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CNN founder Ted Turner. Photo/Getty Images

Joanne Black: Why 'abolishing billionaires' is a bad idea

Kenyan activist Njoki Njoroge Njehû says the planet can't afford billionaires. It's thinking like that that could cost us all.

Before the latest meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a Kenyan activist declared billionaires unaffordable. “It is time to abolish billionaires because we cannot afford them. The planet cannot afford billionaires,” Njoki Njoroge Njehû was quoted as saying.

We can only wonder what she meant by “abolish”. Sadly, it was forlorn to have hoped at the end of World War II that the days of attempting to abolish groups of people were over, but the billion is also a random demarcation line. If you have $999,999,999 in the bank, then you’re fine, the planet loves you, have a nice day, but God forbid that you find a spare gold coin down the back of your Lamborghini seat, because, sorr-eee, at $1 billion you or your fortune need to be vaporised – or seized by the state.

Certainly, there are heedless rich, just as there are ultra-wealthy people who are using their money for environmental good. Take CNN founder Ted Turner, the second-largest private landowner in the US. He has put huge resources into bison recovery and conservation. If he hadn’t, perhaps the US Wildlife Service would have. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. We can only surmise that, unlike activists, bison do not mind whether their herds and genetic diversity are protected by private or public funds and, if private, whether the money is from a billionaire or a group of people. The bison are right. It doesn’t matter. “Just give me a home, where the buffalo roam”, and all that.

It is only lack of opportunity that means most of the world’s poor have a lower carbon footprint than most of the world’s rich. The poor would have a car in the garage and power-sucking appliances just as soon as they could say “middle class”, because when we can afford them, most of us choose those accoutrements to make our lives easier. Millions of us are living like this while thinking that someone else – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for example, or a handful of billionaires – is to blame for the environmental degradation that occurs to support our lifestyles in developed countries. The problem is not “them”, it’s us.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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