1. The top 1% no longer includes most doctors and head teachers
To be in the top 1% of earners in Britain today, a couple with no children would need a minimum income of £160,000. A single person can enter the 1% with a little less, while a couple with children would need more.
Hardly any GPs are paid enough to take their place in the top 1% any longer, despite the last decade’s huge hike in their pay; their incomes have been far outstripped by those of the financiers above them. The best-paid head teachers, too, used to be within the top paid 1% in society. They have seen pay rises higher than most teachers, but, again, they have been overtaken in the rankings by financiers, managers, accountants and lawyers. The 1% can pay their children’s university fees upfront. For the rest of us, it is debt. And, in recent years, the top doctors and teachers have become increasingly like the rest of us. There has always been a top 1%, but in the past it contained a wider range of people, including many who were respected more for the jobs they did. And the 1% is taking more and more. When I was a child, the 1% took a third of the share of national income they do today. Nowhere in Europe do they take as much as in the UK.
2. London is the home of the 1%
Per head, there are more so-called ultra-high net-worth individuals (UHNWI) in London than anywhere else on the planet. These are defined as people with $30m (£21m) or more in assets apart from their main home. The estate agents Frank Knight recently reported that 4,224 “Ultra” families were living in London, with the number expected to reach 5,000 by 2024. The attraction is not just London’s history, nightlife or its convenient time zone; it is Britain’s lax tax regime. As Pippa Malmgren, one-time economic adviser to George Bush, put it: “The crackdown on tax havens in Switzerland has removed these old options for new capital. As a result, there has been a huge influx of global capital into the UK.”
London’s wealthy elite also includes the largest concentration of Russian millionaires found outside of Moscow – at least 2,000, many of whom are also “Ultras”. It is impossible to accurately assess their wealth because so much of it is hidden. But the donations from many of them to the Conservative party suggest that they have a direct interest in maintaining the low tax – especially wealth tax – policies of that party. It is not just property that the Russians are buying.
3. The super rich can view the lower classes as subhuman
It is very hard to justify your huge wealth unless you see people beneath you as less deserving. Once the wealth gaps become very large, it is easier to get through the day if you see them as less able, less special. When earlier this month the civil society minister Brooks Newmark told people involved in charities that they should “stick to their knitting” rather than concern themselves with what might be causing the problems they were trying to remedy, he was exhibiting just such a “don’t worry your pretty little head” attitude.
At the extreme, the less fortunate may not be seen as people at all. That was the finding of a study from Princeton University in which MRI scans were taken of several university students’ active brains while they viewed images of different people. Researchers saw that photographs of homeless people and drug addicts failed to stimulate areas of the brain that usually activate whenever people think about other people, or themselves. Instead, the (mostly affluent) students reacted to the images as if they “had stumbled on a pile of trash”.
The more economic inequality there is in a country, the more people are prone to instantly size up each others’ status upon meeting. Some quickly cast their eyes down; others look over the shoulders of those they don’t think they need to respect. Social psychologists from Berkeley and Amsterdam have studied strangers in situations where one told the other of a difficult personal experience, such as a death in the family. The larger the social gap, the less compassion was shown. Such behaviour, and the acceptance of it as normal, becomes much more prevalent in those places where the 1% have taken the most.
4. In the last 15 years, inequality has spiralled
If the national minimum wage had kept pace with FTSE 100 CEO salaries since 1999, it would now be £18.89 per hour instead of £6.50. However, for some reason broadcasters rarely ask CEOs about the gulf between their pay and that of the poorest staff in their organisations. The unstated implication is that the lowest-paid staff are lucky to have any job at all, and only have what they have thanks to the benevolence of the 1%, with their superior leadership skills.
If the top 1% actually created more jobs as they became wealthier, then ordinary people would be surrounded by employment opportunities in both the US and the UK. Instead, it is in Germany, where the wealthiest 1% receives in pay and bonuses half as much as their counterparts in the US, that unemployment is at a 20-year low. In countries that keep their top 1% in check, the highest earners work more effectively for the good of all, or at the very least create a little less misery.
5. Taxing more would cut down on greed
To reduce wealth inequalities, you introduce wealth taxes, as we did with inheritance tax a century ago. However, if you want to keep inequality under control, you need a high top rate of income tax. The top rate in Switzerland and Germany has not fallen for the past half century; in both countries the top 1% earners now take a slightly smaller share of total income than they did in the 1960s. In the US and the UK, the 1% have gained the most as top taxes have fallen the most.
Top taxes reduce income inequality not by raising revenue, but by deterring the greedy from asking for more money. When there is a tax rate of 60% or 70% on the slice of income above £200,000 or £250,000 a year, it makes little sense to pay employees much more than that.
By not paying a few people very high salaries, firms can save enormous amounts of money. If Barclays bank didn’t employ several hundred people on salaries of more than £1m, but on more reasonable, if still high incomes, it could employ several thousand more staff to work in local branches threatened with closure. Similarly, the BBC could make better programmes using more producers if a few celebrities at the top were paid less. It has already begun this process. A more equitable pay distribution allows far more people for the same cost, and the reward is greater productivity.
6. Maintaining inequality requires penalising the poor
The coalition government has already reduced the top rate of tax to 45%. Now it plans tougher benefit cuts for the poor. Under current financial plans, it will reward the top 1% even more in future, by cutting income taxes further. The rest of the top 20% can expect slight increases in their net income in the years up to 2016, while everyone else is impoverished. These figures are based on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s own projections. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has produced statistics showing that George Osborne’s plans will cut the proportion of GDP going to the state to the lowest level in western Europe by 2015, and for the first time below that in the US.
7. It is children who will suffer most from the spending cuts
The tax, benefit and spending changes now underway will hit households with children hardest. These make up a third of households, according to the children’s commissioner for England, but will suffer around two thirds of the cuts. On average, couples with no children will lose 4%, couples with children 9%, and lone parents 14% of their net income. Yet the 1% with children face no net cuts. Their loss of child benefit is more than outweighed by what they gain from tax cuts.
The 1% in the UK can afford to put money into a highly pressured education for their children. This does not necessarily make them happy. Many may prefer a normal family life to a boarding school, paid handsomely to squeeze the highest possible exam grades from them. They are expected to gain entry to some of the “best” universities and, in turn, to quickly secure a very highly paid job and do the same for their own children. They are not necessarily to be envied, but they come at a huge price, which others partly pay through austerity. One way of looking at the cost of the UK’s 1% is that it is equivalent to running 1,100 royal families.
8. Many other parts of the world are becoming more, not less, equal
In Switzerland and the Netherlands, the share of national income taken by the 1% has shrunk to historic lows. Inequalities have fallen since 1990 in Brazil and since 2000 in Sweden. Even in the UK, income inequalities since the 2008 crash have fallen back to early 1990s levels – if you strip out the very richest 1%. Only this tiny minority is still moving away from the rest. Since 2005, global economic inequalities have been falling, but again only if the wealth and income of the very richest is ignored. We are facing a fork in the road between having a majority global middle class, or most of us becoming a global service class employed to satisfy the needs of a tiny minority of super-rich individuals.
9. Concentration of wealth at the top is unsustainable …
Wealth concentration damages economies. It focuses activity within finance and other services geared towards the super rich – resorts, hotels, all manner of servant duties – and away from actually productive work. It is far better to have a mixed economy where some manufacturing still takes place near to where goods are consumed. It is also damaging to rely on industries with high numbers of very low-paid employees. If you eat out half as much but pay twice as much for the privilege, then cooks, washers-up and waiters can be paid more, as they are in Switzerland. Nowhere in Europe “employs” unpaid interns in such numbers as Britain, including in its financial industry; this does not make a vibrant market economy.
Economists based in Hamburg, Göttingen and Harvard recently studied trends since 1961 in nine high-income countries and revealed that, as those at the very top take more, overall economic growth becomes more sluggish. It is not just that the richest leave less in the pay chest for everyone else: the chest fills more slowly when the 1% take more, when employees must get by on subsistence wages, when interns must work themselves into the ground for nothing.
10. But no one knows when the tipping point will come
It is exactly a century since the income and wealth of the 1% last began to fall abruptly. Inequality peaked in the years 1912 and 1913, when the organisation of British society was epitomised by the sleeping arrangements on the Titanic.
That world was changed by external events: the first world war, the 1916 Easter uprising, the Russian revolution of 1917, and the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide. Taxes rose rapidly. The job was finished by unions, politicians and suffragettes, the greed of the 1920s bankers and the crash of 1929. The net income of the 1% was cut in half by 1939.
Today there are not enough people to buy property in London at prices inflated by the greed of the 1%. Firms cannot sell enough to justify the largesse offered to a few at the top, and banks cannot legally or morally make enough profit to pay over 2,000 bankers more than £1m a year. Roughly half the voters of Scotland haven’t expressed their wish to leave the union in poll after poll because they see London and its inequalities as stable or sustainable.
We can see the rising dissent and anger and the changing of attitudes towards the rich, but not the precise event that will come to be labelled as the turning point, just as we could not a century ago. But it is coming. We may even have passed it. Note how pay at the top of the BBC has fallen, and that no banker today is paid what Bob Diamond received a few years ago. The language and moral sentiment is changing. By being angry and disgusted with the current extent of inequality, we make it unacceptable, and its defenders become pariahs. Gross economic inequality is as vile as racism, misogyny and hatred of the disabled; as damaging in effect; and as dependent on a small group of supporters who believe that just a few should have more and more and more, because they’re worth it.
A friend mails from Edinburgh: “The referendum is all anybody talks about. My mate is getting married next week and says despite that, all his dreams are about independence.” An uncle born in Rangoon, but living in London for 50 years, comes to visit with one thing on his mind: “I can’t hear enough about what’s happening in Scotland.”
Britain is in the middle of something so epic that almost everyone feels compelled to have a view on it. And like a Rorschach test, both right and left gaze upon the saltires and the protesting crowds outside BBC Scotland – and see exactly what they want to see.
For the right, this is an insurgency of the subsidy junkies: a coalition of the ungrateful, the unaffordable and the utopian, hell-bent on disrupting an order that has provided three centuries of stability. Seen from the left, this is an uprising by capitalism’s oppressed, throwing off the shackles placed on them by Thatcher’s children and the Blairite zombies they are just a vote away from a socially just Xanadu. I exaggerate a little, but – after all the afternoon rallies and midnight blogs and front-page warnings from the Queen – I’m not alone.
The fundamental point, though, is this: neither picture captures the reality. Look at Scotland’s economic profile, and it’s clear that independence would be viable. But count up the building blocks that would form the basis of a new economy, and it looks sadly unlikely that an independent Scotland would be much of an alternative to the Old Corruption south of the border.
None of the above is going to stop the no campaign from keeping the union together at all costs. Which is why this weekend’s newspapers were bursting with dreadful warnings from Deutsche Bank about how a yes vote would be “a political and economic mistake as large as Winston Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return the pound to the gold standard” or the missteps in Washington that triggered the Great Depression.
That note of alarm came from the foreword to a two-page research note issued by Deutsche. Over the year, I have read thousands of such finance-house briefings – indeed, I have dim memories from very early in my career of having contributed to a few – and can say two things about them with confidence. First, for all the numbers and letterheads, they are not the word of God. They are a cross between a commentary and a forecast: think of a horse-racing tip without the colourful names, or Simon Heffer with more graphs. The Deutsche paper fits the form to a T: the bank’s group chief economist’s remarks are less economic than political in nature. “Why anyone would want to exit a successful economic and political union … to go it alone for the benefit of ... what exactly, is incomprehensible to this author.”
Fair enough: it’s one man’s view. But the other rule of research notes is that there’s bound to be another expressing a contrasting opinion. Such as the email I received from the head of the global strategy team at Société Générale. It argues that a yes vote would lay bare the fact that, without Scotland’s oil exports, the rest of the UK simply doesn’t pay its way in the world – and so independence would see “sterling quite rightly plunge into the abyss”.
Two well-known financial strategists, two divergent views – but only one gets amplified by the media. Funny that.
To make the sort of call issued by the Deutsche economists, you would need the kind of information about who would get what share of the oil and of the UK’s debts that we just don’t have yet – because those negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster haven’t even begun. Despite that, the no camp leaps on any passing argument to support its side. Even if they are pish. You can’t argue both that a go-alone Scotland would be as overbanked as Iceland, and that RBS and Lloyds leaving spells disaster: it’s one or the other.
That said, the technicalities mean the transition to independence would be turbulent. Forget about devo max; there would be austerity max, thanks to Scotland’s budget deficit. Worried over the value of their assets, savers and companies would try to shift their money south. Thousands of business contracts would need to be redrawn.
If the Scots go into currency union with the rest of the UK, their interest rates, financial regulation and probably their tax-and-spend policies will be dictated by the entity they have just opted out of. The plan B of merely adopting the pound would be even worse, and leave banks headquartered in Scotland in need of a new lender of last resort. As Dundee-born economist Mark Blyth points out, the most sensible option, of a Scottish currency, would take about five to seven years to set up a new central bank, a new bond shop and a new tax office.
These are just the technicalities – and they already spell a decade of pain. But provided the new country’s electorate was primed for such sacrifices, they could be got through. The big question for the left, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, is what kind of alternative economy would be built. And I can’t see that it would be so different. Adopting the pound or the euro would bind the new country into the same old hated structures. Going by SNP policies, this new small state would follow the path trod by many of its predecessors over the past two decades: cut corporation tax, sell assets and try to draw in as much foreign capital as possible. The result wouldn’t be Sweden, but Ireland: a plaything for big multinationals.
It wouldn’t be impossible to craft an alternative economic policy: but there isn’t one in place yet. Ask for one and you are pointed to the Wee Blue Book or Adam Ramsay’s 42 Reasons: both are smart, generous-minded critiques of Britain’s political economy, but they are short of concrete alternatives. Ask for an alternative to Alex Salmond and you’re shown “good bloke” Patrick Harvie. But the Green party he heads polls about as well north of the border as Ukip.
In the old days of ethnic nationalism, having a vacuum in place of an alternative wouldn’t matter so much: separatism would be an end in itself. But the yes campaign that’s emerged over the past few years is built around a civic nationalism, in which the forming of a nation is only the means to an end of progressive values. Trouble is, around the central issue of economics, there is a blank ready to be filled by the old conservatism and lobbying.
We were each other’s firsts. I was 16, a stressed-out immigrant kid, she was the daughter of Colombian Catholics who were quite fond of the church’s policy on pre-marital sex. So it took us quite a while to awkwardly, semi-defeatedly concede to each other that we had run out of excuses to avoid sex. “This weekend?” I said grimly.
“Your house?” she said.
On Saturday morning, when the springtime sun finally made a strong showing outside after a dreary, wet winter, I came downstairs, where my parents and maternal grandmother were gathered around breakfast, and asked, as casually as I could: “Are you guys doing anything tonight?”
My father, not one for socialising or reading between the lines, wrinkled his forehead and said: “No?”
But my mother, who reads between the lines, needed only one look at me to say: “Of course!” She didn’t know why she was being asked, but she knew she was being asked.
“Why not go out for dinner?” I said, feeling guilty. “My treat.” Since arriving from the Soviet Union a decade before in 1988, none of our immigrant habits had eased; we almost never ate out – too expensive.
But I had been hoarding dollars from my summer jobs landscaping and lifeguarding. My offer must have indicated to my mother how badly I wished for the thing I was asking.
“But we’re not going anywhere tonight,” my father repeated, confused. My mother smacked his arm with the back of her hand: “Yes, we are.”
My grandmother only lolled her head, smiling. Whatever the adventure, she was in, as long as it included the family. (She had lost most of hers in the Holocaust.)
With curiosity, scepticism and goodwill, my parents and grandmother piled into the cramped, rusty Buick that was our first car in America and fumed off to whatever discount place they were going to for dinner. Newly permitted to drive, I jumped into our other car and sped off to a linen shop, in one of the nondescript shopping malls that surrounded our town like a blockading army.
I had been reading quite a bit of Gabriel García Márquez – my girlfriend’s compatriot – and I wanted her first time to resemble the epic, lovelorn couplings in his books. I wasn’t sure how things would hold up at my end, so at least everything else could be perfect.
After buying sheets (surely, I was the only unaccompanied 16-year-old male in the store), I stopped at the florist’s and asked for two dozen roses, rapidly depleting the funds I had set aside for my family’s dinner. I was so anxious that I gashed a finger trying to open the cellophane packaging in which the sheets were packed. I laid them down and wondered how tacky it was for the folding creases to show. Márquez had said nothing about folding creases. I tore the sheets back off the bed, yanked my mother’s ironing board from the hallway closet and got to work, the clock marching forward without mercy. My girlfriend was almost due and my family surely soon after that.
I gashed another finger plucking the petals off the thorn-riddled roses. (You thought I was going to give my girlfriend the flowers? No, like a maestro unveiling his circus, I would peel back the bedspread to reveal … fresh sheets covered in rose petals!)
Trying desperately not to bleed all over the enterprise, I stretched the ironed sheets over the mattress, scattered 300 rose petals on top and covered it all with the bedspread.
The main event was nothing like my literary hero had promised: primarily, we were relieved it was over. Now we could savour the falsely sweet memory of a milestone achieved. We turned on the television, called the diner and ordered a takeaway.
However, there was no sign of the adults. It was dark by now; I couldn’t imagine them choosing a restaurant that took serious time with its meals. There was no such place in our town, in any case.
They weren’t back when I drove my girlfriend home and they weren’t back by the time I returned. Eleven turned to midnight to 1am, and I turned from amusement to worry to terror at having consigned my family to catastrophe all because I wanted to lose my virginity.
I paced the living room and waited.
Though I would be unable to explain the feeling until many years later, the unease in my chest that evening had less to do with the awkwardness of a first coupling than the knowledge that it had been an obligation performed by two young people who felt a tremendous amount of affection for each other and desperately wished that could be enough.
I wrote my first poems for Gloria and she listened patiently to my complaints about the pressures of all that was expected from me at home. She came to my tennis matches and I wrote her term papers. But there were too many silent moments between us and the fact that our parents did not see us together – a Catholic and a Jew – only deepened the gloom. Our parents’ opinions mattered to us with all the weight they suspected was lacking.
Gloria and I would never regret that we had given ourselves to each other, but among the many other lessons with which adulthood awaited us was the news that for a life together it was not enough to love someone; you had to like them, too.
She was one year older than me and when she went off to college we unravelled. All the same, when I went to college, my mother demanded to know whether I had chosen it because it was only half an hour from where Gloria was studying.
“It’s Princeton, Ma,” I said. “Who cares why I chose it?” (I had selected Princeton because it offered the most financial assistance and because my parents would be footing the bill). But having spent their formative years in a country that lied to and abused its citizens, especially if they were Jewish, my parents were always alert to a con, even from their own flesh and blood.
As for Gloria, we reconnected several years ago after more than a decade. We have dinner every few months, each meeting as if no time has passed. The intense feelings that we experienced in those impressionable years have left us with a seemingly ineradicable tenderness available only to people like us. Sometimes I wonder: would we have stood a chance if we had ignored our parents about our relationship, too? There is no way to know.
So, this is adulthood: being old enough to have questions that will never be answered. Now, the parents listen only sometimes. Gloria and I laugh and commiserate about it when we meet at dinner. In those moments, our friendship feels like a secret and a gift.
But back to that spring night in 1996. When I heard the garage-door rumble open at 2am, I leapt off the couch where I was napping fitfully and burst through the connecting door in the front hallway.
“Where were you?!” I demanded like a parent sighting children who had violated their curfew. “It’s 2am!”
“We wanted to give you your time,” my mother said, taken aback.
“Where were you?” I demanded.
Recent immigrants don’t eat out, not if someone in the family is paying (my pocket was as good as their own, as far as they were concerned). They had spent seven hours parked in the lot outside Shop Rite down Hamburg Turnpike, next to the diner from which my girlfriend and I had ordered food. They had made sandwiches. They snacked on turkey slices with mayo and cucumber and talked about all the things they wished their only son to achieve. Seven hours they had talked and they could have gone on until dawn.
Naomi Klein: 'My doctor told me that my hormone levels were too low and that I'd probably miscarry, for the third time. My mind raced back to the Gulf.' Photograph: Anya Chibis for the Guardian
I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most news stories. I told myself the science was too complicated and the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my "elite" frequent-flyer status.
A great many of us engage in this kind of denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or maybe we do really look, but then we forget. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything.
And we are right. If we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, major cities will drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas; our children will spend much of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts. Yet we continue all the same.
What is wrong with us? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things needed to cut emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have struggled to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck, because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and benefit the vast majority – are threatening to an elite minority with a stranglehold over our economy, political process and media.
That problem might not have been insurmountable had it presented itself at another point in our history. But it is our collective misfortune that governments and scientists began talking seriously about radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in 1988 – the exact year that marked the dawning of "globalisation". The numbers are striking: in the 1990s, as the market integration project ramped up, global emissions were going up an average of 1% a year; by the 2000s, with "emerging markets" such as China fully integrated into the world economy, emissions growth had sped up disastrously, reaching 3.4% a year.
That rapid growth rate has continued, interrupted only briefly, in 2009, by the world financial crisis. What the climate needs now is a contraction in humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it's not the laws of nature.
What gets me most are not the scary studies about melting glaciers, the ones I used to avoid. It's the books I read to my two-year-old. Looking For A Moose is one of his favourites. It's about a bunch of kids who really want to see a moose. They search high and low – through a forest, a swamp, in brambly bushes and up a mountain. (The joke is that there are moose hiding on each page.) In the end, the animals all come out and the ecstatic kids proclaim: "We've never ever seen so many moose!" On about the 75th reading, it suddenly hit me: he might never see a moose.
I went to my computer and began to write about my time in northern Alberta, Canadian tar sands country, where members of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation told me how the moose had changed. A woman killed one on a hunting trip, only to find the flesh had turned green. I heard a lot about strange tumours, which locals assumed had to do with the animals drinking water contaminated by tar sand toxins. But mostly I heard about how the moose were simply gone.
In our desire to deal with climate change without questioning the logic of growth, we've been eager to look both to technology and the market for saviours. And the world's celebrity billionaires have been happy to play their part.
In his autobiography/new age business manifesto Screw It, Let's Do It, Richard Branson shared the inside story of his road to Damascus conversion to the fight against climate change. It was 2006 and Al Gore, on tour with An Inconvenient Truth, came to the billionaire's home to impress upon him the dangers of global warming."It was quite an experience," Branson writes. "As I listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon."
As he tells it, his first move was to summon Will Whitehorn, then Virgin Group's corporate and brand development director. "We took the decision to change the way Virgin operates on a corporate and global level. We called this new approach Gaia Capitalism in honour of James Lovelock and his revolutionary scientific view" (this is that the Earth is "one single enormous living organism"). Not only would Gaia Capitalism "help Virgin to make a real difference in the next decade and not be ashamed to make money at the same time", but Branson believed it could become "a new way of doing business on a global level".
'For two years after I covered the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I couldn't look at any body of water without imagining it covered in oil.' Illustration: Noma Bar for the Guardian
Before the year was out, he was ready to make his grand entrance on to the green scene (and he knows how to make an entrance – by parachute, by jetski, by kitesail with a naked model clinging to his back). At the 2006 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York, the highest power event on the philanthropic calendar, Branson pledged to spend $3bn over the next decade to develop biofuels as an alternative to oil and gas, and on other technologies to battle climate change. The sum alone was staggering, but the most elegant part was where the money would be coming from: Branson would divert the funds generated by Virgin's fossil fuel-burning transportation lines.
In short, he was volunteering to do precisely what our governments have been unwilling to legislate: channel the profits earned from warming the planet into the costly transition away from these dangerous energy sources. Bill Clinton was dazzled, calling the pledge "ground-breaking". But Branson wasn't finished: a year later, he was back with the Virgin Earth Challenge – a $25m prize for the first inventor to figure out how to sequester 1bn tonnes of carbon a year from the air "without countervailing harmful effects". And the best part, he said, is that if these competing geniuses crack the carbon code, the "'doom and gloom' scenario vanishes. We can carry on living our lives in a pretty normal way – we can drive our cars, fly our planes." The idea that we can solve the climate crisis without having to change our lifestyles – certainly not by taking fewer Virgin flights – seemed the underlying assumption of all Branson's initiatives. In 2009, he launched the Carbon War Room, an industry group looking for ways that different sectors could lower their emissions voluntarily, and save money in the process. For many mainstream greens, Branson seemed a dream come true: a media darling out to show the world that fossil fuel-intensive companies can lead the way to a green future, using profit as the most potent tool.
Bill Gates and former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg have also used their philanthropy aggressively to shape climate solutions, the latter with large donations to green groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, and with the supposedly enlightened climate policies he introduced as mayor. But while talking a good game about carbon bubbles and stranded assets, Bloomberg has made no discernible attempt to manage his own vast wealth in a manner that reflects these concerns. In fact, he helped set up Willett Advisors, a firm specialising in oil and gas assets, for both his personal and philanthropic holdings. Those gas assets may well have risen in value as a result of his environmental giving – what with, for example, EDF championing natural gas as a replacement for coal. Perhaps there is no connection between his philanthropic priorities and his decision to entrust his fortune to the oil and gas sector. But these investment choices raise uncomfortable questions about his status as a climate hero, as well as his 2014 appointment as a UN special envoy for cities and climate change (questions Bloomberg has not answered, despite my repeated requests).
Gates has a similar firewall between mouth and money. Though he professes great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2bn invested in oil giants BP and ExxonMobil as of December 2013, and those are only the start of his fossil fuel holdings. When he had his climate change epiphany, he, too, raced to the prospect of a silver-bullet techno-fix, without pausing to consider viable – if economically challenging – responses in the here and now. In Ted talks, op-eds, interviews and in hisannual letters, Gates repeats his call for governments massively to increase spending on research and development, with the goal of uncovering "energy miracles".
By miracles, he means nuclear reactors that have yet to be invented (he is a major investor and chairman of nuclear startup TerraPower), machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere (he is a primary investor in at least one such prototype) and direct climate manipulation (Gates has spent millions funding research into schemes to block the sun, and his name is on several hurricane-suppression patents). At the same time, he has been dismissive of the potential of existing renewable technologies, writing off energy solutions such as rooftop solar as "cute" and "noneconomic" (these cute technologies already provide 25% of Germany's electricity).
In 2006, after meeting Al Gore, Richard Branson pledged £3bn to battle climate change over the following decade. He has since spent just £230m. Photograph: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Almost a decade after Branson's epiphany, it seems a good time to check in on the "win-win" crusade. Let's start with his "firm commitment" to spending $3bn over a decade developing a miracle fuel. The first tranche of money he diverted from his transport divisions launched Virgin Fuels (since replaced by private equity firm Virgin Green Fund). He began by investing in various agrofuel businesses, including making a bet of $130m on corn ethanol. Virgin has attached its name to several biofuel pilot projects – one to derive jet fuel from eucalyptus trees, another from fermented gas waste – though it has not gone in as an investor. But Branson admits the miracle fuel "hasn't been invented yet" and the fund has since moved its focus to a grab-bag of green-tinged products.
Diversifying his holdings to get a piece of the green market would hardly seem to merit the fanfare inspired by Branson's original announcement, especially as the investments have been so unremarkable. If he is to fulfil his $3bn pledge by 2016, by this point at least $2bn should have been spent. He's not even close. According to Virgin Green Fund partner Evan Lovell, Virgin has contributed only around $100m to the pot, on top of the original ethanol investment, which brings the total Branson investment to around $230m. (Lovell confirmed that "we are the primary vehicle" for Branson's promise.)
Branson refused to answer my direct questions about how much he had spent, writing that "it's very hard to quantify the total amount… across the Group". His original "pledge" he now refers to as a "gesture". In 2009, he told Wired magazine, "in a sense, whether it's $2bn, $3bn or $4bn is not particularly relevant". When the deadline rolls around, he told me, "I suspect it will be less than $1bn right now" and blamed the shortfall on everything from high oil prices to the global financial crisis: "The world was quite different back in 2006… In the last eight years, our airlines have lost hundreds of millions of dollars."
Given these explanations for falling short, it is worth looking at some of the things for which Branson did manage to find money. In 2007, a year after seeing the climate light, he launched domestic airline Virgin America. From 40 flights a day to five destinations in its first year, it reached 177 flights a day to 23 destinations in 2013. At the same time, passengers on Virgin's Australian airlines increased from 15 million in 2007 to 19 million in 2012. In 2009, Branson launched a new long-haul airline, Virgin Australia; in April 2013 came Little Red, a British domestic airline.
So this is what he has done since his climate change pledge: gone on a procurement spree that has seen his airlines' greenhouse gas emissions soar by around 40%. And it's not just planes: Branson has unveiled Virgin Racing to compete in Formula One, (he claimed he had entered the sport only because he saw opportunities to make it greener, but quickly lost interest) and invested heavily in Virgin Galactic, his dream of launching commercial flights into space, for $250,000 per passenger. According to Fortune, by early 2013 Branson had spent "more than $200m" on this vanity project.
It can be argued – and some do – that Branson's planet-saviour persona is an elaborate attempt to avoid the kind of tough regulatory action that was on the horizon when he had his green conversion. In 2006, public concern about climate change was rising dramatically, particularly in the UK, where young activists used daring direct action to oppose new airports, as well as the proposed new runway at Heathrow. At the same time, the UK government was considering a broad bill that would hit the airline sector; Gordon Brown, then chancellor, had tried to discourage flying with a marginal rise in air passenger duty. These measures posed a significant threat to Branson's profit margins.
So, was Branson's reinvention as a guilt-ridden planet-wrecker volunteering to solve the climate crisis little more than a cynical ploy? All of a sudden, you could feel good about flying again – after all, the profits from that ticket to Barbados were going to help discover a miracle green fuel. It was an even more effective conscience-cleaner than carbon offsets (though Virgin sold those, too). As for regulations and taxes, who would want to hinder an airline supporting such a good cause? This was always Branson's argument: "If you hold industry back, we will not, as a nation, have the resources to come up with the clean-energy solutions we need." It is noteworthy that his green talk has been less voluble since David Cameron came to power and made it clear that fossil fuel-based businesses faced no serious threat of climate regulations.
There is a more charitable interpretation of what has gone wrong. This would grant Branson his love of nature (whether watching tropical birds on his private island or ballooning over the Himalayas) and credit him with genuinely trying to figure out ways to reconcile running carbon-intensive businesses with a desire to help slow species extinction and avert climate chaos. It would acknowledge, too, that he has thought up some creative mechanisms to try to channel profits into projects that could help keep the planet cool.
But if we grant him these good intentions, then the fact that all these projects have failed to yield results is all the more relevant. He set out to harness the profit motive to solve the crisis, but again and again, the demands of building a successful empire trumped the climate imperative.
Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico in an aerial view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Mobile, Alabama. Photograph: Reuters
The idea that only capitalism can save the world from a crisis it created is no longer an abstract theory; it's a hypothesis that has been tested in the real world. We can now take a hard look at the results: at the green products shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were meant to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed to cut emissions. And, most of all, at the billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided, on second thoughts, that the old one was just too profitable to surrender.
At some point about seven years ago, I realised I had become so convinced we were headed toward a grim ecological collapse that I was losing my capacity to enjoy my time in nature. The more beautiful the experience, the more I found myself grieving its loss – like someone unable to fall fully in love because she can't stop imagining the inevitable heartbreak. Looking out over British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, at an ocean bay teeming with life, I would suddenly picture it barren – the eagles, herons, seals and otters all gone. It got worse after I covered the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico: for two years after, I couldn't look at any body of water without imagining it covered in oil.
This kind of ecological despair was a big part of why I resisted having kids until my late 30s. It was around the time that I began work on my book that my attitude started to shift. Some of it, no doubt, was standard-issue denial (what does one more kid matter?). But it was also that immersing myself in the international climate movement had helped me imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak. And I was lucky: pregnant the first month we started trying. But then, just as fast, my luck ran out. A miscarriage. An ovarian tumour. A cancer scare. Surgery. Month after month of disappointing single pink lines on pregnancy tests. Another miscarriage.
It just so happened that the five years it took to write my book were the same years my personal life was occupied with failed pharmaceutical and technological interventions and, ultimately, pregnancy and new motherhood. I tried, at first, to keep these parallel journeys segregated, but it didn't always work. The worst part was the ceaseless invocation of our responsibilities to "our children". I knew these expressions were heartfelt and not meant to be exclusionary, yet I couldn't help feeling shut out.
But along the way, that feeling changed. It's not that I got in touch with my inner Earth Mother; it's that I started to notice that if the Earth is indeed our mother, then she is a mother facing a great many fertility challenges of her own.
I had no idea I was pregnant when I went to Louisiana to cover the BP spill. A few days after I got home, though, I could tell something was off and did a pregnancy test. Two lines this time, but the second strangely faint. "You can't be just a little bit pregnant," the saying goes. And yet that is what I seemed to be. After more tests, my doctor told me my hormone levels were much too low and I'd probably miscarry, for the third time. My mind raced back to the Gulf – the toxic fumes I had breathed in for days and the contaminated water I had waded in. I searched on the chemicals BP was using in huge quantities, and found reams of online chatter linking them to miscarriages. Whatever was happening, I had no doubt that it was my doing.
After a week of monitoring, the pregnancy was diagnosed as ectopic - the embryo had implanted itself outside the uterus, most likely in a fallopian tube. I was rushed to the emergency room. The somewhat creepy treatment is one or more injections of methotrexate, a drug used in chemotherapy to arrest cell development (and carrying many of the side-effects). Once foetal development has stopped, the pregnancy miscarries, but it can take weeks.
It was a tough, drawn-out loss for my husband and me. But it was also a relief to learn that the miscarriage had nothing to do with the Gulf. Knowing that did make me think a little differently about my time covering the spill, however. As I waited for the pregnancy to "resolve", I thought in particular about a long day spent on the Flounder Pounder, a boat a group of us had chartered to look for evidence that the oil had entered the marshlands.
Our guide was Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, a heroic local organisation devoted to repairing the damage done to the wetlands by the oil and gas industry. As we navigated the narrow bayous of the Mississippi Delta, Henderson leant far over the side to get a better look at the bright green grass. What concerned him most was not what we were all seeing – fish jumping in fouled water, Roseau cane coated in oil – but something much harder to detect without a microscope and sample jars.
Spring is the start of spawning season on the Gulf Coast, and Henderson knew these marshes were teeming with nearly invisible zooplankton and tiny juveniles that would develop into adult shrimp, oysters, crabs and fin fish. In these fragile weeks, the marsh grass acts as an aquatic incubator, providing nutrients and protection from predators. "Everything is born in these wetlands," he said.
The prospects for these microscopic creatures did not look good. Each wave brought in more oil and dispersants, sending levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) soaring. And this was all happening at the worst possible moment in the biological calendar: not only shellfish, but also bluefin tuna, grouper, snapper, mackerel, marlin and swordfish were all spawning. Out in the open water, floating clouds of translucent proto-life were just waiting for one of the countless plumes of oil and dispersants to pass through them like an angel of death. Unlike the oil-coated pelicans and sea turtles, these deaths would attract no media attention, just as they would go uncounted in official assessments of the spill's damage. If a certain species of larva was in the process of being snuffed out, we would likely not find out about it for years, and then, rather than some camera-ready mass die-off, there would just be… nothing. An absence. A hole in the life cycle.
As our boat rocked in that terrible place – the sky buzzing with Black Hawk helicopters and snowy white egrets – I had the distinct feeling we were suspended not in water but in amniotic fluid, immersed in a massive multi-species miscarriage. When I learned that I, too, was in the early stages of creating an ill-fated embryo, I started to think of that time in the marsh as my miscarriage inside a miscarriage. It was then that I let go of the idea that infertility made me some sort of exile from nature, and began to feel what I can only describe as a kinship of the infertile.
Oil is deposited along dead marsh land near Bay Jimmy in Port Sulphur, Louisiana, in January 2011, 10 months after the spill. The clean-up is ongoing. Photograph: Getty Images
A few months after I stopped going to the fertility clinic, a friend recommended a naturopathic doctor. This practitioner had her own theories about why so many women without an obvious medical reason were having trouble conceiving. Carrying a baby is one of the hardest physical tasks we can ask of ourselves, she said, and if our bodies decline the task, it is often a sign that they are facing too many other demands – high-stress work, or the physical stress of having to metabolise toxins, or just the stresses of modern life. Most fertility clinics use drugs and technology to override this, and they work for a lot of people. But if they do not (and they often do not), women are frequently left even more stressed, their hormones more out of whack. The naturopath proposed the opposite approach: try to figure out what might be overtaxing my system, and then remove those things. After a series of tests, I was diagnosed with a whole mess of allergies I didn't know I had, as well as adrenal insufficiency and low cortisol levels. The doctor asked me a lot of questions, including how many hours I had spent in the air over the past year. "Why?" I asked warily. "Because of the radiation. There have been some studies done with flight attendants that show it might not be good for fertility."
I admit I was far from convinced that this approach would result in a pregnancy, or even that the science behind it was wholly sound. Then again, the worst that could happen was that I'd end up healthier. So I did it all. The yoga, the meditation, the dietary changes (the usual wars on wheat, gluten, dairy and sugar, as well as more esoteric odds and ends). I went to acupuncture and drank bitter Chinese herbs; my kitchen counter became a gallery of powders and supplements. I left Toronto and moved to rural British Columbia. This is the part of the world where my parents live, where my grandparents are buried.
Gradually, I learned to identify a half-dozen birds by sound, and sea mammals by the ripples on the water's surface. My frequent-flyer status expired for the first time in a decade, and I was glad.
For the first few months, the hardest part of the pregnancy was believing everything was normal. No matter how many tests came back with reassuring results, I stayed braced for tragedy. What helped most was hiking, and during the final anxious weeks, I would calm my nerves by walking for as long as my sore hips would let me on a trail along a pristine creek. I kept my eyes open for silvery salmon smolts making their journey to the sea after months of incubation in shallow estuaries. And I would picture the cohos, pinks and chums battling the rapids and falls, determined to reach the spawning grounds where they were born. This was my son's determination, I would tell myself. He was clearly a fighter, having managed to make his way to me despite the odds; he would find a way to be born safely, too.
I don't know why this pregnancy succeeded any more than I know why earlier pregnancies failed – and neither do my doctors. Infertility is just one of the many areas in which we humans are confronted with our oceans of ignorance. So, mostly, I feel lucky.
And I suppose a part of me is still in that oiled Louisiana marsh, floating in a sea of poisoned larvae and embryos, with my own ill-fated embryo inside me. It's not self-pity that keeps me returning to that sad place. It's the conviction that there is something valuable in the body-memory of slamming up against a biological limit – of running out of chances – something we all need to learn. We are built to survive, gifted with adrenaline and embedded with multiple biological redundancies that allow us the luxury of second, third and fourth chances. So are our oceans. So is the atmosphere.
But surviving is not the same as thriving, not the same as living well. For a great many species, it's not the same as being able to nurture and produce new life. With proper care, we stretch and bend amazingly well. But we break, too – our individual bodies, as well as the communities and ecosystems that support us.