Katie Byng-Hall Investigates The Corporate Response To Notre-Dames Recent Fire.
Photo by Bennett Tobias
On the evening of 15th April 2019, a fire began in Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral. Over the ensuing hours, the cathedral’s roof sustained significant damage, and its spire collapsed.
Although the devastation was not as extensive as feared, France mourned the damage to one of the country’s iconic national treasures. In the days after the fire, French companies and wealthy tycoons flocked to donate to the restoration of the cathedral’s roof.
The French oil company Total gave €100 million, while multi- billionaire owner of Gucci and Louis Vuitton Bernard Arnault contributed €200 million, arguably in an attempt to outdo his business rival François Pinault who initially only donated €100 million (although it seems silly to use the word ‘only’ regarding such huge sums).
While some have applauded this generosity, others argue that the money could have been used more honourably for more urgent causes, such as the battles against environmental destruction, climate change and poverty.
The construction of Notre-Dame as we know it began in 1163, with additional features added in the following centuries making it a fascinating encapsulation of both medieval and gothic architecture. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in his statement after the fire,
“Notre-Dame is our history, [...] the epicentre of our lives”.
This passionate speech reflects the sentiment of the French people, and would seem to justify the massive donations which flooded in to help save the landmark.
Despite this, some see it as just another building, making it inherently replaceable in spite of its cultural significance. Donors’ displays of solidarity have been condemned as PR stunts designed to show off their wealth and benevolence to a cause which they knew would receive worldwide publicity, rather than one which could be beneficial to the planet as a whole.
To some, the donations are a demonstration of the continual cycle of the rich helping the rich conserve their own money-centric culture, while disregarding the pressing issues which face the environment and the quality of life of other human beings.
Culture or Climate?
Roughly 8 million tonnes of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year. Arguably the most alarming collection of such plastic is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a clump of 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish spread across the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California.
Experts have devised a scheme whereby 42% of the Garbage Patch could be removed from the water within a decade, but it would cost $390 million to fund.
With the $1 billion raised in a matter of days for Notre-Dame, this scheme could be completed twofold; it may even be enough to clear the rubbish from the area entirely, or formulate a solution to prevent plastic entering the ocean in the first place.
Many people believe that the volume of human rubbish in our oceans is a crisis which deserves more attention than a fire in an old building, and a crisis which is currently being neglected.
Having said this, some wealthy and well-known figures have actively participated in environmental conservation. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio founded the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998, and has since used his celebrity to raise $80 million in grants to fund grassroots environmental projects in 50 countries worldwide.
But the question is, are individuals’ isolated contributions or actions enough to make significant change before it’s too late? Why can we not create a movement similar to the reaction to the Notre-Dame disaster to help save the planet?
During Macron’s presidency, there has been a continual theme of societal discontent, embodied since late 2018 in the Yellow Vest movement.
Photo by cv
The yellow vests, named because of the motorists’ vests they wear, are lower-paid workers who struggle to make ends meet with their current income, but who earn too much to qualify for social benefits.
They began protesting against the 20% rise in diesel tax instated by Macron, as well as his tax cuts to the wealthy; the protesters see Macron as a president for the rich and elite rather than the common Frenchman, and his endorsement of the cathedral fundraising can be seen as a confirmation of that.
While it is true that some lower-paid French people are delighted by the fact that Notre-Dame is to be restored because it is a cultural monument close to the heart of many across France, the $1 billion donations prompted almost 10,000 yellow vest protesters to take to the streets in opposition in the days following the fire.
It is undeniable that such a sum of money could be used to improve the lives of French workers and those under the poverty line, so it’s understandable that some see the Notre-Dame donations as wasted on saving a building rather than helping French people.
A Necessary Balance.
The scenes of Parisians crying on the streets as they watched their cathedral burn should not be disregarded. Culture is an integral part of how humans interpret and identify with the world they live in, and Notre-Dame is one of the most prominent cultural landmarks in the world.
However, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, identifies a key problem with the amount of attention given to the cause of saving the planet.
While she has said that she is happy that the fundraising for Notre-Dame’s restoration is strong, she has expressed the valid concern that the enthusiasm behind the restoration of the Earth’s climate is not so substantial. The same could be said for the support for those people struggling to contend with poverty in France and around the world.
The environment is the single piece of culture which can unite the world and be appreciated by everyone, never mind being essential for human survival. What man has made should be protected and preserved as it is our legacy, but the Earth’s natural landmarks and the lives of our fellow humans should be given the same respect and concern.