The Elon Musk dilemma

When big thinkers think badly.

 

Back in 2009, nearly three in four Americans believed climate change was real. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain, a Republican, even had climate action as part of his election platform. After Barack Obama’s election, however, Republicans changed their tune on the climate, to denialism.  When the message changed, the number of those surveyed who believed “global warming is happening” plunged, from 71% in 2009 to around 57% the following year, according to surveys by the Yale Climate Program. Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale program, told Harvard Business Review recently that the drop was driven by “political elite cues,” which, he said, “is just a fancy way of saying that when leaders lead, followers follow.”

That means we need good leaders, leaders who consider the consequences of their actions and rhetoric. Elon Musk, the billionaire businessman, is not that leader. But a look at his rhetoric can help separate big thinking from bad thinking. Musk’s two biggest ideas — electric vehicles and the settlement of Mars — are underpinned with fallacies as specious as those of land speculator Charles Wilber, who claimed in 1881 that the arid West could be colonized because “rain follows the plow.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talks about the challenges of a permanent human settlement on Mars at a 2017 aerospace conference.
Mark Brake/Getty Images

Consider Musk’s electric vehicles. Musk regards technology as a kind of wonder, citing science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who said, “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But tech isn’t magic; it’s material. And it requires material resources. A world full of electric vehicles (which, granted, would have some environmental benefits) would also demand a massive power grid, and that would require either burning more fossil fuels, building more nuclear facilities, or plastering open spaces with solar panels, wind turbines and hydro-dams. It would also require huge amounts of rare materials, aggressively mined at great cost to landscapes, wildlife, plants and people.

Tesla is currently being sued, along with Apple, Dell, Google and Microsoft, for allegedly contributing to dangerous forced child labor in the cobalt mines of Congo. Musk’s massive battery factory east of Reno, Nevada, meanwhile, will use as much water as a small city. A recent USA Today investigation found a high rate of injury in the so-called Gigafactory, which has also strained Reno’s first responders, exacerbated a housing shortage and, ironically, clogged roads with traffic. Musk has suggested “high-quality” mobile homes as an answer, but so far, none have been built.

Musk, who was born in South Africa in 1971 and arrived in California in 1995, made a fortune with digital endeavors, including the development of PayPal. Like many successful entrepreneurs, he espouses a jingoistic brand of Americanism. In explaining his desire to expand into space exploration, Musk expresses a deterministic view of American greatness that is deeply problematic. “The United States,” he told Caltech graduates in 2018, “is a nation of explorers … (and) a distillation of the spirit of human exploration.” This romantic view of imperialism echoes John O’Sullivan, the man who coined the term “Manifest Destiny” and who declared in 1839: “The expansive future is our arena. We are entering on its untrodden space, with the truths of God in our minds. … We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Such thinking was used to justify the genocide of North American Indigenous peoples.

A mannequin known as "Spaceman" sits in Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster, with Earth in the background. During a SpaceX demonstration mission, the car was launched into an orbit around the Sun that could take it as far out as Mars.

Musk’s romantic worldview holds another assumption: that humans would be inherently better off as a multi-planet species, rather than a single-planet one. Thus colonization of other planets will help us in case this one fails. “I think things will most likely be OK for a long time on Earth,” Musk told the Caltech graduates (a dubious claim in itself). But on the small chance that Earth won’t be OK, he said, we should “back up the biosphere” and create “planetary redundancy” on Mars. That’s not great thinking. Consider the stellar wisdom of astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, at a 2015 TED Talk: “For anyone to tell you that Mars will be there to back up humanity is like the captain of the Titanic telling you that the real party is happening later on the lifeboats.” There is no reason to assume a cosmic destiny toward expansion, just as there is no reason to assume that American colonialism is attributable to an inherent benign spirit.

Musk’s “elite cues” are misdirections. They may not be as despairingly cynical as the GOP’s climate denialism, but they are dangerous nonetheless. Those of us concerned with the climate crisis need a vision of the future that admits the trouble humanity is in and understands the myth of progress. We need a vision that does not require magic vehicles or the settlement of inhospitable planets. We need to seek out and support leaders who point us in the right direction — and that direction, I suspect, is earthbound. 

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.