Elon Musk: Put Your Money Where It Matters Now

Space Shuttle Atlantis as it launched from pad 39A on Friday, July 8, 2011, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on mission STS-135. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls.

The call to get humanity off of Planet Earth ASAP in order to avoid extinction is a blunder in reason. As an Asimov and survival of Earth-based-life enthusiast I think humans will eventually need to spread beyond the planet to combat overcrowding and to push human knowledge further. However, I think that a call for mass-investment in space exploration right now is short-sighted and dangerous to the purported goal of the mission, saving life on Earth.

As society continues following the classical economic model of growth, with ever more powerful and pollutive technologies, the climate-data-informed watch as the worst-case environmental predictions of the last decades become the optimistic goals of modern climate debates. For humanity to properly address climate change we need to revolutionize every system we have in place. We need to manufacture without pollution and consume without waste. And we need to redefine quality of life so it does not, in effect, mean maintaining one person’s luxury by appropriating enough resources to sustain hundreds of people. Humanity can makes these changes and turn your relationship with the planet from parasitic to symbiotic. But, as long as thought-leaders such as Elon Musk are dangling the hope of saving humanity by leaving Earth, or protecting the climate by polluting the upper-atmosphere to block incoming sunlight, as the geoengineering proponents support, the grassroots of humanity will not mobilize to create this Eden-of-sorts.

Resources are finite, and creating an ecological society will involve intensive resource accounting. We will need to know what we have to work with, how much we can sustainably exploit so it does not disappear, what we need to produce to give all of humanity a chance at a good life, and how to produce all of it with emission-negative and pollution-free practices. This process of innovation would be extremely complex and, ironically, resource-intensive. Undertaking this process while other segments of humanity, specifically those who have appropriated significant wealth to their comfort, focus on building a commercially viable escape plan would be near-impossible. That is because space exploration requires megatons of investments and emissions. That is money that should be going toward making humanity climate-safe. Those are emissions that should be considered sacrilege for humans who are fond of survival.

Elon Musk’s vision, when seen in this light, is that of a man with the power (significant wealth) to put his dream of a legacy ahead of what might be humanity’s last chance to preserve anything resembling civilization on Earth. Once the climate comes back to an equilibrium and humanity’s continued existence on Earth is secured, then I would support using ecological practices and badass engineering to explore the galaxy and follow Star Trek’s prime directive. But before the growth paradigm has been overcome and a new generation of clean production has been developed humanity needs to choose between visions for the future. Musk’s vision, when applied to the short-term, is exclusionary and presupposes a dead earth. The ecological vision seeks a solution that works for all life on the planet and is centered on a thriving, lush planet.

What we are currently receiving is a corporate-whitewashed, toothless version of the ecological vision being pushed by governments, and the full economic force of several billionaire investors pushing Musk’s vision, except focused on profit instead of survival. I envision this leading us to a society where classes do not even share a planet. The rich will live on awe-inducing space stations with clean water, hydroponic gardening, and a higher quality of life than modern-day Scandinavia. Everybody else, the survivors at least, will live on a dead planet laboring for the mining-needs of the space stations and acting as living organ and blood donors for their overlords. I believe this is roughly the plotline of a 2013 action movie titled Elysium. It does not need to be the future but to avoid it the grassroots need to unify and erupt to demand that the limited resources of our planet be harnessed to create and ecological society.  

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