Elon Musk brands himself as a passionate environmentalist with an eye trained on the future, but do his business ventures contradict his words?
In May 2012, SpaceX, a private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company, was founded by notorious entrepreneur Elon Musk. Known for PayPal, Tesla and discussing technological innovations from behind a cloud of marijuana smoke, he is a controversial figure deemed by some to be an irresponsible leader of US emerging technologies. His actions during the infamous interview on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast caused Tesla’s stock prices to plummet by 9%, and legal action has been taken over his tweets branding British diver Vernon Unsworth ‘pedo guy’ to name but two of his never ending blunders on the internet.
Musk wields an astonishing amount of power over companies that are at the forefront of technological advancement. Yet, there is a question over his responsibility that goes beyond personal mishaps and apparent inability to refrain from using crass language. The aims and financial power of SpaceX leave a lot to be desired when it comes to responsible science and innovation.
SpaceX aims to achieve ‘the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets’, with Mars named specifically. During the aforementioned podcast interview, Musk became highly emotional when discussing humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels, calling their use ‘an insane experiment.’ He has consistently emphasised his interest in environmental issues, and his despair at impending ecological collapse. Findings from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 2018 showed that net carbon emissions need to be slashed by 45% by 2030 to prevent global temperatures exceeding a 1.5°C increase, to help reduce devastating biodiversity loss, permafrost loss, water scarcity and loss of human homes due to rising sea levels. It seems that SpaceX is living in the past, where space exploration was indeed at the forefront of political and technological ambition, rather than actually considering current human priorities: to be able to live on our own planet.
SpaceX is a relatively efficient enterprise when it comes to carbon emissions. Whilst the rocket Falcon 9 produces around 2,902,000kg of carbon dioxide annually, this is not a hugely significant amount, and the roofs of various SpaceX factories are beset with solar panels as part of their engagement in offsetting activities, which could be seen as an example of Musk’s commitment to environmentalism. But think about what the money pouring into the SpaceX project could do if it were directed straight into renewable energy research or technological advancement. This would benefit current and future generations of the public, rather than solely the affluent few who can afford to take part in the mission to colonise Mars in a future idealised world. It would also make the realisation of Musk’s personal environmental goals more likely, which, if he is as dedicated as he claims, should be his priority.
Let’s talk money.
SpaceX states that it costs $62 million every time the Falcon 9 rocket is launched, while the more powerful Falcon Heavy costs around $90 million per launch. SpaceX’s revenue is approximately $2.5 billion a year, according to The Wall Street Journal. In June 2019, SpaceX started to raise $300 million of investment, mostly from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, which has $191.1 billion in managed assets. At its most recent valuation, SpaceX was valued at $33.3 billion.
Undoubtedly there are more worthy causes than SpaceX in which to pour this kind of money into. Before calculations regarding environmental benefit and investment into, say, renewable energy are done, a simple way to understand the value of this funding in real life is to examine poverty levels. Economists at the World Bank estimated that in 2015, 736 million people worldwide lived under the current poverty line of $1.90 a day. Placing a spotlight on the US, the home of SpaceX and Elon Musk, reveals that in 2018 there were 38.1 million people in poverty in the US. Talk Poverty calculated that the 5.7 million poor families with children, alongside the 105,000 children not living with their families, would require an additional $11,400 to live above the poverty line, equating to about $69.4 billion per year. SpaceX is worth half of this, and is likely to show a vast increase in value in the coming years. Whilst the practical challenge of getting money to the right people is an issue, the benefit of financial investment into sectors such as health care, education and nutrition is obvious.
Of course, this is not to suggest that it is the responsibility of Elon Musk to end US poverty; charitable ventures would certainly be admirable but he has expressed little interest in this. However, if he is as devoted to the environmental cause as he claims, perhaps such funds could be shifted to directly provide funding to this sector, rather than his dedication being solely talk with little obviously beneficial action. Whilst Tesla’s CO2 emissions compare favourably with those of other automobile manufacturers (Tesla produces about 6% of the CO2 emissions that Ford Motor Co. does, for example), their automobile models are not affordable and therefore are not abundant; Tesla has also been accused of ‘yo-yo’ pricing which further inhibits the influx of electricity powered cars onto roads. Furthermore, despite acting as a provider of more expensive electrical power sources and solar panels, the company is yet to produce wide scale coverage or voluntary energy sources conversion. If Musk diverted more financial resources into this, perhaps engaging in a renewable energy in a more philanthropic manner, this would suit his proclaimed values.
Essentially, SpaceX is an apparent distraction from the promising work that companies such as Tesla are financially capable of. It may seem unfair to request that a US tech billionaire invests money into aiding people in the rest of the world, particularly those who do not have alternative, environmentally friendly options to switch to in order to help prevent ecological collapse. However, there are currently 1.3 billion people globally without access to electricity, and more than 8.6 million Americans alone live in areas already susceptible to flooding; this number is set to increase due to rising water levels caused by climate change. The majority of these people are unable to help themselves. This seems more unfair than suggesting that Musk, with a real time net worth of $20.3 billion, reconsiders his investments.
Renewables currently account for about 17% of US electricity generation, with costs falling rapidly across the globe for the implementation of such technologies; with more investment, and lobbying with the US government, this percentage could increase. The Trump administration allows extortionate amounts of money to be poured into oil, gas and coal projects and companies. This should be matched by investments into renewable energy, and Musk has a public profile powerful enough to set an example. Instead, money is directed into hypothetical projects that go beyond the scope of what is needed for humanity’s continued existence on its home planet.
Musk is contradicting himself by stating his passion for saving the planet, yet encouraging humanity to jump ship and jet off to Mars. He sees SpaceX as ‘the first step in making life on Mars a reality in our lifetime.’ As a businessman of seemingly excessive resources and an undeniably incredible technological imagination, perhaps Musk could step up to help make the continuation of humanity, and the myriad species under threat, a reality.