Elon Musk’s Future Industries Could Change the World
[This article appeared in AlterNet, November 2013]
Hey, what are you up to these days? Elon Musk is helping build a future to save our globally warming asses.
Of course there are less direct ways to put that, but we’re in a planetary emergency careening 67,000 mph through space. It’s long past time that we electrified Earth’s fleet, or created a nationwide solar infrastructure. Or built a emissions-free mass transportation system that can hurl us from L.A. to San Francisco in minutes? Or a planet-hopping rockets and pods that launch Earth’s panoptic populace into a much-needed cosmological attitude adjustment? Something else we’re desperately going to need to survive mass extinction?
A gifted visionary, engineer and capitalist, the fortysomething Musk, founder of Paypal, has long dreamed like us of such crucial advances — and then somehow went out and made them real. and real profitable. All while the rest of us have been working on … what?
This is an existential question the ravages of climate change will eventually force us to answer sooner than we think at our given rate, which is too wrong, too slow, too often. We desperately need to speed up, and for that we need more minor and major players like Musk on one hand openly calling “bullshit” on fossil fools while on the other creating industries to replace their inevitable demise. For all the concern about Musk being a rich boy with rich toys, given what we are up against with climate change, that he is doing all of the below while not being an “ultra hardcore” green probably says more about how far doubters, not Musk, have to go to take global warming seriously.
With that in mind, here are five ways the futurist Elon Musk is hopefully helping forestall the the fucked-up future we’re building together today.
Unplugging our entire global fleet — of everything, like yesterday — from dirty fuels is an absolute if we want anything resembling a fighting chance. Musk’s Tesla Motors is fighting back with blowout performances on the street (and the Street) from its pricy Model S, which is subsidizing a coast-to-coast supercharger buildout supporting a more affordable, accessible $35,000 Gen3, arriving in 2015. The argument that zero-emissions Teslas are clean energy for the rich should evaporate after that: Gen3’s price point is well within range of popular middle-class cars and hybrids and AlterNet progressives, half of whom take home $50,000+ annually and a quarter of whom take home more than $100,000+ annually.
But Tesla’s green argument is dominant: Pan-class drivers nevertheless pay in gas and blood to haul SUVs, trucks and junkers from one end of the planet to another, going nowhere. Even its luxury Model S pays back its pound of flesh, whether in recouped gas money, higher travel efficiencies and of course zero emissions. Last week, the Model S tripped from San Diego to Vancouver without dropping a dime on dirty fuel profiteers. Exponentially replicate that feat across the entire nation and you’ve got a potent solution to the death-bringer crap cars perennially spew into our worsening atmosphere.
“Tesla Motors have some of the best vehicles on the market,” Cleantechnica founder Zachary Shahan told me. “Model S was named best car in the world by some of the largest auto magazines and journalists. Consumer Reports gave it the highest rating of any car it had ever rated. Tesla has completely changed the perceptions of electric vehicles and their market.”
Tesla’s current electric car market includes alternatives like Nissan’s cheaper Leaf, Ford’s underwhelming Focus and others hovering near the Gen3’s $35,000 sweet spot. Even without its mass green appeal, Tesla has energized portfolios, having tripled this year as it motors toward $200 a share and increasingly solar homes. Speaking of…
Like Tesla, this leading U.S. home solar systems provider has experienced a meteoric rise in cultural and economic capital this year, despite only going public at the end of 2012. Chairman Musk and cousins, SolarCity founders and chief officers Lyndon and Peter Rive have plumbed their well-connected investor rolodexes to create partnerships with corporations, governments, banks and whoever else it can find — like Google, which dropped $280 million in 2011, its biggest clean-energy investment at the time — to finance much-needed nationwide residential and commercial solar installations, audits, retrofits and upgrades. Solar City’s capitalization on a no-brainer infrastructure has made it a massive solar player in an increasingly crowded field in a very short time.
But who cares? Everything from our roofs and walls to our cars and heads needs a solar panel on it, and now. “We can’t wish this problem away, and pointing fingers won’t solve it,” Solar Energy Industries Association vice-president Ken Johnson told me. “That’s why it’s so encouraging to see visionaries like Musk taking the lead.”
“Central to SolarCity’s dominance has been the solar leasing model, of which some are very critical,” added Shahan. “But it’s hugely popular and has an appeal that touches many consumers. On a Tesla conference call, Musk once discussed where SolarCity’s focus on solar leasing came from, noting that the SolarCity team found people much more attracted to simply leasing rather than putting money down or getting a loan. That has allowed SolarCity to blow up, and it seems that Elon was quite involved in the development of that model and market.”
Of course, as Musk has noted before, we’re going to need exponential innovation in our budding solarized and electrified fleets and homes if we’re going to survive space in any meaningful capacity. That species necessity is reason enough to immediately send our rich and poor alike into Earth’s orbit, to reality-check our heads and aspirations, to exponentially gather and process ever more astronomical and atmospheric data confirming that humanity is hanging upon a slender existential thread. For every cynical complaint about ferrying the rich into space there are more accessible cultural counterarguments like Alfonso Cuaron’s triumphant but terrifying Gravity. A supernova metafilm waking terrorized Earthlings again to their desperate need to deeper understand our warming Earth, perhaps even reach the purportedly tens of billions of planets just like it.
To counter the cynicism that binds us to our bibles and godphones, we’re going to need all public and private hands on deck — and Musk’s SpaceX has lately begun to realize his astronomical vision. Earlier this year SpaceX’s reusable rocket prototype Grasshopper made its highest flight, while last year its reusable spacecraft Dragon became the first private spaceship to dock at the International Space Station. That uncrewed feat impressed NASA enough to commission the reusable crewed version DragonRider, now in development, which will ferry astronauts and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit. Oh, did I mentioned the rockets were reusable?
As for concerns Musk is a private capitalist looking to constrain public space travel — which is, it bears repeating, the raison d’être of SpaceX — he has admitted that it is not less but more private and public space coupling that is necessary to achieve humanity’s higher astronomical ambitions, which he hopes includes “a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.” “In order for SpaceX to be successful it has to become a part of the system,” Musk explained recently in Dublin. “It can’t be an outsider forever. We believe it is important to develop an interplanetary transport technology, but I don’t want to compromise the fundamental goals of the organization in order to become an insider.”
Musk also probably wouldn’t like to compromise the zero-emissions ethics of Tesla and SolarCity either, as SpaceX follows its fellow spacefarers at Kennedy Space Center — where Musk made waves this year for entertaining an offer from doomed Florida to build a private space sport while SpaceX simultaneously launches NASA missions at nearby Cape Canaveral — into shame as some of the Sunshine State’s most toxic citizens. But Musk is making bigger waves working just as hard to electrify our fleets and solarize our houses, concerns that bleed directly into SpaceX’s recycled rockets. Did I mentioned the spaceships and rockets are recyclable?
But for all of his interstellar ambition, Musk knows mass transportation on Earth comes first: Before humanity can even hope to rocket around space it needs to relearn how to move amongst itself. Musk’s recently unveiled Hyperloop concept has entered the fray as what its visionary calls a “fifth-mode” alternative to traditional trains, planes and automobiles, as well as the high-speed rail infrastructure already underway. Its mass transit is more personal: Pressurized capsules containing single or few passengers hurled by air and sun along elevated or subterranean depressurized pneumatic tubes from Los Angeles to San Francisco like utopian messages from the past to the future. It’s also comparatively cheap at $6 billion, especially compared to the exhaustive resource wars propping up our traditional, increasingly obsolete transportation system.
Having unveiled Hyperloop earlier this year as an advanced white paper on SpaceX and Tesla’s sites, Musk is of course already developing a demonstration while opensourcing its subsequent design to anyone who can help him make it work. Hyped up by optimists and shot down by defeatists, Hyperloop is at the very least reorienting national dialogue toward what Bob Marley called “movement of the people” in his classic Exodus. “The intent,” Musk explained in Hyperloop’s proposal, “has been to create a new open source form of transportation that could revolutionize travel.”
Whether it eventually materializes or not — although, historically speaking, it would be foolish to bet against Musk — Hyperloop is another convergence of Musk’s sprawling but interconnected interests. Tesla’s green fleet and bettering batteries, SolarCity’s sprawling sunpower production and consumption, SpaceX’s galactic ambition and mobility: All achieve a wider ideal for a humanity presently locked in a trophic cascade of system failures. What else Musk will come up with next? Well…
[Insert Invention Here]
What sounds cool? A gesture-based design system for rockets, or whatever, that routes blueprints to 3D printers? Musk created one after watching Iron Man, whose director Jon Favreau famously based its Tony Stark iteration, who famously used a kickass gesture-based design system in the film, on Musk. That hyperreal bleed got cooler when Musk and Favreau traded tweets about it, closing a circle of influence that remains instructive, given how inspired Musk has been by Isaac Asimov and other sci-fi and fantasy visionaries before him. But he is also trafficking in true-life visionaries like the astounding Nikolai Tesla, whose Long Island laboratory Musk is reportedly helping preserve and whose name has given Musk’s electric empire its namesake.
What do we need, atop the other concerns that brings Musk’s future industries closer by the day? Well, we could really use advances in capture strategies, machines to suck the apocalyptic CO2 and CH4 out the sky and put it to work for us. A system that could repurpose nuclear waste and fallout would rule right now, but Musk knows that because he visited Fukushima and donated a $250,000 solar project. So maybe he’s already working on that.
Wait, why are we waiting for him to do it? Wasn’t the point of this analysis to get everyone else to up their game too? To do something besides watch or read the stupid shit Republicans say, or buy crap that will just end up in an oceanic vortex, or invent an app that does anything else besides save our hyperconsuming hides? Don’t we want to save the world? Aren’t we paying attention too?
“Few things threaten our future more than climate change,” said Johnson. “Sea levels are rising, we’re experiencing more intense and unpredictable storms and droughts. To his credit, Musk is leading by example.”