The Hubris of Plutocrats: They Can’t Escape the Heat That’s Coming

Death Valley National Park. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The future is here. A study recently published by a team of British and Dutch scientists found that this summer’s horrific heat waves “would have been virtually impossible to occur in the US/Mexico region and Southern Europe if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels.” More and more, it seems that heat waves, more than storms, flooding, or even wildfires, may finally be delivering the long-anticipated wake-up call that could rouse humanity from its lackadaisical attitude toward climate.

Like most of us, the world’s economic and political elites—the people who effectively have veto power over any vigorous response to global warming—have long been shielded from the worst impacts of heat waves by air-conditioning. Unlike most of us, though, they have also been protected from climate change writ large by their wealth and status—by what we might call “life-conditioning.” Now, global warming has become impossible for even them to ignore. But rather than demand reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions to protect future generations, they remain focused on reducing their own exposure to such hazards. Increasingly, they’re voting with their feet (or their private jets) in search of comfort and safety.

Flagstaff, Arizona, 7,000 feet above sea level and with summertime highs 25°F lower than those in Phoenix, has long been sought out as a haven from heat. In recent years, Flagstaff and environs have seen a surge of deep-pocketed house hunters seeking refuge from the dangerous 110°-plus urban heat islands of Phoenix and Tucson. The city’s mayor told the Guardian, “We don’t mind people moving to Flagstaff at all. But about 25 percent of our housing is now second homes. The cost of living is our number one issue. We don’t talk much about what climate change means for social justice. But where are low-income people going to live? How can they afford to stay in this city?” Such trends toward “climate gentrification” could well spike in the wake of this year’s heat waves. Other northerly cities, including Bangor, Maine, and Duluth, Minnesota, also are attracting seasonal climate migrants who are driving housing costs out of reach for residents with more modest incomes. Others are wandering farther afield, buying in Alaska or New Zealand.

Writing about Bangor’s new role as a cooling-off spot, Bloomberg columnist Conor Sen has pointed out an interesting non-climatic angle: “Historically, Florida and Arizona have welcomed winter travel from northerners, but the reverse may not necessarily be true. Jokes about ‘Florida man’ coming to town write themselves.”

Indeed, climate-induced migration waves are starting to merge with a growing trend of politically motivated relocation. Anti-government militia types and other political extremists have a long history of migrating to higher latitudes and higher elevations. Northern Idaho, for example, has always been a popular destination, especially for “preppers”: people and groups from various walks of life who, because they hate government or have a generalized fear of societal breakdown, make such out-of-the-way places home as they hunker down and prepare for whatever genre of cataclysm they think is coming. This year’s influx into the Idaho panhandle, reports the Washington Post’s Jack Jenkins, is notably heavy with white Christian nationalists.

Land Preservation for the Private-Jet Set

In a 2020 story headlined “Billionaire Cowboys Are Buying and Selling the Largest Ranches in America,” Jim Dobson reported in Forbes that the United States’ top private landowners possess, altogether, a total of almost 13 million acres, mostly in the West. They include tycoons in cable TV, other media, lumber, logging, sports, tobacco, military technology, and Subway sandwiches. Forbes also informed us that in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the land-loving rich flocked to higher, cooler ground, with “rentals and purchases, including vacation homes [increasingly] in Aspen, Colorado; Jackson, Wyoming; Park City, Utah; Big Sky, Montana; and Lake Tahoe, California,” all of which had already become heavily gentrified.

Jackson (colloquially, “Jackson Hole”) features prominently in a rip-roaring story on the “dissident right” by James Pogue in the February 2023 issue of Vanity Fair. The town and its surrounding landscape comprise the kind of place that highfalutin’ refugees have long been drawn to, given its climate and natural beauty, their own sense of privilege and apocalyptic beliefs, and, most recently, Covid-19:

Wealthy and well-connected preppers and back-to-the-landers have been moving west, many of them at least tangentially involved in the edgy online realm of thought known as the dissident right. Tech executives and crypto investors are creating secretive groups to help people “exit”—a term that has taken on almost mystical significance in some circles recently—from our liberal society, tech-dominated lives, and fraying system. And there are grander plans, for whole secessionist movements using crypto and decentralized autonomous organizations to build whole mini-societies.

Jackson is the seat of Teton County, where 80 percent of personal income is now derived from investment, and it shows. The colorful but often irritating cast of characters Pogue meets believe they are destined to become the founding parents of a new world, but they are mostly just doing regular rich-person stuff. By securing conservation easements, for example, the Jackson Hole Land Trust has protected 55,000 acres of private land from development, and this, writes Pogue, “has been very good for the surrounding ecosystems and very good for the private-jet class, who save millions in federal income tax.” But, he reminds us, a Jackson-style local economy couldn’t function without its “underclass of service workers, largely Latino, with little but cramped and irregular housing.”

A Jackson town council member told Pogue that the elite, distance-working interlopers had transformed the town, very much for the worse: “These people are getting paid a ton of money, they can get whatever services they want online, and they can have all these bodacious ski hills. . . . It’s just become another money pot to them.” The trend isn’t limited to Teton County. Pogue writes that it’s “unfolding across the expanse of the Greater Yellowstone region, the closest thing to a large, intact ecosystem left in the lower 48 states, which encompasses towns like Bozeman and Livingston, Montana, both undergoing their own upheavals.”

Float or Burrow?

Descending from the Mountain West to sea level, we find an even more outlandish prepping scheme for the rich: the libertarian “seasteading” movement, which aims to build floating settlements or even entire cities at sea, as refuges lying beyond any national jurisdiction. Choose your future home! Will it be “a floating world of interlocking hexagonal islands, where power is harvested from waves and the sun”? Or a SeaPod in Panama that “offers an affordable luxury experience, while minimizing its footprint, allowing you to float above the waves”? Or a “smart floating home . . . wrapped in an eco-restorative 3D-printed coral reef”? Check out the Seasteading Institute’s current projects for more possibilities, including a planned sea-floor habitat off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, equipped with data centers and research labs.

Finally, for millionaires who’d rather burrow into terra firma than abandon it, there are opportunities to make one’s home in a hardened underground bunker. The Survival Condo Project, a converted nuclear missile silo on the Kansas prairie, features a saltwater swimming pool, plus a movie theater, rock-climbing wall, bakery, bar, and dog park. Despite being underground, the 12-unit complex also offers a choice of scenery via “digital windows” in each condo, as well as protection against volcanic eruptions, nuclear attacks, and, of course, Kansas twisters. The complex is designed and equipped to allow residents to stay inside for five years without leaving, if need be. The price? Up to $3 million for the larger units, plus a monthly condo fee of up to $5,000. Many such subterranean bunker homes have been built across the country and world in recent years, including the $17.5 million Luxury Underground Doomsday Bunker in south Georgia; the Subterra Castle—another Kansas silo, this one topped by a medieval-style turret—and Atlas Missile Silo Home in upstate New York.

Few of the overprivileged preppers buying up property in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Kansas, and elsewhere made their money in the industries that produce or provide us with necessities like water, shelter, food (no, selling Subway sandwiches doesn’t count), and utility services. Most have drawn their wealth from the digital economy. I wonder what they’re thinking. That even if the fossil-fueled capitalism that has always supported them in high style crumbles, their accumulated riches can continue to reap for them the countless goods and services to which they’re accustomed? Some of them may really think society can achieve an optimum combination of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, drones, and crypto trading that will seamlessly sustain the cornucopian flow of goods and services to those who can afford them. Their hubris is appalling. In the words of Douglas Rushkoff, author of Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, they “have succumbed to a mindset where ‘winning’ means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way.”

Blindness to material realities, unfortunately, is not unique to Silicon Valley tycoons and billionaire cowboys. Today, all of us depend heavily on countless metaphorical “black boxes,” from phones to air-conditioning to municipal water systems, whose production and workings are mostly a mystery to us. Furthermore, writes Vaclav Smil in his 2022 book How the World Really Works, the material and energetic underpinnings of civilization are of much less interest to most people these days than “the world of information, data, and images.” Accordingly, he writes, the greatest economic rewards go to work that’s “completely removed from the material realities of life on earth.” Therefore, it’s only natural that Silicon Valley types “believe that these electronic flows will make those quaint old material necessities unnecessary,” and that “‘dematerialization,’ powered by artificial intelligence, will end our dependence on shaped masses of metals and processed minerals, and eventually we might even do without the Earth’s environment.” Let them go ahead and think that, because, as my late mother would have said, “they’ve got another think comin’.”

Image: Priti Gulati Cox.

Wind Farms Aren’t Farms

There persists a seldom-spoken assumption that by simply manipulating ones and zeroes, photons and electrons, humans can sustain and continuously reproduce the material world we see around us today—a world that would never have existed without extravagant burning of fossil fuels, extraction of minerals, and harvesting of biological mass. Pointing to critical activities such as food production and processing, energy generation and distribution, housing construction, and manufacturing, Smil argues that such “existential imperatives do not belong to the category of microprocessors and mobile phones.”

Consider the current hoopla over artificial intelligence. Despite raising the risk of human extinction—a very real threat, according to a recent statement signed by hundreds of technology experts—AI continues to be widely plugged as a climate cure. This dubious claim is based on expectations that the technology will do things like “optimize how freight is routed, lower barriers to electric-vehicle adoption,” and “nudge consumers to change how we shop.” Even if AI were to accomplish such goals, they would have only very slight effects on global warming, if any. To make matters worse, the vast data centers in which AI programs are trained and run are ravenous energy consumers and cause gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide to be emitted. With a rapid expansion of AI widely anticipated, the energy demand and emissions would probably become unmanageable. (No coincidence that AI guru Sam Altman once said that he and tech billionaire Peter Thiel had agreed that when catastrophe strikes, they’ll bug out and take one of their jets to Thiel’s fortified compound in cool New Zealand.)

Artificial intelligence, the goal toward which Silicon Valley has long striven, is inseparable from the physical resources from which it’s created. But we should relax, say its boosters, because the energy infrastructure on which every technology, including AI, depends will soon be “decarbonized.” Oh, really? Smil in his book and science writer Alice J. Friedemann in hers, Life After Fossil Fuels (2021), beg to differ. They, as well as other experts, have demonstrated that electricity, whether generated by renewable sources or not, is not capable of powering all the functions now powered by fossil fuels, much less supporting indefinite industrial growth.

Sustaining vast, all-renewable electricity systems indefinitely through the future will be no walk in the park. Unlike green plants and the animals that eat them—converters of solar energy that have sustained humans throughout our species’ time on Earth—photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, power grids, and batteries don’t spontaneously reproduce. Wind and solar equipment must be replaced every couple of decades, batteries even more often.

It would be nice if, during their functional lifetimes, these devices could produce seeds or tubers or cuttings or a litter of offspring, so that by the time they wear out, we’d have raised new generations of solar and wind farms, ready to go. But they don’t. Into the long future, societies will be continuously starting from scratch, gathering increasingly scarce materials from mines or recycling plants and re-creating the energy system. As Friedemann puts it, what we call “renewable” energy sources are really just “rebuildable,” and much of the materials they contain—like the composites from which wind towers’ giant blades are made—are not recyclable.

In short, there’s no refuge from material facts. The only way that we humans can live within nature’s resource restraints and ecological boundaries is to redirect our economies toward meeting all people’s basic needs, and away from producing material overabundance. We have no choice but to converge on an equitable, modest level of energy and resource use that’s enough to provide a decent life for all. Material and ecological boundaries are an unbending reality, and if any of us think we can run, drive, fly, climb, float, sail, dig, code, invest, invent, grow, or buy our way out of them, we’ve got another think comin’.

Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought.