A colleague recently shared this essay by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel. It’s main point is that Elon Musk is morally corrupt for pursuing a dream of putting humanity on Mars instead of helping solve social issues like poverty and inequality.
Russell and Vinsel suggest that anyone with wealth is morally obligated to engage in selfless humanitarianism. They also suggest that outlandish endeavours, like space travel, should be abandoned while poverty and other socio-political problems persist.
Such a stance is divisive – blaming wealthy tech entrepreneurs for societal ills to make ‘the rest of us’ look on them (Musk, specifically) unfavourably. It’s also naive – expecting that humanity can somehow solve all it’s problems before making progress.
“What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns?” the authors ask rhetorically, immediately putting forward the entirely baseless assumption that any wealthy person not overtly dedicating themselves to social justice is deliberately shunning humanity.
They go so far as to launch insults at Musk as if he’s some sort of comic book villain who just personally condemned the earth to oblivion, holds the only route of escape and is auctioning it off to the highest bidders.
It’s enough to make one wonder what led Musk to develop such contempt for the billions of humans who could never escape Earth.
The authors continue, saying “Musk’s concept of humanity excludes most living and breathing humans” and state that his estimate of 1 million people required for a self-sustaining civilisation is “0.014035087719298244 per cent” of the population in a deliberate invocation of the “1% vs the world” mantra. That the estimate is a practical estimate of what size a Mars colony would need to be to survive is completely ignored over the imperative to demonise Musk personally.
All of this serves to make the reader despise Musk, and any other tech entrepreneur, so that arguments put forward can be done with very little validity and still be accepted as truth. Let’s look at those arguments.
At the root is a belief that people like Musk should focus on problems such as climate change, poverty, infrastructure or other ‘more earthly’ concerns before a trip to Mars. While they declare Musk to be a “utopian” and “repulsed by the world we all share”, Russell and Vinsel themselves are painting a vision where there are no problems. To match up to their standards, Musk (and anyone with a decent bit of cash) would have to build a utopia where the world is free from economic or social strife before it would be morally acceptable to pursue technological advancements. Their utopia is even more immature a concept when they deride Musk’s goals as “adolescent space fantasies.”
In a fantastic display of cognitive dissonance the authors acknowledge the benefits of grandiose technological advancements;
Up to 80 per cent of the technologies created for NASA programs might have ended up in the domestic economy.
Yet then they argue “We don’t need trickle-down science” and make the completely unevidenced (read: made up) claim that “A public research agenda aimed squarely at solving real problems… would easily produce useful technologies that exceed the 80 per cent mark.”
Not once is the role of government and politicians discussed. Big issues like poverty are put forward as the priorities and the apparent solution amounts to ‘rich people should fix this’. Nowhere do they ask, after referencing the world’s huge wealth divide, why it exists and what governments are doing about it. Instead, they attack the financial beneficiaries of decades of failed government policy. Want to end the wealth divide and put more money into health and infrastructure? Then point the finger at the state. Demand a living wage, a fair tax regime, universal healthcare, public ownership of public services and a ban on poverty profiteering like the subprime mortgages that caused the 2008 economic collapse.
What if Musk did abandon SpaceX and spend his wealth on societal issues? Fantastic! I’m sure lots of good would come of it. What happens when the money runs out? What happens to all the people that were being helped? Do they slip back into poverty, isolation, precarity? Those problems the authors are so keen to see banished aren’t going to be solved by a short term injection of cash by a philanthropist. Real solutions need to come from systemic change instigated and legislated into being for the long term by a courageous state.
Playing this blame game does nothing except demonise and divide, to set the haves against the have-nots, when all of humanity is equally morally responsible for holding governments – those with the actual power to affect change – to account for their actions. To turn Russell and Vinsel’s argument back at them, why aren’t they using the power they have, as publishers with an audience, to encourage all people – regardless of their economic status – to join together and demand better of their governments. Why aren’t they using their megaphone to encourage people to join equality movements or protest budget cuts? What is morally right about writing insulting tirades against fellow human beings?