Luxury yachts, The Pearl, Doha. Demotix/Tom Morgan. All rights reserved.A recurring theme in these columns for the past fourteen years has been the steadily widening wealth-poverty divide whose leading dimension is now less a rich-country-vs-poor country one than that of a transnational elite presiding over a relatively sidelined majority.
This analysis itself must keep pace with the speed of change. Even a decade and more ago, the notion of a 'double elite' was useful. A fifth of the world’s population was drawing away from the remaining four-fifths, whether in terms of income or wealth; in both cases the rich minority had at a minimum an 80%-plus share. Beyond that, the core elite of perhaps 1% of the world’s people seemed to be accreting huge wealth at a remarkable rate.
The data now reported by Oxfam in Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More (January 2016) confirms the salience of this distinction, yet also – and much more importantly – highlights the rapidity with which the divide is widening, especially among that super-elite. The richest 1% (about 72 million people) are as wealthy as the other 99%; just 62 billionaires control as much wealth as half of the world’s people. In both of these areas, the divide has expanded at an accelerating rate while the poorest people get poorer still.
The basic contours of this great inequality are familiar. Very good work on the topic has been done by, among others, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (The Spirit Level) and David Hulme (Global Poverty: Global governance and poor people in the post-2015 era). Again, however, the Oxfam report shows the sheer speed of the increase in the worldwide wealth-poverty chasm.
Oxfam also focuses on how to turn the problem round, including attention to enormous tax avoidance (rich individuals have placed $7,600 billion in offshore accounts, avoiding $190 billion in tax every year). The agency also recommends greater investment in public services and higher pay for the poorest sectors of society.
Making the links
If the wealth-poverty divide has been a theme of the columns, so has the issue of climate change. The key argument is that a divided world where there are fundamental environmental limits to growth faces security dangers of a new type. In such circumstances, elite communities will try to control 'revolts from the margins'. But these will increasingly fail, leading to an even more profoundly unstable and violent world. The only option is a thoroughgoing rethink of security that moves towards a model rooted in equity and sustainability.
At a time when neo-liberalism remains so deeply entrenched in elite mindsets, and climate change is seen as a peripheral issue, it seems utter wishful thinking to expect that option to take hold. But there is positive news: both greater awareness of the dangers of the economic divide, and more serious consideration (at long last) of climate disruption.
In the latter case, the climate summit in Paris in November-December 2015 was timely in raising awareness. There are many views of its outcome, among those who see it as a breakthrough, a failure, or a mere talking-shop. What cannot be doubted, however, is that actual climatic trends make the issue unavoidable.
This is illustrated by news published in the wake of the Oxfam report. 2015 was confirmed as the warmest year worldwide since accurate records were first available. Two additional elements are significant: 2014 had itself exceeded previous highs, and 2015 was substantially warmer. Moreover, the continuing tendency is of "a burst of heat that has continued into the new year and is roiling weather patterns all over the world” (see Justin Gillis, “2015 was hottest year on record so far”, New York Times, 21 January 2016).
The main explanation is that the background pattern in warming is now in synchronicity with the short-term southern-oscillation 'wave' that had been in a cooling phase, and for a few years somewhat slowed the overall rate of global warming . This so-called 'pause' was much-loved and quoted by the denial community; but now that the two elements are working together it is highly likely that sustained warming will continue through the decade.
Overall, then, the two most important global trends – a neo-liberal economic model that is not fit for purpose and a biosphere that cannot cope with that model – should be far more readily recognised as society’s greatest challenge. Many columns in this series and countless studies from around the world have indicated the range of work now going on to develop new economic forms and respond to the urgent need to move rapidly towards ultra-low carbon economies. There are indeed many reasons to be optimistic.
The challenge remaining is to convert knowledge and possibility into real action in the coming months and (few) years. The reports just published reinforce that message, suggesting that January 2016 might yet acquire a historic significance all of its own.