Climate Corner: Billionaires won’t save us

Jan 15, 2022

Aaron Dunbar

“Amazon won’t let us leave”

Last month, these became the final words sent by warehouse worker Larry Virden to his girlfriend Cherie Jones, when a monster tornado collapsed an Amazon warehouse facility in Edwardsville, Ill.

“I know it’s the weekend and Amazon was busy blasting Michael Strahan and other wealthy people into space but can we get any kind of statement about the ‘mass casualty incident’ in Illinois,” an Amazon employee is reported by The Intercept to have complained on a “Voice of Associates” message board shortly thereafter.

“I have been here six and a half years and have never once been involved in a tornado safety drill on my shift,” wrote another employee, “as well as have not taken part in a fire safety drill in about two years,”

A number of Amazon workers have since reported that they are unaware of what they should do in the event of an emergency, while others have stated that Amazon outright discourages them from fleeing natural disasters altogether.

Though to call such storms as the ones that ripped through the Midwest last December “natural” may not be entirely accurate.

“Make no mistake,” said renowned climatologist Michael Mann shortly after the tragic storms in question, “we have been seeing an increase in these massive tornado outbreaks that can be attributed to the warming of the planet.”

Amazon founder and space cowboy Jeff Bezos had made headlines only a month previously following the ascent of his Blue Origin not-actual-spacecraft, which he claimed opened his eyes to the seriousness and enormity of the climate crisis.

During a late July flight, Bezos was noted for thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.” His workforce do indeed seem to be paying for it with their health, safety, and lives, and if his commitment to the betterment of the planet is at all comparable to the gratitude he extends to his employees, one might reasonably suppose that we’d be better off without it.

Some time ago I came across a definition of capitalism that framed it not merely as a system of economics, but as its own form of religion, and I’ve come to realize how well that explains the present state of our crumbling empire.

Capitalism is treated not as a narrative we’ve created for ourselves, but as a system of indisputable laws about how the world should and must work. And when the facts don’t conform to the narrative we’ve established for ourselves, we decide that the problem must be with the reality we perceive, and not with the structure into which we’ve tried and failed to place it.

This religious understanding of capitalism may also help us to understand our obsession with seeking messianic figures from among the billionaire class- those individuals who have essentially “won” capitalism and now rise above us all to save humanity- despite the fact that such figures are almost invariably agents of the destruction they claim to be saving us from.

In February 2021, Bill Gates published “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.” There was much chatter about this book among the environmentalist community, with some considering Gates to be one of the “good billionaires” who could help lead the charge on fixing the climate crisis.

Suffice it to say, I was far from persuaded.

I will admit the possibility that it was stubbornness on my part as much as anything, but I refused to read Gates’ book out of principle. The Microsoft billionaire is in no way qualified to be the expert on the climate crisis that the gushing press had tried to make him out to be – the only actual qualifications he has in playing such an outsized role in deciding the fate of our planet is his grotesque amount of wealth, which really isn’t a qualification at all.

I felt rather vindicated in my distrust of Gates after it was made public he’d befriended then-convicted child sex trafficker Jeffery Epstein in the hopes of securing a Nobel Peace Prize; and even more so when he began publicly denouncing the easing of patent protections on the COVID-19 vaccine for poorer nations, ensuring more mass death and suffering around the world for the sake of big pharma profits.

Interestingly for someone who claims to want to save the planet, The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation held almost a billion and a half dollars in fossil fuel investments up through 2015. Gates has shot down the practice of fossil fuel divestment as being pointless, while incidentally having had massive sums of his own money invested in heavily polluting industries, at least up until very recently.

Gates has, furthermore, been nothing but complimentary toward the rightwing billionaire Charles Koch, who’s spent decades now obliterating climate policy and corrupting our democracy into something unrecognizable; in addition to being a proponent of (and funding) very dangerous, very inadvisable geoengineering technology such as sun-dimming aerosols.

So okay. Maybe Bill Gates is no climate messiah after all, but something of a false prophet, as it were.

But what about other so-called “good billionaires,” such as Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett?

Last May, Buffett rejected a shareholder resolution that would push his conglomerate to inform investors about climate risks. When asked whether he thought fossil fuel companies should be held responsible for destroying the planet, Buffett’s response was “Believe me, Chevron is not an evil company.”

I would like to point out here that human rights lawyer Steven Donziger has been hopping between house arrest and prison since 2019 for his role in helping the Indigenous people of Ecuador win a $9.5 billion settlement from Chevron over the toxic devastation of the Lago Agrio oil field- an amount which Chevron has outright refused to pay.

And then of course there’s Elon Musk, the future God Emperor of Mars, who gives lip service to the urgency of the climate crisis while donating massive amounts of money to Republican politicians, opposing increased taxes on billionaires such as himself that would help pay for crucial climate programs, and telling people not to “worry too much about methane,” despite it being 25 times as strong as carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and making up 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

At the end of the day, we desperately need to face the fact that no benevolent billionaire is going to save us from the climate crisis. Capitalism’s gold medalists have gotten where they are by mastering a system that is explicitly designed to exploit and destroy the very planet they now want to play-act at saving. They are obsessed with the notion of infinite growth on a finite planet with a limited carrying capacity, and cannot fathom a way forward beyond doing exactly what it was that got us here in the first place, but with an “eco-friendly” label slapped haphazardly onto the surface.

The fate of all human civilization should not fall into the hands of a half-dozen Silicon Valley tech bros to decide. This world belongs to all of us (although I could frankly care less what Musk and his colony of starving indentured servants decide to do with the frozen hellscape of Mars), and it’s well past time for everyday people to reclaim their future from the greedy, grabbing hands of these corrupt, self-aggrandizing oligarchs.


Aaron Dunbar is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.