Terrible Numbers

Oxfam argued, back in January of 2015, that sometime in 2016 the top 1% of the world’s population would have more than everyone else. Here’s the study, if you want to follow the math. According to the folks over at therules.org (see their awesome video on global inequality) the global 1% only has 43% of everything. (The difference here is in the methodological noise and, in any case, good data is hard to get. As inequality scholar Branko Milanovic politely noted in The Haves and the Have-Nots, his excellent 2011 book on global inequality, the super rich don’t actually like to be studied.)

Oxfam is sticking to its own numbers. In a new (2016) study, An Economy For the 1%: How privilege and power in the economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped, it argues that the 50% line has now been crossed. I’m going to trust them on this, because their data is from Credit Suisse, and who (what?) better than a Swiss bank to study “ultra high net worth individuals.” An Economy For the 1% is an interesting read. It goes on from the numbers to talk about the nuts and bolts of global stratification, tax havens in particular, and to connect the dots. And to continue its projections:

“If this deeply alarming inequality clock continues to tick as fast, by 2020 a mere 11 people could have the same wealth as half the world. That’s not even a dozen.”

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Bill McKibben's "Terrifying New Chemistry"

For years now, the gas-as-a-bridge-fuel optimism squad has worked hard to reassure us. We could muddle through after all, and stop dreaming about, say, a global crash program to reach global “net zero emissions” by 2050. In effect, there’s a business-as-usual path forward to the renewable future. All you have to do is accept gas into your transition story, and you can avoid an “unrealistically” rapid phase out of fossil energy, while still avoiding the nuclear option.

Alas, it does not appear that the angels of history will be so kind.

In 2012, Bill McKibben’s Terrifying New Math thrust carbon-budget accounting into the mainstream. In the process, he made it clear to all that (as the scientists had already known), there would be no easy path forward. We were facing an emergency situation, and the first wisdom was to admit it. Now, if we’re lucky, his Terrifying New Chemistry will do the same for frack gas, which is to say fugitive methane, which is to say that, unless McKibben is wrong, the “gas as bridge fuel” path is not an option, not if we actually intend to avoid catastrophe. As The Nation’s pull quote has it, “Our leaders thought fracking would save our climate. They were wrong. Very wrong.”