Bezos, Branson, Musk and "Mimetic Desire"
Seeing the space antics of Messrs Branson and Bezos — and presumably Musk to follow — got me ruminating on the consequences of these terrible acts of violence against our planet. For that is what these space trips are. Here are some thoughts.
I’m writing a book-length exposition of the Amasia investment thesis. It centers around the idea that behavior change, at scale, is really the only way we can fight the climate crisis. The book is not an “Amasia publication” — it is written by me, an individual, for other individuals. And so there is a lot more in it besides me bloviating about Amasia (which I love to do, except I don’t do it in the book to spare the reader!).
A low-key running theme through the book is Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. Although we all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals capable of curating our own tastes, Girard believed that many of our personal choices are actually imitations based on other people's decisions. This has been exponentially accelerated in the era of social media.
A key aspect of Girard's theory was that we modify our own behaviors to match those we like, respect, or idolize (these people are our behavioral "models" or "external mediators," according to Girard). Imitation, he thought, is contagious — why else would people shell out hundreds of dollars for the newest iPhone every year other than the fact that everyone else seems to be doing it? You really need that LIDAR camera?
Girard, I should tell you, had a pretty grim view of what mimetic desire leads humanity to, and he had plenty of evidence to back him up as a glance at human society and history shows. I have a much more optimistic view — for that, unfortunately, you have to read the book. Here I want to talk about space and billionaire baubles.
My view is that the affluent, in the capitalist societies we live in, have a tremendous responsibility when it comes to the behavior they model. Because we all want to imitate them. It has taken me a lifetime — a lifetime of carbon-disastrous behavior — to really understand this, in the context of my own drives. I am now desperately trying to correct much of my behavior (exciting news: it can be done!).
Now we have to model these changed behaviors in our personal and professional lives — and rely on the notion that if enough of us model these behaviors, change at scale will come.
Manned flight in space is a carbon disaster. There is really no other way to put it. It serves to generate virtually nothing positive for humanity, and is a tremendous negative.
I can justify many kinds of unmanned flights — for example launching GPS satellites or emissions-measuring satellites or perhaps satellites that deliver Internet access more broadly. But sending men into space? Zip. Nada. Zilch. No positive aspect whatsoever, and as I’ve said, a disaster from a climate standpoint.
But an individual space flight is not the real disaster. The real disaster arises from the effects of mimetic desire.
those who attack space
maybe don’t realize that
space represents hope
for so many people
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 13, 2021
Musk tweeted recently about the idea that billionaires rocketing into space is something that will give people hope. Presumably he’s deluded himself that billionaires in zero gravity is somehow something laudable to aspire to (via mimetic desire, although he didn’t use that term).
It isn’t. It is a horrible thing to aspire to.
There was a time, decades ago, when the idea of manned spaceflight was indeed a signal of hope. In that period, we put man on the moon, a civilizational achievement. But that was before we accumulated the data to show ourselves that it is humanity that is destroying the planet. Now there really is no excuse.
I am a card-carrying capitalist. Across the spectrum of capitalists, I am admittedly more left of center than most (see here for one idea that will cause massive squealing), but when the revolutionaries come to slaughter all the plutocrats, I have no doubt my name will be on the list.
So my issue is not with wealth accumulation as a concept. My issue is with the behavior of the affluent in the context of a planetary emergency. Make your billions and trillions. But you simply cannot virtue signal about the planetary climate crisis and simultaneously engage in this kind of behavior.
It would be amazing if Branson, Bezos and Musk held a mirror up to their own carbon footprints and committed to reducing these by 95% in the next 12 months. This is unlikely — Bezos just committed instead to buying a YACHT which is one of the worst things one can do to the environment.
I have referenced mimetic desire before in my writings here, and as I said the upcoming book makes it a fundamental element of how I think we get to behavior change at scale. I see the space antics, and for me mimetic desire kicks in — in a negative way. In other words, I am filled with a powerful desire to treat these actions as shameful and reprehensible. I hope that feeling becomes pervasive — indeed I believe that it will.
Note: my thanks to Amasia Fellow Sam Fox who researched some of the Girard-related ideas for the book, and which I have summarized above. All opinions herein are mine and mine alone!