• Daniel Sjoholm

Are Tech Billionaires Ruining Our Chances at Combating Climate Change?


File photo of a New Shepard launch in 2019. Credit: Blue Origin

For as long as humans have existed, we've dreamed of traveling among the stars. In ancient times, we created fabulous stories about constellations and their meanings. More recently, books and movies about space travel have pushed the boundaries of human possibility and introduced millions of people to new technology.

There is another audience for these science fiction stories—tech billionaires. Elon Musk (personal net worth: $231 billion) and Jeff Bezos ($165 billion) are both well-known fans of sci-fi. Musk, owner of Tesla and SpaceX, drew inspiration for his spacefaring projects from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Foundation. Similarly, Bezos’ jaunt to space in July 2021 has its origins in Star Trek, his favorite childhood TV show.

While these tech moguls have embraced science fiction, they have never truly understood its messages. The Hitchhiker’s Guide, written by environmental activist Douglas Adams, begins with a clear warning about the growth of a rich civilization. Star Trek, meanwhile, portrays an idealistic communist society that uses no currency at all. These fairly obvious messages seem to have been lost on Musk and Bezos, who prefer to instead focus on the fun gadgets and flashy technology. The societies in works of science fiction, however, are invariably the opposite of what our current tech billionaires envision for society. They are based on cooperation and have achieved equality in both class and race.

In science fiction, humanity is united and striving towards a better, more prosperous future. In the real world, however, it’s a space race—a personal rivalry between two of the richest men on Earth rather than a genuine attempt to see who can help humanity the fastest. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are in a decade-long struggle to see who can be the first to send humans to Mars.

The goal has always been colonizing Mars. Both men are adamant that escaping climate change is one of their main motivations. They are living in a fantasy world. To be very clear, long-term colonization and terraforming of Mars is both impossible and not a realistic solution to climate change. The technical and safety issues surrounding space travel have never and may never be solved and it’s impossible to resolve the mental and physical toll of space travel on the human body. Humans, after all, are adapted to life on Earth. As a result, it’s unclear if many people would even be willing to embark on a one-way journey away from the only planet we’ve ever known.

Space, also, is not economical. Each pound of material on even the cheapest SpaceX rocket costs around $27,000 to send into orbit. This is only slightly less than a spaceship’s weight in literal gold, which currently sells for $29,000 per pound. This is due to the fact that moving things through space is like “drinking a lake through a coffee straw:” technically possible, but in actuality totally impossible. It’s simply easier and cheaper to deal with our problems here on Earth.

Our tech overlords like to propagate the idea that Mars can be a sort of ‘Planet B’—a place we can run to when shit hits the fan on Earth. This is an abject lie. Mars cannot be a Planet B because there truly is no Planet B. Even in the most pessimistic of scenarios—involving a nuclear war combined with climate change—Earth's temperature would drop by around 20 degrees. This is still around 100 degrees hotter than Mars. While there is water on Mars, it is trapped entirely around the frozen poles, where temperatures of around -240 degrees make it virtually impossible for any hypothetical settlers to utilize. Some of Musk's ideas for terraforming Mars are so ridiculous as to veer into the realm of absurdist comedy. He has repeatedly floated the idea of setting off approximately 10,000 nuclear weapons in Mars' atmosphere in an attempt to free up carbon dioxide trapped in the Martian soil. Needless to say, this is not going to happen, and it is certainly a more expensive proposition than simply investing in clean energy here on Earth. Mars is not the answer. So why do billionaires still think it is?

No matter what grand claims Musk and Bezos may offer about the future accessibility of space travel, the truth is it has always been meant to be a flashy life raft for the rich. In a modern-day Titanic, the rich envision themselves fleeing while leaving the poor behind on an ever-warming planet.

So, what should the billionaires be doing instead? They must invest in the boring but necessary improvements which will be needed to slow climate change. Convincing them will be difficult, but it’s worth trying. We need to produce cheaper, more energy-efficient planes and boats. We need more bikes and fewer cars on the roads. We need denser, more walkable cities. These solutions are in direct opposition to the profit motives of these billionaires. Musk's company Tesla produces cars, and Bezos's Amazon utilizes a massive fleet of cars, planes, and boats to deliver packages directly to your doorstep.

This strong profit motive is why big tech companies like Amazon must be broken up by government regulations. There is precedent for such an action—massive oil producer Standard Oil was forcibly split in 1911 under the Sherman Antitrust Act. In doing so with tech companies, we could reduce the power and wealth of billionaires, hopefully forcing them to abandon their space-race delusions. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with finding real solutions to climate change right here on Earth.

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