Sorry, billionaire doomsday preppers — your wealth won’t save you
With Donald Trump’s election and the rising perils of war, climate upheaval, accelerating inequality, and civil unrest, some of the richest people in the United States are making escape plans.
In a recent New Yorker article, “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich,” Evan Osnos writes that “even financiers who supported Trump for president … have been unnerved at the ways his insurgent campaign seems to have hastened a collapse of respect for established institutions.”
Osnos recently visited survivalist condos being built in former missile silos in Kansas and interviewed Silicon Valley billionaires and centimillionaires who are hedging against future social breakdown by investing in “bug out” escape homes in remote corners of the world.
This idea of privatized survival is extremely limited. In the face of growing inequalities and ecological crisis, the wealthy will not be able to build a wall high enough or a silo deep enough.
Why? Two simple, interconnected reasons, one ecological and the other economic:
1. There is no Planet B.
2. Your wealth won’t save you.
As a planet, we are experiencing an ecological crisis that will transform our daily lives. Climate change and ocean acidification—along with breaches of other planetary boundaries—will alter our food and energy systems and transform our way of life.
Last year was the warmest in recorded history, according to both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with droughts, floods, wildfires, and crop failures as a preview of the new abnormal.
In response, some U.S. billionaires are reportedly buying mountain fortresses in the Rockies, while Davos, Switzerland, billionaires are buying getaway farms in New Zealand with airplane landing strips.
But these escapes are only temporary. If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, these island paradises will be swamped from rising sea levels. The mountain fortresses will be choked with the smoke of burning forests. It is in no one’s interest to continue operating as if a few privileged people are going to escape on a spaceship or retreat to a mountaintop enclave.
The ecological catastrophe at our door will wipe out our most treasured asset—our natural ecosystems, the foundation of all private wealth. What is wealth without clean water and healthy oceans? What is wealth on a degraded Earth? As scientist Johan Rockström writes, “We’re still blind, despite all the science, to the fact that wealth in the world depends on the health of our planet.”
The fate of all humanity—billionaire hedge fund managers, middle-class families, and Bangladeshi farmers—is now wound together, linked to our ability to respond to a planetary challenge bigger than anything we’ve faced before.
Meanwhile on the economic front, it’s clear we are hurtling toward an economic and racial apartheid society. The share of income and wealth flowing to the top 1 percent is extraordinary. In 2015, the wealthiest 400 billionaires had as much wealth as the bottom 61 percent of the population. If the current trajectory continues, as a recent report I co-authored shows, the racial wealth divide will double by 2043.
The wealthy are harmed by economic and racial injustice, too. In my book, I review evidence that suggests that too much inequality undermines the quality of life for everyone, even the superrich. Extreme inequality fuels economic volatility and speculative bubbles, leading to wealth collapses. And public health research shows that unequal communities have bad public health outcomes, even for the affluent.
The privilege of withdrawing to some pristine enclave may offer a temporary buffer, but it will actually worsen life for the next generation, no matter how wealthy they are.
The only real solution—to ecological and economic crisis—is to reengage as a wealth holder in civic life: to be part of community, regional, and global efforts to address the climate crisis and extreme inequalities.
I am one of those folks who was “born on third base,” and I’ve viewed part of my work as engaging people in the top 1 to 5 percent to speak out about issues of raising wages, progressive taxation, and other policies to reverse 30-plus years of inequality. I find that the avenue to engaging wealth holders includes a frank conversation about our economic and ecological future—and the growing alignment of interests between the wealthy and the rest of humanity. If you have relationships with people with great wealth or even modest affluence, I encourage you to make this case.
The wealthy need to “come home” and invest in the resilience of our communities and its people to ensure the survival of both.
A few 1 percenters understand this. Elli Kaplan, CEO of Neurotrack, told The New Yorker, “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker. I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.”
The good news: There is a movement of wealthy people coming home, like Kaplan—making a commitment to place, protecting the planet, and working for an economy that works for everyone (I tell their stories in Born on Third Base).
Our current system of extractive capitalism is preventing the transformation required of us. We need to rewire ourselves as a species and change the economic system that is destroying nature and producing escalating inequalities.
The question to those with wealth is: Will you throw your lot in with the rest of humankind and work for a system that gives us all the chance to survive and, possibly, flourish?