Billionaires’ Existential Threats to Humanity?

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
life style, 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 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 green-house-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.

Hijacking Darwin

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 are at
once wonderous 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 a 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 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.

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Billionaires’ Existential Threats to Humanity?
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Billionaires’ Existential Threats to Humanity?