Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin (Illustration by Edward Carvalho-Monaghan):
[I]nternational disparities have, of course, long presented a challenge to those concerned with both domestic and global justice: how to acknowledge that America’s poor are wealthier than most of the world without simply concluding that they’re part of the problem? But while discussions of consumption tends to focus on a universal “we,” as epitomized by the famous Pogo Earth Day cartoon — “we have met the enemy, and he is us” — it’s important to look more closely within the rich world rather than simply heaping scorn on national averages.
Depictions of American consumerism tend to focus on the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s, suggesting that blame lies with the ravenous, grasping masses. Meanwhile it’s trendy for the wealthy to appear virtuous as they drive Priuses, live in homes that tout “green design,” and eat organic kale. But whether you “care about the environment,” believe in climate change, or agonize over your coffee’s origins doesn’t matter as much as your tax bracket and the consumption habits that go with it.
Consumption doesn’t correspond perfectly to income — in large part because of public programs like SNAP that supplement low-income households — but the two are closely linked. The US Congressional Budget Office estimates that the carbon footprint of the top quintile is over three times that of the bottom. Even in relatively egalitarian Canada, the top income decile has a mobility footprint nine times that of the lowest, a consumer goods footprint four times greater, and an overall ecological footprint two-and-a-half times larger. Air travel is frequently pegged as one of the most rapidly growing sources of carbon emissions, but it’s not simply because budget airlines have “democratized the skies” — rather, flying has truly exploded among the hyper-mobile affluent. Thus in Western Europe, the transportation footprint of the top income earners is 250 percent of that of the poor. And global carbon emissions are particularly uneven: the top five hundred million people by income, comprising about 8 percent of global population, are responsible for 50 percent of all emissions. It’s a truly global elite, with high emitters present in all countries of the world.
But that doesn’t mean America is off the hook altogether. The global wealthy may consume far more than the rest, but global consumption can’t be leveled out by bringing everyone up to even Western median levels; consumption in rich nations, even at relatively low levels of income, has to decline if we’re to achieve some measure of global equality.
For those in rich countries, this sounds suspiciously close to an argument for austerity: we’ve been profligate, and now the bill is coming due.