Don’t panic, humanity: selfless billionaires will save us all

Marina Hyde
Don’t panic, humanity: selfless billionaires will save us all. The Earth may be burning, but have no fear – Elon Musk assures us there will be plenty of jobs on Mars

When humanity’s dying stragglers mark up the final tapes for the time capsule, I hope they’ll call this episode A Great Week to Bail Out an Airline. Even as David Attenborough warned of Earth’s “crisis moment”, the UK government rescued ailing airline Flybe on the basis that some people can’t get to work between Wales and Scotland or wherever any other way. Eventually, surviving businessmen will be able to row between mountain peaks, but for now corporate efficiency trumped the climate emergency. Or the “climate debate”, as some still have it, even though it’s the sort of debate that should ideally ensue when I tell my children not to run in the road – ie, none.

And so to the global backdrop. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, must be religious, on the basis he’s offered “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of Australia’s raging bushfires. In any reasonable theology, however, Morrison’s decision to serve in a cabinet that abolished the country’s climate commission, to slash fire and rescue budgets, and to ignore repeated concerns of fire chiefs would suggest he’s going to burn in hell. Or in Australia, which will probably be quicker.

Related: Musk, Bloomberg, Bezos: America's aristocracy of tech robber barons lives by its own rules

Watching the unprecedented fires provokes a strong sense that the Earth is bored with the series, and is fast-forwarding to the end. In fact, there’s a school of thought that says we should stop having the climate emergency discussion in terms of us killing the planet, and reframe it to acknowledge that it will be the planet killing us. Instead of seeing Mother Nature as a sort of ethereally benign matriarch, it would probably get more people in the right headspace if we thought of her as Medea, or Karen Matthews.

Morrison has a spiritual twin in Richard Branson, who – as part-owner of Flybe – was one of the rescue plan’s impoverished beneficiaries. Branson’s private Necker Island has twice been ravaged by the effects of extreme weather events in the past few years, an eventuality that always sees him pose for angry but determined photos among the wreckage, presumably in a bid to garner sympathy. You own three fucking airlines, Richard. It’s like watching Dennis Nilsen whinge about his drains.

Perhaps Richard will spend some of the funds the loan has saved him on suing the NHS again. Either way, the Flybe rescue has angered the Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, among others, who say it amounts to state aid. I’ve always nursed a sort of horrified respect for O’Leary, as one of the few mega-businessmen who declines to come out with his mask on. I’m certainly on board with his absolute refusal to give a toss about people flying to Warsaw for £8.99, who still go to the papers in outrage because he wouldn’t accommodate their cello in the cabin.

Seven years ago, O’Leary applied to run test flights which would see strap-hanging standing passengers, and floated the idea of bunking travellers in the hull. A reminder that while you shudder at news stories of asylum seekers strapping themselves to landing gear, Michael sees the future of the Stansted-to-Tallin route. He’ll be around to mark the UK’s glorious freedom from oxygen, you can bank on it. Ditto Mark Francois, who will crowdfund any pearl divers who didn’t drown when the Philippines went under to swim down to the Atlantis of Westminster, and film themselves bringing a hammer silently to bear on the barnacle-encrusted Big Ben.Given all this, I’m tempted to call it touching that we seem to have outsourced the problem of what to do about humanity’s future to the likes of Elon Musk. But in the interests of accuracy, I probably have to alight on tragic and embarrassing. The tech moguls are a class of people we know are literally building post-apocalyptic compounds in New Zealand and who literally want to buy the blood of the young. They’ve murdered the entire concept of metaphor; they’re hardly going to stop at the population of Osaka.

Musk this week claimed he wanted to put a million people on Mars by 2050, explaining that “helping to pay for this is why I’m accumulating assets on Earth”. Sure. Boss it like a space pharoah. Alternatively, America might recall it’s seen guys like this before. Despite bewitching the government into giving him multi-multimillion-dollar contracts for warplanes throughout the second world war, Howard Hughes never produced and delivered a single one.

According to Musk, there will be “plenty of jobs” on Mars. I bet there will. But given how absurd anyone connected with space exploration will tell you his scheme is, it’s probably time to accept that Elon’s more realistic 400-seater spaceship will be filled with female pop stars half his age who haven’t read the small print about their half of his contract to supply them with sustenance on Mars. The rest of us can look forward to his thruster engines scorching a simple farewell message into the last remaining bit of Earth yet to be burned: “BYE PEDOS”.

The ludicrous trust placed in Musk or Jeff Bezos or even Bill Gates derives from the fact we don’t really know what to do with the planet’s billionaires, who are richer by several orders of magnitude than Gilded Age titans like Andrew Carnegie. The obvious answer would be to tax them, but our stunning failure to do so is forcing us to insist they’re just perfect for the role of saviours. It’s difficult to think of a worse casting decision, except maybe that Bond movie where Denise Richards plays a nuclear physicist.

The times call for supranational cooperation. Instead of seeing the EU as its best hope, though, the UK will be begging for chlorinated scraps from a US president who has long dismissed the climate crisis as a hoax, and who recently enlivened his announcement of further deregulation by saying he’s found a book on climate change he’d like to read. The title of that book? Donald J Trump: An Environmental Hero. He will naturally be bolstered by that certain stripe of US politician whose default take is that Greta Thunberg should be in school. One of their schools, presumably, to up her risk of facing an active shooter.

So yes, at this stage in the game, you have to think it would be quite the twist if capitalism ends up being the hero all along. Even the British Museum has asked one of its biggest sponsors, BP, to sit out a forthcoming exhibition: the display of 28,000-year-old archaeological treasures that have been revealed by the rapidly thawing Arctic permafrost. The Natural History Museum has swapped the famous dinosaur skeleton in its entrance hall for the blue whale, to focus minds on rising sea levels. Perhaps the British Museum could chuck a single-use defrosted mammoth out on their forecourt, then hope the smell reaches Westminster and “sparks a debate”.

Tactically benching BP shows the sort of dimly sentient self-awareness humanity should have been exhibiting in the 1980s. It’s a much-suppressed fact that humans had the knowledge and chance to stop global warming in its tracks in that decade, but were bested by their greatest enemy: more self-interested humans. So the moment was lost. And here we are. In retrospect, that was criminal insouciance on an existential scale – the planetary-level version of the time one of his staff asked Michael Jackson why he didn’t stop all this stuff with the young boys. Jackson’s reply was simple: “I don’t want to.”

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist