CEO of Interface, Inc.

We are living a collective illusion known as the civilized world. We feign concern for our horrendous conditions of poverty, socioeconomic inequality, deteriorating public health, and severe environmental degradation (to which climate change is merely one factor), but everything we do belies that distress. These issues comprise the largest risks to the survival of the human species, as well as the most significant amoral atrocities on the planet. Both individually and as a species, our health, safety, and ability to live a decent, dignified life have always been imperiled by these predicaments. Yet, we continue along with complete cognitive dissonance in that the crux of our lives – our jobs, our consumer culture – all contribute to, perpetuate, and exacerbate the unsustainable and morally reprehensible conditions of our existence. But while we are all marginally responsible for the multitude of calamities befalling us, the one group who bears the brunt of the blame for our social and ecological decay is the wealthy.

Have you looked around and seen just what humanity has done to our stunning Earth? We’ve bulldozed the beauty for bucks. Far too much of what was once a glorious paradise is now a complete disaster of unfathomable proportions. A disaster wholly of our own making. In America, and in most places around the world, from the moment we are born we are preparing for a future career, and  more specifically, for the lifelong goal of making money. But on the whole, most of the jobs we do end up being more detrimental than beneficial to society and the environment. We characterize work through measures of productivity, but producing more and more unnecessary, meaningless, and often useless products compromises our physical environment, which in turn, compromises the health of humans, other beings, and our entire planetary ecosystem.

So many of the things that form the basis of our civilization should not, and perhaps cannot, exist in a just and sustainable world. Items like arms and artillery, synthetic chemicals, concentrated animal feeding operations, plastic, smartphones and other electronic gadgetry do not feed a sustainable and equitable world but create more needless havoc. The irony, though, is that the very people who run the systems that incessantly construct and promulgate these harmful, redundant, or unnecessary products are the richest and most successful people on earth.

We define success in our society almost exclusively in terms of wealth, with its attendant power and sometimes, fame. Rich people are the recipients of adulation and reverence for nothing more than their accumulation of wealth and material products. We like to think that riches come by way of great intellect, talent, skill, and a strong work ethic, but in reality, monetary success is more a matter of inherited socioeconomic status, ambition, and determination, rather than ability and aptitude. Most of all, to achieve wealth means to have a myopic resolve, not only to look away from how the sausage is made, but to not care how the sausage is made.

The wealthy in our society then become the people with the most power and influence. While ironically, they are the people least deserving of our respect. They are the exact people whom we should look upon with the utmost skepticism and even disdain. They should not be in the position to make decisions about our collective lives and the workings of our society, because their financial success is completely antithetical to societal justice and sustainability.

It doesn’t take great acumen or diligence to make a lot of money; it takes a narrow-minded, insular, immoral, sometimes psychopathic view of life, in which personal pleasure and profit are the primary variables. It’s quite easy to do well financially and find personal satisfaction if the exploitation of humans, other animals, and the entire biosphere is left outside of the realm of your career consciousness. As Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpet admitted, “For 21 yearsI never gave a thought to what we were taking from the earth or doing to the earth in the making of our products.” He built his fortune without consideration to the effects of his enterprise until someone brought the deleterious consequences to his attention.

We like to believe the cream rises to the top, but the truth is that the top is actually full of scum. We have seen in recent weeks, if we did not know already, that entertainment, politics, and indeed, all of the wealthiest industries are cesspools of moral depravity, especially at the apex.

There may be some exceptions, but scum is the rule. Some might call these people ambitious, some might call them razor-focused, others would call them sociopathic. It takes a careful regimen of willful  ignorance and/or denial to not consider all the harms that directly and indirectly result from avenues toward career achievements in the process of our normal lives – harms such as exploitation of labor, torture of animals, and toxic contamination and of food, water, and natural resources.

Material success requires rape and pillage, figuratively and literally. Donald Trump bragged that when you have the kind of wealth he has, you can treat women as objects and just “grab ’em by the pussy.” You can also exploit resources, exploit labor, befoul the environment, and endanger public health with few or no consequences. On a purely moral basis, only scum could have the hubris to consider others as mere playthings for their own enjoyment, to feel superior enough to warrant their extreme wealth which they did not earn but stole from the commons, and to believe that they deserve obscene riches when the majority of others do not even have basic life necessities.

How often have you heard the phrases “not that there is anything wrong with being rich,” or “I don’t begrudge him his wealth”? Wealth should be considered reprehensible. Wealth has always been in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many, and one’s access to it has always been almost wholly correlated with one’s socioeconomic status at birth. Yet we rationalize this immoral situation and pretend that the proverbial “pie,” of which we all need a slice, is infinite in size and that wealth is accessible to anyone. We assume that being rich is not only acceptable but aspirational. It is neither in a just and sustainable world.

On a finite planet every excess dollar, every excess material good, every extra home, car, garment, trinket, piece of food, or beverage that one person possesses essentially correlates to an item that another person does not have. When we normalize one person having more than he/she needs in a world where billions have far less than the bare minimum required to meet their basic needs, then we are obliged to rethink our morality. When a simple handbag can cost between $12K and $300K and we as a society see nothing wrong with that kind of excess in the face of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and disease, we are not only completely socially corrupt, we are spelling our own doom. Poverty only exists because excessive wealth exists and neither is compatible with a sustainable and humane civilization.

To achieve a sustainable world, we must relinquish our use of non-renewable resources, we must utilize renewable resources at a level in which they have the time and ability to replenish, and we must leave no waste that is not regenerative. To achieve an equitable world, we must relinquish our greed and desire for opulence, excess, and disproportionate influence. In fact, sustainability is also a function of equity. However, our current society is predicated on the antithesis of all such requirements.

Wealthy people gain their successes because they have tunnel vision. They are singularly focused on themselves, their careers, and/or on money. They do not take into consideration the externalities involved in their actions. They pay little mind to the exploitation involved in their pursuits. Ethics never supersedes ambition. Therefore, these are the exact people who should not be in charge of making policies for the benefit of society and should not be in charge of civic ventures. To be able to be so wealthy without shame, guilt, or acknowledgement that your own wealth impedes the lives of others is to be either ignorant or indifferent. We are facing global ecological and economic collapse. Who made this happen? The wealthiest people of the world. If you are rich you do not have the solution. You are the problem.

The world is run on slave labor, indentured servitude, animal and natural resource exploitation, and endless generation of waste and contamination. Material success comes with adopting a shortsighted view of the world – closing yourself off to your own connection to global anthropogenic climate change, toxification, and inequality.

So many of the wealthy who consider themselves socially and environmentally aware perceive no connection between their own wealth accumulation and the causes they claim to champion. Instead of curtailing their materialism, they rationalize it. Instead of acknowledging that their consumerism intensifies global resource extraction, they produce more products (often erroneously labeled “green”) to sustain their riches. When the wealthy are not hawking products for their for-profit activities, they have the audacity to solicit for charitable organizations that are only necessitated by the economic system that produces poverty and environmental devastation in the wake of their extravagant wealth. They ask donations from the majority of citizens who are barely making ends meet, when they themselves could surrender probably 90% of their accumulated wealth and not notice a marked change in their material status whatsoever. The elites who are not in denial about the problems we face want scientific and technological solutions – solutions that they can throw their money at and have others solve so they do not have to think about their own contribution to the problems.

But there are no silver bullets to end inequality and environmental destruction, while continuing with business as usual in civilized society. Science cannot save us. Scientific research itself relies on the same unsustainable production, consumption, use of resources, and waste as every other industry.

Technology mavens always tout the great social or biological service that their new technology will provide. Their innovations comes under the guise of helping the world, but the majority of the time, their creations are frivolous and do not do much more than use natural resources, create waste, and earn them exorbitant profit. At the university where I earned my doctoral degree there is a masters program in biotechnology and there’s a reason why their curriculum extends beyond just science, containing at least two required business courses. Of course, business is fundamental to their instruction because the principle purpose of our education, of our careers, is profit.

All of the harmful products and practices in our civilization – military arms, sweatshops, low wages, pesticides, plastics, throw-away items, excess of products, animal cruelty, overuse of medicine and surgery – only exist to increase revenue for the rich. None are fair or just or equitable or sustainable. Our societal justification of the above items just marks our collective delusion. These products and practices persist in the name of profit, and we rationalize their continuation just as we rationalize extravagant wealth.

When Senator Bernie Sanders was on TV decrying President Barack Obama’s half-million dollar speaking engagements on Wall Street, the anchors of the program said to him, “Wouldn’t you do it if you could?” Bernie replied, “I wouldn’t be asked.” Rather, he should have explained that anyone with integrity would not accept money they do not need for some sort of quid pro quo from a destructive and corrupt institution. The hosts of the show surmised that everyone would jump at the opportunity to earn money if they had the chance. It is precisely that sort of mindset that enables these broadcasters to inhabit their influential positions on a national television program and to earn millions of dollars. They demonstrate what unethical opportunists they, and most of the rich, actually are. Their lack of ethics is internalized and taken for granted by not only them, but most of the rest of our society. They are more than willing to be bought at whatever price for whatever service. “Just doing my job” does not serve as an excuse for immorality.

Nevertheless, there are people who have chosen lives based on conviction rather than money. Former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and Seattle City Council member Kashama Sawant chose to earn the local average income for their official positions and donate the remainder of their salaries toward social justice work. Biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber donated a portion of her $100K Heinz Award prize toward the fight against hydraulic fracturing (fracking) rather than spend it on personal treats. Likewise, teacher Jesse Hagopian donated his $100K settlement for being unjustly attacked with pepper-spray by Seattle police toward social justice action. Not everyone is looking to cash in, and not everyone is seeking the next, biggest profit-making endeavor.

Living with integrity and simplicity is difficult. People do not choose to live this way because their personal sacrifice will change the world. They do so because it is the right thing to do. They do so because having too much means others don’t have enough. They do so because living by example allows others who care to see that a life of wealth and consumerism augments inequality and unsustainability; it is not the only way to live and need not be. They live this way because only by walking the walk rather than talking the talk will we ever start to achieve justice and sustainability to help preserve the future of our species.

In recent years there have been waves and wave of protests throughout the country and the world in response to myriad societal maladies. The best protest we can do in America now is to reject the bourgeois life – reject excessive wealth and the material components that come with it, reject profligate consumption, reject consumerism, reject wasteful holidays, reject wasteful trinkets,  reject all that is incompatible with what we purport to champion. For example, retired talk-show host David Letterman appears sincere in his dedication toward helping combat climate change, while at the same time, he remains co-owner of an auto racing team. In the world in which we currently live, auto racing is completely incongruent with climate change mitigation. We can’t pretend to value matters like justice and sustainability unless the way we live upholds those values. We can’t decouple our livelihoods from our lives.

The rich tend to ensconce themselves in their well-manicured communities, shop with abandon, and disregard the abject poverty, environmental degradation, and injustices all around them. They are in the process of spending small portions of their vast fortunes building survival bunkers to withstand either the revolutionary upheaval that may soon come as a result of immeasurable socioeconomic inequality, or the catastrophic ecological collapse that may result from reckless resource extraction and expenditure. How misguided or cynical are they to not realize that by renouncing their extreme wealth, they would need no such provisions and could play a large part in salvaging our civilization?

Need I even explain how the current tax scam pending on Capitol Hill will serve to enhance all of the socioeconomic, environmental, and public health calamities that are arising ever more rapidly and in quick succession? Need I elaborate on how our escalating climate-related weather catastrophes only reach the cataclysmic proportions they do because of the wealth disparities involved and because of the high-risk industrial components therein, that exist mainly to enrich the elite? Would these natural disasters be so disastrous if more people had the economic resilience that they deserve and if society took more precaution against the hazards of multibillion-dollar industries that manufacture products of questionable value while generating tremendous wealth to a select few?

We live n a time of unprecedented social disarray, ecological disrepair, public health decay, and moral depravity. Nearly every aspect of the way we live in modern industrial societies is completely unsustainable. Even if we were to transition to 100% solar energy tomorrow throughout the planet, the worst effects of climate change might be averted, but the plastic pollution that permeates the most far-reaching depths of the oceans would still remain, the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) that harm our own health and the health of the entire global ecosystem remain. Not only do they remain, but they continue to be produced, not out of necessity, but for the financial profit of the privileged few. The production of, consumption of, and waste stream from our global industrial society continues unabated. This is the system that forms the foundation of all of our lives in the civilized world, and this is the system that bestows excessive wealth to some while leaving others fighting for survival.

While it is indeed the system of capitalism that generates and sustains our societal injustice and ecological degradation, the system is comprised of people – people who could abdicate their fictional obligation to happiness via indefinitely-increasing earnings, people who can choose better, Without a preponderance of such people, no countervailing just and sustainable system can ever compete.

In 1964, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano interviewed the famous Argentinean hero of the Cuban revolution Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In the midst of a comprehensive conversation, Che stated to Galeano, ” I don’t want every Cuban to wish he were a Rockefeller.” To be sure, if we are remotely interested in a sustainable and equitable world, the attainment of wealth must be transformed from admirable to contemptible. With regard to the multitude of obstacles we face, Ralph Nader once wrote “only the super-rich can save us.” He’s right. They can save us by not existing.

Kristine Mattis received her PhD in Environmental Studies. As an interdisciplinary environmental scholar with a background in biology, earth system science, and policy, her research focuses on environmental risk information and science communication. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the U.S. Congressional Record, and as a science and health teacher. She can be reached at: