the rich

How the Rich are Destroying the Earth

By Hervé Kempf
Chelsea Green Publishing, November 30, 2007, $12.95

So why the hell shouldn’t the rich destroy the planet? After all, it’s theirs. They own it. We all live on it, true, but we’re just renting space from the Landlords of our piece of earth, our air, our water.

The Landlords do what they want with their property. To get at their gold, they dump arsenic in our drinking water; to get at their oil, they melt our polar caps and barf soot into our lungs.

Hervé Kempf, being French, is really upset about this. But many Americans applaud it. We call these resource rapists "entrepreneurs" – it’s the only French word most journalists know – and drool over their rewards on re-runs of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

It’s a weirdly perfect day to be writing an introduction to Kempf’s J’accuse. The United States Supreme Court has just let Exxon off the hook for shitting oil all over the Alaskan coastline with the crude that poured from the tanker Exxon Valdez. Years back, I investigated that eco-horror for the people that lived on the slimed beaches, the indigenous Chugach of Alaska.

What I found was that the oil would have never touched the coast if the company had surrounded the ship with a rubber barrier immediately after it ran aground. That’s exactly the kind of barrier the oil shipper swore, before the spill, that it would have at the ready-right on the island where the ship hit. But they didn’t. Exxon lied – under oath – then lied again in writing, and then lied again to cover up the fact that they’d placed no oil spill equipment on the island. Ten months before the spill, at a secret meeting of the executives of the world’s largest oil companies, Exxon’s top brass vetoed a plea from their own vice president in Alaska to buy the oil spill containment equipment. Exxon didn’t want to spend the money.

The savings to Exxon in safety equipment not purchased ran into the billions. The damage to our planet was inestimable. The damage to the Alaskan people can be measured in bankruptcies and suicides.

And that’s what Kempf is telling us: Ecological destruction is a profitable business.

He busts the myth that somehow there is no connection between the black oil in the water and the black ink on the bottom line.

In the U.S.A., we continue to pretend that destroying our planet is somehow the result of working-class vices, like driving to work or not recycling our juice bottles. Saving the planet, we are told, is the work of our enlightened rulers. After all, British Petroleum has painted all its gas stations green.

Kempf dissents. He explains that you can’t have a grossly consuming over-class without driving the underclass to desperation. Raise the price of oil to over $100 a barrel, and the poor of Indonesia will cut down forests for fuel to cook their food.

Kempf gets it: Environmental devastation is class war by other means. It’s not about attitudes or habits, not about tree huggers versus tree cutters. Not about Democrats versus Republicans. It’s the rich versus the rest of us. Barrick Gold Corporation, infused by cash from Saudi Gun runner Adnan Khasshoggi and named an "Environmental Pig of the Year" by one U.S. magazine, has had on its payroll George Bush Sr., one-time civil rights leader Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan (Bill Clinton’s lawyer), right-wing Latin media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, and banker Nathaniel Rothschild. That just tells you that these little piggies come in Black and White, Democrat and Republican, Tory and Liberal, speaking French and English and Hindi, too. They are Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Satanic. A rainbow coalition of hyper-rich worldwide destructo-crats holding hands across the continents.

No one understands this better than the inventor of the modern environmental movement, Barry Commoner. The accomplished biologist, now 91 years old, working in the 1950s with soulful, large minds like Linus Pauling, conceived of a movement that would marry biological science, earth sciences, conservationism, the Ban-the-Bomb movement – and class war. Commoner was, after World War II, a secret member of the Communist Party, a connection he now regrets, given the murderous treatment of the planet by the Soviets. Nevertheless, his Marx-informed understanding of the politics of eco-imperialism taught him that saving the planet – and the creatures on it – requires knowing your enemy, those who assault Mother Earth to make a buck.

Kempf, knowingly or unknowingly, is Commoner’s child. Kempf understands, it’s us versus them. I, by contrast, am the bastard offspring of Commoner’s nemesis, Milton Friedman, under whom I studied at the University of Chicago. The Milton Friedman school of economics calls crimes against our planet "externalities" which must steadfastly be ignored in the drive for wealth creation. It’s a damaged theory of markets uber alles in which Democrats and Republicans alike would have us trade in our factory jobs so that the real bosses can have bigger yachts and summer homes.

As Kempf notes, it was also at the University of Chicago where, in 1892, the theory of the "leisure class" as economic leeches was first studied by professor Thorsten Veblen. "Conspicuous consumption" was Veblen’s term, and it remains today’s leisure class game. Kempf, imploring us to raise Veblen from the dead, does so with the urgency of a most clever environmentalist and the frustration of a fed-up socialist. He argues for more equitable control of this planet as the only answer to the earth’s degradation.

Kempf gets it: The rising sea level is a direct consequence of rising inequality. Yet the knights of the new world order, like George Bush, Al Gore, or the CEO of a multi-national that is telling you to reduce your carbon footprint from their private jet, want you to believe the solution lies with turning our fate over to enlightened business chieftains. It was, let’s remember, that supreme hot-air salesman, Mr. Gore, who sold us the fable of "free trade," forcing the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) down our throats. Thanks to Al’s NAFTA, we’re all sucking diesel soot from tractor trailers hauling cheap goods to Wal-Mart, where now laid-off workers from shut-down U.S. factories shop for bargains. It was Gore who ran a crusade against environmental and safety regulations in the Clinton Administration, all in the name of "efficient" (translation: corporate-friendly) government. Dubya Bush only took Al’s get-out-of-the-way-of-markets philosophy to its nasty conclusion.

When the anti-regulation, free-market psychosis leads to illness in our environment, the two connected forces – grotesque market profiteering and planetary corrosion – are made to seem innocuously distinct. Kempf shows us that they are just two arms of the same beast. He suggests we wise up, and quick. The ultimate obstacle to Earth’s salvation is our own naiveté.

Foreword to Hervé Kempf’s How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth © by Greg Palast. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Chelsea Green Publishing.