The billionaire class won’t save us

Who, I wonder, will play Elon Musk in the inevitable biopic? Were such a film made tomorrow, it would be easy to imagine John Barrowman in the lead role. Beyond the obvious physical similarities – square-jawed and Hollywood B-list handsome – both are around fifty, and exude that slight exoticness that comes from having attained US citizenship after being born elsewhere (Musk in Pretoria, Barrowman in Glasgow). It’s not hard, either, to see a kind of precedent in Barrowman’s most famous screen creation, the dashing, time-travelling conman Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and its spin-off series Torchwood. In the latter, Barrowman’s character is in charge of an organisation – ‘separate from the government, outside the police, and beyond the United Nations’ – that seeks out flashy technology for its own use, and is regularly called upon to save the world from the forces of evil. Now that I think of it, perhaps what I really mean to say is that Musk, with his futuristic-sounding name and swashbuckling techno-fetishism, would be ideally cast as a real-life Captain Jack.

In fact, to a not inconsiderable degree, he already has been. In her new book, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, Naomi Klein writes:

For decades now, elite liberals have been looking to the billionaire class to solve the problems we used to address with collective action and a strong public sector – a phenomenon sometimes called ‘philanthrocapitalism’. Billionaire CEOs and celebrities – Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, and always, for some reason, Bono – are treated less like normal people who are gifted in their fields and happen to be good at making a great deal of money, and more like demigods.

To get a sense of what Klein’s talking about – and Musk would fit into that list of philanthrocapitalists like a hand into a glove – you need look no further than the response to the billionaire entrepreneur’s recent intervention in the South Australian energy crisis. The premier, and much of the progressive commentariat, swooned over Musk’s giant lithium ion battery, while a report by Essential Media suggested broad public approval across party lines. It was largely left to the right-wing media to adopt a critical stance, and even then the critiques amounted to little more than dim-witted rehashes of culture war talking points with pro-coal, anti-renewables rhetoric at their centre.

Seen as one small part of the South Australian Labor Government’s target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2025 (it has, reportedly, already achieved this, eight years ahead of schedule) the battery in and of itself is no bad thing. But it arrives in a context in which, for years, we’ve been told by the Silicon Valley-residing billionaire class – as well as their friends and backers within the political establishment – that all of the major crises of our times, from poverty to climate change, can be resolved by money and technology alone. The sense is that, as Klein puts it, ‘there is now so much private wealth sloshing around our planet that every single problem on earth, no matter how large, can be solved by convincing the ultrarich to do the right things with their loose change.’

Take, for example, Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, worth twenty-five million for ‘a commercially viable design which achieves, or appears capable of achieving, the net removal of significant volumes of anthropogenic, atmospheric GHGs (greenhouse gases) each year for at least 10 years.’ Not only has the ten-year-old challenge never been met, Branson has, by some estimates, spent less than a tenth of the money he promised to develop low carbon fuel.

A few years ago, geoengineering – the deliberate and large-scale modification of climate systems, for example by injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight away from the Earth – became the billionaire class’s fix du jour for climate change. Why? Because, despite significant risks and scant proof of efficacy, geoengineered climate change mitigation is cheap for governments and, more importantly, doesn’t challenge the status quo. ‘Global dimming’ or attempts to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere leave fossil fuel companies, and their political abettors, free to ride roughshod over the planet much as they have always done. Geoengineering is attractive because, rather than representing a historical break with rapacious Western industrialism and consumerism, it doubles down on them.

Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil – a company that has spent millions of dollars on climate change misinformation – has said of geoengineering that: ‘We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.’ Tillerson is now, of course, US Secretary of State in the Trump administration, and geoengineering is suddenly back on the political agenda after a period in the wilderness while Obama was president. It’s not hard to see why Trump, having withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Accord and initiated a suite of deleterious changes to US science and environmental policy, would back geoengineering. As Naomi Klein observes in No Is Not Enough:

Trump’s assertion that he knows how to fix America because he’s rich is nothing more than an uncouth, vulgar echo of a dangerous idea we have been hearing for years: that Bill Gates can fix Africa. Or that Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg can solve climate change.

Or, we might add, that Elon Musk can fix South Australia’s energy problems. This, after all, is a man who, when slightly inconvenienced by a traffic jam, fantasises not about better public transport or decreased car use but about boring tunnels through the earth, and sets up a company to do just that barely a month later. Musk allegedly quit his position as an advisor to Trump when the President withdrew the US from Paris, but the two men – notwithstanding the socially liberal patina Musk shares with much of the ultra-rich class – are cut from the same, ermine-trimmed cloth. Rather than build community and political resistance to climate change and nuclear weapons, Musk would have us prepare to decamp a despoiled Earth for freezing, oxygenless Mars where, presumably, the exclusive few wealthy enough to relocate there would be compelled to pootle around in the latest Tesla-brand electric cars.

Similarly, Musk’s South Australian intervention – 100 days or it’s free! – reflects the view that no collective problem is intractable provided the right individual steps up with an offer of a quick, sexy fix. But the reality is that South Australia’s energy woes are the result of years of bad policy, not a lack of ingenuity or private investment. More than half of the state’s population blames the 1999 privatisation of state-owned power company ETSA, while, as the ABC’s Four Corners detailed in May, national energy policy in this country has been systematically botched for years by governments of all stripes. No wonder Musk, having successfully wooed South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, is now courting Malcolm Turnbull, that irrepressible enthusiast for ‘innovation’.

In a 2012 paper titled ‘The Philosophy of Geoengineering’, Clive Hamilton notes that:

The thinking that gives rise to geoengineering is the same thinking that first creates the world as an object suitable for technological manipulation. As a result, the only global warming escape routes that occur to us are technological ones, whether they be new forms of low-emission energy, carbon capture and storage or engineering the climate. So this view prompts the rhetorical question: How can we think our way out of a problem when the problem is the way we think?

For as long as the mainstream of our political and media discourses continue to deify the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, we will remain in thrall to the idea of munificent billionaires as (invariably white, male) saviours, even as our estrangement from the corrupt systems of power that hang over us continues apace. The ceding of public policy challenges to this clique by our governments – indeed, the conceptualisation, as per French President Emmanuel Macron, of nation-states as start-ups – is not progressive but thoroughly reactionary and, in the end, profoundly undemocratic. At some point – perhaps when, in the not-too-distant future, the world has its first trillionaires – we are going to have to ask ourselves whether extreme concentrations of wealth in individuals is a symptom of, rather than antidote to, the manifold crises we face. As Naomi Klein writes:

There is no superhero enlightened billionaire coming to save us from the villains in power. Not Oprah, not Zuckerberg, and not Elon Musk. We’re going to have to save ourselves, by coming together as never before.


Image: Elon Musk /

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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  1. Sometimes wonder if the left devoted only 20 percent of its immense intellectual resources to building co-ops, decentralised technologies, people’s banks, solar communities, instead of writing sad, disgruntled commentary, where it would be…

    Seriously, if you’re going to be a tech start up billionaire, wouldn’t you revolutionise energy production, making it clean and non-polluting, and essentially decentralising it in the process?

    As for the cars, they’re getting cheaper Ben. Even socialists will afford them soon.

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