On an unremarkable Sunday in January, I woke up with a migraine. I downed two tablets of Excedrin, dry, and felt the pills rattle down my throat. Still in bed, my partner scrolled through his news feed and informed me that Elon Musk was officially the richest man in the world with a whopping US $185 billion. This has since ping ponged back and forth between Musk and Bezos and as of April 2021, Musk’s net worth teeters around US $140 billion.
My brain groans when Musk is brought up. Simply put, I don’t like the cut of his jib. But it’s more than that. So many environmentalists have the technotopia hook stabbed into their cheeks and are eagerly being reeled in. From time to time, I want to believe in the mythology of Musk. He is presented as a lovable boy genius who sprouted from Jimmy Neutron into Tony Stark. But I can’t bring myself to believe in a billionaire man of the people. I know better than to campaign against his character, or his inherited privileges, or even his erratic and hurtful behaviour. Although these all contribute to my anti-Musk bias, they distract from the crux of the issue.
Regardless of his rags to riches fairy-tale, Musk is currently one of the most powerful people in the history of humanity. Not only do his greenwashed products contribute to climate change, but the mere fact that he alone holds that amount of power undermines the entire premise of environmental justice. Both through symbolism and function, Musk is an environmental threat.
Musk’s brand of environmentalism splits the movement into two irreconcilable schools of thought. The first being: climate change is a problem that needs to be solved. And a handful of the brightest (mostly white, mostly male) brains that Silicon Valley has to offer, are going to provide the world with that solve. This plan needs free spirits and free markets and it promises an environmental and economic utopia. It acknowledges that earth has limited resources but argues that humanity can outsmart natural systems with technology. And if all that fails, we always have Mars to fall back on.
In environmental disciplines, this theory is called Economic Rationalism. The distilled premise is to keep regulation low so innovation can propel humanity forward. While those gears turn, the rest of us should cheer on from the sidelines and keep to our due diligence by recycling and avoiding plastic straws. There is a well-known adage in economic theory: a rising tide lifts all boats. Of course, this is to say that strong economic conditions benefit all participants. The irony of this statement is that in this case, global sea level rise will metaphorically and literally sink all boats.
The second school of thought, Green Radicalism, critiques Economic Rationalism. It argues that the neoliberal eternal growth model is exactly what propels the climate crisis. To repeat this growth pattern, in the hope that it creates the economic conditions most conducive to innovation is reckless. The consequences of late-stage capitalism are tangible and devastating. They vary from the mass COVID-19 deaths in for-profit long term care homes to the non-recyclable Tim Horton’s coffee cups that plague ditches across Canada. These occurrences aren’t isolated; they exist in a model of wealth that prioritizes growth and profits over all else. This is why we need to cut back; not double down, live within our means; not beyond, and change power dynamics; not merely lightbulbs. Needless to say, this isn’t a particularly easy sell for the same reasons that David Suzuki isn’t as sexy as Tony Stark.
Green Radicalism shouldn’t be dismissed based on its namesake. In this context radicalism is more than Doc Martens and a Nirvana t-shirt. It’s the belief that our relationship to power and environment directly affects the health of the planet. Green Radicalism comes in many forms, some more viable than others, but the gist of the theory is that environmental conditions are inextricably linked to human behaviour. Therefore solutions need to include science, social justice and philosophy. Anthropogenic climate crises, like loss of biodiversity, the enhanced greenhouse effect and plastic pollution, are rooted in collective attitudes that consumers hold toward the environment. Therefore, climate justice asks us to interrogate our environmental assumptions and privileges.
It’s hard to squish competing ethical theories into a few hundred words. Ethics is both intoxicating and bottomless so it’s easy to get lost in the ideas and miss the action. So much praise around Musk is that he is the man that’s getting things done. The climate crisis is daunting and we are eager to cling to hope. Musk gives us that hope. But we can do better. Extremely technocratic solutions- like inhabiting Mars for instance- are just too inefficient. It’s like trying to end world hunger with caviar, champagne and cigars. I hear a lot of Musk zealots say that Tesla is establishing the technology and infrastructure so that the industry will eventually be more affordable. I take that point but there is no such thing as trickle down climate justice. Farmers in the Global South aren’t going to be dignified one luxury car at a time. It doesn’t work like that.
I am reluctant to dive too deep into the business practices of the Musk empire. My boyfriend aspires to own a Tesla Cybertruck and he is so excited that when he talks about it his voice cracks. He watched the Space X Starship with wide eyes and awe. Who can blame him? It’s all pretty cool and who am I to bring him back down to earth? No one wants to talk about how Musk chose Reno, Nevada, for Tesla’s Gigafactory because it was the only place in North America that didn’t require an environmental impact assessment. No one wants to talk about the insidious nature of Lithium mining and the corresponding political unrest in Bolivia. And certainly, no one wants to talk about unfair labour practices in Tesla factories. After all, fast cars and rockets are way more fun than geopolitics and labour rights. I’m being vague because in the unlikely event of a lawsuit, Musk Incorporated would shatter our small newspaper like a metal ball hitting the window of the Cyber Truck.
Critics of technotopia are dismissed as luddites or people that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Green Radicalism isn’t against innovation. It believes climate justice can be so much more than changing the mechanics of the combustion engine. It’s ironic that Musk is considered a vanguard of industry when really, his ideas are in lockstep with any typical neoliberal business model. Granted, the automotive and petrol industries have worked to thwart electric innovation and Tesla has obviously changed the game. Electric cars are important (Tesla). Rural internet access is important (Starlink). And space research is important (SpaceX). These are incredible feats of engineering and business, but they shouldn’t be confused with environmentalism.
How we characterize the problem dictates the solutions we consider. If we see the climate crisis as a failure of technology then we will try to solve it with bigger, better, faster, stronger tech-oriented solutions. Maslow’s Law of Instrument has been remixed into the catchy saying: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The Elon Musk version of this is: when you’re a rich boy who is fascinated by physics and tech, every problem is solved with a spaceship. We need to stop reducing this crisis to a Silicon Valley pet project. Environmental action needs smart technology, bold governments and economic reform. Without systemic change we are reinventing the wheel just to steer it straight into the flames.
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