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.”

G7 and Climate Change: an unsurprising fail for change

The G7 is a group of seven of the world’s richest industrialised countries which meets annually to discuss pressing issues always headlined by the global economy, security and energy. This year saw climate change and health highlight the agenda for the leaders, which is significant given that the world’s most affluent countries and biggest emitters are largely responsible for climate change.

However, this is mainly because climate change and COVID have proved to be two of the biggest threats to the global economic system – which, if we are honest, overshadows any moral imperative to address these crises. Leaders explicitly state a recognition of “climate change and growing inequalities as key risks for the global economy”. A historical look at global action on both ecological and health crises demonstrates that are not a priority until they begin to destabilise the global economic order.

The slogan of the summit was the familiar post-COVID catch-cry “build back better”, but what exactly are we building back? Despite acknowledgements to “level-up economies” and including a focus on inclusion and green technology, the language coming out of the summit has not been game changing. The neoliberal rhetoric is ubiquitous.

More than a few experts have argued that if we are to fight future climate and health crises, we need to address the structural and systemic causes. However, the communique coming out of the summit from our world’s most powerful leaders show a commitment to anything but that.

In a piece in Climate Policy following the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020 four former senior members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat demanded that “Real action rather than lip service” by phasing out coal and put an end to fossil fuel subsidies and establishing a 2030 interim CO2 target. As co-author Michael Zammit Cutajar stated, “We cannot continue kicking the can down the road to climate safety. ” Yet, that is precisely what is being done by the world’s richest countries hiding under an economic safety net.

On climate leaders have promised to “commit to net zero no later than 2050, halving our collective emissions over the two decades to 2030, increasing and improving climate finance to 2025; and to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of our land and oceans by 2030”, which responds to the UNFCCC report to establish interim 2030 targets, but whether or not immediate and effective strategies – that is the “real action” in the form of urgent domestic policies and regulations – follows suit is yet unknown.

The key points on climate coming out of the communiqué are as follows, however, one must pay attention to the non-committal and sometimes exclusive language that may open up any loopholes for tangible action. We must keep in mind that language use is a vital factor in International Law:

  • Ahead of the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15), the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP26) and the fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD COP15), we commit to accelerating efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep the 1.5°C global warming threshold within reach, strengthening adaptation and resilience to protect people from the impacts of climate change, halting and reversing biodiversity loss, mobilising finance and leveraging innovation to reach these goals.
  • [In line with the Paris Agreement] we collectively commit to ambitious and accelerated efforts to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest, recognising the importance of significant action this decade…we have each committed to increased 2030 targets and, where not done already, commit to submit aligned Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as soon as possible ahead of COP26, which will cut our collective emissions by around half compared to 2010 or over half compared to 2005.
  • Domestically, we commit to achieve an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s and to actions to accelerate this. Internationally, we commit to aligning official international financing with the global achievement of net zero GHG emissions no later than 2050 and for deep emissions reductions in the 2020s.
  • We will phase out new direct government support for international carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy as soon as possible, with limited exceptions consistent with an ambitious climate neutrality pathway, the Paris Agreement, 1.5°C goal and best available science.
  • Domestically, we have committed to rapidly scale-up technologies and policies that further accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity, consistent with our 2030 NDCs and net zero commitments.
  • International investments in unabated coal must stop now and we commit now to an end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021.
  • We reaffirm our existing commitment to eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by 2025.
  • Sustainable, decarbonised mobility and to scaling up zero emission vehicle technologies, including buses, trains, shipping and aviation.
  • We will take action to decarbonise areas such as iron and steel, cement, chemicals, and petrochemicals, in order to reach net zero emissions across the whole economy.
  • We recognise the need for an urgent step change in the deployment of renewable heating and cooling and reduction in energy demand…[and[] welcome the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) initiative’s goal of doubling the efficiency of lighting, cooling, refrigeration and motor systems sold globally by 2030.
  • We commit to ensuring our policies encourage sustainable production, the protection, conservation, and regeneration of ecosystems, and the sequestration of carbon.
  • We support an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be adopted by parties at CBD COP15 which sets ambitious goals, strengthens implementation, and enhances regular reporting and review.
  • We adopt the G7 2030 Nature Compact in support of the global mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.

What should have been on the agenda is possible pathways to a new global economic system (or economies) that will better help ensure both social justice globally, while effectively fighting climate change and ecosystem destruction.

Despite growing calls to abandon old ideas of economic growth as a solution to global ills, the G7 communiqué expressed renewed calls to reinvigorate our economies by “promoting growth into the future”. Leaders promised to “increase the prosperity and wellbeing of all people while upholding our values as open societies.”

We cannot continue to prioritise growth as a fix-all solution. To meet the increasing ecological and social challenges of the 21st century, we will need to end the pursuit of exponential growth, and look towards economic models that are that regenerative, collective, collaborative decolonial, and new values-driven.

A global economy that focuses on collective wellbeing of both people and nature is the only way we can use economics to tackle the mess we are in. There are many alternative to development models, such as Buen Vivir, which advocate plural economies within a larger global wellbeing-oriented economy to fundamentally address collective social and ecological wellbeing locally, and scaling that up. Perhaps the G7 is an outdated concept for our 21st century challenges, and needs to be opened up to thinking from other ‘undeveloped’ economies.