One man’s promise of putting less than ten percent of his wealth towards climate action generated a lot of media attention.
It sounded like it might make a difference, as he - Jeff Bezos - is the world’s richest man. Could this be the sign of things to come, as more of the world’s billionaires resist a narrow pursuit of profit, power and fame to try and save humanity from environmental disaster?
If so, could seasoned activists like us find useful ways to engage these people and generate a quantum leap in impact? After all, the situation is bleak, and everything should be considered. To expolore this, we spent some time mingling with world elites at Davos and elsewhere - hearing their views and sharing our own.
There will be no short cut to global social change. Climate activists must focus on building power, transforming systems and building support among diverse communities. We must only welcome billionaire support if it specifically enables such empowerment.
Sustained climate action will require a fresh settlement on the fair distribution of resources, as we face a very challenging future.
Such redistributions of power and resources have never been achieved merely by enlightened elites handing over what they are accustomed to.
A stark example of how billionaires and their global gatherings are not often inclined to such ‘radical’ agendas is the way that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has engaged with the climate emergency. We welcome the alarm sounded at Davos this year, and the discussions of just how bad climate change has become for humanity. But that does not mean that they already have significant suggestions for change.
Davos attendees launched a manifesto this year. It's titled, “The universal purpose of a company in the fourth industrial revolution”, and it contains warm words about some corporate efforts toward a future for humanity.
But we can't see anything in it about firms (e.g. Facebook) not undermining democracy or action on the causes of our time: social and ecological justice.
The Davos manifesto ignores the diminution of democracy - at a time when we direly need it to be deepened - that corporates have influenced.
Nor can we see anything in the document about the necessary role of the state in much-needed market interventions to address climate breakdown, such as the Green New Deal or the green industrial revolution.
So this ‘Davos manifesto’ also ignores what is agreed by most observers to be an absolutely key part of any genuine solution to the vast problem defining our time.
The rising tide of climate chaos proves that the corporate model of running the world for profit has failed. The best ‘manifesto’ from Davos would be to take their members’ money out of politics-as-usual and corporate media, and let ordinary people decide how to respond to a devastating global crisis that current elites have presided over.
At Davos this year, a notable feature was the call by Micah White, a co-founder of the Occupy protest movement, for the world’s movements for justice and democracy to seek an alliance with the world’s elites in order to address the emergency. One of us, Read, was seated by Micah when he made his pitch, at Davos, for this ‘alliance of opposites’.
You can read Micah’s account of that semi-confidential meeting here. Read was one of those who argued in the room that it would be simply impossible for ecological breakdown to be stopped in a world which allowed inequality to persist at its current level. Succinctly: there’s no emission space left for private jets.
Micah’s strategy and vision is fascinating: but on this crucial point and the non-negotiable need for a profound deepening of democracy, there seems to be a gap between his ideas and Extinction Rebellion.
For instance, the Davos set believe that we should mobilise our movements to plant a trillion trees. Whereas we join our fellow climate activists in wanting to change the economic system that trashes forests and doesn’t incentivize their planting. Some elites think we can leave the existing distribution of wealth and power intact and save the world, while most people we know in XR see that as wishful thinking.
What is a pragmatic approach in the face of an unprecedented emergency?
Our view is that there is no possibility of the crisis being tackled while the kind of people at Davos retain their wealth. We don’t just need 10 percent of their wealth spent or lent for climate action - we must change economic systems so that there is a fairer distribution of limited resources as we collectively strive for net zero emissions and support each other as climate change disrupts our agriculture, water, cities and health.
Just a quick look at current climate impacts shows that redistribution is essential right now. For instance, in Kenya, climate impacts have led to fresh vegetables doubling in price in the past months.
Similar situations are being experienced around the world. Faced with such a situation, there are even calls for tax cuts on oil and even subsidies, to help bring down the price of food. That is the self-reinforcing disaster that will spiral out of control if emergency social justice is not the centre of the climate agenda.
Climate activists can respond to this social and economic dimension of the struggle by forging more alliances across sectors and classes, including with trade unions, networks of school children, faith institutions and others.
Such alliances will be necessary not only to challenge current power but also to maintain new formations of power to deliver the massive changes required. One example is the need to engage trade unions, so that more of them decide to make climate safety as important to their bargaining and strike action as pay and conditions.
When that happens, governments will begin to see the massive economic disruption that will occur if they don’t make a climate justice agenda their foundational policy platform. The result of such alliances and policy changes will present a direct challenge to the wealth, privilege and power of elites.
We say this without any rancor towards the wealthy. We say it simply because it’s fact. It’s because we care about everyone, including the super-rich and their kids, that we say to the Davos elite: it’s time to give up your vast wealth and privilege.
Let your money go: allow that money to be devoted, no strings attached, to the effort to change the world so that we all have a chance to survive on a more level living-field.
But we think it is improbable. Unfortunately, it is not likely that corporations and the rich in general are going to swing behind radical action on the eco-emergency.
But it seems to us realistic to aim to reach a few of them - those who have truly understood the science and the complicit system - to become true allies of the now-necessary radicalism.
Imagine if we managed to get (say) 3.5 percent of the super-rich on the side of reality as part of a ‘Billionaire Rebellion’. Such eventualities would be completely game-changing.
That’s a reason why, if one can keep one’s head and heart, it’s perhaps worth going to Davos to invite a resonant reaction. If a handful of billionaires recognize that the system they enable is wrong and cannot continue, and support the global grassroots climate movement, then we could see more rapid change.
Together, we might yet respond to our terrifying predicament with as much love, determination and courage as we have ever found.
Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, and author of the paper “Deep Adaptation.” Rupert Read is a reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia and author of This Civilisation is Finished.
Image: UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Flickr.