“The world after us” book review: how billionaires are putting the planet on the brink of ecological disaster

    06 Oct 2021

    Let’s take a look at the book by economist Maya Göpel “The world after us: How to prevent the planet from perishing.” (In German: Unsere Welt neu denken). In her work, the scientist deals with the main aspects of the “global environmental and social crisis” of the early 21st century: overconsumption, the gap between the rich and the poor, climate change, and other problems. As she writes in the foreword, “If we want to cope with this crisis, we need to understand the rules by which we have built our economic system.”

    Göpel divides her time between management, public speaking, pioneer engagement, and networking, as well as continued research on system transformations for sustainable development. Her focus is new prosperity models, emphasizing the role of paradigm shifts as strategic leverage points, summarized in her book The Great Mindshift. Prof. Dr. Maja Göpel is a scientist that combines theory with practice and formerly headed the Berlin Office of the Wuppertal Institut and spent six years starting up the World Future Council, its Future Policy Award, and the “Future Justice” program with EU and UN campaigns. She holds a Ph.D. in political economy, a diploma in media/communication. She is a professor at Leuphana University, a member of the Club of Rome, the Balaton Group and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She was one of the Initiators of Scientists4Future in Germany. She has been a Member of the World Future Council since September 2019.

    Let’s read an excerpt from “The world after us…” chapter on global inequality and the need to redistribute wealth.


    Several years ago, sustainable tourism specialist Stefan Gössling came up with the idea to study how celebrities use air travel. He wanted to find out what role such people play in climate change. Interestingly, no one had done this before him. In our society, stars are those who, as they say, made their way. We look at them from the bottom up; we consider them an example to follow. These are artists, actors, athletes, heads of large enterprises or politicians, and even more often – those who became famous not because of their work, but whose job is precisely to be famous. These so-called influencers are paid to influence society by promoting certain brands.

    Goessling analyzed air travel during 2017 by ten such people, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, singer Jennifer Lopez, heiress of the Paris Hilton hotel chain, talk show host Oprah Winfrey and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. He found on their official pages in social networks that information that, it would seem, should be kept secret. After all, celebrities tell on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook when, where, and why they go. Some of them form their image in this way. They exhibit a particular lifestyle that proves that they are super-rich, from which one can conclude that every super-rich person lives like them – as if there were no other options for how you can make money and what to do with it.

    On Instagram alone, a photo and video sharing platform, these ten celebrities have more than 170 million followers eager to join their lives.

    “Young people, above all, can perceive frequent flights as a luxurious social norm, shaped by celebrities,” the study notes.

    Topping the list of regular flyers is Bill Gates, who spent at least 350 hours in the air in 2017, and as he most often uses a private jet, more than 1600 tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere due to his trips. Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez take second and third places and also rarely fly regular flights: they account for 1200 and 1000 tons of carbon dioxide, respectively.

    What does this have to do with justice?

    In the past, it was easy to believe that the way of life of the rich part of humanity has nothing to do with how poor and destitute people exist. Some were rich and some were poor, and to change this situation, the poor had to simply try to become rich.

    But now science is not only familiar with the mechanism of climate change, but also gives accurate predictions about how much the average temperature at the Earth’s surface will increase a certain amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and what kind of consequences such an increase in temperature will have for our planet, and numerically.

    In 2015, at the Paris Climate Change Conference, almost every nation in the world agreed to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 ° C above pre-industrial times. If warming does not exceed 1.5 ° C, then, scientists argue, climate change will be less dramatic, and the costs of overcoming their consequences will be less high. Calculations made at the end of 2017 indicated that we would be able to stay within 1.5° C if the additional greenhouse gas emissions were no more than 420 Gt. Since up to 42 Gt gets into the atmosphere per year, at the beginning of 2020 we have less than eight years left until the moment when the carbon budget is fully spent. After that, we will have to live with practically no effect on the climate, that is, the volume of emissions we produce should not exceed that that plants and the ocean are able to absorb. Less than eight years remain to carry out what is arguably the most significant economic, technical and social restructuring in human history.

    This is, to put it mildly, very, very tight deadlines.

    In per capita terms, this means that in order for the average temperature on Earth to rise by no more than 1.5° C, from the beginning of 2020, approximately 42 tons of carbon dioxide from each person can enter the atmosphere.

    This brings us back to Bill Gates.

    It turns out that the person, who, according to Forbes magazine, has a fortune of approximately $108 billion and is one of the three richest people in the world, in one year he used up a carbon dioxide quota for 38 people – all that they could afford to produce from heating, movement and consumption without the risk of exceeding the threshold of 1.5° C. One man. I only spent it on myself. Only for flights reported on social networks. In one year.

    At the same time, today some people do not spend their entire emission budget, which means that others can take advantage of their share. Of course, different professions imply a different nature of activity, while some have relatives living on the other side of the world. It is not easy to come up with a fair formula. It’s never easy.

    But it is clearly unfair that almost no one who is responsible for extreme volumes of emissions doubts their right to such a lifestyle. And the only basis for this right is the fact that they have sufficient financial resources to afford it. By the very means by which they can do everything that is not available to the people whose emissions quota they spend: adapt to climate change, fly to where it is still good, pay the ever higher price for food, which is all less, and allow insurance companies to destroy their homes. And if we also take into account the emissions that occurred through their fault over the previous 30-40 years, when it was already known about climate changes and their causes, the results will be even more startling. Obviously, over the course of their lives, these people have far exceeded the limit, causing the same amount of CO2 emissions every year as the average inhabitant of the Earth will create by about 2050.

    Does this seem fair to you?

    Then admit that addiction exists.

    As I said in previous chapters, today we live in a “complete” world, and we must constantly take into account the limited possibilities of our planet. But the awareness of these limits has not yet penetrated our way of thinking and does not determine our way of acting: most attempts to somehow turn on a new path have not been crowned with success.

    It seems to me that this happens for a very simple reason: the one who recognizes the existence of borders must also recognize that the rights to material goods and pollution of nature are also not infinite. If the pie doesn’t get bigger, the question is automatically asked how to divide it. If the ecological system creates only a certain amount of resources and can only accept a certain amount of waste and harmful gases, the question automatically arises as to who can consume how much and who to throw away how much. Environmental issues are always associated with distribution issues, and distribution issues with equity issues.

    Here are some of the arguments commonly used in public debate in response to questions about fairness:

    Economic growth will ensure equity.

    Better techniques will ensure justice.

    Sustainable consumption will ensure equity.

    But, as we have already found out, all these arguments, upon closer examination, turn out to be the same fairy tale in which the pie can grow, and that is why it is understandable that we have before us convenient inventions from an illusory reality that do not solve any problems, from which we still do not want to refuse. If those who have told or told these tales before did not mean anything bad, then we can assume that these people are mistaken. But the fact remains: it is because of these tales that questions about how to fairly distribute the resources of our planet, taking into account their limitations, are not posed edge-on, but are pushed back into the future. It is also clear that this is beneficial to that part of humanity, which derives more profit from the exploitation of the resources of our planet than others.

    And yet we have to hear over and over again that environmental goals contradict social goals.

    How often have I participated in panel discussions where this “deeply rooted incompatibility of goals” has been exclaimed, as if these words bring relief and allow me to continue thinking about how complicated things are. Well, of course, because nothing can be done about it. Such events rarely involve truly poor countries and people for whom an environmental disaster is the largest social and humanitarian crisis. And so talking about the underprivileged allows overconsumption countries to continue to portray their inaction as a social responsibility. It seems to me that politicians, corporate heads and even trade union activists in early 2019 were incredibly grateful to the yellow vests for their demonstration against the fuel tax hike as envisaged by Germany’s new energy policy. It can be concluded that the population of the country is not at all interested in the implementation of climate policy.

    Has anyone asked what kind of climate policy the population wants? And how can it be combined with the prospects for social and scientific and technological development and turn the supposedly existing conflict of social and environmental goals into their union? Where is the awareness that social justice must be moved from the other side – from above? How can we convince people of the colossal changes that will be required to transition to a sustainable economy if we cannot be guaranteed that these changes will affect everyone? When the French government lowers property taxes, confidence in the universality of the transformation is at least weakened.

    In other words, how can we solve environmental problems if we do not consider them social?


    Are we able, living in the era of global warming and globalization, political and economic crises, to imagine what future awaits us very soon? Maya Göpel, PhD in economics and social activist, deals with pain points in her book.

    She decribes the negative impacts of the human civilization at the beginning of the XXI century – mass extinction, overconsumption, the gap between the rich and the poor, the consequences of progress in science and technology. Göpel explains the rules by which modern economic theory develops from Adam Smith to Tom Piketty, and tells how we can avoid disaster and change the world for the better so that our children and grandchildren do not have to pay too high a price for our mistakes.

    We are all part of a complex interconnected system in which nothing remains without consequences, whether we like it or not, we do something differently or not. But this also means that we have the ability to consciously direct changes in a certain direction.

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