Glass Onion mocks silver-bullet solutionism and skewers tech-bro climate saviours
It’s a great movie even if you don’t care about the climate stuff. There’s something un-fakeable about a movie where it’s clear every person involved in making it was having cheeky fun. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. This post will be absolutely packed with spoilers from the get go and I don’t want to ruin a very fun and very well-made movie for you. Seriously, go watch it, then come back and read this.
Bad climate solutions get nicely skewered
Something Glass Onion does really well – and very uniquely – is make fun of the contemporary and under-mocked problem of shitty climate solutions being oversold as a silver bullet. By its nature, the problem of over-reliance on fossil fuels in *every* corner of human society requires many different solutions; anti-thetical to the narrative of the ultra-genius inventor/disruptor billionaire. The best climate solutions tend to be a slow burn, rather than a lightbulb moment of genius.
If you’ve heard that this movie’s main character is a parody of Elon Musk, there’s good reason. Eccentric ‘genius’ billionaire Miles Bron, played by Edward Norton, is impossibly rich and lionised by the world’s press as a brilliant inventor. The central plot revolves around Bron’s plan to use a new solid hydrogen fuel – ‘Klear’ – in rockets, power plants, and household heating. He’s not entirely Musk, but he’s mostly Musk.
“That’s a new solid hydrofuel, radically efficient, zero carbon emissions, derived from abundant sea water. I call it Klear, with a “K.” And at this event we will announce Klear America, our affordable home power solution, Klear is going to be powering people’s dreams all over this country by the end of this year” – Miles Bron
Of course, it’s revealed that Klear is poorly researched and untested, and showing signs of extreme volatility. After Bron reveals the island on which the film is set is already being powered by Klear, the entire thing goes up in flames in the final third of the film. Poetic fiery revenge, enacted by the disguised twin sister of Bron’s former business partner, who objected to Klear and whose founding legacy was stolen by Bron.
Obviously, Elon Musk’s energy technologies are not really dangerous. Household lithium ion batteries and solar panels are both mostly safe. Tesla’s efforts to build out both in homes have been underwhelming, but neither has been a major physical risk.
However, Musk is definitely guilty of badly over-selling battery and solar systems as a pairing that could supply the energy needs of all humanity. Power grids work best with a broad mix of technologies, and over-relying on one or two things can cause catastrophic failures in addition to the energy and environmental costs of having to severely over-manufacture and over-install. Solar and batteries are not a couple of silver bullets; as useful and important as they both are. Whether Musk genuinely doesn’t understand the basics of power systems, or whether he just doesn’t care and will say whatever he likes to sell product, he’s flat-out wrong and misleading.
The film involves hydrogen, not solar or batteries. But that too has been oversold, albeit by other folks. As I wrote in this thread, there are many, many problems with all the eggs going into the hydrogen basket, most of which relate more to costs, efficiency and the speed of change, and few of which relate to exploding households. It’s relatively inefficient compared to straightforward electrification (make power generation clean, make everything run on clean power). This is a good post from the EDF on the various problems with hydrogen.
Most concerningly to me, hydrogen can serve to delay decarbonisation, because (a) it can be produced using fossil fuels to distance the emissions from the fuel sold and (b) it can be slightly blended with methane gas, in order to fraudulently present a tiny reduction in emissions as significant.
A neat example is, this week, the Norwegian and German governments, along with state-owned Equinor and German company RWE, have announced a plan to produce hydrogen using fossil fuels while building fossil gas power plants in Germany. The ideas is Norway makes the hydrogen, captures the emissions using CCS, and Germany eventually converts its gas power plants to run on that hydrogen.
All this boils down to is the ludicrous and utterly bonkers situation of Germany replacing one fossil fuel with another, instead of building wind, solar and various enabling technologies to replace their worryingly growing coal-fired power generation. The promise of hydrogen enabling new emissions today.
It’s worth noting the link between Glass Onion’s energy plot and Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, who’s been championing hydrogen for homes, cars and, yes, power plants. Forrest certainly wants to be seen as a brave, disruptive billionaire, with an expensive and shiny PR campaign around his touted climate solutions. In many ways, Miles Bron is really an amalgam of Forrest and Musk.
Bill Gates has also leaned heavily into the idea of an “energy miracle“, which, of course, will be funded by his cash. Gates, Musk and Forrest have all variously mocked and insulted each other for their various surface tweaks on what is fundamentally the same wrong-headed arrogance.
Weirdly, and somewhat amusingly, Netflix has a blog-post in which it walks back the safety concerns around hydrogen and even talks it up as a fuel source with with wide applications in roughly the same tone as Andrew Forrest.
What this seems to be also lampooning quite nicely is the general Silicon Valley habit of wanting to rush things to production, and disregard public safety. Musk’s “full self driving” and various other autonomous technologies in Tesla vehicles are a perfect example, where many serious accidents have occurred – and many people have lost their lives – because the testing ground for this new mode of operation is public roads.
One bit that I really like is progressive politician Claire DeBella (depicted by Kathryn Hahn), who starts off the movie with a CNN interview pushing an unapologetic ‘hard line on climate change’. Of course, that seems to mean cosying up to billionaire inventors much more than it does championing climate justice or real policies or regulations. It’s revealed DeBella plans to approve Bron’s solid-hydrogen power plant in exchange for Bron’s cash donations to her campaign.
There’s no shortage of centre-left politicians leaning into a loudly proclaimed pro-climate stance but in a gross way; focusing on bags of cash and shiny tech instead of community, policy and climate justice. It’s a clever and incisive parody of a big, unrecognised problem within the climate movement.
It’s just dumb
Related to the problem of tech solutionism is the cult of personality that surrounds people like Elon Musk. In every area in which Musk has been assumed to be a genius, it’s been revealed later on that he has an extremely shallow and simplistic understanding of that topic. In Glass Onion, a dazzling puzzle box sent to the island’s guests is met with oohs and ahhs. “Miles. Freaking genius, man”. Of course, we learn later on Miles paid someone else to make the puzzle box. His company is based off ideas he stole from his former business partner. And even the method of the actual murder he commits was stolen from Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc.
As Blanc declares, there is nothing complicated or mysterious at the centre of a Glass Onion, no matter how dazzling the exterior. It’s transparent and uncomplicated. The movie, and Miles Bron, are transparent and uncomplicated.
The film’s director, Rian Johnson, insists the film is not about Musk, and it was obviously written some time before Musk’s catastrophic and humiliating decision to buy Twitter. “A friend of mine said, ‘Man, that feels like it was written this afternoon.’ And that’s just sort of a horrible, horrible accident, you know?”, he’s said.
It doesn’t matter if it’s an lucky accident. The character of an intensely dumb guy posing as a genius climate saviour is just so ripe for satire, and it’s extremely fun and funny to see the Musk archetype. skewered as it should.
It certainly feels like in the latter half of 2022, the silicon valley tech genius myth murdered itself. The front-page magazine covers, the TED talks, the cooing and credulous media articles – they all seem to have dried up. Exceptions are jarring and widely mocked. Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of fraudulent but over-hyped blood testing startup Theranos, was sentenced to nearly 12 years in the slammer. Mark Zuckerberg is actively trying to destroy Facebook’s obscene dominance by throwing everything in the basket of hilariously, uproariously shite virtual reality. Crypto crashed. Tesla’s stock price has not stopped falling.
Bad, counter-productive climate solutions come in many flavours, and from many different sources. But the brilliant billionaire climate saviour has to be among the most obnoxious. The Glass Onion swings and hits at a time when, gloriously, that mythology is accelerating in its downfall. That feels fun to watch.
The next time a smug, hyper-sensitive tech-bro comes along with brazen and oddly unjustified promises about climate solutions, should we ignore them and focus on real policies and actions instead? Well,
This was the climate change satire we needed. It was funny, incisive, and did that while being a proper murder mystery.
I think most of the philanthropy billionaires could be seen to have traits in Miles Bron. They are somewhat similar – rich/privileged kids who get lucky or surround themselves with the right people. And the people calling Bron”genius” while the old mother was casually smarter without even trying was a great example of the hero worship that goes on.
The only gripe I had with the film was that the finale could have been a bit better. The “disruptors” jumped ship a bit too easily given all they still had at stake.