Another author with deep roots in the tech scene, Doug Rushkoff, wrote an eye-opening essay called “Survival of the Richest” in 2018. Rushkoff was flown to a private island and given the largest speaker’s fee of his life to deliver his insights on “the future of technology” to an audience of five hedge fund billionaires. They weren’t interested in his prepared remarks. What they wanted to discuss was “the Event.” “That was their euphemism,” Rushkoff explains, “for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.” And what they really wanted to ask him was “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?” Rushkoff did his best, recommending that they were better off treating people well right now and working to prevent the Event. But he says the hedge funders laughed off his suggestion. They weren’t interested in preventing the jackpot; they were interested in winning it.
One of the grim realities of climate politics today is that the elites bankrolling climate-denier politicians have made a simple calculation. They aren’t betting that the scientific consensus is wrong. They are betting that the impacts of climate change won’t fall directly on them. They’ll either die before the jackpot begins or their wealth will help shield them from its impacts.
The worst thing about this calculation is that I’m not entirely sure it is incorrect. It’s catastrophically immoral, certainly. But the impacts of climate disasters won’t be evenly distributed. Think back to Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was devastated, but the wealthy areas were just fine. One answer to climate change is “just buy land on higher ground.” That answer won’t work for the 99.9 percent. But for the ultrawealthy, it’s a viable strategy. And that means, in the short term, that the ultrawealthy can oppose any policy proposals that would radically reshape the economy to prevent, or at least mitigate, climate disasters. Those proposals will cost them money, individually. Those proposals will leave them, individually, less secure.
I don’t know who Rushkoff’s hedge funders were. But I suspect they would find the Clock of the Long Now comforting. It’s an ethical balm of sorts. After all, 10,000 years from now, who will remember the climate disasters?
Construction of the clock is now well underway. What began as a fanciful Web 1.0–era dream of an elaborate cuckoo clock that outlasts the great pyramids has taken form as an ornate underground edifice. A 500-foot shaft has been cut into a mountain. Visitors enter through jade-paneled doors, climb a massive staircase to reach a cupola made of sapphire glass. There they can wind the clock mechanism and listen to one of 3.65 million unique chimes composed by musician Brian Eno. It promises to be a unique experience.
On the same sprawling ranch, visitors can observe another Bezos project, the Blue Origin spaceport. There’s a mission control room, a launchpad, a 60-foot rocket in a hangar: the components of what is meant to be, at first, a venue for suborbital tourism, later on a permanent moon settlement, and then, perhaps, “a future where millions of people are living and working in space.” The two projects have similar intellectual lineages, despite vastly different ambitions. Blue Origin is, ultimately, an escape plan. If it succeeds, one day it will transport those who can afford it beyond the bounds of our physical world. The dream of colonizing other planets is either a source of inspiration or an ultimate distraction, depending on how you look at it. Space flight can affix in our minds just how small and fragile this world truly is, creating a sense of moral clarity. But it can also offer a deus-ex-machina solution to the hedge funders’ question about the Event. Salvation will be granted to those who can afford a seat on the private spaceflight.