Skip to content Skip to footer

How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet

A review and translated excerpt of the book from Herv Kempf, along with a conversation with the author.

In 2006, Le Monde environmental editor Herv Kempf’s article, “New Suspicions about GMO” (translated and republished at Truthout) was nominated for a Project Censored award for covering an important topic neglected by the mainstream press. Earlier this year, Truthout reported the publication of Kempf’s new book, “How the Rich are Destroying the Planet.” I was intrigued, all the more so as a few readers asked when the book would be available in English, and asked Mr. Kempf to send me a copy of his book as well as for permission to translate the Preface (see below). My own appreciation of this completely original and fundamentally necessary little book – a scant 125 pages of text – follows. That review precedes a short online discussion with Herv Kempf, while a translation of the Preface to “How the Rich are Destroying the Planet” appears at the end of this feature, along with a number of links to related subjects.

Also see below:
A Conversation With Herv Kempf
Preface to Herv Kempf’s “How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet”

Although familiar with much of the information Kempf marshals in “How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet,” I was nonetheless amazed by the long and elegant arc of his argument, his ability to discern and convey a crystalline pattern in phenomena as diverse as elevated PCB levels in the sediment of “pristine” Alaskan lakes and the increase in length of billionaires’ yachts. The book’s central thesis – that the “oligarchy,” a global stateless class composed of the hyper-rich and the “new Nomenklatura,” is responsible for our species’ headlong rush to environmental destruction, both indirectly, through the rest of society’s attempts to imitate and emulate their wasteful habits of conspicuous consumption, and directly, through their control of the levers of power, all presently fixed at the “Catastrophe” setting – is buttressed by twenty pages of footnotes and direct citations from sources as varied as Adam Smith and James Lovelock; the scientific monograph, “Effects on the Marine Environment of Ocean Acidification Resulting from Elevated Levels of CO2 in the Atmosphere” and Alexis de Tocqueville.

The first stage in Kempf’s argument is to adduce the irrefutable evidence of an accelerating ecological catastrophe as humanity’s use of the planet’s resources overshoots the Earth’s carrying capacity: While, according to one researcher Kempf cites, humanity’s resource use was at 50 percent of the Earth’s biocapacity in 1950, by 2003, it had reached 120 percent – consuming resources faster than the Earth can reproduce them. Foretastes of the ultimate catastrophe are suggested by avian flu worries, the destruction of New Orleans by the combined impact of Hurricane Katrina and infrastructure failures before and after the storm, and by increased mortality associated with the 2003 heat wave in Europe. Each environmental “problem” is linked to all the others; their synergy and imbrication propel us “in the direction of unstoppable destruction” and preclude any idea of separate crises, “solvable independently of one another.” Why, Kempf asks, when the situation is so clear and alarming, does it remain so stubbornly intractable to change? He concludes that “if nothing happens even though we’re entering an ecological crisis of historic gravity, it’s because those who have power in the world want it to be this way.”

Kempf goes on to document the return of widespread poverty and economic precariousness to the rich world and the globalization of poverty in spite of economic growth and some reduction of poverty in China and India. However, economic growth and greater agricultural productivity are achieved at the expense of environmental degradation and, finally, there is a vicious “synergy between the global ecological and social crises: they respond to one another, influence one another and worsen correlatively.” And the poor are the first victims of environmental degradation everywhere.

In spite of a distinct coolness of tone and a controlled reliance on statistics and citation, Kempf’s depiction of “The Powerful of This World” echoes Old Testament prophetic outrage. He quotes Peter Drucker on the destructiveness of unbridled executive compensation, St. Augustine on government (“If there is no justice, what are kingdoms, but vast systems of robbery?”), “Forbes, “The Economist,’ and the “Financial Times” to create a portrait of a predatory, self-perpetuating elite that has become wealthy “not through success in production, but through constant redistribution of collective wealth” (think Halliburton or Blackwater senior executives and shareholders) and that lives “… separated from the plebians. They are not aware of how the poor and wage-earners live; they don’t know and don’t want to know.” No sense of the public good or civic virtue moves “this predatory and greedy controlling class, wasting its rents, misusing its power, (it) congeals as an obstacle on the way. It bears no proposal, is animated by no ideal, delivers no promise … is blind to the explosive power of obvious injustice. And blind to the poisoning of the biosphere that growth in material wealth provokes, a poisoning that means a degradation of the conditions for human life….”

None of this would matter so much, Kempf suggests, were it not for insatiable human rivalry in ostentation. Globally, wealth is an indicator of status and the social stimulus of emulation and imitation creates limitless “needs.” Drawing on Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Classes,” Kempf suggests that production is adequate, but consumption is excessive as oligarchs vie with one another in sumptuary competition and every social stratum beneath does the same. The “alibi” that the oligarchy uses to maintain its grip is economic growth and the myth that a rising economic tide lifts all boats – a market theory that has been broken ever since the disconnect in the direct correlation between growth and employment: “Because the pursuit of material growth is the only way the oligarchy can make societies accept extreme inequalities without bringing those inequalities into question. In fact, growth creates a surplus of apparent wealth that allows the system to be lubricated without changing its structure.” Immaterial growth would not degrade the environment the way material growth does: growth-engendered environmental degradation outstrips the creation and implementation of technological fixes that reduce environmental degradation. And, since justice demands that the consumption of the poorest be increased, “the rich have to consume less.” That last requirement would appear to apply to me and to almost anyone reading these words online.

Although the oligarchy may be blind to the public weal, it is vividly aware of what is necessary to maintain and perpetuate its own privileges. We may have great difficulty believing it, but “the global oligarchy wants to get rid of democracy and the public freedoms that constitute its substance.” Kempf cites a chilling passage from a nineteenth century social observer to suggest how social control techniques, rather than the crude methods of a Hitler or a Stalin, could be quite effective in muting democratic freedoms:

“The kind of oppression that threatens democratic peoples does not in any way resemble what preceded it (…) I want to imagine what aspect despotism could take on in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, similar to one another and equal, who gyrate unceasingly to obtain small and vulgar pleasures for themselves with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, isolated at some remove from the others, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his personal friends constitute the entire human species for him: as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is right next to them, but he doesn’t see them; he touches them and doesn’t feel them; he exists only within and for himself and, although he still has a family, one may at the least say he no longer has a country. Above all these men rises an immense tutelary power that alone takes care of assuring their enjoyment and watching over their fate. It is absolute, elaborate, regular, calculating, and mild. It would be like paternal power, if – like it – its goal was to prepare men for virile maturity; but, on the contra’y, it seeks only to limit them irrevocably to childhood; it likes its citizens to be happy, as long as they dream of nothing other than being happy.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)

Since the collapse of the former USSR, it appears that capitalism no longer needs democracy – so antithetical to the oligarchy’s objectives. Terrorism is the latest alibi to tighten security, criminalize dissent, expand surveillance and imprison the poor. “The hyper-rich will attempt to maintain their excessive advantages by force as they did after Hurricane Katrina, when armed forces were sent – not to help the drowning poor – but to hunt down looters.

“An ironic twist of history could even be an authoritarian government’s use of ecological necessity as a pretext to persuade the people to accept a restriction of freedoms – without, however, touching [socioeconomic] inequality.”

However difficult the political decision to “accept humanity’s self-moderation” may appear to be, Kempf maintains his optimism in that possibility. He urges us to get rid of several received ideas:

  • belief in growth as the solution to social problems
  • belief in technology as the solution to ecological problems
  • the inevitability of unemployment (“a construct whereby capitalism keeps workers docile and salaries down”)
  • the necessary alliance of Europe, which embodies a universal ideal and the demonstrated ability to unite diverse states, and North America, “the obese power”

He encourages us to build on existing strengths:

  • the public freedoms and concern for the public good that still characterize the system itself
  • a mass media which may have “treacherously” supported the oligarchy in the recent past up until now, but which is capable of being once again a vehicle of real information and empowerment
  • the “Left” – which could be reborn by joining the causes of inequality and ecology
  • nascent global solidarity movements

Kempf is neither a cranky conspiracy theorist nor a bitter ascetic, but a wide-awake dreamer with a Gallic joie de vivre and faith in libert , galit , fraternit . His latest book is an important work of social-scientific syncretism that merits wider distribution.

A Conversation With Herv Kempf
“How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet”

By Leslie Thatcher
Truthout | Interview

Thursday 15 March 2007

Leslie Thatcher, for Truthout: I read “Comment les riches detruisent la plan te” this afternoon. I’m not sure “like” is the operative term for my response. I devoured it in one go, which means I will need to go back and reread many passages – my copy is now as prickly as a porcupine with all the little bits of wastepaper I stuck in to mark the passages I’d want to review.

The book seems to me an incredible tour de force. I could not imagine it possible to lay out systematically, with sentences of classical limpidity and concision, such a complete, as well as completely persuasive argument for what ails the world and what needs to be addressed. The dense connections between all the disturbing phenomena of recent years – ecological degradation to the point of habitat destruction for our own species, increasing social inequality and unemployment, the new totalitarianism (government snooping, torture, the percentage increase in prison populations), and the disappearance of a seriously contentious press are simply and powerfully delineated.

One thing I missed was hearing directly from the oligarchs – not just the presumably enlightened ones like George Soros, Warren Buffet, Al Gore and Howard Dean, but from the Cheneys, Bushes and other Carlyle Group shareholders. I want to know what their vision of the future is, what planet they think they can live on after they’ve wasted the only one we’ve got – or whether they think a “Soylent Green” future is perfectly acceptable.

It was particularly poignant to read your book after reading this week in The Independent that everyone in Davos – winter camp for the Oligarchy – is happy and upbeat about economic growth, record profits, etc. – a disconnect from our terrestrial reality no less dangerous than the Ancien R gime’s. And I confess that even though I work in the alternative press and used to work in the oligarchy, I cannot believe that class’s irresponsibility can actually be conscious. In spite of myself, I remain incredulous at the idea of such comprehensive wickedness.

Herv Kempf: I’m very happy and honored “Comment les riches d truisent la plan te” pleased you so much. I believe it has touched a sensitive chord with many people in many places. Many readers have responded with great interest: it was useful to clearly connect the environmental crisis and the social question.

I think [the oligarchy] is not monolithic and that one part of it can break away and take another direction (that’s a theme that I sketch at the end of the book and a point that seems critical for the future).

Truthout: May I ask about the work of “Reporterre” and what, if anything, I can do to support it?

Kempf: The objective of Reporterre is to prolong the discussion initiated by the book by making the site a meeting place for concerns over ecological, social and public freedom issues. As you know, we post news produced by French associations and short interviews with militants and personalities involved in those issues that are relatively well-known in France. I would like to develop the site, but lack the time – and, of course, the financing – to do it. Nonetheless, at the moment we keep the site going and I hope some friends will join us little by little to enrich it further. As for support, please let its existence be known! ( Even non-French speakers can enjoy Herv Kempf’s incisive interview with Al Gore, who seems a bit surprised by his questioner’s perspicacity and absence of triviality. ljt) And if there’s a foundation or some other organization somewhere that would be interested in helping it along, send me their contact information!

Truthout: I read that you bicycle to work: how else do you personally reduce your own consumption, share with those who have less, and create a new ethos?

Kempf: Reducing my personal consumption? First of all, it’s possible to live in Paris without a car, given that public transportation is efficient. In daily life, the family (I have five children) goes without television, a microwave, a dishwasher and all those electronic gadgets that are expensive, use a great deal of energy, and take too much time. We pay attention to turning lights off in rooms where no one is present. My wife is a good cook and we eat healthily and pleasantly without meat every day. One important point is that I live without credit – indebtedness is one of the most pernicious instruments pushing us towards excess consumption. Obviously, all this makes life quite happy, since we have the time to read and we spend a lot of time with our friends. The children adapt well to such a thrifty life, even if their friends often have more gadgets than they do. As to sharing with those who have less, one never does enough – of course. But I regularly send money to charitable and development organizations.

Truthout: If Veblen is right about the basic human drive to compete insatiably for social status, it seems to me we need to replace the competition of conspicuous consumption with virtuous competition: to make recycling and reusing – as well as real leadership – “chic.”

Kempf: Veblen and new values: yes, absolutely! To change the world we must create new norms of “savoir-vivre” [manners] (I re-echo Veblen’s formula) so that what’s “chic” is not having a big SUV and taking the plane, but bicycling, having a convivial social life, and consuming less stuff. And in this regard, the oligarchy has a heavy responsibility also.

Truthout: Readers have asked when “How the Rich Are destroying the Planet” will be available in English: do you have any plans for an English publication?

Kempf: This depends on generating the interest of an English-language publisher.

Truthout: What are your immediate plans?

Kempf: If all goes well, I’ll spend three weeks at the end of March at Duke University in North Carolina at their invitation. I will give a symposium on “How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet;” I am curious to know how it will be received by Duke’s rich students. Then, the beginning of April, I go to Qu bec to give several lectures: the book has aroused a great interest there, to my surprise. All the media talked about it after the “Devoir” article appeared, and lecture offers poured in.

Truthout: Thank you so much, Herv Kempf, for taking the time to talk.

Kempf: Thank you for your work and for making these ideas known in the United States.

Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

Preface: “How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet”
By Herv Kempf
Truthout | Translation

Thursday 15 March 2007

The bus took me to Heathrow airport after I had finished coverage on a story about the “soldier of the future.” The radio was broadcasting the news. The reporter explained that, according to Swedish experts, a high level of radioactivity that could have arisen from a nuclear power station accident had been detected in that Scandinavian country.

It was April 28, 1986, the day after the Chernobyl accident. For me, that news suddenly reawakened a feeling of forgotten urgency. Ten or fifteen years before, I had read Illich, La Guele ouverte [the first environmental magazine, founded in 1972]; Le Sauvage [another ecology magazine, associated with the Nouvel Observateur, that came out first in 1973], and I was enthralled by ecology, which seemed to be the only real alternative at a time when Marxism triumphed.

Then life pushed me in other directions. As a journalist, I was then immersed in the microcomputing revolution: at a time when TIME crowned the computer “Man of the Year,” I, along with my colleagues from Science et Vie Micro, was discovering the arcana of the first Macintosh, Minitel’s “messageries roses” [an online service of France Telecom] that prefigured Internet forums and chat rooms, and the adventures of a young guy named Bill Gates who had just concluded a smoking deal with IBM.

Suddenly, Chernobyl. An overwhelmingly obvious need: ecology. An exigency: to tell about it. I began to do that. Since then, I have always been guided by two rules: to be independent and to produce good information that is precise, pertinent, and original. Also, I held back from Doomsdayism. While I was among the first to write about climate issues, the GMO adventure and the biodiversity crisis, I have never exaggerated. It seems to me that the facts, borne by tenacious attention to such obviously priority subjects, are sufficient to speak to our intellect. And I believed that intelligence would be sufficient to transform the world.

However, after having believed that things would change, that society would evolve and that the system could move, today I make two observations:

  • The planet’s ecological situation is worsening at a speed that the efforts of millions – but too few – of the world’s citizens who are aware of the drama do not succeed in slowing down;
  • The social system that presently governs human society – capitalism – blindly sticks to its guns against the changes that are indispensable to effect if we want to preserve the dignity and promise of human existence.

These two findings lead me to throw my weight – however minimal it may be – onto the scales by writing this book: short and as clear as it is possible to be without oversimplifying. You will read an alarm here, but above all, a double appeal on the success of which everything depends: to ecologists, to think about social arrangements and power relationships; to those who think about social arrangements, to take the true measure of the ecological crisis that conditions justice today.

The comfort in which Western societies are immersed must not conceal from us the gravity of the moment. We are entering a time of durable crisis and possible catastrophe. Signs of the ecological crisis are clearly visible and the hypothesis of a catastrophe is becoming realistic.

Yet, in reality, people pay little attention to these signs. They influence neither politics nor the economy. The system does not know how to change trajectory. Why?

Because we don’t succeed in relating ecology and society.

However, we cannot understand the concomitance of the ecological and social crises if we don’t analyze them as the two sides of the same disaster. And that disaster derives from a system piloted by a dominant social stratum that today has no drive other than greed, no ideal other than conservatism, no dream other than technology.

This predatory oligarchy is the main agent of the global crisis – directly, by the decisions it makes. Those decisions aim to maintain the order that has been established to its advantage and favor the objective of material growth: the only method, according to the oligarchy, of making the subordinate classes accept the injustice of the social situation. But material growth intensifies environmental degradation.

The oligarchy also exercises a powerful indirect influence as a result of the cultural attraction its consumption habits exercise on society as a whole, and especially on the middle classes. In the best-provided-for countries, as in developing countries, a large share of consumption answers a desire for ostentation and distinction. People aspire to lift themselves up the social ladder, which happens through imitation of the superior class’s consumption habits. Thus, the oligarchy diffuses its ideology of waste throughout the whole society.

It’s not the oligarchy’s behavior alone that leads to deepening of the crises. Faced with opposition to its privileges, with environmental anxiety, with criticism of economic neoliberalism, it weakens public freedoms and the spirit of democracy.

A drift towards semi-authoritarian regimes may be observed almost everywhere in the world. The oligarchy that reigns in the United States is its engine, as it uses the terror that the September 11th, 2001, attacks elicited in American society.

In this situation, which could lead to either social chaos or dictatorship, it is important to know what it is right to maintain for ourselves and for future generations: not “the Earth,” but “the possibilities of human life on the planet,” as philosopher Hans Jonas calls them; that is, humanism, the values of mutual respect and tolerance, a restrained and rich relationship with nature, and cooperation among human beings.

To achieve those goals, it is not enough for society to become aware of the urgency of the ecological crisis – and of the difficult choices its prevention imposes, notably in terms of material consumption. It will further be necessary that ecological concerns articulate themselves as a radical political analysis of current relationships of domination. We will not be able to decrease global material consumption if the powerful are not brought down and if inequality is not combated. To the ecological principle that was so useful at the time we first became aware – “Think globally; act locally,” – we must add the principle that the present situation imposes: “Consume less; share better.”


Truthout needs to raise $17k before midnight to support our work. Will you chip in a few bucks to get us closer?

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, your tax-deductible donation is critical in allowing us to do our work.

Please do what you can to help.