Writing by Mia Prince-Kelly. Illustration by Berenika Murray (@photograberry_).
At 8pm on the 17th October 2021, following a sharp spike in natural gas prices, the much anticipated love child of Prince William and environmental activist David Attenborough was broadcast for all the UK to see. By presenting five prizes of one million pounds each (per year), their award signals ‘a decade of action to convene the environmental world (…) and to inspire people all over the world to work together to repair the planet’.
In the midst of a petrol price furore, the award seems more important than ever. To find a way to continue our lifestyles sustainably, to fuel our vehicles and our actions in a non-damaging way; surely these are the two great issues of our century. Yet as much as I hate to quash the latest contribution of one of our most celebrated environmentalists (by which I do mean David Attenborough and not His Royal Highness), this is far from the reality of our situation.
Labelled the ‘Earthshot Prize’ in reference to the pre-Apollo 11 ‘moonshot’ preparations, we already get a telling glimpse of how ostensibly grand this award is. In fact, there are some quite striking similarities between the two. As John F. Kennedy declared in his September 1962 address at Rice University, “that goal [a moon-landing] will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept”. From a country whose culture has appropriated (among myriad other things) the very stars of our solar system, this noble go-for-it narrative is hardly unsurprising. With careful manipulations of the law, rising poverty, and oppression so drilled into social practice that it would be quicker to list those exempt than those victimised, it seemed that all the 1960s elite cared about was three middle-aged white men fucking off to the moon.
In the 21st century, this technocratic reframing of political failure is hardly past its expiry date. Politicians and other famous figures evangelise ‘great innovations’ and ‘green new deals’ in a remarkably similar idiom. Though our tools to convey this information have become more complex, we are still essentially preaching the same type of sermon. Yes, it is important to condemn – albeit as implication rather than direct address in Price William’s case – the general ‘fauxlanthropy’ we get from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk etc.; however, by pencilling them neatly on to the ecological naughty list, we most certainly are missing the point.
This is because the climate crisis is not calling out for innovation. The quest for sustainability that it presents to us wants nothing more to sustain systems of harm, and perhaps to offer us a free recycled tote bag on the side. As queues for petrol stations this month climbed faster than Kylie Jenner’s net worth, it is difficult to say that we are not blinkered to how great an emergency we face. The more we cry out for big ideas, the more we miss the big picture.
Direct Air Capture (the process of capturing CO2 from ambient air and so that it can be concentrated & stored or put to use) is one such big idea. Earlier this year, Elon Musk gave (or ‘volunteered’ as many articles put it) a generous $100 million to this developing technology, which promises to help recover our exploited earth from environmental catastrophe. I should point out that Elon Musk’s overall network is 230 billion USD and counting, and that we already have access to a carbon-removal resource which does not ask for incredibly skilled engineers or incredibly rich knobheads. That resource is called trees.
Yet we push past that idea very easily. Our lifestyles have become so fine-tuned to maintain the systems which exploit us that it has become impossibly difficult to move thread by thread out of the web. Many of our world leaders fail to recognise that, if there is anything the climate crisis so greatly needs, it is not technological advancement but a radical overhaul of the way we do things. A radical overhaul of our economic superstructure. A radical overhaul of how we govern a country. Or else we may see in times of need that the majority of the population goes into wanton frenzy over the very thing that they have spent the last few years in terror of. This was being demonstrated just a month ago, when as the availability of fuel plummeted, our attitude to global warming was put on the backburner – no fossil-fuel pun intended – almost immediately.
Indeed, the speed at which we were able to switch position on the matter is striking. That is not to say that we are cruel, selfish humans; on the contrary. This reaction arises from the very innards of capitalism, which draws the majority into a fraught quest for subsistence wherein people can then be reduced against their better judgement to their bare survival instincts. This capacity for hypocrisy and opportunism will not fade out of view when there are better people. It will fade out of view when there are better times.
As a species with an inherent aversion to injustice, humanity could only take such a violent U-turn only when pressed by necessity. Some people suggested we be quick to implement rules stopping fuel-hoarding. One even more pressing set of rules might be those that would prevent the excesses and exploitations of our ruling elite. It is painfully easy for the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and even Prince William to frame our response to ecological emergency as dependent on scientific breakthroughs. But it is not. It is dependent on political revolution.
Scientific breakthroughs will play a part. Or rather, already have played one. These breakthroughs are those which expose the true lengths of damage caused by a narcissistic elite, and those which highlight an assured link between climate catastrophe and capitalism. The important thing about the rich continuing with their private jets, tax havens, and space exploration missions is that they not only serve the few, but damage the many. It is a game historically rigged. So surely it goes without saying that one cannot sort out climate disaster in this way; it is like trying to fix a broken chair while your arse is still on it.
So as these massively wealthy individuals come to reveal how abominable they can be, it becomes our responsibility to reject this attitude of complacency and diversion. What these people and the institutions that back them are doing is little more than squeezing this planet of its health to the final dollar, flogging the dead horse until there is nothing left but bones. Every moment one of us buys into this grand narrative of innovation, we are conceding to the continued exploitation that will culminate in planetary collapse. Make a stand against clever carbon accounting. See that in current circumstances, social and economic inequalities are linked inextricably with climate disaster. And the most beautiful thing about that last point is that because they are so tightly interlinked, we can knock out the two most hideous birds with a single stone.