The Corporate Elite Must Reconcile If They Are Wealth Hoarders or Climate Protectors. They Can’t Be Both!

Can capitalism’s “winners” avoid the rise of an angry underclass by moving from wealth hoarders to climate protectors?
Oct 17, 2019 10:15 AM ET

This article was originally published on Medium

By Brad Zarnett 

Climate change has arrived sooner than we expected and the seriousness of this crisis cannot be overstated. Scientists predicted this with great accuracy and now mother nature is providing us with a sneak peak of what’s to come. Our lives will soon be blasted with everything from massive hurricanes, sweltering heatwaves, water shortages, insect infestations, droughts, forest fires and 500 year floods that happen every year. While devastating to some, these are still only semi-local disruptions. Nature still has much more in store for us and soon she will begin to impact entire regions and the planet as a whole.

The final act of this tragedy will occur when unchecked climate change comes for our food supply. First from a mass migration of fish looking for cooler waters at the poles and then from massive crop failures from excessive heat, drought and flooding. These two events which could happen in a few short decades, will trigger the migration of hundreds of millions of humans in search for food. The scale of this crisis is unimaginable and it will surely lead to mass suffering, starvation, war and an overall breakdown of democracy and civilization as we know it.

Global Challenges Require Global Solutions

The youth are scared about their future and they’re fed up with leaders who are failing them. Demonstrations are raising awareness but so far, they’re failing to change policy. Governments are unwilling to make difficult choices for fear of upsetting their corporate overlords who are dead set against regulations. Capitalism’s biggest winners prefer to put their faith in market solutions that maintain their wealth, status and control. The problem is that this approach is risky, unproven and could take generations, but more to the point — it’s a fantasy perpetrated by wealth hoarders to maintain the status quo while ignoring the urgency of our situation.


Demonstrations are raising awareness but they’re failing to change policy.


Free market capitalism is simply ill equipped to deal with global ecosystem destruction. There isn’t a clear business case with a measurable ROI. It’s impossible to quantify the financial benefit of leaving a livable planet for the next generation — because it’s not about money — it’s about long term survival and our flawed business model doesn’t know how to measure it. And even if it was possible to find the all important business case, the challenge is simply too big for individual companies or even entire sectors to address. Climate change has no borders — it’s a global challenge and it needs global solutions.

Immediate and Drastic

As difficult as it might be for those who are right of centre to hear, we’re going to need a centralized approach to tackle this emergency. We need to make full use of the regulatory tools at our disposal — some combination of taxes and tariffs to prevent us from reaching the tipping points of runaway climate change.


We need to make full use of the regulatory tools at our disposal…


Let’s be clear — entrepreneurs and corporations are vital in the search for solutions but we can’t fool ourselves any longer to think that the market alone can somehow solve this problem. Whatever strategies we use, we will need an immediate and drastic reduction in our carbon emissions combined with private sector innovation and no one is better suited to coordinate this, than government.

Once and for all, we must drop the neoliberal fairy-tale and accept that business using the profit motive has been a spectacular failure. Whether the strategy is called corporate sustainability, CSR, social innovation, impact investing, or conscious capitalism, the results are clear — power, wealth and control have been dangerously concentrated and every major ecosystem on the planet is in a state of decline.


…we must drop the neoliberal fairy-tale and accept that business using the profit motive has been a spectacular failure.


To make the transition to a low carbon economy, we will need to change everything; our energy system, our transportation system and our manufacturing system and we have 10 years to do it. This might seem like an impossible mission but it’s the only option we have.

So…Why The Impasse

The science is clear and we know what needs to happen. We need to make drastic changes in how we live and how business is conducted if we hope to limit the worst impacts of runaway climate change and yet, we remain locked in a dangerous dance of empty promises, inaction and half measures.


…we remain locked in a dangerous dance of empty promises, inaction and half measures.


What is also clear is that large corporations and the ultra wealthy have increased their hold on government strategy and decisions. Neoliberalism has delivered immense wealth and power to the billionaire class, and with the help of their #1 cheerleader, the corporate controlled media, they have large segments of society convinced, as well as themselves, that they are a necessary and vital addition to society. That segment believes that billionaire’s oversized rewards were earned through their hard work and special billionaire minds…of course that doesn’t account for those who inherited the wealth; much of the Walmart family and Mackenzie Bezos who is worth 34 billion, comes to mind.

We can haggle over what is the right reward for business people who create something special. We can debate the policies that lead to billionaires and at what level their reward begins to impact society as a whole. We can argue over the benefits of giving tax breaks to the ultra wealthy while cutting services to the 99%. But there is no debate that wealth concentration and environmental degradation is putting future generations at risk and it’s currently harming our democracies.

Policy Failure

Society needs entrepreneurs and corporations but their role is not to control government to further enrich themselves — that is an aberration of unregulated free market capitalism that has run amok. They have an oversized influence on the policies that govern us and it’s destabilizing our planet. But they don’t see it that way, the elite see themselves as a special class that knows how to get things done far better than government. They are certain beyond any doubt that they can allocate their money far more efficiently and effectively than government and that they are the best ones to solve our biggest problems — many of which they caused in the first place. The idea of sharing their good fortune is akin to letting others get a free ride — after all, they worked hard for what they have or at least they think so.


Society needs entrepreneurs and corporations but their role is not to control government to further enrich themselves — that is an aberration of unregulated free market capitalism that has run amok.


So here we are…we have billionaire class that has been quietly directing government policy for decades to help craft a system that allows for social and environmental harm to be passed along to society while a select few amass fortunes. In return, as a way to minimize scrutiny by regulators and the media and to justify their greed, they donate some of their wealth (far less than had they been fairly taxed) back to society towards whatever pet project they find interesting at the time.

Can They Change?

Billionaires and the ultra wealthy live in a world of self adulation, rationalization and greed. They have convinced themselves that by starting an impact investment fund focused on solving climate change or by claiming to be a conscious capitalist, while polluting the planet at will, that they are part of the solution for what ails the planet. This is a contradiction that the billionaire class must reconcile before they can choose where they want to put their money and influence. Do they want to continue to prop up the broken system that allows them to live a life of immense wealth and power or do they want to be part of the solution and help to correct the harm that the unregulated capitalist system has unleashed upon us? They need to make a decision, are they wealth hoarders or climate protectors? They cannot be both!

If they choose the climate they will need to give up some of their wealth, power and control. The companies that they own will be forced to take responsibility for the fact that they are negatively impacting the planet without having ever paid fair compensation for that harm. It will force them to admit that the very system that they support and that has enriched them is causing the climate to unravel. If they choose the climate they will ultimately be choosing to give something up, or said another way, they will be choosing to share rather than hoard.

A Choice For The Environment

If we go down this path and the elite become climate protectors, it will mean that our species has a very good chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. This process will rebalance a flawed system that established laws, policies and norms that benefit multinational corporations that pollute at will, at the expense of those who have little or no voice; the environment, the poor, children and future generations.


Governments will be in charge of the overall strategy and the private sector will be mobilized to do what it does best — innovate and execute…


It will mean that the fantasy of market solutions for global environmental and social challenges is put to rest. Governments will be in charge of the overall strategy and the private sector will be mobilized to do what it does best — innovate and execute, and not to pretend to be a solution provider for things that are beyond its scope and that have no business case.

Companies that are currently shielded from taking responsibility for their impacts will feel varying levels of financial pain as capital is reallocated to repair and prevent future harm. Sustainability leaders will be freed from supporting initiatives that are environmentally trivial and unleashed to drive meaningful change. Sanity will be brought back into the system. Activities and ideas that reduce harm will have roadblocks removed and be positioned to flourish, while activities that cause harm will be penalized.

We Can’t Afford to Mess This Up

These changes are coming even if the elite class doesn’t realize it. Climate change mixed with a level of inequality not seen for nearly 100 years, is like a ticking time bomb. The corporate elite can get in front of the coming changes and still remain monumentally wealthy while passing along a livable planet to the next generation, or then can wait and resist, and allow the pendulum of change to come crashing towards us in ways that we simply cannot imagine.


We need to prioritize the important things and look at the world through the eyes of our children.


We can diffuse the climate time bomb and address inequality at the same time but we need to act quickly. We need to prioritize the important things and look at the world through the eyes of our children. We can’t afford to mess this up. The adults in the room have had time to enjoy their lives and reach for their dreams and our children deserve the same.

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Brad Zarnett is a Canadian sustainability strategist, speaker and blogger. He is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). You can follow Brad on twitter: @bradzarnettLinkedIn, and now on Medium Brad on Medium