Over the past month, we’ve seen not one, but two billionaires (you’re not off the hook either Branson) take a joy ride in space. Bezos paid over $5.5 billion dollars to do so – for just four minutes by the way – with Richard Branson shelling out over $840 million for his 8-minute jaunt. In the same period, we’ve seen deadly heatwaves and forest fires in Turkey, Russia and across Europe and North America, and extreme flooding in Germany, Belgium, China, Uganda and India. We know these extreme weather events are the result of global warming. We know global warming is the result of man-made activities, such as burning vast amounts of fossil fuels to power our cars, our homes, our businesses and our flights. And we know that space travel is a lot more energy intensive than even a long-haul flight – with 100 times more CO₂ emitted per person, according to some calculations.
So, what are we playing at? Who gave these men permission to take their cockfight to the stratosphere, further endangering our planet both for ourselves and for future generations? Or do billionaires just do whatever the hell they want? Are their five minutes of glory (paid for, let’s remember, through tax evasion and the undercutting of both their employees’ wages and their basic human rights, such as being able to go to the loo at work) more important than the livelihoods of entire species – including our own?
At first, I wondered if these men just don’t care. The science is out there – we’ve been told for decades that climate change is underway, and increasingly often we’re seeing its effects, be that in freak weather occurrences, or huge sheets of artic ice breaking off and melting. But Bezos and Branson are middle-aged men – 57 and 71 respectively. They’re unlikely to face the full prospects of global warming in their own lifetimes. Even if they happened to be faced with an (un)natural disaster, such as a super storm or flood, as some of the richest men in the world their homes are likely much more protected, and they’d have access to far more resources to either escape or protect themselves.
I’m not sure it’s that simple, though. Both have children, and Branson has four grandchildren. I find it hard to believe that they would be willing to knowingly compromise the safety and security of their own kids and grandkids – which is effectively what they’re doing – just to show off in a spaceship. Instead, what we’re seeing here, in my opinion, is a classic case of these men doing all they can to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we face when our actions and beliefs aren’t aligned. We all experience it from time to time and it is this phenomenon that can cause intelligent people to believe ridiculous things, so they don’t have to own up to their own hypocrisy. For instance, I know I should be vegan for animal welfare reasons and for the sake of the planet, yet after almost five years as a vegetarian, I still justify my occasional forays into the world of dairy and eggs because, I reason, we don’t have to farm so intensively as to make dairy unsustainable, and we don’t have to dispose of male calves at birth purely because they won’t produce milk like their sisters. Maybe we don’t have to … but we do. And I’m buying into that system.
My claim here is nothing new; there have been countless studies exploring who is most likely to deny climate change and, surprise surprise, it tends to be conservative / republican, white, wealthy, middle-aged men. The same people who are most likely to be running the polluting businesses most to blame for causing this crisis. The same people whose lifestyles are the least sustainable – frequent flying businessmen, with large houses and cars, and multiple holidays per year.
It’s uncomfortable for us all to admit that the way we are currently living is destroying our planet – I think that’s why so many of us look away (that, and just how overwhelming this problem is to confront). But imagine if your life’s work now had you down as one of the prime culprits for climate change? If you’d devoted your life to big business and to raking in the profits? Branson and Bezos (and many others like them) have done exactly this, taking the damaging behaviour almost all of us in the global north engage in to the extreme. Accepting that their actions, both past and present, have been so damaging to the planet would be hugely uncomfortable… so, they don’t.
Frustratingly though, both men have gone one step further than the usual denial. Instead, each have had the audacity to explain to us (the oh so naïve and unimaginative public) that rather than being their latest ego boost, these space missions are for our benefit. According to Bezos and Branson, “space is the future” – a frontier we need to conquer to stop climate change, and both billionaires are only too keen to be at the helm of this. How benevolent of them.
The thing is, though, we don’t need to go to space. We don’t have time to go to space – nor to rely on future technologies to save us. These men favour this approach only because it is guaranteed to keep making them money. But we need a system that puts people and the planet over profit. We should be cutting back on our emissions, and drastically, not increasing them 100-fold. Big business and unregulated, unsustainable development got us into this mess in the first place. Why would the solution be more of the same? And, after spending the past 150 years wreaking havoc on our own planet, why would we move the sh*t-show somewhere else?
We need change and we needed it thirty years ago. We need to recognise that we are all victims of this kind of cognitive bias; that we are all likely to engage in the same avoidance behaviours, accepting what is convenient rather than what is true. We need world leaders who are brave enough to do this on a global scale, reigning in the power of people like Bezos and Branson, rather than letting them treat the planet – and now space - like their playground. Leaders who are willing to treat this crisis like a crisis and act accordingly.
We’ve seen over the past year and a half that we can act quickly and, at least in some cases, decisively when faced with an existential issue. As difficult as it may be for us to imagine right now, climate change will pose – already is posing, in some places – a bigger threat to our survival. Can we start acting like it, please?
Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.