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Before we get started, a reminder that the big FMFP fundraising event is happening now until the end of the month. If this newsletter has been useful to you over the last two years, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Ecojustice here. Let’s come together and see what good we can do!
About a month ago, my partner and I signed up to take part in a local ravine clean-up. When we arrived, we learned that this clean-up was different than the usual litter collection: we’d be packing out a dump left by some of the unhoused population. (An action done with the support of that community.) This trash pile was as wide as four cars parked side by side, and almost as tall. It was a soggy, dirty snarl of camping gear, clothing, food packaging, bike parts, and occasionally drug paraphernalia. When confronted with such waste it might be tempting to conclude that unhoused people don’t care about the environment. But the best conclusion here is that they can’t care: these are people who aren’t failing the world but have been failed by it, who need social supports, addiction and mental health counselling, food and shelter. A little litter is not the big problem.
You may find that obvious (great!), so let’s look at another example. The Philippines is the thirteenth most populous country in the world, but the third biggest source of plastic in the ocean. Why? First and foremost, it’s a country that’s been on the receiving end of colonial exploitation for centuries. Thus, most of its wealth and resources have been extracted for the benefit of other countries like ours. That’s left a country that has trash management regulations but low enforcement and not enough resources to manage it well — how good would you be at managing your own garbage if the truck didn’t show up every week to take it away? (And not just to take away to our own landfills, but to overseas destinations like *ding ding ding* the Philippines. They’re not just managing their trash, but ours.) Many people there have such limited cash flow that they buy necessities like toothpaste or detergent in single-serving sachets, which are especially prone to being blown into rivers and the ocean. Is the problem pollution, or is the problem poverty, colonialism, and major foreign corporations (Unilever, Nestlé) selling highly packaged products? Both of these companies, btw, have pledged to make 100% of their packaging reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable by 2025, but how will that help countries without the ability to process that packaging? Angelica Carballo-Pago, a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines, told Mongabay that what she really wants to see is regulation of those companies and better alternatives than single-use plastic. Also if we paid fairer wages and had more just global economic policy, people would have more disposable income and wouldn’t need to rely on those sachets.
My point here should be obvious but so often gets overlooked: poverty and environmental degradation are intertwined. People so often blame environmental harm — whether it’s burning coal, deforestation, or plastic pollution — on less wealthy nations. But what we’re seeing are the impacts of colonialism, unjust systems, and poverty.
Now since we’re talking about wealth, let’s examine the other side of things.
First of all, who’s wealthy? Well, from a global perspective every single person reading this newsletter is practically a Kardashian. (If you want to find out exactly how your paper stacks up, this calculator will tell you where your household sits globally. By that calculation, my partner and I are richer than 97.7% of the world. 🤯)
Looking at this chart, over 85% of the world’s population lives below the poverty line, as defined in a high-income country. And that has a direct result on how much carbon they’re adding to the atmosphere. The poorest 50% of people in the world contribute just 10% of global household carbon emissions. The richest 10% of people contribute 50%. (This is setting aside industrial pollution, because rich countries have exported a huge amount of their industrial pollution. Exhibit A: everything in your house stamped “Made in China.”)
Where you live has a big impact on how much you emit. For 2020, the average per capita carbon footprint of an American or Canadian is roughly 14 tons of CO2 per year, whereas Brazil clocks in at 2.2, Egypt at 2.09, and France at 4.24.
Your average North American isn’t dumping trash into the ocean; our beaches aren’t overrun with single-serving sachets. But what we’re doing is far worse. A 2021 study published in Nature on the “social cost” of carbon found that the average lifestyles of 3.5 Americans, over their lifetime, would create enough carbon to kill a person prematurely from increased temperature. And that person is not likely to live in a rich country, because the brunt of climate change falls on poorer nations.
But let’s return to the very wealthy, because even if you live in a rich country, not everyone has the same impact. According to climate scientist Dr. Kimberly Nicholas, the richest 10% of Americans (that’s people who earn over $200,000/year) have an average annual carbon footprint of 50 tons, mostly because of all the driving and flying. The richest 1% break the scale, generating 10,000x the carbon of the average person: 140,000 tons per person. And as a reminder, to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, our budget per person is 1.5 to 2.5 tons.
If you want to throw open your windows like Scrooge on Christmas morning to bellow “TAX THE RICH!!!!!!” now is an appropriate time.
Most lower-income people live more environmentally friendly lifestyles by default: if you’re flying less (or not at all), living in smaller homes, using public transit, and buying less, you’re using fewer resources and releasing less carbon. Many people who grew up with less also don’t need some sort of come-to-Gaia epiphany to understand the value of reuse or buying secondhand.
Here’s a chart from a 2020 study by Diana Ivanova and Richard Wood showing emissions distribution in Europe by sector (with red markup by Dr. Nicholas):
Dr. Nicholas notes that if the richest 10% globally (anyone earning over $38,000/year) could get to the emissions level of the average European, global emissions would drop by one-third, bringing us over halfway to the 50% emissions cut needed by 2030.
This isn’t about guilt — we can’t help where we’re born, or into what family. But we need to be aware of our incredible privilege, because as Dr. Nicholas writes in her indispensable Under the Sky We Make, “Responsibility scales with power.”
So let’s see how we can use our power.
Challenge common misconceptions.
The next time you’re in a conversation where someone says, “Well, but the real problem is India,” or the like, remind them the call is coming from inside the house. This rhetoric is colonialist, white supremacist nonsense that needs to be extinguished like sparks in our drought-plagued forests.
At the risk of overcharting you, one more: this one shows our cumulative historical carbon footprint, aka the cost of “development.”
25% of total historical emissions come from the US of A, twice more than China, which sits in the #2 spot. So put away those pointing fingers.
Write to your rep about keeping our COP mitigation fund commitments.
If the data I presented here strikes you as terribly unfair, write your federal rep and remind them you want this country to cough up our share of the $100 billion climate adaptation fund we promised to start delivering annually between 2020 and 2025. You can also state your support for a further loss and damages fund, aka climate reparations, because the people who didn’t make the mess are currently the ones dealing with the first and worst consequences.
Tax the ultra-wealthy.
The Bernie Bros are right: billionaires shouldn’t exist. A lot of us have trouble conceptualizing how much a billion is: it’s becoming a millionaire one thousand times. If you want to see it another way, you can use this tool to find out how long it would take a tech CEO to earn your annual salary or work off your debt. Turns out aspiring space traveller Jeffrey B could earn my annual salary in less than 30 seconds. But I’m sure he works very hard.
Very few billionaires fill their Scrooge McDuck vault without exploiting people and/or the planet while unfairly shunting the repercussions onto civil society, so making billionaires pay more taxes is one way to address that. Under Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax for the ultra-wealthy, Bezos would pay $5.434 billion in taxes — but that’s just 3% of his net worth, which will continue growing at a gobsmacking rate. Don’t worry, he’d still be able to afford cool racing stripes for his next spaceship.
If you read this and realized that unequal wealth distribution is destroying lives and the planet, you can do something about it that conveniently fits with our challenge of the month!
I support taxation, which is how we pay for a civilized society with awesome things like schools, health care, public transit, and libraries, but a) our taxation on the super-rich is inadequate, b) not enough money flows from rich to poor countries, and c) general taxation has its problems, such as the $754 billion the U.S. spent on the military in 2021. (Remember how they’re dodging their part in the $100 billion climate mitigation fund? They’re the person who orders the lobster, caviar, and the reserve wine on the menu, but wants to split the bill evenly. Hell, they might even dine and dash.)
Not everyone is able to give, but most of us actually can. Give yourself a planned payroll deduction, and this way you get to distribute the money exactly as you see fit.
The world’s poor are the least responsible, historically and currently, for climate change, though they will suffer the worst effects. If this strikes you as unfair, write your federal rep about your support for keeping and expanding our commitments to the COP climate adaptation fund.
If the richest 10% globally (that’s us!) could get to the emissions level of the average European, global emissions would drop by one-third, bringing us over halfway to the 50% emissions cut needed by 2030.
Support ambitious taxation for the ultra-wealthy, but don’t forget that you can tax yourself and help address global inequality and its environmental impacts.
Wins of the Week
“Recent storms have caused major disruptions; by one estimate, Hurricane Ida alone wrecked a quarter of a million cars. Such severe weather events are a reminder that the pandemic supply-chain ruptures may pale compared with those which will be associated with the climate crisis in coming years. Indeed, one of the most urgent tasks now may be to think about the two issues together. In both cases, the scramble for quick fixes — clearing downed power lines, restocking pasta — can distract from the need for systemic change. The real challenge, when it comes to thinking about supply chains, isn’t making sure that a container ship is unloaded. It’s deciding how we want to live.” — Amy Davidson Sorkin, “Stock Answers,” The New Yorker
I’ve loved seeing the discussion on the FMFP FB group about how you give back: monthly donations, volunteering, tithing your income — all incredible! It’s thrilling to see y’all smashing that taboo and talking about how you are making this world better. Here are a few highlights from wins of the last fortnight:
Sarah Joy and her fam have reduced their trash output enough to shrink their trash bin: She says, “We even save $50 a year, now! Who knew? It was very simple and straightforward and totally worth the small effort.”
Victoria’s work changed its secret Santa gift exchange, so that people donated to a charity their recipient cares about. Then at the reveal they talked about the org and why they chose it and it was a feast of feeling good. Since her company also has donation matching, this gift exchange had double the impact!
I gave my first deputation at Toronto City Hall, as our 2040 Net Zero plan was in front of the infrastructure committee. My councillor asked for deputants, and signing up was as easy as emailing City Hall. Actually doing the deputation took more time: there was a long list of speakers (which was nice to see), and luckily I have the privilege of a flexible work schedule. Did I make a difference? Probably not, but I did learn a lot more about the workings of municipal democracy, and I’d encourage anyone else to give it a try if there’s an issue you’re passionate about.
Happy holidays, however you celebrate. I hope the end of the year brings time for rest, connection, reflection, and renewal. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be