Private jets and yachts: Anthropologist Richard Wilk explains how the lifestyle of billionaires harms our society
Megayachts cause over 7.000 tons of carbon emissions per year, meanwhile average citizens try to deliberately live an eco-friendly lifestyle. Anthropologist Richard Wilk and his colleagues calculated the CO2 emissions of the worlds super rich and are now calling for immediate measures to regulate CO2 emissions and redistribute global wealth.
As you put it in your research: The carbon footprint of the super-rich is thousands of times larger than the one of an average person. Why is that?
Richard Wilk: To a large extent it’s because of their excessive lifestyle and the fact that they enjoy tremendous privacy on their yachts and multiple dwellings. It’s really private jets and yachts that make up the largest part of their carbon emissions. In the paper we could not count the embodied carbon that goes into the production of aircraft and yachts. They are responsible for a substantial amount of carbon emissions that we haven’t even counted. And then there’s the carbon emission from the companies the billionaires own and from the activities of their family and their entourage – which we also could not count. So I would suspect that their actual carbon emissions are close to triple the amount we were able to count.
And it’s worth noting also that we were comparing billionaires to other citizens of very high emitting countries. If you take citizens in the US or in Australia you’re looking at maybe 10 to 20 tons CO2 emissions a year whereas in France or Switzerland or Norway you’re probably closer to 6 tons. Small, poor nations barely cause any emissions per capita. So there’s quite a large difference between parts of the world.
In your research you focused on 20 billionaires due to the availability of data. Is the lifestyle of billionaires living in the US different from the ones living in e.g. Europe?
Richard Wilk: One of the billionaires we took a closer look at is Roman Abramovich, who is in fact the largest carbon emitter in our tabulation. He has been a citizen of Russia, lived in the UK and Israel and now has EU citizenship in Portugal. Which demonstrates the way that billionaires have become a kind of global elite. They live in various states and park their property in tax havens. Then they register their yachts in various places like Belize and Panama where there’s very little oversight and very low charges for registration. They have an incredible network of private companies and shell companies that shield them from most investigations of their wealth with which they evade national restrictions of various sorts. So, to ask what country they belong to is difficult to answer. Because they can go anywhere they want. They have kind of transcendent nationality.
Now there are not only your studies, but also Oxfam-studies. According to those, the richest 10 per cent of the world’s population are responsible for half of all CO2 emissions. So it seems obvious that it is the super-rich who have to change their lifestyle and behaviour first and foremost. And yet we mostly talk about acting as individuals: Reducing plastic, producing less trash, using our cars less often. Why don’t we talk about the rich much more?
Richard Wilk: Well, I think there is an increasing tendency for people to focus on the super rich. I’ve seen an outpouring of research and publication lately. There’s also a book called “Why We Can’t Afford the Rich” by Andrew Sayer that exposes the unjust mechanisms which allow the top 1% to siphon off the wealth produced by others.
The question is: What can you do to constrain them? And how can you tell the greenwashing apart from their actual efforts to change things? For example, Elon Musk makes a big deal out of the fact that he doesn’t own any property anymore. He sold all of his houses, he doesn’t own a private jet. But his companies provide most of the services that he uses. And then you look at his in his space outfit and you see that there’s really quite a lot of carbon dioxide involved in shooting your cars into space. Tesla itself has a great record of reducing carbon emissions from the manufacturing process. But Musk is smart. He turns around and sells those emission credits to other companies that are polluters. So, we often find that in the process of trying to reduce your own consumption, it actually increases the burden somewhere else in the system.
Is it easier to talk about individual commitment, e.g. recycling, than to talk about systemic change?
Richard Wilk: Yes, let’s take recycling as an example. I think Germany is one of the best examples of a place where the government has tackled some of the systemic issues of recycling. Here in the US, when you buy an appliance or any other large item you end up with the packaging and it becomes your problem as the consumer. I have to drive to a recycling center to give that cardboard to someone who will then ship it across the country to a factory where it’s made into pulp that will then be shipped across the country again to be made into cardboard and then shipped to another company that’s going to use the box before sending it out to a different helpless consumer. Whereas in Germany, the law says that the manufacturer has to recycle the packaging. But by turning it into an individual problem, into something that we’re all responsible for, we move away from thinking about it as a systemic problem. As a problem of inequality and distribution of wealth. And as a problem of corporations that want to evade their responsibilities.
That is one reason why we wanted to focus on super-rich individuals whose wastefulness is at such a staggering level. Because we need to have more systemic control and regulation.
That’s the question, isn’t it? How can we regulate their behaviour? What can we do to make billionaires lead a less excessive lifestyle?
Richard Wilk: Well, the first thing that European states and North American states could do is to get rid of offshore tax shelters. It shouldn’t be that easy to set up a shell corporation and shuffle money around in order to avoid taxation. You see, not only are these billionaires polluting the commons. They’re also evading their financial obligations to pay taxes. We need some sort of international cooperation order to get hold of global polluters. After all: Most of their wealth came from selling things to us. We can’t avoid sending our profits to them. But who are they – who elected them to decide on their own not to pay taxes but spend that money how they wish?
If you go back about 120 years in Europe, it was not unusual for states to seize the assets of super-rich people or to force them to give it to the government as a loan. The super-rich have always been a target for governments who are in need of cash. But then, if you look at the breakup of the Soviet Union, you see it worked exactly the opposite way, when government was basically giving away all of its assets to oligarchs and billionaires
I would just say: What the states give to people they can also take back from them. I for one would be perfectly happy to see my government set a limit on how much you can own, how much wealth you are allowed. But we have a very strong ideology of individualism and a growing hostility towards the common good in the USA.
You suggested that we should establish a “shame game” to call those who endanger our climate by their name. Could you explain this idea a bit? Would it be like the Oscars for climate polluters?
Richard Wilk: (laughs) That’s a very creative idea. You know, shame is an interesting emotion. It can be used in a very evil way. We’ve seen lots of incidents on the web of people being shamed in social media for small mistakes that ruined their life. But used in a moderate way, public shame could be used to put the super rich and their behaviour in the spotlight. After all, many of them are sensitive to their public image. As an anthropologist, I have studied how shame has been used for social control by different societies. We’re very conscious of what other people think of us and shame has a tremendous power to change people’s behaviour. The threat of shame or exposure is actually what keeps a lot of small communities from becoming more unequal.
I would never say it’s a cure-all for the problems of inequality. But it’s one of the things that we shouldn’t ignore. Every time I’ve brought that up at a consumer research meeting or a consumption and sustainability forum, people say “Oh no, we can’t do that. That’s terrible! That’s a negative reinforcement! We should give people positive reinforcement to do things better!” But, you know, that has kind of gotten us into the state that we’re in.
We need to be thinking seriously about the difficult choices, not the easy ones. And the difficult ones are about changing the distribution of wealth in society and limiting people’s lifestyle. Of course, rationing is always unpopular. On the other hand, rationing is a fair way of distributing things. At least fairer than what we have now when we have a system where, as long as you’ve got the money, you can do whatever you want.
When teaching anthropology I always ask my students: How would we explain this to a group of aliens from another planet, who landed and wanted to know why we do things the way we do. How would we explain to them that we’ve got a billion people barely surviving from day to day and malnourished children with swollen bellies? And at the same time we’ve got these people traveling around in 150 meter yachts with private helicopters? I don’t know how I could possibly explain that in a rational way. Because it’s not a rational way of distributing things. It’s the opposite: It’s crazy.