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

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