Can’t see the forest for the trees: Billionaire-backed climate gambles as told through mosaic

This mosaic started with a tweet. Elon Musk tweeted that he was going to donate a $100M prize for the best carbon capture technology. Immediately he got hilariously trolled (and rightfully so) by thousands of people, all saying some version of “I present to you: trees. I’ll take that cheque now, please.” 

The tech bro billionaires of Silicon Valley (Bezos, Gates, Musk, and the like) are increasingly wading into the climate sphere. Yep, the same dudes who are flying to space just because they can and who have ridiculously large personal and corporate carbon footprints. Those dudes. Unsurprisingly, they’re betting heavy on slick technological fixes to climate change, like Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). You know, the solutions that don’t disrupt the status quo. The ones that shore up (and, who are we kidding, undoubtedly increase) their personal wealth, power, and influence. 

(Photo credit: Conan Stark)

Technological solutions like CDR aren’t a problem per se. There’s no doubt we’ll need them down the road, especially to tackle the sectors that are the hardest to decarbonize. But one of the problems with billionaires bolstering these technologies is that it makes us tunnel visioned when it comes to climate solutions. We risk losing sight of the amazing diversity of solutions at our fingertips right now because the wealth and influence of tech bro climate philanthropy is shaping the agenda (while conveniently helping them dodge taxes). With no training or expertise in climate science or policy, merely capitalist self-interest and ego, they shift public opinion, drive industry toward certain solutions, and influence government decisions. 

Oh look, a silver bullet! And a red warning light… (Photo credit: Conan Stark)

You’ll often hear climate folks talk about needing a silver buckshot approach rather than a silver bullet approach to climate change. The billionaires are after the silver bullet. And it’s an attractive silver bullet because it means they don’t have to fundamentally change their lifestyle or underlying systems (the same systems that made these guys rich in the first place). Just keep on polluting and we’ll suck it out of the air later. 

“Do you know how hard it is to remove CO2 from the air using the machine? It’s really, really hard. It’s a lot easier just not to put it in there.”

Jonathan Foley

The problem with chasing the CDR silver bullet is that it locks us into one path, fixating on something that may or may not work at the scale needed, and we won’t know for quite some time whether we’ve bet on the right horse. We know from recent IPCC assessment reports that urgent action is needed now, not in a few years/decades when these technologies may or may not mature and be scalable. The good news is that there are plenty of solutions available today, and we can and must start with those. 

Project Drawdown is a great resource for understanding the various solutions we have available to us. Many of the top solutions available right now are nature-related: conserving, restoring, and better managing our forests, grasslands, wetlands, and agricultural lands. And unlike technologies designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and that’s about it, nature-based solutions come with so many co-benefits. They provide clean air and water, support biodiversity, buffer communities from flood, drought, fire, and extreme heat, provide recreational opportunities, and so much more.

(Photo credit: Conan Stark)

The mosaic is based on that tension between natural and technological fixes, even though the suite of solutions at our disposal is far broader than just nature (but remember, this mosaic was inspired by that ridiculous tweet). The little wiggly forms were meant to evoke nature both in their form and the materials used (driftwood, petrified wood, cork, nut shells, etc.). As I was working, I remember thinking about the billionaires: can’t see the forest for the [shiny, technology-encrusted] trees. The bottoms are shale, which I often use as a stand-in for fossil fuels or emissions, so here it’s the carbon sequestered and stored by these ecosystems. 

“The Problem With Billionaires” (2022) – 16.5″ h x 16.75″ w – shale, limestone, sandstone, petrified wood, driftwood, cork, nutshells, buckshot, bullet casing, e-waste, copper pipe, gold, core samples (Photo credit: Conan Stark)

But there’s one of the nine forms that’s different: the one for the billionaires. That one is entirely made of gold, e-waste, and some slices of core sample and copper pipe (the last two being a nod to the type of carbon capture where companies pump the CO2 right back into the earth to—ironically enough—force more oil out of the ground). There’s also a silver bullet casing there, to contrast with the buckshot in the rest of the mosaic. I hate that billionaire form. To me it’s just so flat and uninteresting compared to the others. It’s lacking in depth, variety, and life. And that’s exactly the point. 

(Photo credit: Conan Stark)

I know it’s tough to compete with billionaires, but my hope is that we can resist getting seduced by their promises of silver bullets. Because compared to all the other options we have at our fingertips, their tech fixes are both boring and dangerous. 

Slice of black walnut shell and some buckshot (Photo credit: Conan Stark)

1 Comment

Brilliant! I love your work, which reminds me of the same things I think about in my own mosaics. Finally I have found my peeps!! Thank you for the clear, simple way you state the obvious, both in words and in materials.

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