Often the biggest hurdle to transitioning to a green economy is lack of funds. Yet, here in the West we have an untapped gold mine of funds just waiting to be used productively in society.
In a Twitter thread that went viral, Metro UK attempted to hypothetically spend Jeff Bezos’ money. It wasn’t possible: despite eradicating global malnutrition, polio and malaria, paying off all medical debt in the US, buying all five of the most expensive properties in London, and paying for the Royal Family, he still wound up with more to his name than the GDP of entire countries. This story is not unique; Bill and Melinda Gates have been hailed for years as philanthropic genies, yet somehow Bill Gates remains the second richest person in the world.
Wealth is systemically accumulating at the very top tiers of global society. One Oxfam report estimates that just eight men hold the same wealth as the poorest half of the world. Since 2015, the richest 1% have owned more wealth than the rest of the planet. However nice Bill Gates is, the fact is that he earned billions this year during the pandemic while the rest of the world is facing massive job loss and a looming recession, suggests that the system is broken. It should not be his choice to dive into his pockets as and when a cause comes along that he feels is valuable.
A pillar of a functioning democratic society is a strong government and a fair taxation system. We seem to forget that we should not have to rely on the “generosity” of the uber-wealthy to make progress in society. The existential threat of the climate crisis is mere background noise in a world plagued by growing inequality and the coronavirus pandemic. Time and time again, imperfect but innovative plans and policies are suggested by progressive politicians, only to be shut down by “realists” who tend to claim that their counterparts are living in a utopia. “We simply don’t have the funds,” we hear them cry!
The beauty of fixing our taxation system and eradicating excessive wealth is that, if done multilaterally, it should reduce social inequality within states and in the international system
And yet, here are the funds. One study found that in the UK alone, around £70 billion is lost due to tax evasion each year. That is a drop in the ocean compared to the unfathomable funds lost through perfectly legal “tax avoidance.” Again, it is indicative of a broken system when whole teams of the brightest minds in law and finance spend their days finding loopholes in the law so corporations pay as little tax as possible. Single five-story buildings in the tax haven Cayman Islands call themselves “home” to tens of thousands of corporations. Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Starbucks have all had to publicly defend their shameful tax contributions. The only defence that can be mustered is that it is legal.
Rebutting these pitiful excuses through rigorous tax reform should be the top priority for policymakers across the globe. The beauty of fixing our taxation system and eradicating excessive wealth is that, if done multilaterally, it should reduce social inequality within states and in the international system. It is a huge challenge, one that obviously requires international cooperation that may seem unlikely today. However, the climate crisis knows no borders and thus, the solutions shouldn’t either.
We may think every country is pledging to go green, but global crises have never been that linear. While here in the West criticism of China and their massive contribution to global pollution is widespread, there are less developed countries in the global South who are inspired by its economic growth. It is quite a feat to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a mere thirty years. Furthermore, when looking at emissions per capita China’s emissions are dwarfed compared to the United States, Canada, and Australia. When considering the United Kingdom and our climate responsibilities, we must remember that we got rich through colonising and exploiting vast swathes of the planet.
THERE IS A WIDER DISCUSSION TO BE HAD ABOUT THE APPROPRIATENESS OF OUR ASSUMPTION THAT CAPITALISM IS THE BEST WAY OF ORGANISING THE ECONOMY. ANY ECONOMY THAT ALLOWS SO MUCH WEALTH TO BE ACCUMULATED AT THE TOP, WITHOUT TRICKLING DOWN TO THE MASSES, IS A DEMOCRATIC QUESTION MARK AT BEST.
It is an objective fact to say that we cannot, in environmental terms, have ten more industrial revolutions but this time in the Global South. Yet, we are in no place to deny others the economic prosperity and increase in living standards that comes with development. The solution is simple but expensive. We need to fund the transition to green economies globally, not just in the West. Handily, most of the wealth of individuals that would be greatly diminished through appropriate tax reform is found in the West. Hmmm, I wonder what the link is there?
There is a wider discussion to be had about the appropriateness of our assumption that capitalism is the best way of organising the economy. Any economy that allows so much wealth to be accumulated at the top, without trickling down to the masses, is a democratic question mark at best. As a society we seem to defend our right to ruthlessly exploit people and the planet in the name of being good for the economy.
But an economy is just a human designed aspect of our organisation of society. Given that society is made up of citizens and citizen-elected representative government, it’s backwards that we change to fit the economy, rather than the economy changing to fit us. Contrary to popular belief, corporations are not the backbone to a just, thriving society. They have no sense of social responsibility; their function is to make money. It is the everyday taxpayer who supports our economy, not massive corporations or wealthy philanthropists and investors.
Given that society is made up of citizens and citizen-elected representative government, it’s backwards that we change to fit the economy, rather than the economy changing to fit us.
Companies will not save us from the climate crisis. They will not gift us social and environmental responsibility. If we want any chance at managing the effects of climate change, then a just transition to a green economy needs massive investment now. That money should come from taxes, both from individuals and large corporations. Amazon doesn’t just abuse the environment and the people who work for it; it abuses all of us by cheating the systems designed for the welfare of individuals by skirting the law and paying shameful amounts of tax. Other than drawing from this untapped mine of potential tax, it is difficult to see how we will reorganise our expenditure in a way that allows for the investment we need.
Art by Nadja Vitorovic