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Does the West Have a “Right” to Better Lives Than the Rest?


Some of the rich like to see the world’s poor hurt. This sadistic stance was exposed in a rare mask-off moment at a recent climate crisis event. Certain rich westerners believe they are superior and that this grants them some sort of sacred “right” to a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and ever higher standards of living. But even westerners who don’t overtly hold such supremacist views still benefit and live by them, since those priorities are baked into global markets and politics. This ugly situation undergirds a great deal of racist geopolitical cruelty.

Here’s how influential climate writer David Wallace-Wells said the quiet part out loud (cued): “The global story, I think, [is] even uglier. My personal feeling is not that rich westerners are unmoved by the climate suffering of people living elsewhere in the world. It’s that they’re gratified by it. They see it as a confirmation of their superiority and their privilege, and they aren’t unhappy about it. They look at climate suffering in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and … they think this is the natural order of things.”

Wallace-Wells is rightly alarmed by the immorality of the attitude he detects. He highlights that the US has caused twice the historic emissions of the next biggest carbon polluter, so “whenever Americans talk about climate villainy in China … we really need to …  remind ourselves … this is …  primarily a US problem. We have created this crisis, and we have a moral, political, and …  fiscal responsibility” to make amends. He adds that “the United States has a much greater responsibility for the climate fate of the world than almost anyone in power in America is willing to publicly acknowledge, … and from a purely moral point of view we should be embarrassed at how indifferent we’ve been on the world stage.” Despite estimates “that the US is doing a trillion dollars of [climate] damage every year to the world,” at the last global climate conference we “told the newly established loss-and-damage fund that we would commit $17 million.” Don’t worry about the accuracy here, what matters is the staggering scale of the disparity, we offered less than 1/50,000th of the US annual damage estimate. Wallace-Wells correctly calls this a “pitiful response” that’s “politically damaging.” It signals our official contempt and hypocrisy to the non-western world majority. France, Italy, and Germany each pledged $100 million, but these numbers also hint that the whole effort risks a horrific fiasco in the face of the scale of the task: the United Nations estimate it would take three orders of magnitude more, or hundreds of billions of dollars per year, to protect the world’s poor from the biosphere chaos (that they bear very little blame for, but which is caused largely by elite consumption).

To further situate the rich-world’s reigning apathy, Wallace-Wells exposes that “10 million people a year are dying of air pollution right now. … We’ve normalized that. … It’s an ugly moral fact of our present day. It should shame us all that we have looked away from it. But it also tells us that we [already] navigate our lives mostly normally in the context of all that death and suffering. And presumably we’ll find ways to do that in a world deformed and defined by climate change, too. It will be a moral indictment of us … The suffering will be quite large, and because it was unnecessary it’ll be an indictment of our indifference” (I’d add, indifference to the results of resource priorities long-marinated in racism).

The whole two-plus hour discussion is interesting (it’s only been streamed by around 400 people), it covers more than our active abandonment of the vulnerable, which is a poorly concealed form of “climate apartheid.” It’s commendable that Wallace-Wells struggles with these issues in moral terms, but to my mind he could more explicitly and forcefully address the dominant role of the “climate villainy” of the rich. Most of his readers at the New York Times are likely in the globe-trotting polluter elite (America is home to half of the global top 1% by income, a privileged group whose resource-intensive lifestyles collectively cause 11 times the carbon impact of “climate villain” ExxonMobil, and it would take at least 6 Amazons to offset their annual emission).

The unexamined premise of too much of our politics is that everyone (but especially the powerful) has a “right” to gains in living standards. Yet we’ve long known that the rich are driving this biosphere-trashing trainwreck by their political, professional, and personal consumption decisions—indeed little other than rapid changes in elite decisions will stave off the worst impacts on the planet’s most vulnerable people (though this aspect isn’t automatically internalized in our geo-economics, we can’t go on treating it as an externality in our ethics).

Regarding the biosphere impacts of lifestyle choices, all the leading international scientific bodies addressing climate dangers have declared constraints on elite consumption to be essential to achieving internationally agreed targets and to rapidly reducing harms imposed on the global poor (for instance here are links to the  I.P.C.C., or W.I.L, or U.N.E.P.). Yet somehow this aspect of well-established crystal-clear climate science has gotten scant attention in elite media (including in Wallace-Welles’s work).The resulting ill-informed elite consensus could be called “recreational righteousness,” where even supposedly climate-concerned higherups deem any curbs on their lifestyles, or even inconveniences, to be beyond the pale and politically unrealistic. As a reminder, the global top 10 percent cause nearly half of all emissions, and the top 1 percent does twice the damage of the entire bottom 50 percent combined: 17 percent versus 9 percent. (To see where you fit in, in 2022 the global top 10 percent earned over $60,000, the 1 percent over $200,000.)

John Kerry, America’s outgoing climate envoy, accurately pinpointed key climate obstacles in an interview with Wallace-Wells. Kerry called oil and gas profits “obscene” and explicitly blamed them on “greed,” business-as-usual inertia, and “wishful thinking.” He likely meant those narrowly (of the oil and gas business), but those biosphere-risking ills are much more broadly in evidence. Greed is the premise behind presenting the eco-crises as a contest between a “politics of more” and a “politics of less.” This is a fraudulent fantasy framing of a tweaked business as usual that’s entirely built on wishful thinking (as explained here). It’s an “ecological Ponzi scheme” that hides the true wider costs and later impacts. By opting for “more” now, we choose to burden the young with the downstream costs of a degraded biosphere (it’s like shooting your kids in the foot).

Kerry complains the current climate situation amounts to a “de facto signature on a suicide pact.” To lay out the logic of that death-dealing pact, our political class (with its “religion” of economic growth) typically and unthinkingly asserts that we’d all rather see gains in our short-term consumption than devote resources to protecting what we love or to concretely acting on the ethical commitments we claim to hold. For instance, to prevent biosphere damage, or to protect the vulnerable, or even to avoid eroding the life chances of our own children (see How Best to Love Your Kids in a World on Fire). Here the political use of the term “interest” hinders our capacity to reason soundly (see “the political realism ruse”). In whose real interest is Kerry’s ecological suicide pact? Who really believes it’s okay to gain by weakening their own children’s life-support system? Or by harming the global poor? One would hope those repugnant views are held by only a small number in the psychopathic or western supremacist elite that a much larger number of decent people can organize to fight. But as things stand the political psychopaths and western supremacists remain firmly in the driver’s seat.  

In one sense the sadism-shielding euphemisms enabling these shenanigans shouldn’t be surprising. Assertions of a God-given “right” to a superior standard of living aren’t hidden. They’re evident in Bush Sr’s statement at the 1992 Rio climate conference: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” They drive the political economy of various national Green New Deals which rely on neocolonial extraction and ecological “sacrifice zones.” They exist even on the so-called left—for instance, in Jacobin’s eco-modernist articles like the one that denigrates as “fundamentally misguided” the “concept of “the imperial mode of living” (here we have the dispiriting spectacle of rich-nation “lefties” abetting the general climate apartheid). Sadly, it seems that the politics of gains in western supremacist standards of living easily overpowers desires for decency and equal human dignity (and the moral and material duties they entail).

Again, Wallace-Wells is correct to keep centering ethics. There is no way to separate morality and money and markets and politics. Our politics and markets enact our kinetic ethics on a global scale (as I’ve argued, they operate as a secularized replacement for Providence). Not only do markets allocate material goods they also determine the global distribution of suffering. That leads us to another relevant voice: Wallace-Wells has written about Pope Francis’s “journey to climate outrage.” In 2015 the Pope “came out as an environmentalist, with his landmark encyclical Laudato Si” (it has been called “arguably the most important piece of intellectual criticism in our time”). That was followed  by the angrier Laudate Deum in 2023, which revealed the Pope to be in Wallace-Wells’s words “a climate alarmist, a techno-skeptic and a degrowther” who decries the “ethical decadence” of ecologically “irresponsible lifestyles.” Francis uses the phrase “structural sin,” which shares the same rotten air as “banality of evil.” Most people aren’t sadists or supremacist, but are involuntarily caught up in global economic structures, and they typically have no intent to commit the colossal collective structural sins that ensue (if such talk isn’t to your taste, “avoidable suffering” is a good synonym for “sin”). Yet sin, suffering, and unseen cruelty are what occur on a large scale as by-products of our resource-intensive rich-world lives (for instance, child labor and ‘modern-day slavery’ in cobalt mines, or fast fashion sweatshops in Asia that the European Parliament deemed to be the equivalent of “slave labor” to produce garments that are discarded after being worn only a handful of times). And as I’ve noted, optimism-peddling courtier pundits have now innovated beyond the banal kind to create “cheerful evils.” Such as the western supremacy and tacit racism that, Wallace-Wells points out, are gratified by seeing the global poor suffer. Or the same western supremacist priorities that are built into the supposedly poverty-alleviating celebration-worthy machinery of global markets.

Consider these glaring but rarely spoken of global racial resource disparities: Average incomes in majority-Black nations are one-seventh those of majority-white nations1 (and as global inequality scholar Branko Milanovic finds, Africa’s median income is only one-twelfth that of the rich nations). That’s indicative of how much less Black lives matter in tangible resource terms. And under current market-centric methods it will take many centuries to make decent progress on fixing this planet-scale racism. The UN estimates about 200 years, or 8 generations to get the largely non-white global poor to only 1/8th of western poverty levels (that doesn’t factor in the disproportionate burdens of biosphere disruptions they face). The sins of this de facto global Jim Crow should disgust all who claim to support equal human dignity or climate justice. Likewise, the diligently and often cheerfully ignored fact that the resource gap between rich and poor nations is growing.

The current western-supremacist global setup is abhorrently and abundantly absurd. 3.3 billion people live in poor countries that send more money to rich-nation institutions as interest payments on debt (private and public), than their governments spend on health and education and climate combined. Today’s so-called development aid is a charade through which wealthy countries gain by draining or diverting resources from the global poor. In the words of the 2022 World Inequality Report, rich nations only “pretend to help,” for instance, financial flows out of Africa are 300 percent of those going in.

George Orwell saw how the unfair global living standards game worked and didn’t flinch from calling it evil: “Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation—an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.” The global economy is still entirely shaped by this implicit imperialism and racial supremacy, and all of us in rich nations benefit from its baked-in systemic injustice. Our incomes and living standards don’t simply reflect our “merit” or economic output; they’re utterly dependent on the rich-nation infrastructures and opportunities we enjoy. And our opportunity platforms are far from innocent, they’re built on centuries of cruelty and injustice (you know, all the genocide, slavery, colonialism, extraction, exploitation, ecocide …).

Here quotes from anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon can help: “Haven’t I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth century?” and “Am I going to ask today’s white men to answer for the slave traders of the seventeenth century?” Fanon is correct that energy expended on blaming the descendants of the perpetrators of past crimes isn’t productive. Yet, while we who now enjoy rich-nation infrastructures had no hand in historic harms, we still reap the fruits thereof. We can’t alter the past, but surely, we must act to stop extending the present effects of history’s parade of horrors. We must work to improve the monstrously immoral mess we inherited. But unless forcefully countered global markets will extend implicitly imperial racist resource patterns. We have a moral and political and economic duty not to extend this sin-laden legacy far into the future. Doing a vastly more decent job of sharing the global pie would be a piece of cake, if justice was really our priority.

To his credit Wallace-Wells has spoken of the enormous indecency of the current world order: “there is something of a moral crime in how much you and I and everyone we know consume, given how little is available to consume for so many other people on the planet.” Or as Orwell put it, in England “the ordinary man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood.” Bringing that up to date, many of us in rich nations regularly  thoughtlessly spend more on a corporatized coffee than the financial resources available to support the entire life needs of approximately 668,000,000 people in poor nations. The official global extreme poverty line is $2.15 per day, which is about the price of the most basic coffee at Starbucks. Those celebrated as having “escaped” extreme poverty secure a consumption level around 1/19th of the US poverty level of $40 per day. And the much-ballyhooed “progress” on global poverty metrics masks the indecent reality that the rate of income gain in the global bottom ten percent is around $6 per year (compared to $1,300 per year gains for the top decile).

The biosphere crises and the facts of carbon physics pose severe tests for the very foundations of liberal modernity (to its philosophy, morality, politics, and economics). Excess carbon is a vast violation of liberalism’s no-harm principle, it is a 10,000-generation thermotoxin (carbon emitted today will heat the planet for about 400,000 years unless artificially removed). The disproportionate carbon caused by the ecologically “irresponsible lifestyles” of the  global elite (again the top 10 percent begins at $60,000 per year) adds to the burdens borne by the 84% of humanity that is presently poor by our standards (that’s about 6.7 billion people), and on unborn billions for hundreds of millennia. Carbon is in effect a globally finite life-critical resource that we must figure out how to allocate ethically (likewise other ecologically constrained factors). As noted above, using global markets as the main allocation mechanism means locking in historic harms and ruinous racial resource disparities, turning ghastly history we bear no personal guilt for, into cruelties and injustices that we become morally culpable for. And since much of the subsequent suffering could have been avoided, we in the rich world (especially leaders and the elite) can be rightly indicted for putting gains in our lifestyles and comforts above our supposed moral commitments to equal human dignity.

If such “commitments” are to be more than just pretty words and self-soothing slogans (what historian Priya Satia calls “conscience management”), they must surely shape our material relationship with the global poor. The unmasked market logic of that relationship is at present deeply predatory: the global poor can gain only if they (or their leaders) figure out how to help the rich get richer (and again, that means helping us in rich nations get richer, there’s little risk in assuming that most readers are rich, or nearly rich, by global standards). That’s what the innocent-sounding “win-win” neoliberal market creed means. It’s a game where the global top decile wins 220 times more than the bottom decile: only 0.16 percent of global income growth reaches the bottom decile, while the top decile grabs 35 percent. So, to get an extra $1 to the world’s poor takes $640 of biosphere-burdening global economic growth. That’s clearly not an ecologically or ethically viable way to end poverty. Or is your desire for poverty alleviation or for racial or global climate justice always outranked by seeking gains in your own already globally-privileged living standards? Too many now seem to seek racial or other kinds of justice only if it is a “moral picnic,” which is easy or cheap or free or fun, quickly abandoning ship in the face of nontrivial costs. Imagine where we’d be if prior generations had been unwilling to incur costs for progress on women’s or civil or gay rights?

What morally justifies the climate villainy of elites emitting 1,800 times more carbon than the world’s poorest (the top 1 percent dump 110 tonnes of thermotoxic pollution each per year, while the average Burundian only 0.06 tonnes)? Or more broadly, what principle adequately warrants that members of the global top 1 percent earn more in 12 days than the average person in the global bottom 10 percent does in their lifetime? Surely far-from-dead ideologies of supremacy and extrapolations of past plunder can’t be our answer. A new moral imagination and political vision must urgently reorient our resource priorities away from elite greed (and the wider cult of the self) towards material justice.

  1. The data and calculations supporting these gigantic global racial resource disparities are available by contacting the author.