Energy footprints grow with expenditure: the top 10% consume roughly 20 times more energy than the bottom 10%

A study published in Nature Energy shows that energy footprints grow with expenditure, and, as a consequence, are unequally distributed.

Among all the countries and income classes in the study, the top 10% consume roughly 20 times more energy than the bottom 10%. Additionally, as income increases, people spend more of their money on energy-intensive goods, such as package holidays or cars, leading to high energy inequality. Indeed, the researchers found that 187 times more vehicle fuel energy is used by the top 10% consumers relative to the bottom 10%.

There needs to be serious consideration to how to change the vastly unequal distribution of global energy consumption to cope with the dilemma of providing a decent life for everyone while, protecting climate and ecosystems.–Prof. J. Steinberger, Univ. of Leeds

Extreme energy inequality in transport

Transport showed some of the greatest inequality, with the top 10% of consumers using more than half of the energy related to mobility – the vast majority of it fossil-fuel based. In contrast, residential fuels, such as those used in cooking and heating, and electricity are much more equitably distributed, with the top 10% of consumers consuming roughly one third of the total.

The findings expose how varied goods and services are in terms of distribution and energy requirements. The researchers also identify key areas where consumption should be cut. 

Lead author Yannick Oswald, PhD researcher in the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said: “We found that none of the energy categories are free from energy inequality or benefit populations to an equal degree.

Transport-related consumption categories are among the least equal. Without reducing the energy demand of these services, either through frequent-flyer levies, promoting public transport and limiting private vehicle use, or alternative technology such as electric vehicles, the study suggests that as incomes and wealth improve, our fossil fuel consumption in transport will skyrocket.

Energy inequality between countries 

The study highlights the unequal distribution of energy footprints between countries, with 20% of UK citizens belonging in the top 5% of energy consumers, along with 40% of German citizens and 100% of Luxembourg’s population. 

Meanwhile only 2% of China’s population are in the top 5% of energy consumers, and merely 0.02% of the Indian population.  

The poorest 20% of the UK’s population still consumes more than five times as much energy per person as the bottom 84% in India, a group numbering roughly one billion people.

Study co-author Dr Anne Owen, also from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said: “Our results demonstrate that we can measure the energy footprints of all kinds of goods and services, across the world, in a comparable way. This kind of research is very promising for modelling future distributional implications of climate and energy policies. 

“Growth and increased consumption continue to be core goals of today’s politics and economics. The transition to zero carbon energy will be made easier by reduction in demand, which means that top consumers will play an important role in lowering their excess energy consumption.” 

The authors warn that without reductions in consumption and significant policy interventions, by 2050 energy footprints could double from what they were in 2011, even if energy efficiency improves. 

Considering the consumption categories examined, there could be a 31% increase attributed to vehicle fuel alone, and another 33% to heating and electricity. If transport continues to rely on fossil fuels, this increase would be disastrous for the climate.

However, the study suggests that persisting inequality can be prevented through appropriate intervention. Different categories require different forms of action: energy intensive consumption, such as flying and driving, which mostly occurs at high-incomes, could be regulated through energy taxes, for instance, while the energy footprint of heating and electricity can be reduced by massive-scale public investment programs in housing retrofit. 

Study co-author Julia Steinberger, leader of the Living Well Within Limits project and Professor of Social Ecology and Ecological Economics at Leeds, said: “There needs to be serious consideration to how to change the vastly unequal distribution of global energy consumption to cope with the dilemma of providing a decent life for everyone while protecting climate and ecosystems.”

The paper ‘Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories’ is published in Nature Energy and available online:

For additional information or to arrange interviews please contact University of Leeds press office at or +44(0)113 343 4031.


David Roberts’ overview:

Why rich people use so much more energy: It’s mainly all the traveling, says a comprehensive new study.  David Roberts, March 2020. A new paper in Nature Energy shows that the top 10% consume roughly 20 times more energy than the bottom 10%.  Additionally, as income increases, people spend more of their money on energy-intensive goods, such as package holidays or cars, leading to high energy inequality. Indeed, the researchers found that 187 times more vehicle fuel energy is used by the top 10% consumers relative to the bottom 10%.  In transportation, the top 10% of consumers use more than half of the energy related to mobility – the vast majority of it fossil-fuel based. In contrast, residential fuels, such as those used in cooking and heating, and electricity are much more equitably distributed, with the top 10% of consumers consuming roughly one third of the total.

“There needs to be serious consideration to how to change the vastly unequal distribution of global energy consumption to cope with the dilemma of providing a decent life for everyone while protecting climate and ecosystems.” PROFESSOR JULIA STEINBERGER, UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS

The study calculated the products’ “income elasticity of demand,” which has to do with how demand for a good or service changes as income changes. Say income falls by 1 percent. How much does demand for the product fall? If demand falls exactly 1 percent, the income elasticity of demand is 1. If demand falls more than 1 percent, elasticity is greater than 1; economists deem this a “luxury good.” If demand falls less than 1 percent, elasticity is lower than 1; economists deem this a “basic good.”

Basic goods are the things we can’t or won’t buy much less of, even if our income falls. Luxury goods are the things we buy more of as we get wealthier.

The study seeks to understand which goods and services are most energy intensive, which are basic and which are luxury goods, and how the distribution of those goods and services changes as incomes rise.

It ran the analysis for 374 population segments in 86 countries and tracked every category of consumer goods and services, allowing for an extraordinarily broad apples-to-apples comparison of income and energy consumption across the world.

So, what did it find? In a nutshell, as people get wealthier, they spend more on transport (cars, boats, planes, vacations), which is one of the most energy intensive consumer categories. Because wealthier people turn to more energy intensive goods, the energy gap rises even faster than the income gap. This suggests important policy lessons, including some on how the US ought to respond to Covid-19.

Let’s look at the conclusions, then we’ll ponder the policy implications.

The energy intensive goods and services rich people like

With energy intensity as one axis and income elasticity as the other, it is possible to plot goods and services on a basic two-by-two chart, with four quadrants: basic low intensity, basic high intensity, luxury low intensity, and luxury high intensity:

energy intensity and elasticity
The dark circles are indirect energy uses; the light circles are direct energy uses.

There’s plenty to pull from this graph, but two things seem particularly relevant for policy.

One is that heat and electricity comprise an unusual category, at once large, unusually energy intensive, and unusually income inelastic. Even poorer people can’t afford to buy much less of them; conversely, there’s only so much heat and electricity a person can use, even with a bigger house.

The second is that, with the exception of appliances, the upper right-hand quadrant — energy intensive luxury goods — is filled with movement: vehicles, vehicle fuel, flying, and holidays. The most energy intensive thing that wealthier people do is move around more, in cars, ships, and planes.

With that in mind, let’s look at the two charts below. On the left is energy footprints plotted against income (“expenditure”). It shows a familiar fact, that people’s energy footprints rise alongside their income in “sublinear” (not quite one-to-one) fashion. As people get wealthier, they use more energy, but the effect is less pronounced at the upper end of the income scale.

But the chart on the right peers a little closer and finds that energy footprint inequality rises in superlinear fashion relative to income inequality — which is to say, as income inequality rises, energy footprint inequality rises even faster.

inequalities, energy and income

Why would this be true?

Well, we saw it in the first chart. As people get wealthier, they do not simply buy more of what they bought when they had less. They start buying different kinds of things, luxury goods, and it turns out that the most common luxury good (traveling around more) is more energy intensive than most basic goods.

To get a sense of just how stark energy inequality is, and in what categories it is concentrated, check out this table (a higher gini coefficient means more inequality):

energy inequality

The top 10 percent of the global income spectrum consumes 20 times as much final energy as the bottom 10 percent. The numbers are particularly striking for transport, where the top 10 percent consumes 187 times as much in vehicle fuel and operation as the bottom 10 percent. “In land transport, the bottom 50% receive a bit more than 10% of the energy used,” says the report, “and in air transport they make use of less than 5%.” Conversely, the top 10 percent uses around 45 percent of land transport energy and 75 percent of air transport energy. As Boeing’s CEO noted in 2017, celebrating his company’s endless growth potential, somewhere around 80 percent of people in the world have never flown.

The biggest category of basic goods (heat and electricity) and most luxury goods (especially transport) use lots of energy. What does this mean for climate and energy policy?

The implications of energy inequality for climate change policy

The study projects energy use through mid-century and finds that, without energy efficiency improvements, “energy footprints would double by 2030, and more than triple by 2050, with half of the increase occurring in India and China.” With rising incomes, more spending will shift from basic goods to luxury goods, especially transport, which at least at the moment is primarily powered by fossil fuels. And that could be a disaster for the climate.

As I see it, there are at least three policy implications in this work.

First, as climate hawks have been saying for years, energy efficiency is vital to decarbonization. Final energy demand simply cannot be allowed to rise as much as it is now projected; it will overwhelm efforts to substitute cleaner technologies for their fossil fuel counterparts. Efficiency can help reduce the need for heat and electricity, which can save (especially low-income) renters and homeowners significant money and help make the category both less energy intensive and more income elastic.

Second, remember the two big yellow bubbles on the first chart, heat and electricity and vehicle fuel. Together, they represent around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. And they can be decarbonized with the same strategy, namely, electrify everything: shift all electricity generation to carbon-free sources and then shift as much heat and transportation as possible over to electricity.

solar cars
The future liberals want.

Electrification will reduce carbon emissions in the biggest category of energy intensive spending done by everyone (heat and electricity), and the biggest category of energy intensive spending done by the upper income (vehicle fuel).

But because heat and electricity represent a basic good, it is not appropriate to address them with pricing mechanisms like taxes, which tend to be regressive and hit the poor the hardest. Performance standards and large-scale public investments are better suited. Vehicle fuel, because it is a luxury good, is a better target for pricing.

However, this still leaves the problem that many of the energy uses in the upper right-hand quadrant — the energy intensive luxury goods, mostly having to do with transport — are difficult to decarbonize. In particular, air and ship travel (and thus package vacations) are a bear to address. Even light-vehicle travel, for which decarbonization strategies are straightforward, will take time to decarbonize. And climate models show that we don’t have much time.

This logic leads ineluctably to a third policy conclusion: The only way to decarbonize many of the most energy intensive goods and services fast enough is for wealthy people to change their behavior and consume less of them.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to accomplish this. The first is by reducing overall income inequality with, say, progressive income taxes or wealth taxes. Since income inequality produces a whole host of other problems, beyond disproportionate consumption of energy intensive good and services, this seems like a promising approach.

The second is to reduce energy inequality within particular categories. This can be done with targeted taxation — for example, a tax on first-class flying, cruises and yachts, vacation packages, or other energy intensive luxury goods. It can also be done with rezoning, densification, public and multimodal transportation, and other policies that reduce the need for energy intensive single-occupant-vehicle travel.

The problem is, in a political system dominated by the wealthy, there is little appetite for taxes on the habits of the wealthy. “The climate issue is framed by us high emitters — the politicians, business people, journalists, academics,” climate scientist Kevin Anderson told the BBC. “When we say there’s no appetite for higher taxes on flying, we mean we don’t want to fly less.”

“Covid-19 gives a pointer as to the scale of disruption away from our norms” that would be required to adequately address climate change, Anderson told me, “but for such different reasons and only over a (hoped) short term.”

Not that the Covid-19 response inspires much hope either. President Trump’s instincts are to protect precisely those energy intensive goods and services mostly enjoyed by the wealthy. “Airlines would be No. 1,” he said about a coronavirus bailout. He has also mentioned hotels and cruise ships.

“Our results highlight how our government’s economic priorities have worsened the Covid-19 crisis,” Dr. Julia Steinberger told me. She’s a professor at Leeds, a co-author on the study, and the leader of the Living Well Within Limits project. “There has been a reluctance, since the start [of the crisis], to curb the flying habits of the richest populations, leading to the disease spreading internationally by air travel.”

The lifestyles of the affluent should not be the first thing on our minds at a time of threat and disruption. The response to coronavirus should primarily be targeted at the most vulnerable, through direct financial support and help with heating and electricity bills.

Insofar as the virus has suppressed the kinds of energy intensive luxury activities enjoyed by wealthier countries and individuals, perhaps it is a good time to step back and reassess, in an age of climate crisis, how necessary those activities are to quality of life, what degree of social license they warrant, and how the world’s luckier, wealthier inhabitants might be steered away from them.


George Monbiot – Black Friday reflection

Everyone wants everything – how is that going to work? The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us. Climate breakdown, soil loss, the collapse of habitats and species, the sea of plastic, insectageddon: all are driven by rising consumption. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.

But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative. And we must adjust our tastes accordingly. In the name of autonomy and choice, marketing uses the latest findings in neuroscience to break down our defences. Those who seek to resist must, like the Simple Lifers in Brave New World, be silenced – in this case by the media.

With every generation, the baseline of normalised consumption shifts. Thirty years ago, it was ridiculous to buy bottled water, where tap water is clean and abundant. Today, worldwide, we use a million plastic bottles a minute.

Every Friday is a Black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. Among the snow saunas, portable watermelon coolers and smartphones for dogs with which we are urged to fill our lives, my #extremecivilisation prize now goes to the PancakeBot: a 3D batter printer that allows you to eat the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, or your dog’s bottom every morning. In practice, it will clog up your kitchen for a week until you decide you don’t have room for it. For junk like this, we’re trashing the living planet, and our own prospects of survival. Everything must go.

The ancillary promise is that, through green consumerism, we can reconcile perpetual growth with planetary survival. But a series of research papers reveal there is no significant difference between the ecological footprints of people who care and people who don’tOne recent article, published in the journal Environment and Behaviour, says those who identify themselves as conscious consumers use more energy and carbon than those who do not.

Why? Because environmental awareness tends to be higher among wealthy people. It is not attitudes that govern our impact on the planet but income. The richer we are, the bigger our footprint, regardless of our good intentions. Those who see themselves as green consumers, the research found, mainly focused on behaviors that had “relatively small benefits”.

I know people who recycle meticulously, measure the water in their kettles, then take their holidays in the Caribbean

I know people who recycle meticulously, save their plastic bags, carefully measure the water in their kettles, then take their holidays in the Caribbean, cancelling any environmental savings a hundredfold. I’ve come to believe that the recycling licences their long-haul flights. It persuades people they’ve gone green, enabling them to overlook their greater impacts.

None of this means that we should not try to reduce our footprint, but we should be aware of the limits of the exercise. Our behaviour within the system cannot change the outcomes of the system. It is the system itself that needs to change.

Research by Oxfam suggests that the world’s richest 1% (if your household has an income of £70,000 or more, this means you) produce about 175 times as much carbon as the poorest 10%. How, in a world in which everyone is supposed to aspire to high incomes, can we avoid turning the Earth, on which all prosperity depends, into a dust ball?

By decoupling, the economists tell us: detaching economic growth from our use of materials. So how well is this going? A paper in the journal Plos One finds that while, in some countries, relative decoupling has occurred, “no country has achieved absolute decoupling during the past 50 years”. What this means is that the amount of materials and energy associated with each increment of GDP might decline but, as growth outpaces efficiency, the total use of resources keeps rising. More important, the paper reveals that, in the long term, both absolute and relative decoupling from the use of essential resources is impossible, because of the physical limits of efficiency.

A global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. Yet the plan is to ensure that it doubles and doubles again, and keeps doubling in perpetuity. In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction, we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing.

Those who justify this system insist that economic growth is essential for the relief of poverty. But paper in the World Economic Review finds that the poorest 60% of the world’s people receive only 5% of the additional income generated by rising GDP. As a result, $111 (£84) of growth is required for every $1 reduction in poverty. This is why, on current trends, it would take 200 years to ensure that everyone receives $5 a day. By this point, average per capita income will have reached $1m a year, and the economy will be 175 times bigger than it is today. This is not a formula for poverty relief. It is a formula for the destruction of everything and everyone.

When you hear that something makes economic sense, this means it makes the opposite of common sense. Those sensible men and women who run the world’s treasuries and central banks, who see an indefinite rise in consumption as normal and necessary, are beserkers: smashing through the wonders of the living world, destroying the prosperity of future generations to sustain a set of figures that bear ever less relation to general welfare.

Green consumerism, material decoupling, sustainable growth: all are illusions, designed to justify an economic model that is driving us to catastrophe. The current system, based on private luxury and public squalor, will immiserate us all: under this model, luxury and deprivation are one beast with two heads.

We need a different system, rooted not in economic abstractions but in physical realities, that establish the parameters by which we judge its health. We need to build a world in which growth is unnecessary, a world of private sufficiency and public luxury. And we must do it before catastrophe forces our hand.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist


Wed 11 Oct 2017 

Happy family in park
 ‘Magnificent public amenities create more space for everyone at a fraction of the cost of private luxury.’ Photograph: Jack Sullivan/Alamy

We are still living in the long 20th century. We are stuck with its redundant technologies: the internal combustion engine, thermal power plants, factory farms. We are stuck with its redundant politics: unfair electoral systems, their capture by funders and lobbyists, the failure to temper representation with real participation.

And we are stuck with its redundant economics: neoliberalism, and the Keynesianism still proposed by its opponents. While the latter system worked very well for 30 years or more, it is hard to see how it can take us through this century, not least because the growth it seeks to sustain smacks headlong into the environmental crisis.

Sustained economic growth on a planet that is not growing means crashing through environmental limits: this is what we are witnessing, worldwide, today. A recent paper in Nature puts our current chances of keeping global heating to less than 1.5C at just 1%, and less than 2C at only 5%. Why? Because while the carbon intensity of economic activity is expected to decline by 1.9% a year, global per capita GDP is expected to grow by 1.8%. Almost all investment in renewables and efficiency is cancelled out. The index that was supposed to measure our prosperity, instead measures our progress towards ruin.

But the great rupture that began in 2008 offers a chance to change all this. The challenge now is to ensure that the new political movements threatening established power in Britain and elsewhere create the space not for old ideas (such as 20th-century Keynesianism) but for a new politics, built on new economic and social foundations.

There may be a case for one last hurrah for the old model: a technological shift that resembles the second world war’s military Keynesianism. In 1941 the US turned the entire civilian economy around on a dime: within months, car manufacturers were producing planes, tanks and ammunition. A determined government could do something similar in response to climate breakdown: a sudden transformation, replacing our fossil economy. But having effected such a conversion, it should, I believe, then begin the switch to a different economic model.

‘In the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the infrastructure budget is allocated by the people.’
 ‘In the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the infrastructure budget is allocated by the people.’ Photograph: Luiz Felipe Castro/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Land value tax and community right to buy help to create what I call a politics of belonging

The new approach could start with the idea of private sufficiency and public luxury. There is not enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury: if everyone in London acquired a tennis court, a swimming pool, a garden and a private art collection, the city would cover England. Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public amenities – wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks – create more space for everyone at a fraction of the cost.

Wherever possible, such assets should be owned and managed by neither state nor market, but by communities, in the form of commons. A commons in its true form is a non-capitalist system in which a resource is controlled in perpetuity by a community for the shared and equal benefit of its members. A possible model is the commons transition plan commissioned by the Flemish city of Ghent.

Land value taxation also has transformative potential. It can keep the income currently siphoned out of our pockets in the form of rent – then out of the country and into tax havens – within our hands. It can reduce land values, bringing down house prices. While local and national government should use some of the money to fund public services, the residue can be returned to communities.

Couple this withcommunity right to buy, which enables communities to use this money to acquire their own land, with local commons trusts that possess powers to assemble building sites, and with a new right for prospective buyers and tenants to plan their own estates, and exciting things begin to happen. This could be a formula for meeting housing need, delivering public luxury and greatly enhancing the sense of community, self-reliance and taking back control. It helps to create what I call the politics of belonging.

But it doesn’t stop there. The rents accruing to commons trusts could be used to create a local version of the citizens’ wealth funds (modelled on the sovereign wealth funds in Alaska and Norway) proposed by Angela Cummine and Stewart Lansley. The gain from such funds could be distributed in the form of a local basic income.

And the money the government still invests? To the greatest extent possible, I believe it should be controlled by participatory budgeting. In the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the infrastructure budget is allocated by the people: around 50,000 citizens typically participate. The results – better water, sanitation, health, schools and nurseries – have been so spectacular that large numbers of people now lobby the city council to raise their taxes. When you control the budget, you can see the point of public investment.

In countries such as the UK, we could not only adopt this model, but extend it beyond the local infrastructure budget to other forms of local and even national spending. The principle of subsidiarity – devolving powers to the smallest political unit that can reasonably discharge them – makes such wider democratic control more feasible.

All this would be framed within a system such as Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, which instead of seeking to maximise growth sets a lower threshold of wellbeing, below which no one should fall, and an upper threshold of environmental limits that economic life should not transgress. A participatory economics could be accompanied by participatory politics, involving radical devolution and a fine-grained democratic control over the decisions affecting our lives.

Who could lead this global shift? It could be the UK Labour party. It is actively seeking new ideas. It knows that the bigger the change it offers, the greater the commitment of the volunteers on which its insurgency relies: the “big organising” model that transformed Labour’s fortunes at the last election requires a big political offer.

Could Labour be the party that brings the long 20th century to an end? I believe, despite its Keynesian heritage, it could. Now, more than at any other time in the past few decades, it has a chance to change the world.


It’s time to revive public ownership and the common good

Anne Karpf Despite its dire record, privatisation is rarely questioned. We must push for our shared interests to take precedence 4 Jul 2014

It might sound like an oxymoron, but this is a positive article about public services. So effectively has the coalition rebranded an economic crisis caused by private greed as the consequence of public ownership, that nationalisation has come to be seen as a universally discredited hangover from bad old Labour. So while current Labour is considering taking back parts of the rail network into public ownership the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, last weekend was intoning the neoliberal catechism: “I don’t want to go back to the nationalisation of the 1970s.”

But bringing outsourced services into public ownership isn’t about looking back: it’s about moving forward, and is a popular idea (66% of respondents in a poll last year supported the nationalisation of energy and rail companies, including 52% of Tories). For today, in the face of the combined bungles of G4S, Serco and Atos, not even the slickest PR-turned-politician can sustain the myth that private equals efficient.

Yet privatisation is touted as a panacea and cliches are trotted out about the evils of the “nanny state”. We need to develop a new language to talk about public ownership, one that detoxifies it and taps into the wide recognition that natural resources and essential public services should not be treated as commodities.

Instead of talking about the state, Hilary Wainwright, in a powerful new booklet – The Tragedy of the Private, the Potential of the Public – describes water, health and education as “the commons” – an excellent term. What’s remarkable, and hitherto fairly undocumented, is how all over the world a quiet process of remunicipalisation is taking place. Wainwright gives examples from Newcastle to Norway. In the UK, she found over half of 140 local councils bringing services back from the private sector. In Germany, by 2011 the majority of energy distribution networks had returned to public ownership. Even in the US, a fifth of all previously outsourced services have been brought back in-house.

The case of water is a particularly powerful one: to most people the idea of privatising it is alarmingly similar to the privatisation of air. Wainwright tracks struggles to resist the privatisation of water and defend it as a public good in Brazil, Uruguay and Italy.

What makes all this heartening is that new social forms of ownership are emerging in which public utilities are run by coalitions of workers and service users. Theirs isn’t just a defense of public services but an attempt to democratize them so they are not the top-down bureaucracies of old or simply job-saving strategies (important though these may be). They become what Wainwright calls “new forms of collectivity” – unions and public managing common resources together for shared benefit.

There is a palpable momentum to these ideas. Last summer saw the formation of the We Own It campaign, which is lobbying for a public service users’ bill. This would promote public ownership as the default option for public services and give the public a say in whether services are privatised. This week, a New Economics Foundation working paper also set out alternatives to the marketisation of public services.

These constitute a challenge to the fatalistic there-is-no-alternative narrative that has dominated political discussion. In his recent book, Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the alleged “musts” of political discourse “are nothing other than various aspects of the status quo – of things as they do, but in no way must, stand at the moment”.

Wainwright observes that austerity in the aftermath of the second world war applied to everything except the welfare state, which saw generous investment. In a decade or so, will we come to view the privatisation of public utilities as a brief historical interlude of market madness, of ideology trumping not only human values but also value for money?


Don’t let the rich get even richer on the assets we all share

George Monbiot

It’s time for communities to seize back control of resources upon which their prosperity depends @GeorgeMonbiot 27 Sep 2017

A protest against plans to roll back net neutrality regulations, Washington DC, May 2017
 ‘You can see enclosure at work in the Trump administration’s attempt to destroy net neutrality.’ A protest against plans to roll back net neutrality regulations, Washington DC, May 2017. Photograph: UPI/Barcroft Images

Are you a statist or a free marketeer? Do you believe that intervention should be minimised or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded? This is our central political debate. But it is based on a mistaken premise.

Both sides seem to agree that state and market are the only sectors worth discussing: politics should move one way or the other along this linear scale. In fact, there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.

Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after – fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school – there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.

There’s another great subsidy, which all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons.

That it is necessary to explain the commons testifies to their neglect (despite the best efforts of political scientists such as the late Elinor Ostrom). A commons is neither state nor market. It has three main elements. First a resource, such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software. Second a community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource, and organise themselves to manage it. Third the rules, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate the benefits.

A true commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing. It belongs to a particular group, who might live in or beside it, or who created and sustain it. It is inalienable, which means that it should not be sold or given away. Where it is based on a living resource, such as a forest or a coral reef, the commoners have an interest in its long-term protection, rather than the short-term gain that could be made from its destruction.

The commons have been attacked by both state power and capitalism for centuries. Resources that no one invented or created, or that a large number of people created together, are stolen by those who sniff an opportunity for profit. The saying, attributed to Balzac, that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime” is generally true. “Business acumen” often amounts to discovering novel ways of grabbing other people’s work and assets.

Common land Laxton
 Common land in the North Nottinghamshire village of Laxton, England’s last open field village. Photograph: Don McPhee/The Guardian

The theft of value by people or companies who did not create it is called enclosure. Originally, it meant the seizure – supported by violence – of common land. The current model was pioneered in England, spread to Scotland, then to Ireland and the other colonies, and from there to the rest of the world. It is still happening, through the great global land grab.

Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who capture essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age.

You can see enclosure at work in the Trump administration’s attempt to destroy net neutrality. Internet service providers want to turn salience on the internet – now provided freely by a system created through the work of millions – into something you have to pay for. To ensure there is no choice, they have also sought to shut down a genuine internet commons, by lobbying states to prohibit community broadband. In the crazy plutocracy the US has become, four states have made this form of self-reliance a criminal offence, while others have introduced partial bans.


After 30 years, privatisation of our public services has failed. It’s time for public ownership. We use it, we pay for it, we own it.

Our mission

We Own It campaigns against privatisation and for 21st century public ownership. We believe public services belong to all of us – from the NHS to schools, water to energy, rail to Royal Mail, care work to council services.

Privatisation keeps failing – but there are lots of brilliant examples of public ownership we can learn from in the UK and around the world. Public ownership is incredibly popular. It will save money for the public purse, improve people’s lives and help us tackle the climate crisis.

We Own It is an independent organisation, not connected to any political party and mostly funded by individual donations.

Our impact

With a small team, supported by our Board and advisors, we punch above our weight! Since launching in 2013, our achievements include:

WINNING CAMPAIGNS with others to stop the privatisation of Network Rail, the Land RegistryNHS Professionals and campaigning successfully to bring probation and the East Coast line into public ownership.

MAKING THE CASE FOR PUBLIC OWNERSHIP, influencing Labour’s local government policy with our Public Service Users Bill proposal, developing ideas for democratic public ownership in our latest report, When We Own It and sharing our message in the media, on Radio 4, Channel 4 News, Sky News and in the Mirror, Guardian and Financial Times​.

Communities should be allowed to take back control of resources on which their prosperity depends

Another example is the extension of intellectual property through trade agreements, allowing biotech companies to grab exclusive rights to genetic material, plant varieties and natural compounds. Another is the way in which academic publishers capture the research freely provided by communities of scientists, then charge vast fees for access to it.

I’m not proposing we abandon either market or state, but that we balance them by defending and expanding the two neglected sectors. I believe there should be wages for carers, through which the state and private enterprise repay part of the subsidy they receive. And communities should be allowed to take back control of resources on which their prosperity depends. For example, anyone who owns valuable land should pay a local community land contribution (a form of land value tax): compensation for the wealth created by others. Part of this can be harvested by local and national government, to pay for services and to distribute money from richer communities to poorer ones. But the residue should belong to a commons trust formed by the local community. One use to which this money might be put it is to buy back land, creating a genuine commons and regaining and sharing the revenue. I expand on this idea and others in my recently published book Out of the Wreckage.

A commons, unlike state spending, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.

To judge by the speeches at this week’s Labour conference, the party could be receptive to this vision. The emphasis on community and cooperatives (which in some cases qualify as commons), the interest in broadening ownership and fighting oppressive trade agreements, point towards this destination.

I hope such parties can take the obvious step, and recognise that the economy has four sectors, not two. That’s the point at which it can begin: the social and environmental transformation for which so many of us have been waiting.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist


Without a new, guiding story of their own, allowing them to look to a better future rather than a better past, it was inevitable that parties who once sought to resist the power of the wealthy elite would lose their sense of direction. Political renewal depends on a new political story. Without a new story that is positive and propositional, rather than reactive and oppositional, nothing changes. With such a story, everything changes.

The narrative we build has to be simple and intelligible. If it is to transform our politics, it should appeal to as many people as possible, crossing traditional political lines. It should resonate with deep needs and desires. It should explain the mess we are in and the means by which we might escape it. And, because there is nothing to be gained from spreading falsehoods, it must be firmly grounded in reality.

This might sound like a tall order. But there is, I believe, a clear and compelling Restoration Story to be told that fits this description.

Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are, in the words of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

We are also, among mammals, the supreme cooperators. We survived the rigours of the African savannahs, despite being weaker and slower than our predators and most of our prey, through developing a remarkable capacity for mutual aid. This urge to cooperate has been hard-wired into our brains through natural selection. Our tendencies towards altruism and cooperation are the central, crucial facts about humankind. But something has gone horribly wrong.

Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but perhaps the most powerful is the dominant political narrative of our times. We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. The story of our competitive, self-maximising nature has been told so often and with such persuasive power that we have accepted it as an account of who we really are. It has changed our perception of ourselves. Our perceptions, in turn, change the way we behave.

With the help of this ideology, and the neoliberal narrative used to project it, we have lost our common purpose. This leads in turn to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change, frustrating our potential to do what humans do best: to find common ground in confronting our predicaments, and to unite to overcome them. Our atomisation has allowed intolerant and violent forces to fill the political vacuum. We are trapped in a vicious circle of alienation and reaction. The hypersocial mammal is falling apart.

But by coming together to revive community life we, the heroes of this story, can break the vicious circle. Through invoking our capacity for togetherness and belonging, we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid. By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can restore the best aspects of our nature.

Where there is atomisation, we will create a thriving civic life. Where there is alienation, we will forge a new sense of belonging: to neighbours, neighbourhood and society. Community projects will proliferate into a vibrant participatory culture. New social enterprises will strengthen our sense of attachment and ownership.

Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we will develop a new economics that treats both people and planet with respect. We will build it around a great, neglected economic sphere: the commons. Local resources will be owned and managed by communities, ensuring that wealth is widely shared. Using common riches to fund universal benefits will supplement state provision, granting everyone security and resilience.

Where we are ignored and exploited, we will revive democracy and retrieve politics from those who have captured it. New methods and rules for elections will ensure that every vote counts and financial power can never vanquish political power. Representative democracy will be reinforced by participatory democracy that allows us to refine our political choices. Decision-making will be returned to the smallest political units that can discharge it.

The strong, embedded cultures we develop will be robust enough to accommodate social diversity of all kinds: a diversity of people, of origins, of life experiences, of ideas and ways of living. We will no longer need to fear people who differ from ourselves; we will have the strength and confidence to reject attempts to channel hatred towards them.

Through restoring community, renewing civic life and claiming our place in the world, we build a society in which our extraordinary nature – our altruism, empathy and deep connection – is released. A kinder world stimulates and normalises our kinder values. I propose a name for this story: the Politics of Belonging.

Some of this can begin without waiting for a change of government: one of the virtues of a politics rooted in community is that you do not need a national movement in order to begin. But other aspects of this programme depend on wider political change. This too might sound like an improbable hope – until you begin to explore some of the remarkable things that have been happening in the United States.

The Big Organising model developed by the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee is potentially transformative. Rather than relying on big spending, big data and a big staff, it uses proliferating networks of volunteers, who train and supervise more volunteers, to carry out the tasks usually reserved for staff. While Hillary Clinton’s campaign was organising money, the Sanders campaign was organising people. By the end of the nomination process, more than 100,000 people had been recruited. Between them, they ran 100,000 events and spoke to 75 million voters.

 Who paid for the leave vote? Brexit should be halted until we know

George Monbiot

George Monbiot

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His bid for the nomination was a giant live experiment, most of whose methods were developed on the job. Those who ran it report that by the time they stumbled across the strategy that almost won, it was too late. Had it been activated a few months earlier, the volunteer network could have abandoned all forms of targeting and contacted almost every adult in the US. If the techniques they developed were used from the outset, they could radically alter the prospects of any campaign for a better world.

When, after reading a book by two of Sanders’s organisers, I argued in a video for the Guardian that this method could be used to transform the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, I was widely mocked. But it turned out to be true. By adopting elements of the Sanders strategy, Labour, supported by Momentum, almost won an election that was largely predicted to be a Conservative landslide. And the method that propelled this shift is still in its infancy.

I believe it could become still more powerful when combined with some of the techniques identified by former Congressional staffers in the “Indivisible guide to influencing members of Congress”, an online “practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda”. These people studied the methods developed by the Tea Party movement and extracted the crucial lessons. They discovered that the key is to use local meetings with representatives to press home a single demand, film and share their responses on social media, then steadily escalate the pressure.

The Tea Party honed this technique until its requests became almost impossible to resist. The same thing can be done, though without the harassment to which that movement sometimes resorted. Supported by the Big Organising model, using its proliferating phone-bank teams and doorstep canvassing, the Indivisible methods could, I believe, be used to flip political outcomes in any nation that claims to be a democracy.

But none of this will generate meaningful and lasting change unless it is used to support a new, coherent political narrative.

Those who want a kinder politics know we have, in theory at least, the numbers on our side. Most people are socially minded, empathetic and altruistic. Most people would prefer to live in a world in which everyone is treated with respect and decency, and in which we do not squander either our own lives or the natural gifts on which we and the rest of the living world depend. But a small handful, using lies and distractions and confusion, stifle this latent desire for change.

We know that if we can mobilise such silent majorities, there is nothing this small minority can do to stop us. But because we have failed to understand what is possible, and above all failed to replace our tired political stories with a compelling narrative of transformation and restoration, we have failed to realise this potential. As we rekindle our imagination, we discover our power to act. And that is the point at which we become unstoppable.

• Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis

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