Debate: Can Creating a Green Economy Redeem the 1%?

The Occupy Wall Street protests are making headlines around the world, just as those in Spain and Greece did before. All on the tail of the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

However, critics of this latest wave have been equally vocal. And the right-wing media are having a field day with the mish-mash of poorly-expressed motivations espoused by some of the individual ‘Occupy’ protesters being interviewed (like the one quoted by a Vancouver columnist yesterday as saying, “We’ll be here until the rich are poor and the poor are rich” or another photographed with a poster that reads “One day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich”).

Then there are those who may quibble with the origins or interpretation of the data used to come up with the moniker “the 99%” that refers to the portion of the population that is not part of the “richest 1%” that own “40% of global assets” (from a 2006 UNU-WIDER study) or in the US, the 1% who own 34.6% of that country’s wealth.  Some go even further and call North Americans crybabies for complaining at all, when their countries are undeniably easier places to live than many others around the globe.

But the fact is that long-term unemployment and bleak economic prospects have darkened the global mood. People are angry and this is manifesting in an anti-corporate (mainly financial institutions) and anti-ultra rich direction.  Corporate greed is seen as the root cause for the 2008 financial meltdown. This could explain why a recent 10-country survey found consumers increasingly care about the ethics of companies.

The other issue is that some ultra rich people seem intent on blocking efforts to deal with pressing issues like climate change. They would rather risk the loss of a human friendly climate than the loss of a part of their wealth.

To some extent, these concerns may explain the underlying theme put forth by activist magazine Adbusters, conceptors of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is a message that seems to resonate with what many of the 99% in affluent countries are sensing is necessary given the ecological and resource crises facing the world:

“Anything, from a bottom-up transformation of the global economy to changing the way we eat, the way we get around, the way we live, love and communicate… Let’s occupy the core of our global system. Let’s dethrone the greed that defines this new century,” a recent call to action enthused.

Is redemption possible?

But is it wishful thinking to imagine that the public display of displeasure could possibly encourage a greener tendency in the 1%? It would certainly be in line what the public wishes to see. The survey mentioned above indicated that 34% of respondents consider economic development as the first social priority, yet another 21% see the environment as tops. That means investments in green jobs would immediately be in line with the aspirations of 55% of the population.

That being so, in the run-up to next month’s COP17 climate negotiations, 285 of the world’s largest investors have issued a call for urgent policy action designed to fuel private sector investment into climate change solutions like low-carbon technology. Apparently it’s not the first year the group has made this call but now it’s backed up with a report, commissioned in partnership with the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative, that gives more detail on what such climate policy might look like.

What would you get for your money? Well, here is a concrete example. The 285 investors have assets in the order of US$20 trillion. If they were to invest in even the most radical proposals on the table, like Greenpeace’s Energy (R)evolution scenario, then they would only need to spend US$17.9 trillion to move the entire world to 80% renewable energy by 2030.

This kind of outlay would not only assist in tackling climate change but would improve energy security and create new jobs. Such investments create new wealth and at the same time would provide electricity for the world’s 1.4 billion people without access.

We have heard repeatedly, going back to 1992 Rio Earth Summit, that the scale of funds needed to deal with climate change or clean energy, are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Yet we have done very little.

Is it possible the Occupy Wall Street protests are the beginning of a group societal priority-rethink?

Could this group of investors be an indication that the 1% is redeemable and not a hopeless lost greedy cause?

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Debate 2.0: Can Creating a Green Economy Redeem the 1%? by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Authors

Brendan Barrett

Brendan Barrett joined the United Nations University in 1997. His professional career includes work in the private sector, academia and with international organizations. He uses the web and information technologies as a means to communicate, teach and undertake research on issues of environment and human security.

Carol Smith

Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is key in activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and continues to collaborate from her current home in Vancouver.

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  • Desparatedam

    Don’t think that the 1% would bow to public pressure and make these kinds of investments. If anything they probably think that the protests will go away and everyone will forget, so that things can get back to normal again.

  • Kenji Watanabe

    Even the richest 1% have shown sone signs of declining profits recently.  If the decline contines, the world must admit a greater depression would shortly come. Many big firms and banks have filed bankrupcy across the world and even some sovereign nations are on the verge of claiming default.

    I am not certain about the consequences of occupying the Wall Street or rather it may be a consequence of the greater depression. In this difficult time of the world, I think it is hard to develop clean energy technology in the developed countries as is evidenced by the default of Solyndra.

    Developing countires have comparative advantages in manufacturing clean technology. And mass productions is necessary even for the clean technology to gain more investments to drive the market and diffuse. Investing in developing coutnies for R&D in clean technology seems a reasonable choice to take.

    In the end, the ascendance of developing world would certainly help the world economy to recover from this deepest recession ever in our lifetime.  

    Furthermore, I have observed hegemony of the empires were all based on the then latest infrastructures, e.g. from swords to archery to gun fire, from horse carts to ocean vessels to locomotives, from a one story to brick buildings to skyscrapers, from papyrus to Xerox to Internet. Cutting-edge infrastructure is the indication of hegemony. In order for clean technology to be an integral part of the leading-edge infrastructure, it must effectively facilitate the growth of civilization.  

    I wonder if America, the epicenter of the depression can rejuvenate its infrastructure with clean technology or if clean techonology is the next advantageous infrastructure. Nonetheless, I believe that clean technology is something necessary to further advance our civilization.        

  • Alan

    I take a more radical view in that I’d posit that if we’re looking for true sustainability – true redemption – over the long term then it can only come from a transformation of consciousness. Nothing else is adequate to the task. 

    In other words, so long as we maintain a worldview of separation that sees humans as separate from the Earth, no matter how green we make our economy, technologies and infrastructure, we’re still operating from an obsolete mindset, and we’re only kicking the can down the road.

  • BrendanBarrett

    Thanks for the comments so far. Desparatedam, you may be right, but at the same time, there extent of public disquiet about the misdealings around the bailouts is growing day by day. This is not going to go away quickly.

    Kenji, maybe we are seeing something similar to Knustler’s long emergency. The financial meltdown began in 2008 and three years later we are seeing the follow on effects. If Knustler is right then we will see a pattern of financial shock, followed by things improving a bit, then another shock. This could results in shifts in power but also to institutional and other kinds of innovation, as we work to accommodate the new reality.

    In the process, Alan, perhaps you are right in your suggestion that we need a major transformation in consciousness. This could begin with a complete re-evaluation of our basic norms and values. I always like the work of Tim Jackson on Prosperity without Growth. The notion is that we can live a prosperous life without economic growth, and without destroying the climate and the planet.

  • Darek Gondor

    It is everyone’s responsibility to support the OWS movement at least in principle, otherwise you support inequality, and oppression.  With a critical mass of support, change can happen through traditional channels of democracy. 

    I am skeptical of the technology solution and these green investors, because at its heart the relationship between society, its gvernment and business is what needs a transition. Promoting efficient appliances in the consumer market is like Pepsi launching a new softrink brand just to take market share away from a competitor.  Similarly, the electric goods industry needs a new niche or innovation to sell more stuff.  Its not clear selling more efficient stuff is going to impact energy use.  It hasnt in the past as we just use more.The OWS movement must demand more, and what that is is clearly spelled out in the first two chapters of “Prosperity without Growth” but a chance for psychological well being and self actualization, and meaningful participation in society are among them.

    • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

      Thanks for chiming in Darek. So you don’t think it would help in nudging towards critical mass if those with the most wealth were to put their investments in greener things (eg., renewable energy) rather than the next generation of e-book technology or what have you? Are there not a gazillion people out there buying weekly cases of Pepsi who are not Occupying, and who are in fact quite a ways from understanding the OWS movement, who might finally start to consider that they could maybe want ‘Prosperity without Growth’ rather than a bigger plasma screen if they were to see the 1% (that they up to now have longed to be part of) being more conscious of the consequences of their wealth-building strategies? Unfortunately the whole shift to wanting more than economic comfort will have to be a long process as the money-means-you-made-it mantra has made a deep impression worldwide. ________________________________________

      • Darek Gondor

        Hi Carol.  Even Tim Jackson says green investment is part of the solution, but I think he means public investment in infrastructure, technology, etc.  When the private sector does this it is usulally for profit, not necessarily for the common environmental good.  I don’t know what the impact of these investors would be, but I imagine there needs to be basic public investment first and also a will to turn our back on traditional energy interests in oil, coal, etc.

        Clean energy start-ups receiving gov’t handouts — how many will end up like Solyndra in the US, or the home retrofit program that in Seattle cost $20 million, created 14 jobs and weatherized only 3 homes (according to Jon Stewart?)

        • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

          Okay Darek so I guess you’re saying, “Nope, them 1% are definitely irredeemable”, lol. But many would agree with you: a plutonomy’s a plutonomy, right? (did you hear/read Chomsky’s Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture). Though yeah, if the hopes for public funding are to come to pass, Occupy can maybe bring the scrutiny necessary to undo the financialization of politics in the current leading plutonomies and maybe prevent emerging economies from going so far down that road?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DF262BQXLHXJMFE2WDBTUODKNA Jonathan

    In this capitalistic chaos, this little riddle can only be solved by business men drawn to opportunity and profit, whilst dancing amongst the ethics and morality of the lesser 99%, endeavouring to be crowned as the fortunate 1%. Investment is for profit. Charity and tax relief are for ethical and green marketing. Efficiency and cost reduction schemes inevitably involve outsourcing thus reduces your overall responsibility, feeding off cheep labour economies desperate for growth, utilising legal structures and services far removed from green ideas.
    The supply of energy has become a right. It is heavily integrated into how we live. We have used it to build societies and thinking, so conversely we are heavily dependent on it. There has to be an incentive to develop a green process. If it is never going to be cheep then, you have to look at why this is the case. It is plausible that the cheeper alternative is ultimately a destructive process. Destructive processes involve minimising responsibility, exploitation and passing the buck, which makes things cheeper. If these destructive cheaper alternatives dont clean up after themselves, then there is never going to be financial breathing space for emerging technologies that are greener and ultimately cheeper because they are less destructive. Not always plausible for a democratic government scraping by during a recession, knowing it would then be biting the hand that feeds it. 
    Then we are simply waiting for the emerging ecomies to grow and once the major global players are on an even playing ground, which will look more like a pit of destruction, only then will it seem fair to point fingers… eventually the global selection pressures will lead to change.

    • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

      Hmmm, not sure I’m following everything you’re saying Jonathan. Do you mean that the 99% are wasting their time and we all have to just sit back & wait for the 1% to run out of resources to profit on?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DF262BQXLHXJMFE2WDBTUODKNA Jonathan

    In this capitalistic chaos, this little riddle can only be solved by business men drawn to opportunity and profit, whilst dancing amongst the ethics and morality of the lesser 99%, endeavouring to be crowned as the fortunate 1%. Investment is for profit. Charity and tax relief are for ethical and green marketing. Efficiency and cost reduction schemes inevitably involve outsourcing thus reduces your overall responsibility, feeding off cheep labour economies desperate for growth, utilising legal structures and services far removed from green ideas.
    The supply of energy has become a right. It is heavily integrated into how we live. We have used it to build societies and thinking, so conversely we are heavily dependent on it. There has to be an incentive to develop a green process. If it is never going to be cheep then, you have to look at why this is the case. It is plausible that the cheeper alternative is ultimately a destructive process. Destructive processes involve minimising responsibility, exploitation and passing the buck, which makes things cheeper. If these destructive cheaper alternatives dont clean up after themselves, then there is never going to be financial breathing space for emerging technologies that are greener and ultimately cheeper because they are less destructive. Not always plausible for a democratic government scraping by during a recession, knowing it would then be biting the hand that feeds it. 
    Then we are simply waiting for the emerging ecomies to grow and once the major global players are on an even playing ground, which will look more like a pit of destruction, only then will it seem fair to point fingers… eventually the global selection pressures will lead to change.

  • Allen_JT

    Here is the stitch. We know everyone else, including ourselves, are individuals. No two are exactly alike, nor is there a guarantee someone will stay the same throughout their lives. Even in character.

    I understand the efforts some individuals are applying. I have noticed, even one of my choices having a strong effect. This is true even on a daily level. Unless I am wrong, I wonder why most do not look at their daily choices more critically. I define “critically” as applying proactive thought to the action you just chose to perform.

    I agree the effect of one person’s choice appears increasingly negligible as the relative scale increases, yet it is the collective effect of those subtle ripples (choices) that affect us as a whole. Why is it difficult for some to see this? If they are seeing it, why do they not accept that choice is also destroying them?

    I know one answer will never apply to all situations such as with the saying, “You can fool some of the people all the time, you can fool all the people some of the time, but you can never fool all the people all of the time.”

    For the efforts I am able to physically track across the world, I do have hope for a brighter future. It should not have to take  a catastrophic experience like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to make the necessary change happen.

    On the lighter side, I thank everyone for sharing their thoughts. They are very enlightening.

  • marknotaras

    Let’s be frank: nothing can redeem the 1%. I saw a depressing National Geographic documentary which showed the global temperature increase required for Wall St to be flooded. I predict that to be the point where the money-makers (sorry “job creators”) really start to get it. It will be a sad day for them when their money stash starts to get wet. Let’s hope the people swimming in Bangladesh understand their tragic plight.

    The real question is whether the other percentages (say the 50-70% Middle Classes in developed countries and much less in newly industrializing countries) can be redeemed? The 1% thrives on having the rest of us buying things we don’t need through systems that are intrinsically destructive e.g. palm oil and soybean plantations. Look at the stuff people buy and “need” to upgrade every year. Then of course you need a big house to put the stuff in. Your work too hard to have the government put your money into things like “schools and hospitals”. Lower taxes sound great since you’ve made all your wealth on your own, unlike other poorer people who are lazy etc. Because you eat too much and without cognitive thought, and because we design suburbia so badly, you drive huge distances in a huge car all by yourself. It’s so unfair that gas prices are so high.

    The 1% then buffer all they gain from your lifestyle by creating financial instruments that create no real value and of course are understood by virtually nobody. The top 1% of the top 1%  even start “foundations” to help the poor in African farm GM monocultures owned by, you guessed, it, the 1%. I’m 99% sure Orwell could not have written this better himself.
     

  • Allen_JT

    The most significant fallacy I see in arguments is also the most simple one to make, one that I make from time to time IF I don’t think first about what I am going to say.  

    A person cannot blame all members of a single group with a single blanket judgment. Why? 

    1. Each member of that group – however narrowed – will have even slightly varying differences of beliefs and character. If you are looking for an example, individual human character can be just as subtly diverse as the number of species existing on this planet if the total number of all species matched our population without reducing the diversity in doing so.

    2. Some members are equally likely of having beliefs and character wholly opposed to others of that same group and still be in that group. Oprah, despite being part of that 1%, has been marked as one of the most benevolent and giving women of our time nationally and internationally.

    3. The top 1%, although fewer in total population – if they were compared to the population number of a small city in size – are just as diverse in thought, character and action. 

    4. While addressing this topic – or any for that matter – critically think before you misdirect, assume the intelligence of another person or group collectively or individually, their situational understanding collectively or individually and including illogically pointing 
    the finger at someone including the individuals you respond to.

     Take all of those previous claims and premise hinted at in the first sentence together, especially when you have no personal knowledge of the individuals or groups through dedicated research, or when there is no clear and distinct credible sources to back up your claims.

    I have chosen to push for a more positive outlook on life due to recent medical issues. This more positive attitude, while very challenging especially given my normally dreary attitude, has been far more enlightening and supporting both mentally and (dare I say it !?) ESPECIALLY PHYSICALLY.

    While I can understand your attitude in the argument, please for your sake get off your “all knowing” high horse. No one person will have all the answers all the time; not me and not you or any other one person. However, when working together and communicating openly, we can solve problems we did not know needed to be solved. 

    What you have failed to realize are two things:

    1. No matter how much a person has screwed up, if that one person is willing to change so much as to completely turn their character around for the better there will always be one person willing to give that character a chance.

    2. Not one system is immune from corruption, including the individual – as we are equally capable of corrupting ourselves. This fact does not impede any one person from changing, if they choose to do so by seeing this possible corruption within themselves.

    Change, wether it is positive or negative, will continue to change. What matters most, is what that individual person will do in light of a positive change or without regard in light of a negative change.

    As old as the article and comments were, I responded for a simple reason: I believe it can happen, even without an “overnight” miracle.