In this chapter, I am going to first show how massively disproportionate the planetary damage of the affluent is. I hope to show that without a change in behavior on the part of the affluent, we are going to accomplish very little towards addressing climate change—both because of the absolute amount that they consume and pollute, but also because of the behavior they model (remember Girard!).
This is not an anti-capitalist rant. The rich are an easy, convenient, and often incorrect target for lots of things. That is not what this book is about. This book is about the behavior of the affluent as it relates to our planet, climate, and sustainability.
Put another way: if particular billionaires had a single home of 5,000 sq. ft., filled with 20 billion dollars of art (and a bunch of NFTs!), and flew commercial—I would not be using any one of them as an example, as I do below.
The carbon footprint of the rich
When looking at national-level data, increased affluence in any given country correlates with increased consumption of energy-intensive goods. The same trend holds on the level of the individual—a very small number of affluent people in the developed world are consuming a huge amount of our planet's resources.
For the past thirty years, the world's richest 10 percent of people, a majority of whom live in the West, have accounted for 52 percent of the world's cumulative carbon emissions. Fifteen percent of the planet's emissions during that time was the top 1 percent's responsibility alone. In the same timeframe, the world's poorest 50 percent accounted for only 7 percent of emissions.
And the gap persists even when our focus narrows to the United States. The emissions of billionaires have ballooned to an average of 8190 tons per year. By comparison, the US' annual emissions average 17.6 tons per capita. Even though the US is on the higher end of global per capita emissions, it would still take the average American 550 lifetimes to emit the same amount of as the average billionaire.
These numbers are not sufficiently well known. They need to be.
Even a modest reduction in emissions for the planet's richest billion people could grant the poorest 2.7 billion a bit of breathing room to achieve an improved quality of life without exceeding the carbon budget. If the wealthiest in our society set this goal for themselves, economic development and climate change prevention could more easily coexist.
In light of the consequences of the energy use of the affluent, I want to take a moment to examine the richest members of society, who must adopt less carbon-intensive behaviors if any of us are to survive on this planet.
Yachts, Planes, Homes
According to research by anthropologists Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros, a yacht is the single most environmentally harmful asset a billionaire can own. With a "permanent crew, helicopter pad, submarines, and pools," Wilk and Barros' research concludes that a yacht emits an average of 7020 tons of a year.
The environmental impact of a yacht was excitedly analyzed when it became known that Jeff Bezos had commissioned a custom vessel, known by its project name Y721. Actually, still very little is known about Bezos' yacht, other than that it will be 417 ft. long (among the largest in the world), and will cost at least $500 million. The size of the living area hasn't been disclosed, but a similar yacht that is half the size has 10,000 sq. ft. of living space.
Bezos' yacht hasn't been launched yet, but the reported size and cost of his ship will put him in the same ranks as Roman Abramovich, a Russian-Israeli billionaire who owns a similar-sized "superyacht" which emits 22,440 tons of per year. If Jeff Bezos acquires the Y721, which has similar specifications to Abramovich's Eclipse, then we might witness Bezos' yearly emissions rising from one of the more modest billionaire polluters to one of the world's very worst. You can't keep that amount of a secret for long.
We've all heard that traveling by airplane is bad for the environment. And yes, reducing the amount you fly is definitely good for the planet. But there is a massive difference between your basic economy flight to visit Grandma and the flights taken on private jets.
Say, for example, you take a 3-hour trip in a Gulfstream G650 (I'm picking this plane because Jeff Bezos owns one) that has a 19-passenger capacity and fuel efficiency of 500 gallons per hour. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 9.59kg of is produced for each gallon of jet fuel used, which totals 4,795kg of during the short flight. Divided among 19 potential passengers at full capacity, that's 252kg of produced per capita for just one private flight.
How about you elect to fly commercial? A Boeing 787, which seats as many as 336 passengers and burns 1188 gallons of fuel per hour, takes the same 3-hour trip. If the same jet fuel that produces 9.59kg of per gallon is used, then the total amount of emitted during the flight will be 11,393kg. However, when split between 336 passengers, the per capita share of these emissions is much lower than a private flight at only 33.9kg of .
And that's just one flight—imagine hundreds of thousands of private flights polluting the atmosphere, with no end in sight. Actually, we don't have to imagine it—it's happening right now.
Just like the affluent's recently renewed enthusiasm for yachts, private air travel has soared massively in popularity in the past few years. In July of 2020, when many had no option but to stay home (and 60 percent of commercial flights were grounded!), private flights actually increased by 11.3 percent throughout Europe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are about 27,178 private planes flying in or through the US airspace per day. To make matters worse, most of the routes taken by these private flights covered 600 miles or less, working out on average to be ten times more carbon-intensive than flying commercially and fifty times more carbon-intensive than taking a train.
While greenhouse gas emissions caused by running a home may be small compared to sailing a yacht across the world or flying from New York to San Francisco every couple of days, they remain a real environmental concern—residential power use constitutes almost 20 percent of all energy used in the US.
Homes of the affluent are particularly worrying for the environment given that a homeowner's floor space correlates with their income, and more space requires higher levels of energy for heating and cooling. I'm picking on Jeff Bezos again because he is an ideal example of a wealthy person who, in line with his rising fortune, has amassed more and more residential space. His portfolio contains multiple residences in California, New York, Texas, Washington, and Washington D.C., totaling at least 50,000 sq. ft. of residential space and 420,000 acres of land, an area three times the size of Guam. Today, Bezos is the 25th biggest individual landowner in the United States.
Affluent homeowners across the country with several sprawling properties may emit as much as 190 tons of per year for each property they own, even those they're not living in. While we all want a great standard of living, I think we should be able to agree that the emissions produced by owning four, eight, or even twelve homes are unnecessary.
Billionaires and mimetic desire: Egypt
The affluent from developed countries are serious offenders when it comes to emissions. But regardless of nationality, the world's wealthiest people live extravagant and emissions-heavy lives all over the world. In other words, this is a problem for the rich everywhere, not just those living in developed nations.
Few families anywhere are more extravagant than the Sawiris family of Egypt. Headed by Onsi Sawiris (b. 1930), the founder of the Osracom Construction empire, and his three sons Naguib (b. 1954), Samih (b. 1957), and Nassef (b. 1961), the family has a combined net worth of $14 billion.
Though they are from a developing country where 1 in 3 people live in poverty and the average yearly emissions per capita are only 2.5 tons, the family boasts a fleet of three private jets (a Bombardier Challenger 300, a Bombardier Global Express XRS, and a Gulfstream G650, if you were wondering), a 240 ft. yacht named Yalla, and some of the world's most extravagant real estate. In 2014, Nassef Sawiris—the richest member of the family—broke New York City real estate records when he bought the city's most expensive co-op at $70 million, despite having no intention of living there.
With their yacht, three jets, and numerous expensive properties, the Sawiris family exemplifies the link between the behavior of the affluent and the pressures it puts on the environment. But at the same time, Samih Sawiris has spent the last decade transforming the village of Andermatt, Switzerland into a car-free sustainable resort, and just this year, Nassef Sawiris divested from Signature Aviation, the world's largest private jet operator. "Reducing carbon should be everybody's goal," claims Samih Sawiris.
If the Sawirises are as passionate about sustainability as their recent investments suggest, then quitting their own wasteful behaviors and modeling planet-friendly behavior is long overdue.
There Are Great Role Models
“I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today.”
— Chuck Feeney, founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies
My entry into the venture capital business came when I joined a firm called General Atlantic, in 1992. At that time, GA had a single investor on whose behalf the firm invested—Chuck Feeney.
Feeney was born during the Great Depression into a blue-collar Irish-American family in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, the GI Bill meant Feeney could be the first member of his family to attend college. He graduated from Cornell University in 1956 and soon after founded a business with a classmate, Robert Miller, called Duty Free Shoppers. The business, which allowed shoppers to purchase goods exempt from certain taxes, made both Feeney and Miller billionaires.
After becoming a successful businessman, Feeney decided that he wanted to give back to society. By 1982, he founded The Atlantic Foundation, which he used to donate his money anonymously to worthwhile causes. Feeney's charity continued anonymously for almost two decades—he often visited those he was helping without them ever knowing he was their benefactor, whereas those who did know were sworn to secrecy.
At present, Feeney has given away in excess of $8B over 37 years, comprising nearly the entirety of his fortune. His generosity has influenced billionaires across the globe, inspiring many to join Bill and Melinda Gates' Giving Pledge, whereby the world's wealthiest people commit to donating a majority of their fortunes to philanthropic causes.
But the real kicker is this: unlike many philanthropists, who still have billions after their philanthropy, Feeney realized that you can’t take it with you, and you shouldn’t. According to an article from 2020, he now "lives in an apartment in San Francisco that has the austerity of a freshman dorm room."
My point is not to focus on Feeney's philanthropy. The issue of the very rich dictating societal agendas with their philanthropy is a massively fraught issue in its own right, and not one I am taking on here, as Anand Giridharadas has done a far better job of that than I can. No, my point here is to do with his carbon footprint.
No yachts. No private jets. No multiple large houses. No huge wardrobe. No battalion of luxury cars.
Let me say it again: it is not the fact of affluence with which I take issue in this book. It is about what people do with that affluence that has an enormous impact on our planet. It is about our behavioral choices, choices that will make or break our future prospects on the only planet we'll ever have.
It Is All About Behavior
I've picked examples here from the 0.00001%. But these are the models that trigger our mimetic desires. In the counterexample of Chuck Feeney, I suggest an alternative path.
The tragedy of my own carbon footprint is that until recently, my own "mimetic desires" were not pointed in Feeney's direction, despite having him as a very direct role model from my time at GA. Writing this chapter, more than any other in this book, has forced me to confront my own horrible choices driven by received wisdom on what I should be aspiring towards. A bigger house. More than one house. A bigger and more luxurious car. Sports cars. Vacations in long-haul jets to exotic destinations when there are a thousand beautiful places within a two-hour drive of my home. The list goes on.
But it is never too late to change—and I have changed, am changing, and will continue to change.
And now let's take a look at alternate lives that don't involve turning into a gnome, living in a cave, and foraging for insects (which it turns out is a real thing that I was just ignorant about, so maybe the occasional insect isn't so bad!).
Emissions and the affluent
- Article | Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat
- Article | World's Richest 1% Cause Double CO2 Emissions of Poorest 50%, Says Oxfam
- Interview | Five Questions with Juliet Schor
Why carbon offsets are not enough
- Article | Airlines are Selling Carbon Offsets as the Solution to Climate Change. Here’s Why They’re Wrong
- Article | Can You Own a Private Jet If You Care About Climate Change?
The Sawiris family
- Documentary | Samih Sawiris: The Man Who Transformed Andermatt