Private jets, affluence and climate: the meaning of symbols

Should private jets, jet skis or golf courses be banned? How are these practices significant symbols in the fight against the ecological crisis? We talk about it.

The public and media space sometimes seems to have an annoying tendency towards irony. It is difficult to see otherwise when, while we have been talking for months about scarcity, sobriety and restrictions in the face of the ecological crisis, we are carried away, from television sets to councils of ministers, on the idea of ​​regulating private jets, the relevance of watering golf courses or the good taste of jet ski excursions.

For some, we should ban this practice, which pollutes too much, too little, and overuses the resources we otherwise lack. No question, say others, who only see these proposals as an attempt to generate buzz.

Should we then ban or regulate private jets, golf or private swimming pools in the name of their ecological impact? Would that solve the problem? What are the numbers? By taking the time to understand these questions in depth, we realize that the effort goes far beyond the numbers. Private jets, luxury cars or golf are symbols, essential symbols in the ecological transition, and which one must be able to read.

Private jets, golf, private swimming pools: not insignificant but not critical impacts

So to fully understand, let’s look at the numbers first. Are private jets, private swimming pools, jet skis or golf courses major sources of pollution or greenhouse gases? Well, it all depends on the numbers you look at and how you look at them. If we analyze the effect of these activities on a global scale, we quickly realize that it is not private jets that weigh the most in global CO2 emissions, and that it is not golf that consumes the most land and the most water. Motor transport or agriculture are much bigger contributors to global pollution than jet ski sessions or private swimming pools. At best, these activities represent a few percent or even less than 1% of global pollution, and it is clear that banning them will not solve the environmental crisis.

But looking at the numbers from another angle, we realize that the effects of these activities are not insignificant. For example, every year golf courses in France consume several million cubic meters of water, or as much as a city with several hundred thousand inhabitants. Private jet travel reserved for a very small minority of the population generates almost 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually worldwide, which is as much as the combined annual emissions of almost 320,000 Europeans. Many other activities and leisure activities, often reserved for privileged minorities (jet skis, yachts, luxury cars and to a lesser extent private swimming pools) represent relatively significant environmental impacts compared to the pollution generated by the activities of an average citizen.

Unequal practices that undermine our collective efforts

Jet rides, golf courses or luxury cars then become markers of the deep social, economic and environmental fractures that run through our society. On the one hand, ordinary citizens are asked, in the name of “end of abundance” or in the name of the fight against global warming, to drive less, to turn off their wifi at night or not to water their garden. On the other hand, some citizens, because they have the means, can continue to travel by jet aircraft that emit hundreds of kg of CO2, or pump water resources for simple leisure.

The numbers then take on a completely different light: It only takes one hour and a single 500 km jet trip for a privileged citizen to emit 800 kg of CO2, i.e. as much as an average French person emits by using his car every day for 6 months. We can then talk about gigantic inequalities.

These inequalities are at the heart of the environmental crisis. For many years, and especially in recent IPCC reports, the scientific literature has shown that we cannot act on global warming without acting on the issue of inequalities. Studies show, for example, that environmental and economic inequalities reduce citizens’ support for climate policies and weaken the social basis for collective action. If others can continue to pollute without restraint, why should I make an effort?

When will there be real “common but differentiated responsibility”?

The question that then arises is that of social justice and acceptance of environmental policies. How do you implement an ecological policy that requires the efforts of all, if these efforts are not fairly distributed among citizens in relation to their capacity and their effects?

The controversies surrounding private jets, golf or private swimming pools are, in this context, above all symbolic. Regulating these practices, which are often the privilege of relatively well-off populations, is symbolically saying that the most privileged have a duty to set an example, that they must bear the responsibility for the effort more than the others. It is then a question of nothing more than applying the concept of “common but differentiated responsibility” which is at the heart of the IPCC’s work on the climate: distributing the effort first among those who pollute the most and can afford it, and only then among others. Because, as scientists regularly repeat, the fight against the ecological crisis will not happen without social justice.

Jets and golf greens are thus only symbols, of course, but symbols are essential in politics, and even more so in the case of ecological politics. It is these symbols that make and break environmental politics, as the Gule Veste movement has already proven.

The symbol battle

Under the guise of pragmatism, of so-called “economic realities”, contemporary ecological policies have tended to neglect these symbols. Unthinkable to regulate the luxury aviation sector as it creates jobs and growth. It is impossible to limit the monopolization of water resources by private golf courses as it would destroy jobs.

In reality, the argument is also more symbolic than anything else, because employment or growth are very poor criteria for judging the relevance of a public policy. Innovation, for example, regularly destroys jobs that it does not always replace. Conversely, the planned obsolescence of digital devices creates jobs in many sectors: repair, production… Covid-19 has even created jobs and up to 6% growth in the funeral sector. Also ?

Public policies constantly create and destroy jobs through the technical, social and economic developments they support. And very often, when the employment and growth argument is used, it is to distract from a lack of political coherence. Golf courses represent almost 5,000 direct jobs in France. Who can believe that this argument justifies protection of the sector? The factory in Fessenheim, closed by government decision, nevertheless employed 2,000 people directly and 3,000 more indirectly.

The question therefore deserves attention: are we prepared to sacrifice a few thousand jobs and a small amount of monetary growth in niche sectors, reserved for the most privileged, in order to facilitate the implementation of a transition for the benefit of all, which, according to ADEME’s estimates, could create almost a million jobs in 2050?

The role of imagination

The issue of private jets and other luxury consumption also has a deep ideological dimension. At a time when we are talking about the “end of abundance”, when we are trying to build new social and economic models around the concept of sobriety, what significance do these unequal practices of overconsumption still have?

As the scientific literature has long pointed out, we will need to transform our cultural and ideological representations if we want to create a more sober society. Practices such as golf, private swimming pools or private jets realize this vision of a society where everyone can, as long as they have the means, appropriate collective resources (water, natural spaces, quality air…) to their own desires, even if they are profoundly non- essential, without worrying about the consequences for the rest of society or ecological damage. They embody the exact opposite of the collective imagination that we must create so that everyone can engage in the ecological transition. An imaginary that celebrates forms of success other than material accumulation, overconsumption and irrational exploitation of natural resources. A fantasy that advocates a kind of “happy sobriety”, even if the term seems overused today.

When big bosses, politicians or influencers continue to show up on private jets, jet skis or golf courses, when these practices are defended using hackneyed arguments, at a time when some (sometimes the same ones) are talking to us about tightening the belt, is it wrong. message is sent. This paints an illusory portrait of a society that only realizes itself in excess, the superfluous, always more. This perpetuates the fable of progress through hyper-consumption and growth, even though deep down, no one really believes it’s so essential that bosses can cross the sky for business dinners.

Although jet skis, golf courses and private jets are only symbols, they are symbols that speak, that say who we are and what we strive to be. And if our ambitions are a more just and ecological society, we will have to tackle these symbols, these totems, to write a different story. And isn’t it precisely the role of politics to propose these collective narratives? Since it’s urgent, maybe it’s time to start picking up the pen.

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