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  • Sebastain Rees-Ewald

Earthshot Prize: A Key Part of Solving the Climate Crisis, or a Vanity Project?


Prince William, the founder of the Earthshot Prize, with then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in 2018.

“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry” – Robert Burns

The Earthshot Prize has reared to life in triumphant fashion. Covered in every major news outlet across the Western World, the BBC, CNN and a favourite of mine, the Kolner Stadtanzeiger: the well-read regional paper of Cologne (Germany). The Earthshot prize “is a new global prize for the environment, designed to incentivise change and help to repair our planet over the next ten years”. Every year for the next decade, five million pounds (split into one-million-pound prizes) will be awarded to places and organisations, with 5 different categories. This year’s winners, for example, an eclectic bunch, were the City of Milan, the country of Costa Rica, and AEM electrolyser - a Germany/Italian/Thai combo. The task, Prince William announced, is nothing short of “solving the unsolvable”: to save the environment.

With a rag-tag team of celebrities in tow at a big launch party in London, saving the environment has never been so glamorous. Earthshot of course mirroring J.F. Kennedy’s Moonshot pledge of the 1960s, to put a man on the moon.

It’s a Marvel movie, all our favourite characters, be they Cate Blanchett, Shakira or Stormzy, all grouping together under the tutelage of wise and good-hearted David Attenborough, the conservation master. The script writes itself, all these figures coming together to aid our bonny Prince William in saving the damsel in distress, in the words of Sir Ringo Starr ‘with a little help from my friends’. The message being, in the end, love conquers all, and as the title credits roll, we can turn around to one another and have that feel-good buzz of entertaining cinema.

Except, we don’t live in a Hollywood executive’s mindscape; or at least, I don’t feel I pack enough muscles too.

We don’t need to bother with the financial sums of the prize, it would be unfair to be critical of the Earthshot prize on that metric. Five million pounds for ten years, fifty million pounds, is not nearly enough on its own to even touch the fiscal cost. In the UK, even the attainable goal of reducing pollution would require massive restructuring of taxation and regulation to raise revenues for billions of pounds of investment. This was known as early as 1989 in a UCL study famously called the Pearce report.

The previous week, before the announcement of the Earthshot prize, Prince William had chastised the brightest minds of the world for pursuing space ‘tourism’. Instead, the Prince rather promptly stated they ought to focus on the environment. It’s the kind of popular rhetoric we can all get behind.

However, we have to ignore for a moment the glaring fact that an astrophysicist must have the same expertise as a climate scientist, and if not, a Moodle module shall suffice to retrain them no doubt. The second remarkable implication of the Prince’s statement is the assertion that these people are not owed the same respect as any other person, or the same freedoms, to pursue what they want to do. By being clever, you are given a moral imperative the rest of the population are saved from. Quit wasting time on frivolous space stuff and join the real soldiers in the trenches of environmental research. They ought to forget their passions and dreams and internalise the guilt, if the environment is not saved it’s on them, they owe the rest of humanity their professional careers. Here the ‘world’s greatest minds’ are to be harnessed like a resource. These ‘bright minds’ are conceptualised like a factory, one moment producing fabric (space), the next moment producing FFP2 masks: shifting production depending on the changing demand. Effortlessly these humans are to be redistributed like machinery, depending on the cold logic of the market.

The Earthshot prize in its mission statement speaks of incentivising change and repairing our planet. The planet is a machine: a car or a light switch, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, but the planet is broken and in need of repair. Why? Because it does not serve. I cannot drive to work in a broken car. Rather than tackling rampant consumption or an instrumentalization of nature, the problem (according to the Earthshot prize) is one of change. There’s not enough innovation, there’s not enough new stuff being made and produced.

And how have the Billionaires, World Trade Organisation heads, and former CEO’s of Pepsi that make up the judging panel, decided to solve this inadequacy? The solution is in its very mechanism of prizing. Remember, the Earthshot prize is not a participation trophy, it’s about incentivising those who are more impactful: it’s a competition. Competition is the mechanism through achieving climate goals. Is it any wonder that research has linked psychological benefits to supporting businesses that are environmentally friendly? It literally makes us feel better to have our corporations fighting our fights.

We don’t need less competition; we need more of it, more market. It’s a drag race between states, companies, and people, where no one is left outside the framework, and only through competition can we be saved.

The whole rhetoric of salvation, saving the environment, repairing it, healing it, sounds religious or ideological. It’s a far-off opium dream that the market will deliver to us. Our leaders are hooked up, convinced abstract principles will somehow ensure nirvana.

So, like Of Mice and Men we find ourselves busy dreaming of rabbits and alfalfa like Lenny, all the while a cold gun is being pointed to our heads by the very people we’ve trusted to look after our interests, the same George who promised us a far-off vision of peace. We need to wake up and realise that we can’t expect some abstract principle alone to save us. If the market is not fused with the environment, then when the market fails, who shall save the environment?



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