By Daniel Goulden
In 2015, the blog Wait But Why began publishing a series on Elon Musk and his various exploits. More hagiography than examination, writer Tim Urban’s witty blog posts portrayed Musk as a visionary genius deeply concerned with the future of humanity and adept at tapping technological trends.
The series, conveyed through endearing stick-figure illustrations, starts with a comic depicting Musk’s people calling Urban to set up an interview. Urban’s head immediately falls off, stunned at the attention he’s receiving from “the world’s raddest man.” It’s jokey and cute. Later in the series, Urban explains how Musk has grand plans to deliver affordable electric cars to the masses, protect us all from AI, and guide us to a wondrous climate change–free future. Musk comes off as brilliant but relatable, a down-to-earth billionaire looking out for humanity’s collective interest and always down to talk to a silly little blogger who draws stick figures.
It’s strange looking back on the series eight years later. The hagiography that Musk developed and Urban diligently scribed now lies in tatters. Musk is no longer in the news for audacious presentations touting affordable electric cars and space colonization, but for actions ranging from the disreputable (his stewardship of Twitter, his personal life) to the cartoonishly villainous (alleged torturing of monkeys).
As Musk’s star wanes, it’s worth revisiting the story that he told the world. It was a story that sent Tesla and SpaceX stocks to the moon, netted Musk billions of dollars in government contracts, and, at one point, made him the richest person in the world. But it was also a story of glimmering optimism, where humanity solved its problems — including the biggest of all, climate change — instead of succumbing to them. In a world where governments, especially that of the United States, had functionally given up on any aggressive climate policy, Musk spun a yarn that filled the void. By reassessing it, we can learn about the failure to confront climate change and chart a path forward.
The “emissions gap” describes the gulf between the stated climate goals of the world’s nations and the amount of decarbonization required to avert climate disaster. It demonstrates, in physical terms, the failure of the world’s ruling classes to take climate seriously and prevent its most ghastly effects. The world is currently on track to warm by 2.8°C by the end of the century. We’re nearly a full degree off from our stated goal of 2°C
The emissions gap is more than just a physical measurement. It is a hole in our politics. A modestly safe and secure future is slipping away, replaced by one with raging storms, flooded cities, unbearable heat, extreme famine, and forced migration. The emissions gap is the yawning chasm between the physics of planet earth and our plutocratic politics.
Musk surged into this gap, loading it up with dreams of mass electric cars and space travel. The core message of Urban’s Wait But Why hagiography can be summed up as, “Don’t worry, Elon’s got this.” Musk has founded multiple companies — Tesla, Solar City, Space X, Neuralink, Open AI — all because he wants to save humanity and guide us into a carbon-free, multi-planetary future. You, dear reader, aren’t alone in caring about the planet. In fact, there is a man of exceeding wealth and genius even more concerned than you are and actually doing something about it. You simply have to drop any misgivings and let Musk — the great man of history personified — pull humankind into a spectacular new universe, replete with hyperloops, Teslas, and Martian colonies. Forget sweeping decarbonization and radical policy changes — we can save the planet by purchasing snazzy electric cars.
Indeed, even though Musk conjured up a wildly different future, the economic system that underpinned it not only remained intact, but was amplified. In a now-infamous tweet, Musk wrote of importing indentured servants to Mars, who would work on the red planet to pay off the cost of transport — less a utopia, more Dubai in space. Unlike the sci-fi writers he supposedly adores — leftists like Iain M. Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson, who radically reimagine the organization of society along egalitarian lines — Musk’s vision, dressed up with Urban’s humorous prose, was simply the status quo extended outward toward infinity.
Yet it is precisely this lack of imagination that made Musk’s hagiography so appealing. If you were a political cynic who believed that nothing fundamentally would ever change, then Musk offered a way out. To go even further, if you directly benefited from the economic and political system creating the emissions gap, Musk was a godsend. By giving money to Musk, policymakers and investors could show that they cared about the future without threatening their own positions of influence and pre-emptively disarm critics.
We see this in Musk’s disastrous impact on the US transit system. Cities from Las Vegas to Chicago to Louisville awarded Musk’s Boring Company — which claims to solve traffic using elaborate underground tunnels — with billion-dollar contracts. Rather than pouring money into public transit and working through the thorny political problems spawned by suburban sprawl, corporate politicians instead opted to throw Musk a couple billion dollars to build a tunnel and go on TV claiming to fix traffic issues. Fast forward to today, and few tunnels have actually been built. The only one in operation is in Las Vegas, a single-lane nightmare tunnel that suffers from — you guessed it — traffic jams.
Musk has a history of not following through on his word. At various points he has promised: a sports car affixed with rockets; a music streaming service for Tesla; rockets that would replace air travel; a cure for Alzheimer’s; and a manned Mars mission by 2020. Urban spilled gallons of digital ink hyping the Tesla Model 3, Musk’s electric car for the masses. But when the time came for the tech titan to unveil the Model 3, Musk rolled out another luxury car with a slightly lower price tag. (The base Model 3 retails for $43,900.)
You might think that consistently pulling a bait and switch on shareholders and the public would be a bad idea for such a prominent figure, but Musk has to fib because his genuine accomplishments aren’t that impressive. Tesla’s absurd valuation, greater than all the other major automakers combined, is not based on what Tesla is able to produce, but Musk’s promises of the future. Same with his fevered climate dreams: Musk cannot fill the emissions gap. No one person can. But he said he could, and he got rich.
Environmental policy and space travel were once the domain of the public. The New Deal’s Conservation Corps undid decades of environmental devastation, and NASA was the driving force of space travel. By claiming that he alone would solve climate change — that he alone would bring humanity to space — Musk not only attempted to privatize public policy, but the capacity to enact a democratically determined dream. Visions of the future no longer belonged to ordinary workers. They belonged to Elon.
As Musk’s grand future has failed to come to pass and carbon emissions keep rising, his increasingly erratic behaviour has allowed him to stay in the limelight. From his bizarre relationship with Grimes to his legal troubles with the Securities and Exchange Commission over an internet joke to his seemingly impetuous purchase of Twitter, Musk increasingly appears to the public as a childish billionaire with poor impulse control, not the sci-fi sage over whom Reddit fawned and dubbed the “Real Life Tony Stark.” Musk offered complacency dressed up as futurism. He was a boring man who disguised himself as a visionary. He lied about his abilities, and now that the bill has come due, he is floundering.
Instead of listening to a story about the omnipotent brilliance of Musk, let’s tell our own story: one of solidarity, of people organizing together to confront the climate crisis, a story where anyone can be a hero who helps save the world, not just some billionaire with a God complex. And if we tell this story well, we can build a future better than anything Elon Musk has ever tried to sell. (IPA Service)