In Australia, the question of environmental protection has increasingly been linked to the need to reduce or contain the nation’s population level size. This is often tied to the argument that the high level of consumption in First World countries is unsustainable.
In the article below, Canadian socialist activist and author Ian Angus takes up the issue of consumption and wealth. It looks at how limiting our focus to individual consumption can miss the real target — the social system. It is abridged from his website Climateandcapitalism.com">.
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There is no question that excessive consumption damages the environment, but are consumers driving the runaway train? The following example indicates different drivers are in charge.
An appropriate poster boy for gross overconsumption as an environmental crime would be Ira Rennert, currently the 144th richest man in the world. Forbes magazine pegs his net worth at US$5.3 billion.
About 10 years ago, Rennert had a new vacation home built in the Hamptons, on Long Island, New York. It is believed to be the largest contemporary residence in the US.
In addition to three swimming pools, a $150,000 hot tub, and a 164-seat movie theatre, an 1998 Vanity Fair article said the home featured: 25 bedrooms and as many full bathrooms; 11 sitting rooms, three dining rooms, and two libraries; a servants’ wing with four more bedrooms; a power plant big enough to run a large municipal high school or shopping mall; a 10,000-square-foot “playhouse” with two bowling alleys and tennis, squash, and basketball courts; and a multi-story, 17,000-square-foot garage capable of accommodating as many as 100 cars.
Rennert travels in a private Gulfsteam 5 jet, perhaps to save time travelling to his other homes.
He owns one of the most expensive private homes in Jerusalem. He has installed what are said to be the most advanced electrical, climate-control, and water-filtration systems in Israel.
That’s in addition to his luxurious duplex apartment on Park Avenue in New York City, which is near the twin $30 million apartments he bought for his daughters as gifts, a 2003 BusinessWeek article said.
Hardly a green lifestyle. But in eco-destruction stakes, Rennert the conspicuous consumer is a piker compared to Rennert the capitalist.
Rennert’s wealth comes from his 95% ownership of Renco Group, a private holding company whose principal subsidiaries are the only primary magnesium producer in the US, US Magnesium Corporation (MagCorp), and the largest primary lead producer in the western world, Doe Run Resources Corporation.
In 1996, MagCorp was named the number one polluting industrial facility in the US by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
An EPA fact sheet published in April at EPA.gov said investigations on the company’s Utah site found “high levels of environmental contamination … [including] arsenic, chromium, mercury, copper, and zinc; acidic waste water; chlorinated organics; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); dioxins/furans, hexachlorobenzene (HCB); and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).”
Waste-water ditches around MagCorp’s plant were reported to be contaminated with dioxin at levels 170 times the level at which EPA rules require immediate clean-up action.
Doe Run has frequently been cited by the EPA for exceeding legal emission limits, as well as polluting roads and soils around its facilities in Herculaneum, Missouri. In February 2002, health officials in Missouri found that 56% of children living near the Doe Run smelter had high blood-lead levels.
An October 2009 EPA report said that soil on one-third of properties situated within a mile of the company’s lead smelter contains lead at levels exceeding the legal threshold for mandatory removal and replacement.
An EPA administrator said that Doe Run’s emission reduction efforts “clearly fall short of what was necessary”, an October 27, 2009 Riverfront Times article said.
Like many polluters in the global North, Renco has in recent years shifted its focus to countries where there are fewer regulations, weak enforcement, and many poor people who desperately need jobs.
In 1997, it bought a lead, silver, gold, copper and zinc operation, in the Andean city of La Oroya, from the Peruvian government for $126 million.
Rennert promised to modernise the smelter and clean up the environment. An environmental study six years later found that concentrations of lead, sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air had increased since the takeover.
In March 2005, 99% of Oroyo children tested had blood lead levels vastly higher than World Health Organisation limits.
The Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland have identified La Oroya as one of the 10 most polluted places on Earth.
The case of Ira Rennert helps us understand the causes of environmental destruction. It shows the absurdity of using “per capita” averages to determine the impact individuals have on the environment.
None of the poison spewed from Rennert’s operations were caused by Peruvian or US working people. Rennert and a handful of high-paid executives made all of the polluting decisions — and only they should be held responsible.
But a more important point is the distinction between consumption and power.
As an individual consumer, Rennert represents hyper-consumption at its worst. But as the owner of the Renco Group Inc., Rennert has shortened the lives of tens of thousands of people and laid waste to entire ecosystems.
As a consumer, Rennert lives a wasteful life. As a capitalist, he has power over the way others live and die. That’s a fundamental difference that can’t be reduced to too many people consuming too much.