Elon Musk has declared Canada’s government illegitimate. His evidence? Pictures of lots of angry truckers rolling into Ottawa. On Sunday the world’s richest human told his 63 million Twitter followers, “It would appear that the so-called ‘fringe minority’ is actually the government.”
And: “If the government had the mandate of the people, there would be a significant counter-protest. There is not, therefore they do not.” He said this as if pointing to the inevitable output of one of his engineering equations.
Musk’s logic of course fails basic tests. Nearly 90 per cent of Canada’s truckers are vaccinated, so the convoy is not representative even of drivers, much less the nearly three out of four polled Canadians who believe truckers should be vaccinated or have to prove they are COVID-free at the border. Then there’s the matter of the actual far-right “fringe minority” extremists tied to the convoy and the hate some of them spew.
Regardless, Musk commands attention for his unmoored views because we live in an age when hugely influential people can pop off irresponsibly about anything and claim, hey, it’s just my personal opinion. Free speech dude! Joe Rogan’s feckless apology Sunday follows this script when he defends exposing his 11 million daily podcast listeners to quacks with deadly prescriptions for handling COVID. Hey, he’s just a curious guy with no filter.
At least Rogan’s resume warns us not to take him seriously. We know him to have been a carnival barker from the beginning, hosting the show Fear Factor that subjected contestants, and viewers, to jolts to the reptilian parts of our brains. Space baron Musk, on the other hand, claims credibility as a man of science and technology, owing his success, supposedly, to his powers of methodical reason.
Better to remind ourselves of the huckster Musk has proven himself to be, tweet by tweet. It’s time we named his methods and took seriously where this false prophet really wants to take us (besides outer space).
Recall that when the pandemic arrived in February 2020, American media turned to eminent minds like Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci who obligingly explained how viruses spread exponentially and why we’d need to alter our behaviour for a while in order to save millions of lives. Study up, they kept telling us. Act for the common good.
And what about Elon Musk? As the crisis unfurled, he threw Twitter tantrums, made vastly wrong predictions, defied government orders and trumpeted again and again what really mattered — his company placing humans on Mars.
Viewed from today’s vantage point — 5.7 million dead of the virus, 891,000 in the U.S. — the beliefs that Musk pushed at the pandemic’s outset posed a shocking menace. He began on March 6 by tweeting that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” A week later, he assured his SpaceX employees that COVID-19 wasn’t “within the top 100 health risks in the United States.” They were far more likely to die in a car crash, he said, failing to note that car crashes aren’t infectious, nor do they double in frequency every two to three days — as COVID-19 in the U.S. was then doing. Two days prior to this misleading outburst, the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic.
Already the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was predicting between 200,000 and 1.7 million Americans would die, depending on how seriously people embraced self-isolation and other measures. The number of new coronavirus infections, Musk proclaimed, would be close to zero by the end of April 2020.
The same week that Musk told his employees to chill and keep building rockets to space, California Gov. Gavin Newsom instructed everyone to stay at home unless they were providing an essential service. Musk kept SpaceX open, even as some workers complained their lives were put in jeopardy.
For a moment, Musk tried to play the role of tycoon hero by announcing he’d bought more than 1,000 ventilators from China for undersupplied U.S. hospitals — except they turned out not to be actual ventilators. Never mind; Musk’s main mission was to undercut public health measures he deemed “fascist.”
Children, Musk falsely stated, are “essentially immune,” so the daycare at SpaceX should stay open. Except for the old and infirm, he told his employees, everyone “otherwise healthy and young to middle-aged” had little to worry about, so remain at your stations. “FREE AMERICA NOW,” he tweeted. In September 2020, he doubled down by saying he wouldn’t take a vaccine if it became available.
Why would someone so smart propagate such stupidity about how this virus spreads and harms? Perhaps because Musk faces a challenge that had preoccupied previous managers of grand space enterprises: maintaining a skilled, loyal workforce in the service of some really far-fetched notions. In this wildly expensive and deadline-driven business, it always has been crucial to sustain the dream in order to maintain the bottom line. Space is the ultimate hustle.
One early space pioneer who knew this very well was Wernher von Braun, the registered Nazi and S.S. officer who designed Hitler’s death-dealing V-2 rockets and went on to help lead America’s space program. In wartime Germany, von Braun made use of slaves placed at his disposal, 20,000 of whom died building his rocket.
For America’s postwar space effort, he pitched his plans on Disney television programs and proposed an updated labour-supply solution: The campaign to explore Mars, he wrote in 1962, would entail lockstep organization. “Great numbers of professionals from many walks of life, trained to co-operate unfailingly, must be recruited,” he explained. “Such training will require years before each can fit his special ability into the pattern of the whole.”
Von Braun’s schema reflected the times: a booming America flowing its middle class into government and corporate bureaucracies. Musk’s rebel persona fits this different era of enterprising bro worship. (It’s doubtful von Braun would have jokingly tweeted he enjoyed the video game “Call of Booty,” as Musk did.)
But the two men share key traits. They are obsessive and grandiose. They combine tremendous technical facility with a cartoonish grasp of the human condition. They have even less of any workable idea of how we’d all get along on other planets. They founded and inspired ambitious macho geek cultures. And their overweening instinct for self-promotion inevitably has interlocked them with the two great mechanisms for lifting the American dream into the heavens — popular media and the military.
In this second Gilded Age, Musk is but one of several men so enriched by techno-capitalism that they can seed-finance their own space programs. Like Trump touting his United States Space Force, they have melded the stuff of science fiction into a reality television show. We watch agape as they claim to race one another to put humans on Mars and then colonize the universe.
We give our rapt attention as if to spell-binding preachers. Which makes sense because Musk’s pronouncements are the stuff of religion — human destiny and the salvation of the chosen. Musk certainly has an evangelist’s knack for prophesying doom. We have to get out of here, he has argued, given the “probability” that civilization will be wiped out, likely by A.I. robots. Besides, sooner or six billion years later, the sun will “engulf” us.
While Musk presents Mars as the Promised Land, certain facts prove inconvenient. When people say Mars is “the most Earth-like planet,” the degree of difference does bear noting. The average temperature on Mars roughly equals the coldest ever recorded in Yakutsk, Siberia. Should your artificial cocoon fail, your blood will boil. Or the radiation will sicken you, since a Red Planet visit would expose you to hundreds of times the level allowed for radiation workers on Earth — a Mars mission “showstopper” for the European Space Agency.
Musk, who vows to send a first wave of 100,000 people to Mars in about 10 years in 1,000 spaceships, admits it’s likely they’ll meet untimely ends. There’s a “good chance you’ll die, it’s going to be tough going.”
But eventually, he explains, all Mars really needs is a good “terraforming” — altering the atmosphere to make it more Earth-like by bombarding its poles with nuclear explosions. In 2019, he began selling a T-shirt saying NUKE MARS. When a Russian scientist estimated it would take 10,000 nuclear warheads to carry out the plan, Musk tweeted, “No problem.”
Serious experts, by the way, say Mars lacks the needed elements to make the concept even minutely plausible.
If not Mars, then, where does our destiny lie? Though it’s always a fun conversation starter to posit that, among billions of galaxies, surely there has to be one spot nice for humans, so far we’ve identified no second Earth. We have found exoplanets like, say, HD 189733 b, where winds of 5,400 miles per hour drive molten glass through the air, or WASP-76 b, where the thermometer hits 4,350 F and it rains liquid iron. Maybe stay home?
If space colonization is but a distracting fairy tale, what game is the world’s richest businessperson actually playing at?
A famous genesis story for Elon Musk is that his ambitions sprang from comic books. The bullied, miserable boy with the father he later called “a terrible human being” would read one comic after another at the local shop in Pretoria, South Africa until, he says, he’d read them all.
In those comics, the story is told again and again of a world coming undone because of villainous evil or human frailty. Then to the rescue, from unsuspected origins, arrives a superhero.
Writers of Musk profiles tend to assume he was sincerely inspired by such fantasies and yearns to make them real. What if, instead, the anxious boy merely grasped the power such yarns have over an anxious citizenry? What if the lesson he took away was how useful heroic narratives can be in service of a trickster with unlimited ambition?
Musk famously made millions co-founding PayPal, and plowed those earnings into the Tesla electric car company and SpaceX. He utilizes popular culture as instinctively as did von Braun — though today’s popcult landscape is markedly different. In 2018, Musk sported an OCCUPY MARS T-shirt as a guest on Joe Rogan’s videocast, on which he smoked a joint, warned artificial intelligence will advance “outside of human control,” and said that if we were “forever confined to Earth, this would not be a good future.”
Musk joked as well about fun he’s had selling 20,000 flamethrowers for $500 each through his Boring Company. “I said, ‘Don’t buy this flamethrower. Don’t buy it. Don’t buy it,’” he told Rogan with a bad-boy glint in his eye. “It’s a bad idea.”
At one point, Rogan wondered aloud: “How does this motherfucker have all this time and all this energy and all these ideas and then people just let him do these things?”
“Because I’m an alien,” Musk answered with a half-grin.
Rogan found solace in this notion of human salvation. “If there was, like, maybe an intelligent being that we created, you know like some A.I. creature that’s… superior to people and [could] maybe just hang around with us for a while like you’ve been doing and then fix a bunch of shit — maybe that’s the way,” he said, eyeing Musk for affirmation.
“I might have some mutation or something like that... probably,” said Musk, still grinning the half-grin of the trickster.
Nearly 52 million people have watched the two-and-a-half-hour interview, confirming Musk’s appeal as the prophet for the moment. Musk is so disruptively different from von Braun and all else before him — this rich geek defeating the government space monolith at its own game while fixing up a bunch of shit. We seem to have come light-years.
And yet, in most respects, we are pretty much right where we started.
Six decades after the Cold War launched the first satellites and missiles into the heavens, the space dream remains primarily a weapons program. In August 2020, Musk’s SpaceX signed a deal worth billions of dollars to launch U.S. Space Force vehicles into orbit, followed in October by a $150-million contract to build space-based missile-tracking systems.
Musk’s SpaceX workforce remains overwhelmingly male and white and, according to reports, the company is tone deaf to matters of race. The main business of its reusable rocket design is not crossing the 38 million miles to Mars but putting satellites in low-Earth orbit 350 miles above the ground — about the distance from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley.
Their purpose is to facilitate a cheaper broadband internet service. Musk has landed the U.S. army as a customer and seems to be angling to get the government to pay for the whole thing. Wernher von Braun, who once admitted, “I have to be a two-headed monster — scientist and public-relations man,” would appreciate the gambit.
While Musk points us to a distant star, his other hand splays like a puppeteer’s, strings descending to connect everybody and everything on Earth. Surveillance by governments inevitably will be further empowered. Von Braun sensed the demand seven decades earlier, rhapsodizing that from low orbit “nothing will go unobserved.”
Musk aims to send aloft more than 40,000 satellites to join the 5,000 already up there (many of them dead, and joined by some 34,000 other good-size chunks of “space junk”). Experts warn he will blot out astronomers’ views and create a space junk nightmare.
Nevertheless, space lord Elon proceeds to build an ugly development on the edge of the sky, raising billions in equity for his Starlink “constellation,” and making noises about an initial public offering. The Starlink project has analysts predicting that SpaceX could become worth $120 billion. Or maybe just $5 billion, they say. That’s how it goes with space IPOs. Just $115 billion rides on how well Musk weaves his story and carries through. It’s here one arrives when choosing to follow Musk’s money rather than be mesmerized by his trickster tweets.
But while the equity market studies SpaceX’s telecom play, what creates popular buzz is the comic-book story of apocalypse and redemption. The bizarre belief persists that even as the digital capitalism hollows out the middle class, destabilizes our politics and delivers stratospheric wealth to just a few, it will be the winners in this system who deliver us from our unravelling fate.
In their hungers for the role, today’s sellers of the space dream are alike. Musk, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Virgin founder Richard Branson and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen all as boys “mostly read the same science fiction,” a New Yorker review of Christian Davenport’s book The Space Barons notes. “The space barons were all outsiders as young men; they’re all obsessed with rockets; they all want, more than anything, to win. Their space ventures are supposedly driven by a common goal of elevating or saving humankind, but they don’t always treat others humanely.”
If anything, this armchair diagnosis goes too easy on the space barons: They are wounded and megalomaniacal, and it is difficult to know which of them is more cautionary. Maybe Bezos; if it’s all about whose is biggest, then Bezos wins by predicting a trillion humans will someday populate the universe. Musk merely vows to put a million people on Mars by sending three rockets a day to fill “a lot of jobs” there. Then again, Bezos has let slip why the void above us attracts so much hokum. He himself has admitted that “space is really easy to overhype.”
Now is the moment to get real. It is time for each of us to contemplate what lessons to take from the pandemic and its reminder of the fragility of our bodies and societies. We must be on guard against schemers who see opportunity in promoting disinformation in order to sow division and feed their own ambitions. We must recognize their bad faith. We must be attuned to the time-worn methods of today’s mega-hucksters and subject their claims to rigorous logic. As the storming of the U.S. Capitol last year and the latest tweets from Elon Musk remind us, nothing less than the legitimacy of our democratic functions is at stake.
Among all of Musk’s false assertions, here is his most dangerous: Whatever vexes us here on Earth, he promises, can be escaped. This only requires the application of enough money, technology and human will. And no single person commands more of those resources than Musk, his wealth tripling in COVID’s first year alone.
Our true route to self-preservation? It begins by recognizing why the brain of Musk is powerful but untrustworthy, as if missing a key line of code. When the coronavirus began its rampage, some glitch in Musk’s wiring would not accept the knowledge of epidemiologists who’d already seen tens of thousands die of it around the world. Instead, Musk deemed construction of a Mars colony to be an essential service.
We might ponder all this from a different point on Earth less infected by the American space fever, and consider the perspective of Mark McCaughrean, who is a senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency.
“It’s a wild-eyed investment pitch, pumped up by the enthusiasm of credulous fanboys brought up on comic book sci-fi, wrapped in evangelism of saving humanity from itself and the problems we’ve wrought on this planet,” he tweeted in response to a 2017 paper by Musk laying out his plan for getting to Mars.
McCaughrean wasn’t done, so he sent another lamentation to the skies. “I’m less concerned about making humans a multi-planetary species,” he tweeted, “than I am about making the Earth a sustainable multi-species planet, before we go gadding off colonising the solar system.”
Ellen Stofan, a former NASA chief scientist, dared to speak similar heresy with cooler, stoic precision. “Job one is to keep this planet habitable,” she said. “There isn’t a planet B.”
Nor, by the way, are there backup versions of Canada’s governing institutions available once we’ve broken those that exist. Something to keep in mind the next time the richest human on Earth tells his 63 million followers to root for the crash of this democracy we call home.
Portions of this essay are drawn from a longer piece published by the New Republic in December 2020.