Supermodel Gisele Bündchen graces the cover of Vogue Hong Kong’s special sustainability issue this month, looking radiantly feral, enveloped in long hair, tie-dye, and the massive leafy plants of the Costa Rican jungle. Bündchen is one of the most famous environmental influencers on earth. Her Instagram showcases her nonstop commitment to raising public environmental consciousness, with beatific photos of Bündchen, or her (almost equally good-looking) children enjoying beaches, forests, or houseplants.
Bündchen is not just into the planet for the “likes.” She supports numerous environmental organizations and is famous for her family’s ecologically virtuous behavior. Vogue Hong Kong, describing these commitments, dubbed Bündchen the “selfless supermodel.” She and her husband, legendary quarterback Tom Brady, compost and keep bees. One of their sons even eschews birthday presents out of concern for ocean plastic pollution.
Yet by any measure, despite Instagram paeans to #biodiversity, the Bündchen/Brady household is far less “sustainable” than just about any random household in Kansas or Queens.
With a net worth of $540 million, the Bündchen/Brady family is part of the climate problem, not an inspiring aspirational model of eco-friendliness. The United Nations’ 2020 “Emissions Gap” report found that the emissions of the richest 1 percent of the global population are greater than those of the entire bottom 50 percent combined. In fact, the UN found that while the bottom 50 percent could actually increase its consumption by several hundred percent without affecting human civilization’s chances of reaching the Paris Agreement’s targets for reducing emissions, the top 1 percent urgently needed to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent.
As noted in a recent report by University of Sussex researchers (for the Cambridge Sustainability Commission), the climate movement’s emphasis on the contribution of household consumption to climate change often neglects to specify whose consumption we should be most concerned about. As in many other matters, the rich are the problem. The Sussex researchers cite another 2020 study on the growth in global emissions from 1990 to 2015, which found that the richest 10 percent of the planet was responsible for nearly half that growth, with the richest 5 percent responsible for more than a third. By contrast, the carbon impact the world’s poor was “practically negligible.”
Many rich people, like Bündchen, have sincere environmental commitments. But they’re endangering the earth anyway just by doing all the things that rich people do.
Take automobiles, for example. Rich people own too many of them. The higher income a household is, in general, the more vehicles they own. Bündchen and her husband reportedly have about twenty cars.
Another ecological catastrophe of wealth begins, literally, at home. Unless you own or operate a fossil fuel company, heating and cooling your home is probably the most carbon-intensive thing you do. The bigger the home, and the more homes you have, the worse your environmental impact. Rich people’s homes are too big, and they own too many of them.
Bündchen and Brady have lived in many spectacularly large homes, always several at a time. Here are some more of their massive dwellings. Their twelve thousand square foot mansion in Brookline, Massachusetts, which had a yoga studio and a wine cellar, sold for $32.5 million. After renting Derek Jeter’s much bigger mansion in St Petersburg, Florida they bought a $17 million dollar property on Miami’s Indian Creek Island, near Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. At present, they also have condos in Tribeca, and Big Sky, Montana.
As well, there is no quick way to travel between the Bündchen/Brady estates without abusing the earth further; air travel is a huge culprit in carbon emissions. Here again, the problem is wealth: in any given year — COVID or no — most people never get on a plane, while the world’s wealthiest inhabitants take the vast majority of flights. While the private jets of the superrich represent just a small fraction of those flights, they emit twenty times more carbon dioxide than commercial planes. When rich people get creative about transportation, the results are even worse: a superyacht, with a helicopter pad, pools, and submarines, is by some estimates, the most environmentally horrific asset a person can own.
One reason such data are needed is that many people assume that living a greener “lifestyle” is a luxury (and fawning media over the eco-commitments of celebrities like Bündchen contribute to this misconception). We look at the price of organic vegetables, or the cost of installing geothermal floors, and conclude that lowering our household’s carbon footprint must be, to borrow Catherine Liu’s compelling phrase, a form of “virtue hoarding” available only to the privileged classes.
We might assume that money would liberate people to pursue more earth-friendly habits — springing for that Tesla, or that recycled cotton designer outfit, instead of driving your gas-guzzler to Walmart to stock up on disposable plastic crap. Actually, research shows just the opposite. The environmental toll of all your cheap crap doesn’t compare to that of the private jet you might buy if you were a billionaire. Having too much money, even if you’re a gorgeous Earth Mama like Gisele Bündchen, causes wasteful consumption.
Some — including the Sussex researchers, as otherwise useful as their findings are — present this as a problem of messaging: the wealthy need to be told to step up, take responsibility, and lead greener lives. If you’re part of the global 1 percent and reading this right now, yes, please do that! But the planet will not be saved by this kind of pleading and voluntarism. The simpler and better solution is to deprive the wealthy of the means of pollution, by taking away their money. To save the future we must tax, expropriate, or abolish the rich.