Disappointing persons of the year 2021

I’m starting to think that in this day and age, you will but err when you pick individuals for traditionally ‘prestigious’ awards, prizes, recognitions, etc., probably because the sort of people who can stand out by themselves have to have had the sort of clout and power that typically comes not through personal achievement as much as systemic prejudice – or they need to have screwed up on a magnitude so large that the nature of their action must overlap significantly with a combination of centralised power and lack of accountability. And on the spectrum of possibilities between these two extremes lie The Week‘s and Time‘s persons of the year 2021.

The Week has picked – wait for it – Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director-general Balram Bhargava for his leadership of India’s medical response to the country’s COVID-19 crises. I doubt I’d lose my journalistic equipoise if I said he deserved to be the “clown of the year” not just because Bhargava, and ICMR with him, has made many batty claims throughout the epidemic – principally in press conferences – but also because, to echo the recent words of Barton Gellman, he has pushed an independent medical research body outside the democratic system and into the prime minister’s office.

Yet The Week‘s article justifying its choice makes no mention of these transgressions and sticks only to Bhargava making life-impacting decisions at 3 am – like tens of thousands of healthcare workers around the country, who did that and kept their collective spine – and a can-do attitude in which The Week fails to see that “getting things done” to the appreciation of your colleagues also means that unless someone takes more initiative than they’re expected to, the organisation is systematically incapable of going “over and beyond”, so to speak. One way or another, it’s not hard to conclude that Bhargava will leave ICMR worse than it was when he joined.

Time‘s person of the year 2021 is Elon Musk. Its profile reads much less like the profilee is doing the profiler a favour, but it also fails to overcome the suspicion that it expects the sheer magnitude of Musk’s ambitions for the world to absolve him of his failures – failures that appear like minor glitches in a grand, technocratic future-vision to Silicon Valley and Wall Street honchos (and their mimics worldwide) but to anyone else suggest something worse but also familiar: a plutocracy in which each billionaire is only looking out for himself, or at best his company’s interests.

Time‘s profile is essentially a paean to the extent to which Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX companies have reinvigorated their respective industries (automotives and spaceflight) through innovations in manufacturing and industrial management, but it’s often presented in a context-limited, value-neutral fashion that prompts concerns that the magazine wouldn’t have had access to Musk if it didn’t promise to write nice things about him.

For example, Time writes that “Musk’s … announcement of a $100 million climate prize rankled some environmentalists because of its inclusion of proposals for direct-air carbon capture,” and that its sole criticism is that this tech doesn’t work. But the greater issue is that focusing on carbon capture and storage technologies is a technofix that allows Tesla and other vehicle-makers to evade responsibility to reduce the demand for carbon, and that Musk’s ‘challenge’ is really a bid through philanthrocapitlism to prolong ‘business as usual’ climate scenarios. For another related example, about Tesla’s success with electric vehicles, the profile says:

That has made Musk arguably the biggest private contributor to the fight against climate change. Had the 800,000 Teslas sold in the last year been gas-powered cars, they would have emitted more than 40 million metric tons of CO₂ over their lifetimes—equivalent to the annual emissions of Finland. But EVs may ultimately be less important to the climate fight than the central innovation that made them possible: batteries. Tesla has repurposed the lightweight, energy-dense cells that power its cars for huge grid-scale batteries that provide essential backup for renewables. Demand for Tesla’s smaller home-based Powerwall, which can store electricity from rooftop solar systems, has spiked as consumers look for alternatives to the grid, driven by everything from February’s Texas power shortage to the fire risk in California that has led to power shutoffs.

Yet the profile doesn’t mention that even when electrified, more and more people owning cars only exacerbates the underlying problem – the demand for electricity, from a climate mitigation standpoint, and urban traffic and congestion – and that we need cities to shift to more affordable, usable and efficient modes of public transport. (The profile also and obviously doesn’t include Musk’s comment in 2017 that he dislikes public transport because he grossly mistrusts other people.) And if Tesla’s technologies will ultimately benefit the US’s, and the world’s, public transport systems, it’s hard to imagine the extent to which they would’ve also undermined our fight for climate and social justice by then.

Instead, this is profiteering, plain and simple, and Time‘s failure to see it as such – throughout the profile, not just in this instance, it repeatedly tries to reflect the world’s aspirations in his own – seems to me to be a symptom of a desire to coexist with Musk more than anything else. Once in a while the profile has a few paragraphs of complaints against Musk and his businesses, only for them to be followed by an excuse for his behaviour or an indication that he was sanctioned appropriately for it, and never anything that goes far enough to contemplate what Musk’s politics might be. “Something about our upbringing makes us constantly want to be on the edge,” Elon’s brother Kimbal says – in the same paragraph that makes the profile’s sole meaningful allusion to the centrality of lucrative NASA contracts to SpaceX’s success. That, to me, said enough.

I wish both The Week and Time had picked persons of the year who make the world fairer and better in spite of the people they’ve actually picked – but at the same time must conclude that perhaps this is one more tradition whose time has ended.

Featured image credits: ICMR/Facebook and Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.