National Comment Comment

Why value a building over the planet’s future?

If only the population had the same concern for our environment that they seem to have for our buildings

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Image Credit: Milliped

The fire of Notre-Dame is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. Having been a fixture of the Parisian skyline for the past 1000 years, it is more than a building, but a beacon of the city, of France’s heart. The shocking nature of its fire shows how old cul - tural buildings across Europe need urgent restorations done: no more putting off due to inconvenience or a culture of we’ll-do-it-later.

Most prominently for the UK, Notre-Dame’s fire should be a wakeup call for the Palace of Westminster, and MPs need to vote for a total restoration, rather than restoration in small increments. But the fire was also a metaphor for how inaction and inequality is crippling Western society. It’s a feeling that has been expressed by critics across Twitter, that Notre Dame’s fire was an emblem for revealing sinister lurking social imbalance.
Depending on varying reports, €850 has been donated by Europe’s super rich to restore the monument. France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, owner of Louis Vuitton, pledged €200 million to the Cathedral – the same Bernard Arnault who was exploring a bid for Belgian citizenship a few years ago to take advantage of its ultra low tax status. €100 million was pledged by billionaire François-Henri Pinault, the chairman of the group that owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, French cosmetics firm pledged another €200 million, and old company Total €100 million. On top of this, French President Emmanuel Macron launched an international fundraising campaign to rebuild the cathedral. This is rather sickening.

A national French construction economists union estimated that as little as €300 million to as much as €600 million may be required to repair the cathedral, meaning that due to the actions of a few super rich within days, Notre-Dame could potentially be restored twice over.

Just imagine what good could be done for society if the super rich were made to give up their mass reserves of capital, most of which they will never spend and will simply sit in offshore bank accounts. What is even more outrageous is the international fundraising campaign launched by Macron.

Notre-Dame is owned by the state, if the state wants to fund something this should be done through progressive taxation, not appealing for donations: imagine if a world leader called for donations in order to fund a government department? It’s unheard of. In the wake of the Gilet-Jaunes movement and riots, which were a fight back against the burden of tax reforms falling on the French middle and working classes rather than the wealthy, this new found philanthropy leaves a sour taste. Progressive taxation, such as AOC’s that call for a 70 per cent tax on wealth over $10 million, should be used to fund not only the restoration of Notre-Dame, but services across France which will improve inequality. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame has been recalled due to the tragedy which has just befell its location, but perhaps the fire is more an emblem of Hugo’s other well known work: Les Misérables . 150 years on from the publication of Les Mis, we’re reminded that the intense inequality in French society the novel shone a light on has not disappeared.

The other symbol Notre-Dame has become is one of our governments’ inabilities to take action on the biggest threats facing our societies. No, the part destruction of a cathedral may not be a major threat, however much it means to the people of France, it is just a building after all. But officials at Notre-Dame had been calling for more money to fix the decay across the cathedral for years. No wealthy donor came to its rescue then, only for an obscene amount to be pledged only when it was too late.

In the wake of a fortnight of climate protests taking over London and spanning across the globe, climate change however is still an existential threat that our politicians fail to take action on. Yes, like Notre-Dame, they may do something, incrementally looking to restore the building, or incrementally looking to decrease our impact upon the planet and its ecosystems. But it’s at a pace nowhere near fast enough (with all the insufferable back patting about what little they are doing not helping either).

The super rich pledging billions to protect countries and themselves against climate breakdown 50 years down the line is useless – action needs to be taken now before it’s too late. Because, unlike the roof of a building, we can’t just rebuild the Earth. Notre-Dame’s fire should be a wakeup call. It’s not just about the state of our cultural monuments, but for all it represents. Inequality. Inaction. Indifference to our societies’ flaws.

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