Hands up who's in the club that is wrecking the planet

Font Size:

Alex Baumann, Western Sydney University and Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

Among the many hard truths exposed by COVID-19 is the huge disparity between the world’s rich and poor. As economies went into freefall, the world’s billionaires increased their already huge fortunes by 27.5 per cent. And as many ordinary people lost their jobs and fell into poverty, The Guardian reported “the 1 per cent are coping” by taking private jets to their luxury retreats.

Such perverse affluence further fuelled criticism of the so-called 1 per cent, which has long been the standard rhetoric of the political Left.

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters called out growing economic inequality by proclaiming: “We are the 99 per cent!”. And an Oxfam report in September last year lamented how the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of humanity.

But you might be surprised to find this 1 per cent doesn’t just comprise the super rich. It may include you, or people you know. And this fact has big implications for social justice and planetary survival.

People crossing the street in Sydney
Many everyday Australians have a net worth that puts them in the world’s richest 1 per cent.

Look in the mirror

When you hear references to the 1 per cent, you might think of billionaires such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Tesla founder Elon Musk. However, as of October last year there were 2189 billionaires worldwide – a minuscule proportion of the 7.8 billion people on Earth. So obviously, you don’t have to be a billionaire to join this global elite.

So how rich do you have to be? Well, Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report in October last year showed an individual net worth of US$1 million ($1,295,825) – combined income, investments and personal assets – will make you among the world’s 1 per cent richest people.

The latest official data shows Australia’s richest 20 per cent of households have an average net worth of $3.2 million. The average Australian household has a net worth of $1,022,200, putting them just outside the world’s richest 1 per cent.

If you’ve just done the sums and fall outside the 1 per cent, don’t feel too sorry for yourself. A net wealth of US$109,430 ($147,038) puts you among the world’s richest 10 per cent. Most Australians fit into this category; half of us have a net worth of $558,900 or more.

Aerial view of suburban Australian homes
The net worth of many Australians puts them in the global elite.

What does all this mean for the planet?

It’s true the per capita emissions of the super rich are likely to be far greater than others in the top 1 per cent. But this doesn’t negate the uncomfortable fact Australians are among a fraction of the global population monopolising global wealth. This group causes the vast bulk of the world’s climate damage.

A 2020 Oxfam report shows the world’s richest 10 per cent produce a staggering 52 per cent of total carbon emissions. Consistent with this, a 2020 University of Leeds study found richer households around the world tend to spend their extra money on energy-intensive products, such as package holidays and car fuel. The UN’s 2020 Emission Gap Report further confirmed this, finding the top 10 per cent use around 75 per cent of all aviation energy and 45 per cent of all land transport energy.

It’s clear that wealth, and its consequent energy privilege, is neither socially just nor ecologically sustainable.

Man with one shiny shoe and one scruffy shoe
Global wealth disparity is not just or sustainable.

A potential solution

Much attention and headlines are devoted to the unethical wealth of billionaires. And while the criticism is justified, it distracts from a broader wealth problem – including our own.

We should note here, one can have an income that’s large compared to the global average, and still experience significant economic hardship. For instance in Australia, the housing costs of more than one million households exceed 30 per cent of total income – the commonly used benchmark for housing affordability.

Here lies a central challenge. Even if we wanted to reduce our wealth, the enormous cost of keeping a roof over our head prevents us from doing so. Servicing a mortgage or paying rent is one of our biggest financial obligations, and a key driver in the pursuit of wealth.

But as we’ve shown above, as personal wealth grows, so too does environmental devastation. The rule even applies to the lowest paid, who are working just to pay the rent. The industries they rely on, such as retail, tourism and hospitality, are themselves associated with environmental damage.

Existing economic and social structures mean stepping off this wealth-creating treadmill is almost impossible. However as we’ve written before, people can be liberated from their reliance on economic growth when land – the very foundation of our security – is not commodified.

For social justice and ecological survival, we must urgently experiment with new land and housing strategies, to make possible a lifestyle of reduced wealth and consumption and increased self-sufficiency.

This might include urban commons, such as the R-Urban project in Paris, where several hundred people co-manage land that includes a small farm for collective use, a recycling plant and cooperative eco-housing.

The R-Urban project in Paris, which includes a small farm.

Under a new land strategy, other ways of conserving resources could be deployed. One such example, developed by Australian academic Ted Trainer, involves cutting our earnings sharply – with paid work for only two days in a week. For the rest of the working week, we would tend to community food gardens, network and share many things we currently consume individually.

Such a way of living could help us re-evaluate the amount of wealth we need to live well.

The social and ecological challenges the world faces cannot be exaggerated. New thinking and creativity is needed. And the first step in this journey is taking an honest look at whether our own wealth and consumption habits are contributing to the problem.

The Conversation

Alex Baumann, Casual Academic, School of Social Sciences & Psychology, Western Sydney University and Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

What do you think of Ted Trainer’s suggested strategy? Do we have a choice about whether we rethink how societies function?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Join YourLifeChoices today
and get this free eBook!

By joining YourLifeChoices you consent that you have read and agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy


Five smart moves for empty nesters

The absence of adult children can mean big savings for the household.

Health check finds Australia is stressed and obese

We've put on weight and we worried more during lockdown.

The dilemma that can reduce retirement to a worry zone

You've saved for decades, then you need to start spending. For many, that's not easy.

Written by The Conversation


Total Comments: 10
  1. 7

    When you mention the guardian and the conversation in a single article, all that means is you have double the source of misinformation, of course that’s just my opinion.

  2. 5

    Apart the article being from The Guardian reports I found it quite surprising. I wish I was worth as much as the average Australian. If that’s the case why have we got such a long period of additional payments for Job Search etc. As I have said before perhaps some of these people should sell their 2nd car, run a first car that is not so expensive and pay for what you want when you go to buy it instead of running up high credit amounts. Less tablets, phones, PC’s being upgraded every 2 years would reduce their costs and help the planet at the same time. I don’t support the Global Warming club as the reasons would take some time to go through.

  3. 0

    The premise is correct – many of us are big polluters. And compared to many others in this world we Australians – even the “poor” people – are astoundingly well off.
    Most of us don’t really understand that our high living standard is polluting the world, and that much of what we do in mitigation is also polluting. Recycling is a major culprit, and we should be reducing and reusing well before we need to recycle. In almost all rural areas, recycling uses more energy than it saves, and we don’t even count agriculture in our calculations. We think we are doing the right thing, but it is only tinkering around the feel-good edges. We have lost the plot (except for the folk who never had it to begin with).

    With our current government’s attitude to it all, I have almost given up caring. It doesn’t matter what invective and hatred my grandchildren throw at me, because I will be long gone. Poor buggers, they will inherit from us a preventable and disastrous mess.

    • 0

      HMMM … so how do you propose we stop the climate from changing, which it has been doing since the earth was formed?

  4. 2

    Janus you are correct but most people cannot see past the end of there nose. The human race, as a whole, are the worst parasites on the planet in that we take a lot more out than we put back in. There can only be one end to that and the signs are there but most people are happy in their little cocoon of comfort.
    We all have to carry some responsibility for this but the article spells out the reality of how wealthy we are in comparison to most of the rest of the world. Like Janus I will be gone before the proverbial hits the fan and by that stage it will be too late for humankind but Mother Earth will survive and nature will adapt. without us.

  5. 0

    No surprise there. I thought perhaps Covid with reduced consumption, pollution, etc might have at least given us the opportunity to think about a more sustainable future. But no, here we all are spending even more on inessentials egged on by our governments. As Janus says it’s enough to make you give up.

  6. 2

    The YLC de-facto censors at work again. They still have no idea about the real situation .

  7. 0

    I am JUST A PENSIONER.. with limited savings and very very limited superannuation BUT I do remember what my parents had and what my childhood was like. One pair of shoes, walk to school. Don’t leave the table until all the food is eaten. IN COMPARISON I am extremely wealthy . I own my home and I have a relatively new car. ONE THING THAT I RETAIN, I am the biggest hippy greenie recycler, veggie grower, fruit sharer, light switch turnerofferer. Have never had central heating (wood fire in the lounge room) or cooling (wet cloth around the neck), no clothes dryer (sunshine does a really great job), no vacuum cleaner (so does a broom) and so many other things that are now part of what is considered normal day to day life. As societies expectations soar so does the cost and the effect on our planet. I do have internet, mobile phone, and TV. So, Yes, accept that in some way we all share the guilt. But the responsibility does not lie just with our politicians and leaders.. it is up to all of us to make changes TODAY.

  8. 1

    I notice that YLC seems to be highly biased with their articles, drawing heavily (exclusively) from far left sources such as “The Conversation”, “The Guardian” etc.

    How about just a little balance with more rational, non-alarmist, factual material, free of lies and spin, from Tony Heller (Real Climate Science), Andrew Bolt, or WattsUpWithThat etc?



continue reading

Health news

Australians want to die at home - but do we achieve that goal?

How do you want to die? More than 70 per cent of Australians want the end to come at home,...


Rise in 'grey divorces' sparks warning from legal experts

More Australians are divorcing later in life, leading to "unique, confusing and overwhelming" challenges for couples aged over 50. The...


Friday Funnies: Short jokes for the shortest month

February flies by too fast, just like these short but sharp jokes. What is the recipe for Honeymoon Salad?Lettuce alone...


The four types of hearing loss explained

Research indicates that one in six Australians has some form of hearing loss.  Hearing loss refers to reduced hearing, which...


Fabulous Fish Pie

It should go without saying that a fish pie needs to have lots of big chunks of fish in it,...


Succulent Spice-Roasted Salmon

These little salmon bites are something I've made time and time again over the years and this method of roasting...


How to take great pictures of gardens

If you've never been too good at taking pictures of your beautiful blooms, now's the time to brush up on...

Aged Care

Paid on par with cleaners: the broader issue affecting aged care

Paid on par with cleaners: the broader issue affecting the quality of aged care Ben Farr-Wharton, Edith Cowan University; Matthew...