Elon Musk won’t fuck you. Or take you to Mars. Or save humanity.
Billionaires feed their egos with messianic fantasies about colonizing space but they are not here to help us.
I originally wrote this article in Polish. It appeared in Political Critique.
Roughly a third of humanity believes one lad sacrificed himself two thousand years ago to save the world. A smaller but just as vehement group is convinced that we now have a new savior. Except, Elon Musk is not keen on dying on a cross. Instead, his followers expect he and SpaceX will take them to Mars. And if he can’t, Jeff Bezos will. After all, he’s the only man even richer than Musk.
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The army of Musk worshippers could barely go unnoticed. We’ve been seeing the same scenario play out for years on Twitter, Reddit, and in comment sections. If you criticize Musk or any of his projects, like Tesla, SpaceX, or Neuralink, keyboard warriors immediately spring to defend their favorite billionaire. Their main argument is that whatever he does, he does to protect mankind. They make coloring books about that, write songs, and harass skeptical journalists. Musk himself is more than happy to don the superhero/techno-messiah cloak. When Bernie Sanders brought up his astronomical net worth as an example of gaping economic inequality, Musk replied he was accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars.
Elon Musk thinks humanity has to go to Mars to survive. Otherwise, we will perish in another world war or during an artificial intelligence uprising, which he deems the worst existential threat to our species. But Musk isn’t the only billionaire whose ambition grew too large for our corner of the universe. Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth, also has a space company: Blue Origin. Even though he disagrees with Musk about the necessity to colonize Mars (he’s more of an asteroid guy), he also believes we can only survive among the stars. That’s what he thinks about his wealth:
The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.
Space exploration is exciting. You don’t have to be a billionaire for your eyes to widen and imagination to sparkle when you hear that one of NASA’s biggest and most ambitious goals is to send humans to Mars. And both SpaceX and Blue Origin will be involved in that as NASA’s vendors. But for the American space agency it’s a scientific endeavor, while two dudes worth almost 400 billion dollars see space travel as a medium for their messianic fantasizing. That’s dangerous.
Loan sharks on Mars
SpaceX plans to send a million people to Mars by 2050. Elon Musk loves weaving tales about a Mars colony with pizza joints, clubs, and bars. He’s also promising jobs and if you can’t afford a ticket, he’ll offer you a loan. At the same time, the company claims the Red Planet is not bound by any earthly law and they will have the right to establish the colony’s own code (UN treaties on space law might disagree). Under all this talk about benevolence and saving humanity lies the reality of SpaceX offering people loans so they can go and work… for SpaceX. Musk is selling the image of a messiah when all he really wants to be is the first industrialist and landlord in space.
There’s a bunch of reasons why this vision won’t come true. We’re pretty sure it’s possible to survive on Mars but surviving isn’t the same as living. The atmospheric pressure there is so low that without proper protection your body would immediately fizz like a can of Coke. Then there’s also the issue of, you know, lack of oxygen. After we’ve taken care of that, it would also be great to not freeze to death on a chilly, -60 Celsius evening. Storms of toxic dust that would blot out the sky for months also don’t make for a welcoming habitat. Oh, and by the way, Mars also has radiation that would kill you much slower than any of the above but just as surely. Which is not to say we shouldn’t explore our crimson neighbor, but let’s not fool ourselves about the conditions. We can shield ourselves from radiation, frost, and dust, but we can’t magic them away with nukes or whatever is Musk’s latest fantasy. Every person that sets foot on the Red Planet will be completely reliant on life support systems. In such conditions, personal freedom and living space would be dramatically restricted. Few years ago I interviewed Kate Greene, a scientist and journalist who took part in the HI-SEAS experiment organized by NASA and the University of Hawaii. She spent a few months camped on the side of a volcano in an imitation of a Martian settlement. Greene spoke about the overwhelming mental exhaustion caused by monotony and inability to go outside. Not exactly an environment for humans to thrive.
While we can and should go to Mars, the idea of a colony with a million people enjoying the bustling nightlife is horseshit. Alfred Worden, astronaut from the Apollo 15 lunar mission, said it best:
We’d be better off solving all the problems we’ve got here (on Earth) than colonizing Mars. What we need is an Earth-like planet in another solar system somewhere.
Problems we’ve got here
We should be excited that space exploration is gaining steam. SpaceX and Blue Origin deserve all the praise for helping make it happen. But it’s dangerous to pretend space is the answer to the threats we’re facing down here. The European Union pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, the same year in which Musk wants to have a million-strong Martian metropoly. Many experts, however, are warning that we need to hurry by at least 10 years. Otherwise, droughts, flooding, and other catastrophes will render parts of the planet inhabitable and the geopolitical map even less stable than it currently is.
Elon Musk probably feels great as a Jesus for nerds, whose online apostles are far more loyal than the original guys. Jeff Bezos might honestly think there are no more problems on Earth that deserve his money and attention. They feel fabulous sitting on a net worth larger than many countries’ budgets and talking about how they’ll save the world. And people lap it up. Musk’s fans (not unlike the man himself or Tesla’s spokespeople) won’t ever forget to remind you that Elon is selling and popularizing electric vehicles with the singular goal of decarbonizing the world. True, the footprint of EVs is smaller than that of cars with exhaust engines. But if Musk really cared about climate, he wouldn’t be investing billions into Bitcoin, a largely useless technology that consumes more power than Argentina. And his Boring Company wouldn’t be digging tunnels that are Tesla-exclusive. Neither Musk nor Bezos have interest in slowing down climate change because that also requires slowing down economic growth: the last thing two richest men on Earth would like to see.
Climate crisis is a class problem. The consequences of environmental degradation will be worst felt in the poorest regions. Floods in India will become more frequent and violent. In equatorial regions, heat waves can make it impossible to work outdoors. Some island countries on the Pacific Ocean will be submerged. This will lead to mass migration, food and water shortages, and difficulties in power supply. But if you have unlimited resources, you never have to worry about the rising sea levels because there will always be a taller hill to buy. This is why the answer to these problems can only be systemic. We can’t pray to two billionaires and hope their savior complex will drive them to create a safe harbor in space. Because even if, then what chances does an Indian farmer or a fisherwoman from Kiribati have for a ticket to Mars? Same as members of Musk’s online fan club, I presume. None.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have enormous capital. Not just financial, but also political and cultural. Heads of states listen to them and celebrities like to rub shoulders with them. When they say that the priority for the survival of human species against artificial intelligence is settling in space, people listen. With reverence, in case of Musk. But perhaps the man, who in March of 2020 claimed the pandemic would fizzle out within a month is not the most competent judge of threats to humanity. Perhaps billionaires, whose companies leave a lot to be desired in terms of working conditions, shouldn’t be responsible for planning a multiplanetary society. Perhaps, despite their assurances, the interest of two men who grew 200 billion dollars richer during the pandemic, is not in line with interest of an average Twitter bro hurling insults at Musk’s critics.
We don’t need to worry we won’t have a spare planet in case of a robot uprising. But we should be afraid that if we don’t take drastic and systemic steps on a global scale, this planet will become much less livable. The cult of personality two of its richest inhabitants are creating around themselves is harmful because individual persons will not solve the problems we’re facing. And if we don’t act on that, perhaps Jesus for nerds is the Jesus we deserve.