This article was originally published in YES! Magazine
As a Jamaican graduate study pursuing a degree in international affairs, I struggle to find common ground with my fellow students. We spend a lot of time discussing different approaches to tackling climate change, and one of the hardest things I’ve had to explain to my classmates is the fundamental difference in how Black, Brown, and Indigenous people see the environment versus White westerners, and why that viewpoint matters. It doesn’t help that none of them speak my native Jamaican patois, which is the only language I can use to verbally explain something so intangible yet fundamental to my existence as a Caribbean person.
This discrepancy in how people of different backgrounds view the world’s problems was especially conspicuous last year, when the never-ending shit show that was (and is) the COVID-19 pandemic—increasing global temperatures, rising wealth inequality, the breakdown of democratic norms, and escalating waves of ecological collapse—called into serious consideration whether our current Western model of capitalism is sustainable.
These times have tested all of us, except maybe the world’s elite, who are having a whale of a time. In such times, some among us call for deliverance, for the emergence of a savior with a proper mix of resources and expertise to guide humanity out of its collective undoing. While I’m pretty sure no one person can save humanity from its failings, I am absolutely sure the world’s billionaires won’t lend a hand to dig us out of this pit. Rather than placing our faith in a pipe dream, I argue that only through partnering with the global poor, the Indigenous, and other marginalized groups can we avoid climate catastrophe.
The wishful thinking that makes us cast our hopes on the ultrarich stinks of the “cult of the founder,” the misguided assumption that those with the good fortune of wealth and privilege—such as the billionaires of the world—are the most qualified to diagnose and treat society’s ills.
Billionaires aren’t the paragons of productivity they’re made out to be, and they certainly aren’t fit to run society.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that wealth begets wealth or that several of your favorite billionaires were born rich, there are many real-world examples of the failures of trying to run society like a for-profit firm. The United States health care system alone is replete with cautionary tales against profiting off an essential service. Even in a pandemic, the world’s richest country has failed to galvanize its resources in a meaningful way to stop the spread of disease, focusing more on getting people back to work, which in turn is generating greater wealth for the rich.
The proposed solutions that Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are offering—such as the Metaverse, Martian settlements, and space colonization—ignore the problems facing the world today and instead divert public consciousness toward making these billionaires even more money as the world burns around us.
Aside from being impractical pipe dreams, these ideas are nothing but efforts to double down on our dystopic capitalist system, designed to divert attention from the system problems that the ultra-wealthy continue to exacerbate, made more palatable with buzzwords and dished out to us by million-dollar PR campaigns.
The real-life day-to-day carbon footprint of the ultrarich is disproportionately high and directly fuels climate change, and these billionaires’ proposals are fully intended to distract us from any real effort to disincentivize carbon emissions. Their visions for the future are idealistic, neocolonial, dystopic flights of fancy, and they often center the insufficient abilities of the free market to respond to climate change, which runs the risk of recreating the same cycles of inequality and abuse perpetuated by our current system.
Billionaire philanthropy exists to reform worsening public opinion of the über-rich and to provide tax havens. Since so much power to affect change within philanthropic spaces rests in the hands of individual donors, bullheaded initiatives—like Bill Gates’ idea to focus all agriculture on synthetic fertilizers—are prioritized more than they deserve. The reality is that you cannot fix systemic issues by throwing money at the problem. When one man holds the purse strings, the entire mission of relief agencies can be rerouted—as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has demonstrated with its high-profile vaccination efforts in sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s high time that we draw from the massive wealth of knowledge possessed by Indigenous peoples and learn how to work with the natural world and not against it. Throwing the power of global institutions behind front-line problem solvers—be they Native American tribes reviving traditional practices to restore their environment or Indigenous peoples solidifying land tenure rights in the Amazon—can result in observable improvements in environmental well-being.
Rather than humiliating ourselves online begging for crumbs, there is a massive need to overhaul the global tax system so the ultra-wealthy are forced to pay into government revenues without having a say in how to spend them. Those revenues then need to be poured into the small-scale farmers, women, and peasant groups already working on saving the world.
For example, instead of placing roadblocks in front of Indigenous access to the lands they once held, the best-case scenario for harnessing the power of unused land to combat climate change is simply to give it back to the people we stole it from. This is a much cheaper and more viable alternative to the geoengineering pipe dreams floating around some circles. Returning land is already happening with the #LandBack movement across the U.S. and world. It’s high time we realize the massive potential of harnessing Indigenous expertise and federal wherewithal to sustainably manage the land. Such a radical yet necessary solution is unlikely to be proposed by the likes of Gates, America’s largest private farmland owner.
Billionaires are hoarding several trillion dollars in ill-gotten gains that the government needs to track down from offshore tax havens and put to good use. But if or when the hidden money is acquired, it should go to the people on the front lines already engaged in fighting for our future. It’s time to rework our global food system to feed the world’s poorest. It’s time to elevate Indigenous-led biodiversity efforts and heirloom farming to the mainstream. It’s high time for us to prioritize those who operate with a sense of the shared fate of humanity at their core, not a profit margin.
It’s not that the ultrarich won’t intervene from time to time, it’s that they won’t put in the effort to rework a system that suits them. Kowtowing to the whims of a few will result in money being poured into impractical, wasteful efforts. Instead, societies and governments ought to put considerable effort into working with those directly involved in fighting climate change.
The fundamental truth is that we are part of the environment. The fact that we are inseparable from the Earth is the modus operandi of oppressed peoples. This is obvious to me, but perhaps not to my peers in graduate school. The core of my argument is perhaps best expressed by James Baldwin, who wrote in No Name in the Street: “There is a reason, after all, that some people wish to colonize the moon, and others dance before it as an ancient friend.”