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Aspiring to have wealth should mean aspiring to have zero emissions
Climate change is a systems problem, but systems are made up of individuals. There’s an opportunity to co-opt the aspirations of affluent individuals as a mitigative step.
Fostering aspirations to achieve a zero emissions lifestyle amongst the wealthy will serve as a useful tool in mitigating climate change. A zero emissions lifestyle being defined as driving one’s carbon footprint to zero in all aspects of everyday existence. Igniting the desire to have zero-emissions first requires articulating the vision for such a life. Subsequently, key cultural influencers can serve as the means for propagation amongst the upper classes. Climate change is a systems problem, but systems are made up of individuals. And in the fight to prevent the worst of the catastrophe, there’s an opportunity to co-opt the aspirations of affluent individuals as a mitigative step.
The wealthiest 1% of the global population accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions and the wealthiest 10% account for 52% of all emissions. However, the wealthy also happen to be one of the few groups who can afford to modify their consumptive habits. The stability of wealth provides a platform from which an individual can put more intention into a way of life. Taken together this is the opportunity to valorize a zero emissions lifestyle amongst the wealthy. They contribute the most to the problem, but also have the most control over their lives.
While the wealthy have the ability to change their lifestyle, the actual act of doing so is difficult. People with higher incomes have higher emissions even in cases where they identify as pro-environment. The prototypical example being the green-conscious recycler who also happens to own an SUV because all her friends have similar vehicles. The default is to do as others. To act differently comes at the cost of discomfort. Resisting herd mentality is hard for any one individual. The solution is to cultivate a vision that redirects the herd itself.
Shifting the aspirations of an entire class is difficult but not impossible. And that’s because the status symbols a society adopts are path dependent, not preordained. A good illustration is the American obsession with lawns. Front yards existed prior to the 1940s, but the explosion in their popularity can be traced back to one man, Abraham Levitt. His promotion of the front yard within his namesake real estate development launched a trend that now consumes almost one third of all public water per year. While America has exported it’s obsession to some degree, the front yard as a status symbol is not as prominent anywhere else in the world. What society deems a display of wealth is not universal, and in that lies hope for change. There are opportunities to redefine aspiration. Directing desire in those moments towards a zero emissions lifestyle is possible.
When such moments do arise, those in relevant positions of influence must be ready to insert specific products, habits, and attitudes. The scale of this new aspirational lifestyle must go far beyond reusable tote bags and metal straws. The vision to be sold is one of resilience and increased self-sustainability. For US households, housing, transportation, and food make up roughly 80% of annual emissions. Wealthy individuals should be indoctrinated that they desire a life where a solar roof with batteries supplies uninterrupted electricity, where a geothermal HVAC system continuously maintains an optimal temperature, where an electric vehicle offers the smoothest ride ever, and where a vegan grocery store provides the most sumptuous sustenance. More important than any specific solution is promoting all zero emission solutions as table stakes for a new holistic approach to life. An approach where one only takes what’s needed from the Earth and gives back whenever possible. Regenerative practices which deeply embed home life into the surrounding environment must become venerated amongst the wealthy.
To successfully insert such a lifestyle into the mainstream conscious of the upper class one can refer back to the example of the front lawn. Prior to Abraham Levitt, lawns were limited to the realms of the very wealthy. The origin of their popularity amongst the upper crust of America can be attributed to the influence of another single individual. George Washington. He had landscapers emulate the green turf of French and English estates at Mount Vernon. Depictions of his Virginia home along with his popularity spread the desire amongst wealthy Americans to have their own lawns. Certain figures can exert disproportionate influence on the aspirations of whole groups of people. New ways of living can self-propagate through a population if such individuals are persuaded to plant the initial seeds of desire.
An even better illustration of how aspiration is implanted can be found in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl Streep describes how gatekeepers at the top of the fashion industry can sway the decisions of consumers without their own knowledge. The cerulean gown on the runway in Paris does not immediately become the cerulean sweater on the clearance rack at TJ Maxx but the influence is undeniable. If a sequel were to be made, one would hope to see Streep promote 100% recyclable fabrics as the epitome of luxury. Society always has specific nodes of influence which can be harnessed to change behavior at scale. Leveraging those nodes provides the means to engender the desire for a zero emissions lifestyle.
Co-opting the aspirations of the wealthy through key cultural influencers should be seen as only one attempt of many to fight the climate crisis. Systemic change should remain the top priority, but the opportunity to redirect the lifestyle of the worst emitters cannot be ignored. This approach leans into existing economic divisions which may prove detrimental to broader climate action. That risk also cannot be ignored. The way of life for all of humanity must tend towards zero emissions. Starting with those who not only contribute the most to the problem but also have the means to make lifestyle changes will yield useful insights while simultaneously pursuing other options for emissions mitigation.
As I finished writing this I saw this ad from Ikea promoting tiny homes as a new sustainable way of living. While Ikea isn’t known as a luxury brand, at a global level anyone who buys Ikea furniture is probably closer to the 90th percentile of wealth than not. Seems like perhaps such a lifestyle shift is already being tested, at least on me.