The extreme levels of inequality in our society are painful to behold. As someone who was “born on third base,” I watch these polarizations and know that no good will come of them. Do we—including the 1 percent—really want to live in an economic apartheid society? All the evidence now suggests that too much inequality is bad for everyone, even the super-rich.
There are many reasons why we need to rethink our predicament, but for a moment let’s consider this one, which in many ways trumps them all: As a planet, we are experiencing an ecological crisis that will transform our daily lives. Climate change and ocean acidification—along with breaches of other planetary boundaries—will alter our food and energy systems and transform our way of life.
There have been recent news accounts about billionaires buying mountain fortresses in the Rockies and “get away” farms in New Zealand with airplane landing strips. These escape fantasies are delusional thinking. The island paradises will be swamped from rising sea level. The mountain redoubts will be choked with the smoke of burning forests. It is in no one’s interest to continue operating as if a few privileged people are going to escape on a spaceship or retreat to a mountain top enclave.
The ecological catastrophe at our door will wipe out our most treasured asset—our natural ecosystems, the foundations of all private wealth. What is wealth without clean water and healthy oceans? What is wealth on a degraded earth? As scientist Johan Rockstrom writes, “We’re still blind, despite all the science, to the fact that wealth in the world depends on the health of the planet.”
All of humanity—billionaire hedge fund managers, suburban soccer moms and Bangladeshi farmers— is now wound together, our fate linked to our ability to respond to a planetary challenge bigger than anything we’ve faced before. At the same time, we are confronting a societal challenge of unprecedented inequality. The accelerating polarization of income, wealth and opportunity is moving us quickly to a society that no one will want to live in, including the most privileged.
As French economist Thomas Piketty has argued, if we don’t intervene in the current economic system, wealth and power will continue to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. We are moving toward a society governed by a hereditary aristocracy of wealth.
The wealthy have already hijacked our democracy. Roughly a year before the 2016 presidential election, nearly half the money in the campaign had come from just 158 families, many of them billionaires. Realities like this have led former president Jimmy Carter to describe our political system as an oligarchy.