It hangs over us, the unrequited spectre of our own cataclysmic undoing. We envision before us a wasteland. Pockmarked and barren, abandoned ruins chequered across its surface with the few haggard survivors eking out a living somewhere on the boundaries of existence. We envision this perhaps because it entails a certain romantic pull, a more attractive alternative to utter annihilation and definitely more imaginable. On some level we already live in that world we created, within this mirage of the handsome, scarred post-apocalyptic survivor, the hunter-gatherer, the return to our roots, to our inner self. We exist within that un-made future when we toil under its assumptions, trapped in an ennui of human experience that we desperately want to escape.
In that regard, does the apocalypse not become a dream of hope? A dream of transcending the boundaries of this experience? The visions of social collapse, of planetary breakdown and confusion provide some escape, some idea of an exit. We become enslaved to our own destruction, a thrall to our certain fate, and we live its truth, move towards its ends, wilfully ignoring its warning signs. Environmental collapse becomes our collective death drive, a push towards complete erasure, and as we become more and more aware this temporal disintegration, this collapse of known measurements looms before us, it becomes ever more evident that we don’t know how to describe it.
We have no way to talk effectively about what is beyond the veil of death, just as we have no way to envision what lies beyond our own destructive path. We see it advancing on the horizon, but we can barely make out a blur, a formless haze; we have no idea what we’re dealing with. We talk about it, we forewarn it, but we have no true conception of what it entails, merely a simulacrum of collapse, a mirage of annihilation. The consequences we surely know from countless warnings and broadcasts, but as much as we hear them, it never becomes real, until it does.
Environmental disaster has become a terrifying unknown, an “other”, that informs and hangs over our actions like a malign spectral sheet. Yet we seem to do nothing; simply freeze to the spot, maybe buy a reusable coffee cup here, refuse a plastic bag there, even recycle every day, but it continues advancing, keeps getting worse, and as Thanatos comes knocking at our door those operating the machinery responsible while sitting on the backs of unbound exploitation and destruction proceed to lecture us on how we’re all to blame, how their technology will save us, provide an exit from the vengeful deity we’ve conjured.
You probably know of Elon Musk’s follies, so I won’t bore you with them here save to widely point out that he feeds wholly into the woefully mistaken idea that individuals with gargantuan amounts of money can save the world. If it isn’t evident, this angle, as I will further elucidate with Bill Gates, seems to be nothing more than some way to shift guilt away from these super-rich behemoths of industry and finance, the modern equivalent of the Bourgeoisie Marx compared to Vampires, onto each individual, the idea that we all caused this, and Elon Musk is coming to save us from ourselves, pull us out of the burning house we created. We become a scapegoat, and hence a sacrifice in this regard, and in the case of some eagerly await our allotted fate.
Bill Gates is, in some ways, more interesting. It needs not be said that he’s rich, astoundingly so. Like others in his exclusive club, he has more funds than most of us will see in our lifetimes. The obscenity of this degree of wealth need not be expanded upon here, but suffice to say that it can only truly be achieved, wilfully or not, off the backs of others, at the expense of hundreds, thousands far worse off, dying somewhere in third world countries in crowded factories. The web of exploitation surrounding wealth is an expansive horror show that once we begin exploring we may not see an end to, but suffice to say individuals such as Gates, and the apparatus’s they run, have far more blood on their hands, even, feeding into their machines, than they will ever be happy to let on. They are in some respects literally bleeding the world dry.
But surely, we might protest at this point Gates is a humanitarian, he gives to charity and has connected himself to a number of distinctly humanist and well meaning organisations. I might respond by asking how this in any way lessens the issues he is part and parcel of. I present this extract from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism;
“It’s striking how the practice of many of the immobilizers is a kind of inversion of that of another group who also count themselves heirs of 68: the so called ‘liberal communists’ such as George Soros and Bill Gates who combine rapacious pursuit of profit with the rhetoric of ecological concern and social responsibility.”
The idea that the very engines that breed and exist on the back of exploitation and unfettered profiteering, namely the issues at the heart of catastrophe, can solve those very problems, is, to put it bluntly, laughable.
Yet there is more to Gates, and that makes him worth talking about, and this is the phenomenon of contrarian optimism that has sprung up in certain circles, the downplaying of contemporary issues to turn around and proclaim that “actually if you look at the averages things are better than they’ve ever been”, something that is of little solace, even downright insulting, to the factory worker in China choking on toxic fumes to produce the parts used in our smartphones. Pop-science/psychology writers like Steven Pinker, of which Bill Gates happens to be a huge fan, predicate their entire idealism on ignoring issues and inflating positives, on using averages to point out the norm, a skewed methodology that ignores the fact that given gigantic disparities an average will be anything but an accurate representation of reality.
This form of distorted, bloated optimism is one facet of shifting the blame, a particularly underhanded way of saying we’ve got it all wrong, that we’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that things are as bad as they seem to be, that they have the answer. Look at our stupidity! Seeing the world collapsing around us and coming to believe that it may actually be collapsing. This excuse though, pales in comparison to another, long-evoked idea that I recently found Gates fully advocating in an interview with journalist Ezra Klein for Vox. That of overpopulation.
Apparently, for Gates, the issue is that Africa’s population is growing too fast. You might have thought it would be rampant profit-seeking at the expense of the environment, unprecedented wealth inequality, and indeed a study recently found that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, but no. Apparently;
“decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling. This is because the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else; more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life”
-as put forward in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual “Goalkeepers Report”. Here we see something of the ugliness underlying the optimism Gates claims to love so much. This is nothing less than a direct apportioning of blame to the very individuals the systems he stands in direct benefit from exploiting to the maximum degree. Besides the overpopulation card’s long history as a little more than a respectable way to talk about Eugenics, this is a staggering excuse, the vampire blaming his victims for being full of blood. One might ask what he might do based on this information, and just as the vampire might pick off his prey to solve the issue of too many fleshy humans running around his castle, the logic of the Gates’s proclamation would suggest either a programme of sterilisation, or just killing. Needless to say, the issue is not and has never been, overpopulation, and this line of reasoning is at best a way to distract from the bloodsucking monster’s propensity to suck blood, and at worst a step on the path to genocide.
Whether you actually believe Thanatos has arrived, that we are now facing the end, the jaws of destruction, we can do better than believe the excuses of the vampire who seeks to drain us. In many ways, we could say Gates is only a flea, a speck in service to the “abstract parasite” of capital, and this to a certain extent holds very true, but in that case, we cannot buy into the idea that people like this will somehow buy their way, or allow us to buy our way, out of the apocalypse. Whether it is possible or not, we won’t exit this inferno by consuming the right things, through a comfortable act of reusing a coffee cup or a plastic bag, by giving to charity or through the products of a billionaire. To really seek an exit, we must start by unmasking the parasites themselves.