It sounds like a conspiracy story straight from the depths of QAnon: The world only has enough resources for 1 billion people, and these “elites” will survive, leaving the remaining 7 billion inhabitants of the earth to weaken and die.
The only problem is that the average QAnon follower would be considered one of the elites — conspiracy theories aren’t as fun if you’re one of the insiders.
The theory of the Golden Billion can trace its roots back to Vladimir Lenin, and was more recently popularized by Anatoly Tsikunov in his 1990 book “The Plot of World Government: Russia and the Golden Billion.”
Vladimir Putin, fishing about for wartime justifications that will play with the Russian public, has rekindled the theory in an us-against-the-world appeal to Russian nationalism, and to gin up support among Third World nations that might be of some use to his flagging economy.
The Golden Billion is basically code for the Western World. These elites are hogging all the world’s resources, which they buy for pennies on the dollar in the name of building their own wealth. Russia, rich in timber, gas and oil, and not much else, is the heroic figure standing up to those bullies who would raid the world of its assets without just compensation and inclusion into the world’s upper-echelon clubhouse.
Putin, of course, is the first to bristle at any suggestion that Russia is in any way a second-class world citizen. Maintaining the dual narratives that Russia is both a world superpower and a little kid who is beaten up daily for his lunch money might seem a tricky chore — but no more so, perhaps, than claiming to be a very stable genius who has been outfoxed by nefarious election stealers.
The Golden Billion’s other obvious flaw is China. In the 1940s, when the ragtag armies of Chiang Kai-shek were battling the even more ragtag armies of Mao Zedong for the future of China, the US only reluctantly backed Chiang, believing that no leader was capable of turning around such a backward nation.
So formative Golden Billion theory didn’t figure that one day China, population 1.4 billion, would be hogging world resources with the best of them.
But any good conspiracy theory has elements that are worth at least some consideration. There can be no question that in world history, rich nations have exploited the poor. And last week the Democratic Republic of Congo served notice to the world that it does not intend to be one of those left behind.
Home to the planet’s second largest carbon sink, Congolese leaders had previously pledged to save these ecologically precious rainforests and peat bogs. But it abruptly changed course, announcing that it would auction off the lands for oil and gas drilling.
Horrified environmentalists said this would be a “catastrophe,” and a climate-change tipping point down the road of no return. To these emotional protestations, Congo leaders shrugged. “Our priority is not to save the planet,” said an adviser to the oil and gas ministry.
Who’s to blame him, especially since members of the ostensible Golden Billion have demonstrated it’s not their priority to save the planet either.
Congo is desperately poor, but it would be in a position to reap spectacular wealth for its people by opening its rain forests to destruction. In some ways that’s more honorable than the behavior of Americans like Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell, who are selling out to the fossil fuel industry for a mere pittance.
And, when Norway is reverting to more drilling and President Biden heads to Saudi Arabia begging for more production, who are we to criticize the poor African nation for believing oil is its salvation?
Lenin couldn’t have foreseen it and Putin may be too obtuse, but the Golden Billion may have some real traction on a planet where an inhospitable climate makes it harder to survive. We are beginning to see that the scientists were wrong: climate change is happening at a faster rate than even they believed it would.
At some point you will need to be “elite” to survive drought, fire, floods and winds. You will need to have the means to live somewhere other than Subsaharan Africa, an Indonesia seacoast or an Oklahoma trailer park.
Maybe Congo is bluffing, hoping that the world companies will step up with a cash payment to keep the oil out of the rainforests. Maybe it is a desperate appeal to be among the Golden Billion itself — a gun to the head of Planet Earth: If Congo doesn’t survive, no one survives.
“Our priority is not to save the planet” is a scary statement, but also a curious one. Because if the planet isn’t saved, what’s left?
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.