Why Elon Musk Can’t End our Crises

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has made headlines again this week for hos $61.6 billion takeover bid for social media platform Twitter.

Political activists and media outlets have taken to declaring that his wealth would be better spent on solving world hunger and climate change. While it may be true that that money could be better spent for good, solving our global crises is not as simple as money.

WFP estimates that up to 811 million people around the world do not have enough food, and 44 million are on the brink of famine. Last year, David Beasley, the Director of the World Food Programme challenged Musk to use his wealth to fight world hunger. A plan for $6.6b, he said, could address the food crisis for 42 million people in 43 countries by providing one meal a day. That would be a great start, but it’s more complex than that.

What institutions fail to recognize publicly when they speak of the current situation of global poverty are the historical drivers behind it. Global poverty and inequality are the result of grave historic political, economic, social and environmental failures. No amount of money will “fix” it. In fact, it is paradoxical to depend on the system that created the wealth gap and climate emergency to solve it.

Unfortunately social, economic and environmental crises are intertwined. Climate change is only making poverty worse and vice-versa. Capitalism is killing the planet and its people.

Environmental writer George Monbiot says, “you might expect an intelligent species to respond to these signals swiftly and conclusively, by radically altering its relationship with the living world. But this is not how we function. Our great intelligence, our highly evolved consciousness that once took us so far, now works against us.”

The world, our planet and its people depend on a complex web of systems- a delicate equilibrium which has been severely destabilized by global capitalism. Economic growth requires us to consume more and more, which exploits our natural resources, destroys habitats and biodiversity beyond repair. Economic crises are environmental crises.

Take the African continent alone. Extreme povery has ravaged the continent for decades. Structural poverty. Climate change has worsened the already dire situation of extreme and relative poverty because resulting devastating floods and extraordinary drought periods in recent years have led to crop failures and severe food insecurity. This will only worsen. It has been said time and time again that those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are those who have not caused it in the first place.

Regardless of the political showdown between Musk and those who believe he should spend his fortunes on world hunger. The same economic system that leads to the creation of millionaires, billionaires and trillionaires is the same system that is at the very root of our global economic and social crises.

There is no doubt that $6b could address problems of world hunger in the here and now by providing immediate assistance to those who need it. Yet, solving world hunger, poverty and the climate crisis are going to take more than just economic investments. The root structural and systemic causes first need to be acknowledged, regretted, and changed.

I’ll leave you with the words of Monbiot, “more important than the direct impacts of the ultra-wealthy is the political and cultural power with which they block effective change. Their cultural power relies on a hypnotising fairytale. Capitalism persuades us that we are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This is why we tolerate it. In reality, some people are extremely rich because others are extremely poor: massive wealth depends on exploitation.”

Path to and beyond COP26 : why it’s important and what needs to happen Pt III

Photo by Riya Kumari on Pexels.com

Time to change the economic system

We are in a critical climate moment. As discussed in parts I and II of this post we know that we need transformative change. We know we need all actors to play a pivotal role. We know that we need to prioritize knowledge and voices of Indigenous peoples and traditional groups, who have a deep and inherent connection to the earth. We also know that we need political buy-in and multilateral commitments for a crisis that knows no geographical boundaries. Most of all, we know that we need wholesale systemic change – social, political, and economic. Let’s discuss that last point.

As Naomi Klein puts it in her book ‘On Fire’, “debates about climate action remain trapped in a paradigm that equates quality of life with personal prosperity and wealth accumulation.” We know, however, (and by we, I am referring to not just you and I, but politicians from all ideological perspectives, as well as economists and academics) that this perverse view of economics is no longer attainable, sustainable nor desirable. As the number of rich shrink, while simultaneously growing their wealth by billions, the vast mass of people living in poverty snowballs. The current global economic system exploits the planet and its resources for the benefit of very few, while those most disadvantaged will be the worst impacted by climate change.

Klein argues that in this respect “there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements” like Buen Vivir, which she describes as a “focus on the right to a good life as opposed to the more-and-more life of ever-escalating consumption and planned obsolescence.”

Phasing out coal, moving away from extractive policies including fossil fuels and biofuels, moving towards a needs-based approach to resource consumption, towards renewables with an emphasis on community-based and small-scale renewable energy transitions will need to be part of the solution. Moving away from fossil fuels is the bare minimum, but it is not the magic bullet to save the planet from destruction. We need to do more. It is not good enough to replace one form of large-scale extraction (fossil fuels) with another just because it is the easier option the lesser of two evils. Non-fossil fuel extraction and exploitation also has negative, irreversible impacts on the planet’s carrying capacity, if not in the short term, in generations to come. Deforestation one major extractive activity but there are others. So effective solutions start with transforming the global economic model.

Major key adjustments need to be made to the global economic system, and national economies and development policies can begin to immediately reflect a wholescale commitment to striving for rapid and radical emissions reductions, and aiming for Net Zero by 2030. The UN says that countries will have to commit to at least 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030 if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Climate Council of Australia argues that this will need to be more like a 75 percent reduction by 2030, with Net Zero by 2035 based on current risk assessments. However, a new assessment conducted by Breakthrough, the National Centre for Climate Restoration argues that there is no carbon budget for 2030 as we are already overdrawn and that based on past emissions we are already on track to reach 1.5 degrees by 2030. Net Zero by 2050 is too late, yet loose ‘targets’ made by countries like Australia are locking us into climate catastrophe.

Released in a briefing paper earlier this year, Breakthrough argues that we will need to reach Net Zero by 2030 to keep warming below 2 degrees, a fact that has been argued by many climate scientists and advocates including Greta Thunberg. It states, “The world needs to be at zero emissions by 2030 for the 2°C target, based on three assumptions: 1. Mitigation expenditure no more than 3% of GDP; 2. No geoengineering; 3. Climate sensitivity is not low (Lamontagne et al, 2019. Nature Climate Change, 9:290–294).”

Whatever the commitment, to reach Net Zero we need a complete transformation of the global economic system. The CSIRO says, “Reaching Net Zero will require a fundamental reimagining of everything we do. It will require a new energy system, new modes of transport, new fuels, new materials, new modes of financing investments, new ways for industry sectors to interact and new ways of living on a scale – and at a pace we have never come close to achieving before.” But it’s not enough to assume that we can technologically innovate our way out of this. We also need a reimagining of society to transform the way, scale and speed at which we consume. To quote journalist Sarah O’Connor,

“To this new world, let’s not go back to a past that wasn’t working anyway !”

The global capitalist system that rewards competition and the exploitation of nature for the accumulation of individual wealth can no longer be logically and ethically argued as best system for an economy bounded by social injustices and planetary restraints.

In the near future, greater, more radical changes to the global economic system will need to be made. There are many proposals that policymakers and economists can consider, for example: degrowth, the social and solidarity economy, regenerative economy, and a circular society (which not only incorporates a circular economy, but also social and environmental factors including knowledge that impinge just outcomes).

It may be that no one single alternative model will be appropriate to transition markets to Net Zero, instead, key elements of the various significant models can be incorporated into one cohesive response that can be tailored to different contexts, so as not to reinforce the economic growth approach, but to level global equity, respond to fundamental needs and eliminate extreme poverty. With the last factor, it is instrumental to evaluate multidimensional poverty (environmental, wellbeing, social cohesion, health, education, sanitation, etc), not just economic poverty.

The path to Net Zero is not a linear one. It involves all actors – civil, governmental, business and organisations -and it requires rapid, radical systemic change to transform society, industry and politics in a just manner.