Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Event

In an article entitled, “Survival of the Richest,” technologist Douglas Rushkoff talks about how the wealthy are plotting to leave the rest of us behind after “The Event”—a euphemism for the environmental collapse and societal breakdown they have come to see as inevitable in the looming climate crisis. Rushkoff describes an eery meeting, for which he received “by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary,” where he sat down with five super-wealthy hedge fund managers, who soon made it clear that they were not interested in his prepared presentation on the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own:

“Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska?…Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, ‘How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?’…They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time."

It’s a longstanding pattern of the super-rich, this next-level logic of the gated community—like the Viking aristocracy who condemned themselves to starve last in the collapsing colony they had fancifully named “Greenland,” the icy island where they had attempted to impose the pasture and dairy agronomy of Scandinavia and despised the Indigenous life ways of the Inuit. In their case, a global cooling of a few degrees was the tipping point toward death. In our case, global warming is the existential threat. Jared Diamond, who tells the story of the Greenland Vikings in Collapse, wonders what it is that makes humans double down on unsustainable and inequitable ways of life in moments of cultural crisis. Like the Easter Islanders who felled their last trees to cart one last batch of stone idols into place to save them from the ecological breakdown of their island economy. Instead of building life boats to get off the island, they prostrated themselves one more time before the cult that was condemning them to death.

Death cults are nothing new. The kind of political power that rises from sacrificial altars has been with us from the dawn of human civilization, and is with us still. Once we had high priests who determined who would die and who would live in the ceremonies that guaranteed our prosperity. Today we have the infallibility of the market determining the sacred necessity of misery and extinction at “lower” levels of existence for the sake of an energetic, consumptive bonanza in the upper levels of global capitalism. Ask a question about the validity of this cult and you can expect the same frantic condemnations heaped on iconoclasts of the past.

The iconoclastic prophet Isaiah described the escape fantasies of the elite of his day in words that need little translation to land smack dab in the middle of Rushkoff’s meeting with the five super-rich hedge fund managers:

"Hear the word of YHWH, you scoffers who rule this people…Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death…when the overwhelming scourge passes through, it will not come for us, for we have made lies our refuge…’ I will make justice the line and righteousness the plummet; hail will sweep away the refuge of lies and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”  (Isaiah 28:14-17)

There is no safe place to sit out a civilizational collapse. We’re all in this together. This is the truth that the elite are blind to in their bunkered refuge of lies. Rushkoff sees a blessing in the fact that the vast majority of us cannot afford the fantasy of high-tech, high-security hideaways: “Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways.…we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.”