By Anis Chowdhury
SYDNEY, Dec 17 2019 (IPS) – The social utility of billionaires’ existence has come under increased scrutiny, especially during the Democratic Party primaries for the 2020 US Presidential election. Leading newspapers, such as The New York Times, published opinion pieces arguing to abolish billionaires and reflecting on why billionaires engage in illegal insider trading. The arguments for abolishing billionaires range from moral grounds to dubious, or outright illegal/criminal sources of their wealth. The billionaires own more than what is needed even for a most lavish lifestyle, and far more than what might reasonably be claimed deserving. Billionaires are seen as manifestations of policy failures as they gain through, inheritance, abusing state-granted patent monopoly power, insider trading, lobbying, tax evasions and corrupting democratic and progressive policy-making processes.
But could billionaires also pose existential threats to humanity?
Some prominent scientists and futurologists think so, based on the impacts of billionaires’ carbon-intensive lifestyles and potential control of technological advances, such as genetic engineering (GE) and artificial intelligence (AI).
Money to burn
According to an Oxfam report, the richest 10% of people produce half of the earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%. The average carbon footprint of someone in the world’s richest 1% could be 175 times that of someone in the poorest 10%.
A recent CNN report tells that rich people do not just have bigger bank balances, they also have bigger carbon footprints as they own more stuff, and burn more fossil fuel globe-trotting in private jets, travelling in luxury cars and cooling/heating mansions. The jet-setting habits of celebrities produce an astonishing 10,000 times more carbon emissions from flying than an average person.
A study, published in Ecological Economics, shows that as the rich get richer, CO2 emission rises. Another study, published in Environment and Behavior, finds that rich people emit more carbon, even when they recycle and buy canvas tote bags full of organic veggies.
Furthermore, the political clout and economic power of the wealthiest individuals prevent regulations on carbon emissions. What matters is not inequality as such, but income concentration at the top end of the distribution.
Soon there will be space tourism, a novel but greenhouse-gas intensive activity restricted to the super-rich for US$250,000. The potential for luxury emissions is growing as the number of millionaires worldwide is projected to increase to 63 million in 2024.
Therefore, the prestigious science journal, Nature Climate Change, argued recently to shift the focus of emissions mitigating efforts from world’s poorest people to people at the opposite end of the social ladder — the super-rich.
Jamie Metzl claims in Hacking Darwin, “From this point onward, our mutation will not be random. It will be self-designed. From this point onward, our selection will not be natural. It will be self-directed.” While society might overcome diseases by tweaking individual genomes, GE may also give rise to ‘superhumans’, “optimised for certain characteristics (like intelligence or looks) and exacerbate inequalities in society.” Metzl thinks new GEs is at once wondrous and terrifying.
In his posthumously published book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking warned that genetically-enhanced elite could become a dominant overclass that could eventually wipe out the genetic have-nots of a future civilization.
No doubt, the ultra-rich will become the first superhumans. After all, who can afford the newest, ground-breaking technology? The people who can afford everything else.
The appearance of superhumans is no longer science fiction. The Fortune magazine recently predicted that designer babies are coming in 20 to 30 years, and “when baby genes are for sale, the rich will pay”. In-vitro-fertilization pioneer Lord Winston has warned that a growing market for fertility treatments could “threaten our humanity”, including if the rich were able to pay for so-called “designer babies”.
Mark Thiessen in his The Washington Post opinion piece, wrote, “Only the wealthy would be able to afford made-to-order babies. This means the privileged few would be able to eliminate imperfections and improve the talent, beauty, stature and IQ of their offspring — thus locking in their privilege for generations. Those at the bottom would not.”
Thus, Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society warned, “Genome editing for human embryos is an unnecessary threat to society.” David King, a molecular biologist and founder of Human Genetics Alert, cautioned, “Hijacked by the free market, human gene editing will lead to greater social inequality by heading where the money is: designer babies… Once you start creating a society in which rich people’s children get biological advantages over other children, basic notions of human equality go out the window. Instead, what you get is social inequality written into DNA.”
Stephen Hawking’s warning is ominous, “Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.”
Jamie Metzl warns, the goal of improving the human population by GEs can get extremely dangerous. Horrible crimes against humanity were committed in the name of different considerations of “improvement”. In 1925, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker”. Claiming superiority of race, the colonialists wiped away the indigenous people of the Americas and Australia.
End of human
The optimist AI expert and author of Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Jerry Kaplan admits, “The benefits of automation naturally accrue to those who can invest in the new systems, and that’s the people with the money.”
Robots will enable capital accumulation without labour. With robotic capital and equipped with an infinite supply of workerless wealth, the super-rich could seal themselves off in a gated paradise, leaving the unemployed sub-humans to rot.
Peter Frase speculates in Four Futures that the economically redundant hordes “outside the gates” will only be tolerated as long as they are needed. “What happens if the masses are dangerous but are no longer a working-class, and hence of no value to the rulers?”, he wonders. “Someone will eventually get the idea that it would be better to get rid of them.”
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond described how gaps in power and technology, even without genetic superiority, determined the fates of human societies during the past 13,000 years. Now with ‘designer genetic superiority’ and weaponised AI-enabled by concentration of wealth and power – it would be a world defined by the “genocidal war of the rich against the poor”.
A longer version of this piece appeared in The Financial Express (Dhaka, 13 Dec. 2019). Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales (Australia); held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.