What follows was inspired by a short newspaper article on the enormous discrepancy in energy consumption and CO2 emissions between the rich and the poor, in the UK. Recalling Jonathan Swift’s brilliant essay, “A Modest Proposal” of 1729, we took it up again, in all modesty, replaced Irish infants with the wealthy of this world, and discovered that it retained all of its urgent relevance.
Extreme inequality and wealth concentration undermine the ability of humanity to stop climate breakdown. Very rich people emit huge and unsustainable amounts of carbon and have an outsized influence over our economy. Unlike with ordinary people, 50% to 70% of the emissions of the world’s richest people are the result of their investments.1 They hold extensive stakes in many of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world – large enough stakes to influence the actions taken by these corporations.
The true scale of the investment emissions of these individuals is not systematically calculated or reported. However, using new analysis based on publicly available data, Oxfam calculates that the annual carbon footprint of the investments of just 125 of the world’s richest billionaires in our sample is equivalent to the carbon emissions of France, a nation of 67 million people. This represents an average of 3.1 million tonnes per billionaire, which is over one million times higher than 2.76tonnes2 – the average for someone in the bottom 90% of humanity.
Emissions from billionaire lifestyles, including their private jets and yachts, are thousands of times the average person’s, which is itself unacceptable and unsustainable. But if we include emissions from their investments, then their carbon emissions are over a million times higher.
Oxfam, Carbon Billionaires
A Modest Proposal
For preventing the rich people of this world,
from being a burden on the rest of us,
and for making them beneficial to the publick.
by an honourable member of Autonomies, (in memory and honour of Jonathan Swift, and with indignation)
It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through a great town, or travel in a country, or through the world’s ports of call, when they see the streets, the roads, and the grand hotels, crowded with the wealthy, followed by three, four, or six shopping bags in tow, and importuning every passenger for space. These individuals, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to shop for their helpless selves who, as they grow richer, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to consume in more amenable climes, or sell themselves to higher bidders.
I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious degree of consumption, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these affluent citizens sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have their statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the hangers on of professed well-to-do: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of the wealthy, who are born of a society in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our equal obedience to their excesses in the streets.
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, “the top 1% of earners in the UK are responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions in a single year as the bottom 10% over more than two decades” and it “would take 26 years for a low earner to produce as much carbon dioxide as the richest do in a year”; and it is exactly within a year that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their society, or the parish, or consuming food and raiment for the rest of their lives far in excess of what others may need, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing of many thousands.
There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent poverty, hunger and starvation, and violent death, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.
The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned 67 million, of these I calculate there may be about 1% who consume beyond our and the earth’s collective means. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; they neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers; as I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.
I am assured by our merchants, that the well-heeled are an extremely costly sort indeed, “that people earning £170,000 or more in 2018 in the UK were responsible for greenhouse gas emissions far greater than the 30% of people earning £21,500 or less in the same year”; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of their nutriments and rags being so much greater than the greater part of the general population.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy wealthy individual, is, at any ripe age, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.
I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the six hundred and seventy thousand well-to-do, already computed, just over one hundred thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these individuals are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining five hundred thousand or so may be offered in sale or given to the persons of moral quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the retainers to let them feed plentifully, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A wealthy individual will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium, that a woman/man of a “richer” country will weigh 150 to 180 pounds, on average, in contrast to 125 to 150 pounds in “poor” countries. And if the former are tolerably provided for, their mass will also be of a higher quality.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, but if properly and justly distributed, can provide healthy snacks or entrées for many.
The flesh of the rich will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful on festive occasions, to remember the excesses of the present and celebrate the new sobriety which it is hoped this novel ritual and diet will introduce among the kingdom’s inhabitants.
I have already computed the charge of maintaining an affluent mode of life (in which list I reckon all parasites, and promoters and managers of useless employment and pleasures, that is, those activities which demand the slavery of others) to be about one hundred and fifteen thousand pounds daily, frippery included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give even a modest sum for the carcass of a good fat rich man, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him.
Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.
As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend acquiring the wealthy alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.
A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supplied by the bodies of rich young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; enough number of both sexes in every county being now so healthy, given refined and healthy diets, along with personal training and idleness, can serve as high protein supplements for those in particular need. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our schoolboys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves, should this delicacy be judged necessary by the hungry millions: and besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.
But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Psalmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who with their great fortunes, the kingdom would not be the worse.
Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of rich people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, or just a nuisance; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by ailments caused by having and consuming too much, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the wealthy young, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They refuse to work, and consequently pine away from want of mental activity, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally placed in a task demanding of responsibility, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.
I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.
For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of parasites, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal consumers of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to Mammon the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good people, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to a rapacious business that serves only to feed the parasites.
Secondly, The poor will then have something valuable of their own, their life and their creativity, with which they will be able to live together for a fairer and more just world.
Thirdly, Whereas the maintenance of a hundred thousand extremely wealthy individuals, cannot be computed at less than hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum, their transformation into food will free the nation’s real wealth to be used for all, besides the profit of a new dish, introduced to the tables of the many in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.
Fourthly, The constant workers, besides the gain of the monies used to feed the rich, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them.
Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns, where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection; and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine women and gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating; and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as delicious as they please.
Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to happiness, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to their babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the all men and women, which of them could care more for their fellows. Men and women, and neighbours, would become fond of each other, as friends and lovers and family members are able to care for each other.
Many other advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barrel’d beef: the propagation of swine’s flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat rich man, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor’s feast, or any other publick entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit, being studious of brevity.
Supposing that one thousand families in this city, would be constant customers for rich men’s flesh, besides others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses; and the rest of the kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand.
I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby modestly lessened in the Kingdom of Ireland and beyond. This I freely own, and was indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy not only for this one individual Kingdom, but for all the nations of this Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing absentee landowners and profiteers: Of using neither clothes, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our men and women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.
Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.
But, as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.
After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points. First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for the many millions of useless mouths and backs of this world. And secondly, There being a round fifty six million millionaires – 1.1 % of the human population -, whose whole subsistence condemns the remaining population in effect to a state of real or potential poverty, and even extinction; I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the members of the societies who must bear with the wealthy, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have them sold for food, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.
I profess in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the many. I have no business interest therein, by which I can propose to get a single penny; my concern is with justice and the prospect of a tasty morsel of a rich man’s rib.