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Our modern-day Columbuses
Like the controversial colonizer, billionaires are trying to lead the discovery of a new world—and they're approaching it with a similarly destructive mindset.
Why do so many people look to billionaires for solutions to the world’s biggest problems, like climate change?
New Zealand-based conservationist Joseph Merz, who I spoke to for last week’s newsletter on ecological overshoot and the so-called “human behavioral crisis,” speculates that the answer is simple: Billionaires have a lot of money. So people think they’re geniuses.
But the problem with that pervasive line of thinking, Merz argues, is that it isn’t true. “We’ve essentially built a system, capitalism, that rewards people largely as a result of luck,” he told me. “So much science shows that people like Elon Musk are there far more as a result of luck than ability.”
It’s true: peer-reviewed research shows that the most intelligent people are “almost never” the ones who reach “the highest peaks of success,” being instead “overtaken by averagely talented but sensibly luckier individuals.” Still, we tend to put billionaires on pedestals, asking them desperately, “Where should we go?” And then we wonder why we seem to be stuck in the same place.
It’s not that billionaires are the smartest, Merz argues—it’s that they’re the best at using the system of capitalism to their own personal advantage. So it shouldn’t surprise us when their solutions to the world’s biggest problems preserve the status quo that keeps them at the top. “These people have made their money through capitalism and through technology, so the odds are, their solutions to everything will involve capitalism and technology,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re seeing around the world right now.”
His arguments reminded me of a reported essay I wrote two years ago about a trend I noticed with billionaire-led climate solutions. As much of what I wrote was sourced from Indigenous writers and activists, Arielle suggested I re-post this essay for Indigenous People’s Day.
Our readership has doubled in size since the original essay was published, so I thought this was a good idea. So here’s my takedown of billionaire climate solutions: “the climate colonizer mentality.” Hope you enjoy; and if you’re a subscriber, let me know what you think.
The following essay is re-published from the 10/12/21 edition of HEATED.
When some people picture Christopher Columbus, they see a hero—a visionary explorer who expanded opportunities. When others picture Columbus, they see a conqueror and colonizer—a ruthless opportunist who caused generations of death and suffering.
The same can be said of America’s three richest men: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates. To some, they represent modern-day explorers. To others, they represent old-world exploiters. Each has an insatiable knack for discovery, and each is accused of abusing people to achieve it. Most importantly, they’re all trying to lead the discovery of a new world: a net-zero-carbon-emitting, climate-safe world.
When it comes to climate change, Musk, Bezos, and Gates are each trying to create a new world that can handle current human behavior. Musk is popularizing electric cars so we can keep driving everywhere. Gates is pushing carbon capture so we can keep using fossil fuels. Bezos is trying to move millions of humans to space while extracting energy from other planets so we can keep emitting carbon, but on other planets. The three men also support each other’s approaches, as they attempt to conquer the misbehaving atmosphere through sheer technological force of hand.
America’s modern-day Columbuses (Columbi?) are widely celebrated for their endeavors. But Indigenous climate activists know colonizer mentality when they see it. Musk, Bezos, and Gates believe the natural world can be bent to accommodate humanity’s existing behavior—and they are obsessed with doing the bending. Conversely, they are fairly disinterested in changing behavior to accommodate the natural world. Boring!
The climate colonizer mentality doesn’t consider what the climate needs from humans. It considers only what humans want from the climate. Columbus had this mentality about North America, and it’s why some 90 percent of Indigenous Americans died in the century after his arrival. The existing living world was not a priority. Only the desires of the colonizers mattered.
This Indigenous People’s Week, climate activists from all over the country are gathering in Washington, D.C. to demand climate solutions that are reciprocal in nature. “We need to learn to be relationship-based in our in our way of thinking,” said Joye Braun, a frontline organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We need to quit thinking in a straight line, and start thinking more in a circle.”
For example: If the climate says it can’t handle all this fossil fuel burning, listen to it. Stop burning fossil fuels, and create a new renewable energy economy that benefits both parties. If the climate says it can’t handle a jillion cars on the road, listen to it. Take some of them off the road, and create an amazing public transportation system that benefits both parties.
In the past, reciprocal climate solutions such as these have been difficult for many Americans to visualize. In her best-selling 2013 book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer recalls asking her third-year ecology students if they could think of beneficial relationships between humans and the environment, or positive interactions between people and land. They almost all said no.
This ignorance, Kimmerer writes, represents a fundamental obstacle standing in the way of truly sustainable climate action: “How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like?" She criticizes a white-led environmental movement that has become “synonymous with dire predictions and powerless feelings.” The Earth, she writes, will always work for us if we work for it in return. There is no need to overpower it.
Indigenous stories show that, and to prove it she tells of the White Man's Footstep. The low-growing plant, native to Europe, started growing in North America when the colonizers arrived. Where the colonizers went, the Footstep followed, and the Natives feared it would be just as destructive. They soon saw, however, that there were differences—while the white man thrived by conquering and subjugating Native people, the White Man’s Footstep thrived by giving back to them. While the white man’s conquest brought disease and famine, the White Man’s Footstep provided medicine and food.
“This wise and generous plant, faithfully following the people, became an honored member of the plant community,” Kimmerer writes. “It’s a foreigner, an immigrant, but after five hundred years of living as a good neighbor, people forget that kind of thing.” The White Man’s Footstep was able to thrive by meeting the needs for the living world around it—by becoming naturalized to its place.
The climate movement does not have to be the white man climate colonizer. It can be the White Man’s Footstep. Humans can be good for the earth, but only if they treat it as something not just for their own benefit. Indigenous people have been teaching us this for decades—and will continue to this week in Washington, D.C. It’s past time we started to listen.
Climate journalist job alert: If you’re an experienced journalist looking for a sweet new gig, our friends over at Floodlight—the incredible nonprofit news collective—are hiring an editor-in-chief and a deputy editor.
Floodlight partners with local and national news outlets to bring you hard-hitting climate investigations. They’re the team behind stories like the fossil fuel industry’s secret strategy to buy the press, how oil companies spent billions to rebrand natural gas, and much more.
If you want to learn more about Floodlight, read our Q&A with founder Emily Holden and investigative director Miranda Green. And let us know if you apply!
Catch of the Day: Cali cat Saturn is ready to cuddle and stand up for your rights. Reader Laurie says Saturn helps her at the Climate Center with paperwork and purrfect typing skills.
Saturn also loves to play outside, but this winter’s atmospheric rivers made Saturn a sad, wet kitty. Here’s to stablilizing the climate so both humans and cats can enjoy a sunny spot in nature.
Want to see your furry (or non-furry!) friend in HEATED? It might take a little while, but we WILL get to yours eventually! Just send a picture and some words to email@example.com.