Climate Cowards: The Complete Failings of Global Wealth

Our planet is a miracle. Every natural wonder, every breath of air, every single heartbeat is made possible by Planet Earth. But for all it has given us, our world is being choked to death. Things can only end in one of two ways if they continue as they are – we destroy the planet, or the planet destroys us. Either way, humanity isn’t making it out alive. It’s become easy to pessimistically believe that it’s too late to tackle climate change. This isn’t true. What is true is that we have everything we could possibly need to heal our planet but the means are being gluttonously hoarded by an overwhelmingly small minority and we are letting it happen. 

The Race to Space…and Climate Catastrophe

In this materialistic, capitalist world we have created, money is power. And power unchecked by responsibility and empathy is disastrous. The richest people in the world could, together, enact colossal change. And what are the two richest men in the world doing? They’re having a ego-stroking contest in low earth orbit.

The billionaire space race refers to the pointless contest between, mainly, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk as to who could take a commercial trip to space first. Richard Branson nabbed 1st place when he launched 9 days prior to Bezos in July 2021. Bezos proceeded to reach a higher altitude than Branson, however neither of them technically reached space at all so in terms of an actual space race, they failed miserably. Musk has yet to launch but, naturally, intends to fly to greater altitude that both his rivals because the only real aim of this endeavour seems to be outdoing each other. 

So, what does this solve? Who does this help? How does this contribute to fighting climate change and saving our planet while we still have time? 

Incredible things could be achieved if this wealth was redirected towards efforts, such as tackling climate change, as opposed to endeavours grounded in ego-stroking and exploitation of the masses. The billionaire ‘space’ race epitomises the disparity of wealth distribution and the environmental hypocrisy of those participating. Just one launch produces up to 300 tons of CO2, where it can remain in the upper atmosphere for years, between a very small number of passengers.

A long haul flight carrying 200-300 people might also produce the same amount – and this is also a serious environmental issue that needs tackling, but for now consider the CO2 emissions per passenger. If space travel becomes more commercialised, as the billionaires intend, it won’t take long before the environmental damages of a few rocket launches rival those of the entire aircraft industry.

The Future of Wealth Extremities
The Future of Wealth Extremities - Commercialised Space Travel

Putting Money into Minutes

The human mind cannot comprehend very large numbers. This makes it difficult for us to come to terms with just how much money billionaires and multi-millionaires have, and likely contributes to how complacent we are about it. If we equate money with time in seconds then it becomes a little clearer.

One hundred thousand seconds makes up almost 28 hours – bear in mind the average UK salary for a full-time employee is £31,461, not £100,000. One million seconds makes up roughly 11 days, or 264 hours. One billion seconds makes up 32 years, or 280,506.24 hours. So, if you earned the UK average salary you would have fewer than 9 hours of time but a billionaire would have over 280,000 hours of time, over 31,000x what you have.

Try to think of how many hours of time a multi-billionaire would have. If that is insufficient, consider this – if you earned $5000 every single day, with no costs or payments, it would take you 23,000 years to become a billionaire. It is estimated that Branson’s flight cost $600 million. Bezos spent $5.5 billion to spend 4 minutes in low earth orbit. These endeavours achieved nothing and helped no one.

It’s easy to forget just how dire the disproportions of wealth are and gloss over the fact that most billionaires’ altruistic spending is relatively minuscule. Comparisons like the money-to-time I found are useful for reality checking and putting things back into perspective. These immense sums of money were not spent for research purposes, to further human understanding or to do good for those in need. Branson even had the audacity to say that he wants to make space “accessible for all” and that “space is for all humanity”. Is it really for everyone?

Is it for those who are living on the streets, for the children starving across the world, for oppressed women who cannot even leave the house alone? Or is it for more pampered parasites? And perhaps these wealthy men should prioritise making clean water accessible for all, or food and shelter and safety, or legal rights, or affordable healthcare. Perhaps we should try making Earth accessible for all. 

If you’re building and launching rockets for a quick joyride and some publicity, you are not someone who cares about the planet or its inhabitants. No matter how rich you are or how many empty pledges you make. At least when in low earth orbit they’re as physically detached from the rest of the world as they are in every other capacity.

Billionaires as Symptoms of Economic Failure and Moral Cowardice

Such gross extremes of wealth cannot be earned. They can only be acquired through exploitation and extortion of others, not to mention a good amount of privilege. The only reason these billionaires thrive is because the rest of us do not. They’re the bratty kids at day-care hogging all the toys. The average Amazon worker earns $28,000 per year; Bezos gets that much in 10 seconds. How is 10 seconds of his ‘labour’ worth as much as an entire year’s work by someone else?

It has been calculated that Bezos would have to spend $28 million every day just to not get richer. This puts his one-time pledge in 2020 of $98.5 million, a profit he can make in less than 4 days, towards ending homelessness into perspective. He could donate $98.5m per week towards ending homelessness and still come out richer. There is nothing stopping him. But that would involve a shred of human decency and distraction from building a rocket in his own image.

Musk has received positive recognition for adopting a minimalist lifestyle and we’re all expected to think that actually means something. It takes a special kind of privilege to make a statement of such faux-modesty while countless others struggle to keep a roof over their heads and budget themselves into a chokehold simply to make ends meet.

Things would absolutely be different if Musk were spending a few extra of his billions for the good of our planet, its climate and inhabitants instead of participating in one of the biggest greenwashing scams of, perhaps, all time. But as it stands, his minimalist living style comes over as hollow. If anything, it comes across in bad taste because how could someone with more money than could be spent in a lifetime understand what it’s like for people who have to live minimalist lifestyles because they have no choice if they’d like to afford both rent and food? 

Many among this minority have achieved or created things that are valuable and useful in our lives; Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple for example. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have benefitted from their innovations. It’s the extremes to which they have benefitted while many others have very little in comparison, and many more have next to nothing. People whose work is just as valuable and integral, if not more so, to the functioning of our societies; medical staff, scientists and researchers, teachers, factory workers, farmers, retail workers, to name a few.

It’s not only the inequality of wealth acquisition that is having detrimental impacts, it’s the ways these fortunes are so irresponsibly spent whilst our planet faces an impending climate crises that desperately needs addressing. No billionaire needs their money. To survive, or thrive, or keep hold of. I look at their fortunes and often ask myself, what are they waiting for? Our planet needs us now.

How Vast Wealth could be Spent to Combat Climate Change

The super-rich have become a fact of life, and one we seem content to passively accept. We’ve similarly become conditioned to view the disparity and misuse of wealth as a normal, if not mildly disgruntling, reality. It may feel like it’s too late at this point to help balance the scales and guide these mountains of disposable wealth towards combating climate change and ensuring a safe and viable future for our planet. Why is it not instead being put towards things like:

  •         Reforesting projects
  •         Marine conservation
  •         Research and investments for sustainable energy
  •         Environmental education
  •         Mass waste clean-ups
  •         Protection of endangered species
  •         Funding for ethical and sustainable business models
  •         Reducing air pollution

It’s only too late if we do nothing

The bystander effect is great at keeping us quiet. We’re too passive to kick up a fuss over these injustices and continue to let the super-rich walk all over us for the sake of bigger profits without giving back nearly enough. Too many billionaires have proven they cannot be trusted to ethically use their unethically attained wealth, not that this should come as a great surprise. It’s come to the point where it’s critical that we overcome this passivity and speak out.

There are numerous means at our disposal. We can:

  •         Actively engage in conversations on topics of climate change, mass wealth and surrounding ethics
  •         Circulate credible articles (1 2 3), journals (1 2 3) and related discussions on social media
  •         Use these articles and journals as springboards to our own research and knowledge
  •         Create or sign petitions (1 2) and join organisations pushing for action on the climate crisis (1 2)
  •         Directly criticise the super-rich and their actions, challenge them openly to do better for our planet

We cannot, however, condemn this minority of the ultra-wealthy, seek to close the gaps of wealth and drive efforts to combat climate change, if we continue to enable them. It is imperative that we hold them accountable, but we must hold ourselves accountable first. In the majority of cases, the super-rich have accumulated much of their wealth through mass consumerism. For years, we’ve been pouring money into their purses. The mindset of consumption is tricky to shake off at first. We’re constantly told we need more stuff. Advertisements pressure us to upgrade to the newest models and throw out the old ones. We keep buying and keep wasting.

The Future of Finance and Climate

These billionaires are not people who should inspire us. These are not people we should aspire to be like. These are not people who should have their transgressions overlooked or tolerated. They are choosing to help choke the planet rather than restore it because that’s what’ll fatten their purses a bit more.

How much more of the planet has to burn, or flood, or become uninhabitable before we say enough is enough? How many more people and animals have to die before we demand better from those who have the power to truly make a difference to the climate crisis? 

Checking ourselves when it comes to use of wealth and subsequent consequences on the environment is a key part of modifying these behaviours as a whole. Again, there are things to be done:

  • Stay mindful of our material needs and consumption – do you actually need what you’re buying? How long will it last? What will happen to the waste material?
  • Boycott large corporations, companies and products that contribute to the super-rich in favour of supporting independent, high-street-type businesses and brands
  • Make our consumption choices based on the upholding of ethical and environmental standards instead of convenience
  • Shop locally to reduce shipping costs and emissions

“By their very existence and continued irresponsibility, most members of this super-rich elite have proven that they care more about making money than making any significant efforts to help combat climate change. I’m sure they’ll have a great time revelling in their profits while parts of the world burn to ash, people and wildlife drown in floods and entire ecosystems collapse.”

Healing the planet from the devastation we have caused will be no easy feat but it is something we can absolutely achieve if we step up. Facing the reality of climate change is daunting because we feel there’s nothing we can do to make a meaningful change. Time is running out to realise this isn’t the case at all. Any step in the right direction is one worth taking.

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