John Buell

Inequality and Climate Change

Wall Street was spared most of the worst damage of Hurricane Sandy. Though I wish harm on no one, it would have been poetic justice if the stock exchange or the towering investment banks had suffered just a portion of the damage experienced on the Jersey Shore or Staten Island. The machinations of our stock markets and our investment banks have made a substantial, if indirect, contribution to the forces that encourage inertia or outright resistance to constructive responses to climate change.

New York City is the poster child for the vast inequality that has characterized our society in the last generation. Its investment banks, whose size and scope only grew during the financial crisis, have helped drive the process. The five biggest banks now have about half of all banking business in the US. Their speculative bets drove enormous wealth creation on the street, and the bursting of the bubbles fostered an economic crash that decimated the poor and working class. Even the collapse of the bubble left these elites relatively unscathed as they used their political pull to orchestrate bailouts and continued bonuses.

Instability and inequality are not ecologically neutral. The great democratic theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau, a contemporary of Adam Smith in the 18th century, pointed out that a commitment to public solutions to social problems was unlikely to emerge from highly unequal societies. The most wealthy can seek private escapes while the poorest lack the resources to influence government policy. Absolute equality is not necessary, but “no citizen should have so much {power} that he can buy another and none so little that he is forced to sell himself.”

The logic to which Rousseau alluded has played itself out in N.Y.C. over the last few weeks. David Rohde, writing recently for The Atlantic, remarked:

“Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.

Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.

New census data shows that the city is the most economically divided it has been in a decade… As has occurred across the country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. …”

Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20% of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20% made $9,681.”

Of course the storm disrupted the lives of even some of the most wealthy of New York City residents, but here again class played a big role: “On the other end of the wealth spectrum, New York’s age-old excesses emerged. Some families brought their nannies to the hotel to help care for their children through the hurricane. Others panicked when the power went off. All the while, waiters, maids and doormen continued to help them.”

It remains to be seen how events of this sort will affect environmental politics. I fear that for many of the wealthiest Sandy will prove but a momentary distraction. They have insulated themselves from the effects not only of many daily environmental challenges but even of climate change. They buy organic, live miles from toxic dumps, far from coal or nuclear plants. They enjoy multiple homes to which they can always escape. These accoutrements sustain and reflect a sense of planetary entitlement.

Of course even for them this security may prove illusory, one more mark of the hubris of the current elites. Nonetheless, the impending ecological crisis, with events like Sandy likely to be the new normal as even some corporate media now concede, give us even more reason to curb the economic and political power of high finance.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012

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