Are We Rich? The Links Between Ecological Privilege, Affluenza and Climate Change Denial (Part 1)

Are we rich? Ecological privilege in the park

The second season of AMC’s Mad Men contains a now iconic scene: the Draper family enjoying an idyllic picnic.

It’s a perfectly realised and knowing tableaux of heteronormativity, a fictional portrayal  of a seemingly perfect 1950s nuclear family (1).

At one point one of the children ask “Are we rich?” In response they’re told it’s not polite to talk about money.

As the picnic ends Don, the family patriarch, finishes his beer and pitches the empty can off screen into the park.

Betty, the mother, packs up as the rest of the family troops back to the car. In a manner equally cavalier to Don, she grabs the corners of the rug the family had been sprawling upon and flicks rubbish across the park.

Like the rest of the family she turns her back and leaves, unconcerned about the spoiled landscape they leave behind.

Of course it’s a fictional scene. However it perfectly encapsulates the intersection of wealth, privilege, willed indifference and the impact of the modern consumer lifestyle on the environment.

The Draper’s feel entitled to use the landscape in a way that asserts the primacy of their needs.

In many respects, it is a fitting example of ecological privilege.

What we do we mean by ecological privilege?

“So why the hell shouldn’t the rich destroy the planet? After all, it’s theirs. They own it. We live on it… The Landlords do what they want with their property. To get their gold, they dump arsenic in our drinking water; to get their oil, they melt our polar ice caps…” – How the Rich are Destroying the Earth (2)

What exactly do I mean by ecological privilege?

Over the course of this three-part article I’ll attempt to:

  • define what ecological privilege is;
  • discuss how it’s origins and how expresses itself in Australian society
  • look at how it shapes our response to climate change and other environmental emergencies.

Defining ecological privilege: transforming and controlling the biosphere

It’s a term starting to appear in some academic literature, but I’m yet to come across a definitive work (3) – thus I will appropriate the term and articulate my own interpretation:

Ecological privilege refers to how an industrialised society transforms all aspects of the biosphere – resources, ecosystems, earth systems and other organisms – and subordinates them to needs of a relatively small global minority.

Ecological privilege overlaps and is enforced by other forms of privilege such as first world privilege, white privilege and other privileges (class, social, gender, economic etc.).

Ecological privilege grants a disproportionate use of resources and control of the biosphere to a global minority at the expense of the global majority and other orgamisms.

It is a fundamentally unjust and unequal distribution of power within societies and globally.

We see this in the disproportionate per-capita greenhouse consumption of Australians.

We also see this reflected in the fact that the even though the American population constitutes less than 5% of the global population they consume a disproportionate share of resources:

“With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper…” – Use it or lose it: the outsized effect of American consumption on the Environment, Scientific American September 14, 2012 (4)

Rich industrial nations such as Australia and the United States have gained enormous benefit from constructing “societies and lifestyles” that “assert their primacy and rights within their own lands and the world over.” (5)

Having gained these privileges that operate at a global level in terms of economic power and resource use, giving them up is difficult.

Ecological privilege also exists at the individual level, and those favored few are generally unaware of the advantages they possess.

It finds expression in accessing cheap energy or the ability to fly on a regular basis; it finds expression in not worrying about food or water security; it is can be seen in the commonly held view the environment is something “separate” to our concerns and well being.

Paradoxically when confronted with the reality of this privilege many angrily deny it. To admit to oneself, let alone others, that your lifestyle choices may be directly linked to a looming ecological catastrophe is deeply challenging.

After all, no one likes to think they’re personally responsible for ecocide.


Coming up in Part 2 – Dominion over the globe: the connection between neo-liberalism affluenza and ecological privilege

Ecological privilege and its relationship to the broader culture will take some explanation, and is still very much a work in progress.

Part two of this article will look at of neo-liberalism and affluenza, and their intersection with the idea of ecological privilege.

Comments, thoughts and criticisms welcome.


References

(1) All though fans of the series know better.

(2) How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, Harve Kempf (Finch Publishing 2008)

(3) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/american-consumption-habits/ 

(4) The Spaces of Neoliberalism: Land, Place and Family in Latin AmericaJacquelyn Chase (Kumarian Press 2002)

(5) Ibid pg. vii

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6 comments

  1. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

    The phrase, “Dominion over the globe” is a reminder that this has VERY deep historical roots. Christian theology (or at least some parts of it) has an inherent assumption that the globe IS a supernatural construct specifically designed for humans to exploit and dominate. This is not a forgotten or abandoned element in the ‘culture war’ you identify as the Cornwall alliance statement indicates.

    “We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.”

    It is worth remembering that this dominion was not confined to the natural ecology. Until relatively recently in human society dominion over other humans was also considered to be acceptable and sanctioned by religious teaching. The Biblical defense of slavery was a key element in the justification of the Southern states before the American civil war.

    Perhaps some comfort can be taken from the fact that the dominion of Man over his fellow man is much less acceptable at present. I am not targeting Christian religion (or any other) as directly responsible for this attitude, religious teachings are usually ambiguous and contradictory enough for it to be exploited as a justification for Dominion by those who seek to justify their privilege. As well as a basis for cooperative care of fellow humans and the ecology as the Pope recently showed.

    It was that concept of dominion over Nature that drove the industrial revolution and the vast progress in the human condition, so it is little surprise that not only the already wealthy favour that outlook, but those still poor and aspiring to gain the benefits of modern technological civilisation also see ecological privilege as something to be admired and striven for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank’s izen, wonderful comments – really appreciated. And yes, I was hinting at the religious aspects in the word “dominion”. It still finds expression in how many view the environment.

      As you rightly point out, there are many different threads intersecting.

      Like

  2. Welcome back, Mike. Your starting point and rightfully so in this context is one of already developed society however, as an ecologist, I like to take things back to basics and all this wealth and privilege stems from base instincts of survival and reproduction, and basic biology. We are just another species on this planet and we are generalists. What makes us unique is that unlike a generalist organism that takes advantage of ecological disturbance and can come to dominate the niches formerly occupied by specialists and force them out or to the brink, we actually create the disturbances that push out specialists and we dominate, not so much through seemingly unspectacular adaptations, but by using our big brains to cope with our new reality through innovation and invention. Some would argue that when it comes to the mother of all disturbances, anthropogenic climate change, we can somehow exercise our God-given rights to dominate the Earth, and our big brains, and just invent our way out of the problem we have made (after acknowledging it of course), but in the end, even generalists struggle when they run out of food and fresh water.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks mate, and great comments. I agree broader context and going back further is necessary. I’ve been musing how to see all this in the broader scope of deep history. Not hundreds of years, but right back to when we left the Rift Valley.

      The human foot print has been heavy upon the earth. Where ever we’ve gone, we’ve transformed the landscape and ushered in extinction events at the local level. Mega-fauna extinction in Australia, North American and elsewhere quickly followed human habitation. I’m sure you’re aware of how Aboriginal cultivation methods (fire stick farming) reshaped the Australian landscape significantly over thousands of years.

      The Industrial Revolution super-charged this human tendency to reshape the biosphere/earth systems by releasing CO2/GHG reserves that normally cycle in/out of long periods.

      The human perturbation ushered in the Anthropocene – I personally subscribe to the Long Anthropocene school of thought and date it as far back as the iron age, if not longer.

      Current state of earth systems are clearly in flux, and a new equilibrium is emerging thanks to our impact.

      But yes, you’ve reminded me of some key points I should be factoring in. Thanks 🙂

      Like

  3. The term “white privilege” does not seem to work well. Even people who are enormously privileged only notice what they had to do to get to where they are. That others would have to fight much harder to get to the same place is very hard to see, especially if you are strongly motivated not to see it.

    Likewise, I can imagine that “ecological privilege” helps you think about this issue, but the term will likely not contribute to solving it.

    Like

  4. It is surely no coincidence that the countries most wedded to exclusionary voting like FPTP and the ranked ballot are also the ones leading the way in excluding consideration of the interests of others and of Nature, in how they deal with the disposing of their excesses in greenhouse gas and of material trash.

    The Canadian elite and it must be said most voters of all stripes could care less that their federal governments are regularly elected upon 1/3 of the votes of the half of the voters who bothered to vote — as long as that party is right wing.

    Only if the party is left wing is the vote legitimacy questioned – but not enough to threaten FPTP.

    They simply do’nt care if the majority is excluded from the political conversation – be it within Canada – or at the international stage over the dire effects of their climate changing behavior on tiny island nations.

    Liked by 1 person

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