Marketing and advertising have led us to a dead end, figuratively, and potentially literally, argues Jack Santa Barbara

What does it mean to be rich? And what does that have to do with climate change?

An often-heard argument against New Zealand taking effective action on climate change is that we make such a small contribution to global emissions that our actions are irrelevant. But what if we change our perspective a little and look at this issue not in terms of where we live, but in terms of our personal financial wealth? A very different picture emerges in terms of our contribution to climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking at who generates the most greenhouse gases that cause climate change, it is a small percentage of the world’s wealthiest people who are responsible. According to an Oxfam International report, the world’s wealthiest 10 percent of people generate about half of all global emissions. The world’s poorest 50 percent generate only 7 percent of cumulative emissions. Financial wealth, not citizenship, largely determines how much we personally contribute to climate change.

When we talk about the “the world’s wealthiest people” we tend to think of the billionaires with their $200 million yachts. But who are these wealthiest 10 percent? How much financial wealth do they actually have?

The super-rich certainly make a large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, but there are relatively few of them – much less than 1 percent of the global population.

Who are the rest of these richest 10 percent, the other 700 million? What may be surprising is that most of us fall within this privileged 10 percent category if we take a global perspective of financial wealth.

Any household with a net worth equivalent to slightly more than $US100,000 ($NZ140,000) is easily in that special “wealthiest people” category according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2020. According to this resource, this country’s household wealth, on average, is within the top 10 nations. Unfortunately, this average masks significant inequality. But more than half of us have a household net worth in excess of $300,000, according to Statistics NZ, suggesting the majority of us fall within the privileged club in global terms.

This connection between financial wealth and greenhouse gas emissions is also reflected in the fact New Zealand is one of the highest emitters on a per capita basis, despite our small global contribution.

Our household carbon footprints are tightly connected to how much money we spend and how we spend and invest it.

A moment’s reflection reinforces this notion that money is a good proxy index of greenhouse gas emissions.

The more money we spend on large homes, cars and driving, on flights and consumer goods and appliances, imported foods, and so on, the more energy is used to produce, use and dispose of or recycle these goods. And even the money we invest will have a carbon footprint. Since over 85 percent of global energy use is still fossil fuels, all the energy required to make and use those goods generate greenhouse gas emissions. Our household carbon footprints are tightly connected to how much money we spend and how we spend and invest it.

And of course, once we have a bit of money we find it is easier to make more. So those of us in this privileged position have likely been in a privileged position for some time, emitting greenhouse gases all along the way. Over time, we have contributed the most to the climate crisis. Keep in mind we don’t have to be a millionaire to be in this relatively exclusive club.

Understanding of how our lifestyles contribute to climate change is growing. None of us set out to destroy the climate; we have simply been pursuing what we considered the good life provided by the marvels of technology and a growing economy. What also pushed us along this path was very creative, engaging and more recently, personally targeted, advertising.

A recent report by the UK-based New Weather Institute summarises the research demonstrating the relationship between advertising and climate change, as well as other types of ecological destruction. A wide range of studies now clearly confirms that advertising contributes to climate change in a variety of ways. Advertising encourages a materialistic orientation, described as “the priority that individuals place on values and goods to be wealthy, to have many possessions, and to obtain the status and appealing image that often come with wealth and possessions”. The data summarised in this report clearly show that the more exposure to advertising the higher the level of materialism, and the lower the interest in environmental protection.

The authors of the report point out that advertising of tobacco was banned or seriously restricted once the harm associated with it was established. They suggest that bans on advertising high-emission goods and services should be considered as a way of protecting us against the dangers of climate breakdown. Marketing and advertising costs are currently tax deductible in New Zealand even though the research shows they cause both social and environmental harm. If such a ban on high-emission advertising was in place, perhaps we would have less need of increasing the cost of carbon as will occur with the Emissions Trading Scheme. The ban might help us reach our emissions reduction goals sooner.

Interestingly, these same studies find that people with a high level of materialism have lower levels of personal wellbeing, experience conflicting interpersonal relations, engage in fewer pro-social behaviours, and have detrimental work and academic outcomes. They also tend to work longer hours to make more money to allow more consumption, rather than to spend time relaxing, recreating and relating to others.

Often, people with high levels of materialism will borrow money as well as work extra hours to pay for their consumption. This led UK economist Tim Jackson quips it’s a story of ordinary people “being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about”.

The wealthiest have the greatest opportunity to contribute to a safe climate by reducing their consumption to just what is required for wellbeing.

A recent letter in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, written by Darren Powell of the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, draws attention to the role of advertising directed to children. He notes “how marketing encourages forms of consumption that are potentially harmful for the whole child, the planet, and children’s futures”.

While most of us may be immune to the extremes of materialism, it is hard to not be somewhat affected by the barrage of advertising we are exposed to on a daily basis. To the extent we allow these advertising appeals to enter our sense of who we are and what the good life constitutes, to that extent we contribute to climate change and other ecological problems. To that extent we also miss out on what research shows constitutes genuine wellbeing – the relaxing, recreating and relating to others.

What these studies show is there is a paradox associated with financial wealth. Financial wealth allows us to lay claim to resources, either natural or man-made. But the more of our wealth we spend on material goods and meaningless services, the more climate and environmental destruction we are likely to do. Even the super-rich will not escape the inevitable consequences. Marketing and advertising have led us to a dead end, figuratively, and potentially literally.

Fortunately, there is a growing sense of awareness, and research, that the good-life does not have to involve high levels of materialism, and hence environmental destruction. Our Treasury’s establishment of a wellbeing framework is a small but important step in rebalancing our need for financial stability with social and environmental goals that will ensure our collective wellbeing, including a safe climate. The programme is being rolled out to the local level, where specific community wellbeing goals can be identified and prioritised. This process will be aided by civil society groups such as the global Wellbeing Alliance, which has a New Zealand hub.

In the meantime, we can all strive to understand our personal roles in contributing to the climate emergency, appreciating that we are all part of the problem and have a moral responsibility to be part of the solution. Our wealth, both personal and national, is as much a mark of our past climate destruction, as a potential resource to right the wrong we have unintentionally done. Our privileged group has an opportunity to make a significant contribution to a safe climate and being good ancestors.

The wealthiest have the greatest opportunity to contribute to a safe climate by reducing their consumption to just what is required for wellbeing – and not being manipulated by advertising and marketing to consume more and more. The best use of our financial resources is not to consume beyond genuine need, but to protect our communities and our environment. No amount of personal or national wealth will save us from a global climate disaster, especially if we spend it on the wrong things. But spending it on our collective wellbeing, ensuring social and environmental aspects of wellbeing are enhanced, is likely the wisest approach to an otherwise challenging future.

Leave a comment