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.
(1) All though fans of the series know better.
(2) How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, Harve Kempf (Finch Publishing 2008)
(4) The Spaces of Neoliberalism: Land, Place and Family in Latin America, Jacquelyn Chase (Kumarian Press 2002)
(5) Ibid pg. vii