Elon Musk is often celebrated for daring to think and talk about the future in a neoliberal system that has deemed the subject off-limits. According to the neoliberal handbook, we were only supposed to manage the privatization of the status quo, not think about ways to change it. In all this, Musk has been one of the few voices whose ideas have received mainstream attention, with magazine and newspaper profiles treating the Tesla CEO as a modern visionary. Musk, of course, has readily embraced the attention.
Instead of getting distracted by skillful snake-oil salesmanship, we need a critical dissection of Musk’s proposals and his vision for the future that the media has helped him to spin. Musk might consider himself an unparalleled genius pushing humanity forward, but he’s actually building a world that will preserve his privilege at the expense of everyone else — including the cult followers who fawn over each new announcement that further protects their billionaire king from climate apocalypse.
Opposing an End to Automobility
Musk claims to care about the environment, hence his dislike of fossil fuel companies, plus his stated support for a carbon tax, which would seek to reduce emissions through price signals — though not significantly enough to keep warming to 1.5ºC. However, it’s also worth considering whether his cultivation of an environmental image is just a means to promote his businesses and greenwash his lifestyle.
It’s true that Musk has helped to popularize electric vehicles with Tesla, even if most average consumers still do not have access to those cars. A mass shift from vehicles powered by internal combustion engines to electric batteries will be an improvement, but it won’t be enough. Car ownership and use needs to be radically reduced in favor of transit, cycling, and walking, but Musk has disparaged transit and said electric scooters “lack dignity.” Musk is a car man through and through, even though his Teslas require a massive increase in mining to produce their special batteries, with devastating effects on local environments and communities.
A sustainable future will require a change in how we take long-distance trips, but Musk has scuttled attempts to build high-speed rail to keep us in cars. Ashlee Vance has shown how the main ambition of Musk’s Hyperloop proposal, an unproven form of transportation using vacuum tubes to go long distances at high speeds, was to get California’s proposed high-speed rail system canceled:
Musk had dished out the Hyperloop proposal just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train. He didn’t actually intend to build the thing. With any luck, the high-speed rail would be canceled. Musk said as much to me during a series of e-mails and phone calls leading up to the announcement.
Musk has successfully branded himself as an environmental savior, despite living a life completely out of sync with any notion of sustainability. In 2018, he flew nearly 160,000 miles in his private jet, “equal to 77 times all the carbon emissions attributed to the average American and 263 times that of the average human on the planet.” He also owns five mansions in the same Bel Air neighborhood — hardly the mark of a person who cares about his environmental footprint.
Preparing for Climate Apocalypse
Musk’s big ideas consist of the Tesla line of electric cars, solar panels, and batteries for electricity storage. There are also underground tunnels for Tesla vehicles through the Boring Company, the Hyperloop proposal, and the various SpaceX ventures, including the colonization of Mars. Many of these ideas were lauded upon announcement, but Musk has consistently failed to live up to his lofty promises — and their social benefits are far from clear.
If we don’t rein him in and start transforming our society, Musk will drive us to climate apocalypse like any other billionaire. His vision of suburbs powered by solar roofs and home batteries does little to push us toward a more sustainable future. The future requires us to live closer together, in denser communities that allow us to commute by public transit, bicycle, and foot, rather than cars, but Musk will accept no alternative. Tesla’s solar technology and home batteries, rather, will enable what Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos have recently called grid defection: “resource-intensive solar separatism for the rich and the geographically lucky” who hide in their “affluent enclaves.”
Even worse, the series of tunnels that Musk has proposed beneath Los Angeles have been heavily criticized as a ploy to get a dedicated, traffic-free route from his home to his work (the entrances and exits would become massive bottlenecks if really open to the public, as Musk has suggested). These tunnels are likely to act as exclusive, protected roads for the elites who are allowed access to them, evading the city above.
If that seems like an outlandish suggestion, consider the most recent vehicle for Musk to have shown off: the Cybertruck. It’s directly inspired by the dystopian future of Blade Runner and claims to feature body panels that will hold up to sledgehammers and windows that will stop bullets. Those aren’t regular consumer features; they’re things you add when you’re scared of the people outside the walls of your gated community and need safe transport from its gates to your exclusive underground roads.
Finally, it’s a complete fantasy that colonies on Mars or anywhere else in the solar system will be affordable or accessible to anyone on an average income — unless they’re sent as initial colonizers to survive the hostile conditions and lay the foundations for the rich to come later. Musk’s Mars colonies are nothing but the escape hatch for the rich — they are not our salvation. Any space colony will enable the social division of Elysium, where the rich have moved into orbit on an idyllic habitat but continue to make all the decisions that govern the poor and destitute residents of a postapocalyptic Earth. Space will not save us, nor will the billionaires funding their own space race.
Billionaires Don’t Care About Us
Musk’s vision of the future puts a green gloss on the auto-oriented status quo from which he reaps enormous profits. He is an active obstructer of meaningful climate policy that would see the planet limit warming to 1.5ºC or even 2ºC.
Musk has a lot of power to get people to pay attention to particular issues and to push politicians to consider various policies and projects. At best, he wastes it on frivolous toys and unnecessary spats. At worst, he actively hampers the creation of a truly sustainable world by opposing high-speed rail, ridiculing transit, making people believe his tweaks are all we need, and even sending money to the Republican Party.
Musk wants us to believe he’s saving the world, but the effect of his actions will be to send us speeding toward a climate disaster where we’ll be left to suffer the consequences, while his wealth and “green” technologies protect him when the rest of us inevitably turn against him. We don’t factor into the futures of tech billionaires, and it’s time we wise up before it’s too late.