The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.
“Entrepreneur,” “genius,” and “savior of the human species.” Elon Musk doesn’t mind taking on any of these epithets—reversing climate change and protecting humans from extinction are among the goals on his to-do list. Tesla and its electric cars are supposedly addressing the problem of climate change by replacing oil and other fossil fuels. The Hyperloop claims that it will solve transportation problems by building fast and efficient futuristic infrastructures. And if all else fails, SpaceX will be there to save us from the destruction of our planet by colonizing Mars.
What’s wrong with all this? Why are these not solutions to our world’s problems, and why shouldn’t we idolize Musk as the prophet of the modern world? Because Musk’s “solutions” are nothing more than escapes from real thinking and problem-solving. By understanding why they are escapes and what makes those escapes popular, we begin to see some of the dangers of relying on market-driven innovation for social and political change: it often does nothing more than enable our own desire to escape.
An escape, of course, is not a solution to a problem. It is a way of postponing the problem by not confronting it. By not making sense of the problems they flee, escapes often exacerbate the problems they avoid; the problem remains and festers while the escaper pretends it doesn’t exist. Musk’s ideas give us all an intellectual escape—e.g., the thought that a problem can be solved turning away from it, rather than requiring reconciliatory thought and work—and the privileged few who can afford their corresponding technologies a real escape. In both cases, Musk’s ideas and those who believe in them succumb to the powerful desire for a simple solution with the promise of bettering everyone’s lives. Unfortunately, those very same ideas are the ones which intensify the problems which they pretend to address.
The colonization of Mars is the clearest example of Musk’s tendency to try to give simple solutions to complicated problems, and thereby provide a glitzy escape from thinking through real problems: Our planet is becoming uninhabitable? Just fly away in a private rocket.
Even if Mars were just as hospitable as Earth (which, of course, isn’t the case), moving to a second Earth is not a solution to climate change for two primary reasons. The first is a logical problem: running away from a problem—e.g. our own destructiveness—precludes the possibility for learning from the problem. We arrive on Earth 2.0 and our problem—according to Musk, that our planet is destroyed—is gone. But the real problem—that we do not live sustainably in our world—is still just as present, its manifestation is just no longer proximate. Why should we expect our time on Earth 2.0 to go any better? After all, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that even our own self-destructive tendencies don’t limit us.
The second problem is political and ethical. Even if a flight to Mars were a viable option, it would only be an escape for the few who could afford it. Through its incredible use of money and resources for the security of the already-rich, the escape plan is a way of widening the gulf in inequality and pretending that this is a solution for everyone.
This is not to say that SpaceX hasn’t achieved impressive technological and engineering feats—it certainly has. But these achievements have been in the service of a misguided vision of self-preservation through self-deceit, and one which only “works” for people who can afford a flight to Mars.
But, Musk and his followers might protest, the flight to Mars is just a backup option. He’s doing all he can to reverse global warming, not just escape it. Tesla and the Hyperloop are among his inventions supposedly dedicated to environmental sustainability. The logic of these so-called solutions demonstrates how politically and societally damaging these ideas and businesses are.
The Hyperloop, like the colonization of Mars, is another childish escape from a problem. Musk understands his developments in the realm of transportation as solving a problem we supposedly all acknowledge. In his words: “Public transport is painful. It sucks. There’s a bunch of random strangers, one of who [sic] might be a serial killer, OK, great.” So rather than actually address the problems which he crudely names, he suggests we avoid the problems entirely. Just build an entirely new infrastructure for dozens of billions of dollars which (even if logistically and physically possible) can only serve the rich, and leave the challenges of the already existing public infrastructure untouched.
This kind of behavior is irresponsible and hypocritical. Musk has received billions of dollars in direct taxpayer subsidies over the years, and billions more in taxpayer-funded research, and the success of his companies would have been impossible without the governmental and societal structures which promoted his companies’ growth. Musk is taking the wealth and resources accrued thanks to the system as a whole, and diverting it out of that system, into the world of private and expensive goods.
This diversion of money, research, and engineering from the general, public good to the narrow, private good produces not only greater inequality and political problems, but also the fantasy that this is a real solution.
This kind of egregious intensification of inequality is a real threat to humanity—it is a problem just as serious and complex than the ones Elon Musk claims to confront. Solutions to these kinds of problems are themselves complicated and difficult. Real change is slow. Musk always promises results in a matter of months or years, rather than decades or centuries, because he does not intend on fixing the problems which exist, but finding ways of privately avoiding them with immense numbers of resources for the privileged few—leaving the real problems unsolved but obscured, and therefore ignored by many.
Tesla, like the Hyperloop, is a luxury brand, not a solution to environmental problems. It’s a luxury brand in two senses: First, it’s not a cheap car, and they are really only available to wealthy people. Second, it gives the people who buy the car peace of mind, the intellectual luxury of imagining themselves doing some good by buying a nice car. To address the problem of carbon emissions or public transportation would mean to take seriously its causes and whom it affects. Instead, Musk identifies a problem—one element in a complex and unified system—isolates it, and proposes a technology which circumvents the entire system which gives rise to that problem. Simply introducing new electric cars into the already-existing system does nothing except give the illusion of progress—that is, provide an avenue for intellectual escape.
And these problems of class and economics don’t rely on the price tag of the final product. Even if the Tesla were to become “affordable” (the new Model 3 is hardly that at $45,000), it would still not be solving the problems it claims to confront. The electricity that the Teslas run on comes from coal and natural gas, and thus themselves contribute to the emissions problems and general inefficiencies which they supposedly work against. The production of these cars, of course, is also not “clean” in the slightest. Most importantly, though, the Tesla encourages a dangerous response to problems: to combat a real problem like climate change to which you contribute everyday, you don’t have to change anything about your lifestyle. You don’t have to make any sacrifices or give up any inconveniences—all you have to do is buy a new car and live the same life. Not only does the Tesla not make progress towards a sustainable form of transportation, it strengthens our obsession with individuated transport, which is in large part responsible for the problems it supposedly works to fix.
The Tesla and some of Musk’s other enterprises show that market-driven innovation does not necessarily lead to real solutions. Here, with profit as the driving force between social and political change, we see technologies geared towards pleasing the consumer, which is not the same as, for example, reversing climate change. By providing consumers with an easy way out—a “solution” which requires no real thought or effort, perhaps just some money—innovators in the private sector can become rich and make others complacent by providing these kinds of escapes.
So even when Musk’s technological concepts do come to fruition, they are often mere escapes for the privileged few, dangerous fantasies for the hopeful, and indirect attacks on the many.