The train station is impeccably shiny with lights reflecting from the ceiling off the floor. The platform is long and it took a few minutes to traverse the underground and emerge into the rainy day hanging above Monaco. As we wandered out onto the sidewalk, a few cars passed us by; I don’t know cars, but I could tell these were expensive. We walked up stairs abutting what was a fortress to Monaco-Ville, the older part of the city-state, turning around periodically to look out at the tall buildings climbing up the steep hill before us, and to our side at the port, where mega-yachts were anchored.

Climbing to Monaco-Ville

Monaco is one of the very richest countries in the world. Every third person in Monaco is a millionaire, and one in 56 has at least $30 million. The per capita income is over $115,000. As we strolled along the neat streets, I couldn’t help but think about another country I’ve visited: Burundi, which is one of the very poorest countries in the world, where people earn on average $700 annually. Arriving in Bujumbura by bus, we exited onto a square of packed dirt surrounded by bus fumes and directional ambiguity. Same earth, opposite conditions.

Monaco’s wealth is in part due to its status as a tax haven. No income or capital gains tax is levied, and to be a resident, you only need reside there for half the year. This plus easy access by land or by sea and the Mediterranean climate have attracted the wealthy from all over the world. Today, Monégasques make up less than a quarter of the population. Brits make up almost 15% of the population, Swiss nearly 23%, and Russians 12.5%. A quarter of all Monaco residents moved there since 2008. Self-employed workers or company directors make up a third of the population. All this is to say that the ultra-rich from across the globe have come to Monaco and squeezed into less than a square mile which is bursting the seams with luxury real estate of limited supply. Land is being claimed from the sea to make room.

Monaco Octopus StatuePort de Fontvieille

In one part of the world, I feel disturbedly aware that what I am carrying on my body alone (phone plus camera) is greater than the entire net (monetary!) worth of the individuals I am passing on the street, whereas in another part my life’s likely earnings will not equal a year of theirs, and my not-perfectly-fitting hand-me-down jeans are a laugh. We walked by a second-hand shop in Monte Carlo that had items in the window listed at several thousand dollars.

This global income inequality, as well as income inequality within countries, has ramifications. As the rich grow richer, and many of those without become more desperate, social unrest can grow, there is greater political volatility, and a basic lack of trust. It’s hard to relate to someone who is operating under entirely different financial parameters; I’ve been on both sides of this. And as an inability to understand grows, empathy can decrease. Greater inequality also corresponds with more carbon emissions, greater resource use, and more waste. The social and environmental impacts – and how they intertwine – is worrisome, to say the least.

Mega-yachts in Monaco

Yachts upon yachts are docked in the harbors of Monaco. Even big yachts appear small, dwarfed by even larger ones. These mega-yachts were bought to the tune of over 200 million U.S. dollars. They’re owned by Saudi businessmen and oligarchs who are close to Putin. These yachts require crews of 20-some people and feature swimming pools and helicopter landing pads. Meanwhile, we face a climate crisis. Meanwhile, people starve. The kicker here is that not only do the wealthy owners of these yachts share the same world with these tragedies and are passively complicit in the disparity, but they in fact actively contribute through their powerful political actions.

After grabbing a meal at a supposedly environmentally-friendly lunch joint, or so they claimed, flanked by yacht and private jet insurance offices, with iPads for menus and memorabilia from the rich and famous decking the walls, we wandered back out into what was now a heavy rain. Monaco is built essentially on a cliff, and elevators can shuttle you from one street level to another as shops, casinos, and apartments cling to their bit of space. The beautiful Mediterranean, more grey than blue in the weather, stretched out before and below us. But what variety of people gets to enjoy it?

MonacoMonaco Levels

I remember looking out at beautiful Lake Tanganyika, white shores and blue water, from the outskirts of Bujumbura. The beach was largely empty and I wondered how many bodies, how many victims of genocide, rotted in those waters. That day we met two foreigners, one of whom was military and another of whom was working for a Chinese mining company. Money gained from those minerals does not stay in Burundi. It’s flittered away and, along with the mineral products, enjoyed by others. Perhaps by the very same people whose yachts are docked in various harbors around the world, perhaps even those tied up before me in Monaco.

The pursuit of luxury stretches far further than the pursuit of comfort and mutates into something that is falling down from the edge of a dark pit and pulling others in with it. Frankly, I don’t want to get too close. So, soaking wet, we turned our backs on Monaco and headed to the train station.