Questioning Musk’s absurd wealth and the adulation he receives is legitimate, but he remains a vital link in the fight for a cleaner environment
During her passionate address at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September last year, the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!" I happened to visit Thunberg’s home country, Sweden, while Gretamania was at its peak, and attended one of the rallies that mobilized millions as part of her climate strike initiative. Many posters and banners at the event demanded a complete break from the current economic system, questioning the viability of “green capitalism".
Meanwhile, the world’s foremost green capitalist, Elon Musk, was calling Thunberg “a 16 year old who has better reasoning & more heart than the vast majority of political leaders". Later that year, the CEO of Tesla, who envisions a future in which every vehicle is powered by electricity derived from the sun, donated a million dollars to a tree-planting initiative and briefly changed his first name on Twitter to Treelon.
Musk came to Tesla Motors as an early-stage investor, putting to use some of the fortune he made as one of the founders of the online payment firm PayPal. He soon took over Tesla’s operations, and led it to achieve what many thought impossible: making electric cars desirable and fun. Teslas can accelerate faster than the quickest fuel-driven production sports cars when a feature called “ludicrous mode" is turned on. They can be summoned, Batmobile style, to the spot where their owners stand. They practically drive themselves thanks to the company’s AutoPilot technology. Perhaps best of all, they improve with time, since data collected from all Teslas on the road helps refine the software of individual cars, which gets updated periodically, like a mobile phone operating system.
All this has led investors to value Tesla as a tech company rather than a car manufacturer, focusing on growth prospects rather than current revenues. The firm’s share price has been in ludicrous mode for much of the past year, turning its CEO into one of the world’s richest people.
When he is not brainstorming with Tesla’s engineers to make more efficient solar cells and batteries, Musk brainstorms with engineers working in other companies he has founded to develop reusable rockets and brain-computer interfaces. He appears to have called dibs on all possible futures: If saving Earth’s environment does not work out, maybe colonizing Mars will.
In the little spare time he has between these gigs, he is a Twitter troll. It can be entertaining, like when he sent Egyptian officials into a tizzy by joking, “Aliens built the pyramids obv". He is often obnoxious, however, and appears to have taken a hard right turn politically since funding those million trees last year.
He was Trumpian in his dismissal of the threat of covid-19, touting unproven remedies and claiming in late March, “Based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April." When the end of April arrived, the US reported over 30,000 daily cases and over 2,000 daily deaths. Undaunted, he railed against shutdowns, called pandemic-related restrictions fascist, and even criticized economic countermeasures, tweeting on 24 July, “Another government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people imo."
When I am in a generous mood, I think he is engaging in a performance, changing like Tony Stark, with whom he is often compared, does from one film to the next. Tesla currently produces the best-selling car in the US by revenue, its Model 3, but sedan sales in the US have cratered. To be really successful in its home country, Tesla must sell massive numbers of pickup trucks, which are especially popular in Republican-dominated states. With a few months worth of tweets, Musk has turned Tesla from a brand associated with coastal liberals to one welcome in the reddest interiors.
Its Cybertruck, scheduled for release in late 2021 or early 2022, is built like a tank, with a “nearly impenetrable exoskeleton". It is the kind of vehicle you would feel secure driving in a dystopia where “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing." The Cybertruck’s radical design is risky, but not the trickiest aspect of its roll-out. That would be making money without government handouts.
Tesla earns hundreds of millions of dollars each year through the sale of zero emission vehicle (ZEV) credits in a scheme pioneered by California and adopted by a few other American states. Every high-end Model S that Tesla sells in California earns it about $20,000 (around ₹14 lakh) in ZEV credits, a sum paid by other car companies to compensate for carbon emissions from the vehicles they produce. Red states are not part of the ZEV credit market, and even California sets a weight limit for ZEVs which the Cybertruck breaches. Aside from ZEV revenues, Tesla has received billions of dollars in tax credits and taxpayer-guaranteed loans during its 17 years of largely profit-free existence. Musk’s tweet against a new stimulus package was a deplorable, though far from unique, case of a billionaire fattened off subsidies wanting to deny them to the indigent unemployed during a painful economic downturn.
The economist Mariana Mazzucato has argued persuasively that governments undersell their contribution to innovation, and to companies like Tesla and Apple, leading society to overvalue entrepreneurs like Musk and the late Steve Jobs. While Mazzucato illuminatingly highlights the state’s crucial role in basic research and early stage funding, she has shown little evidence of governments creating and marketing finished products as enticing as those produced by Apple and Tesla. Questioning Musk’s absurd wealth and the adulation he receives is legitimate but he has been, and remains, a vital link in the fight for a cleaner environment. This was reinforced by his announcements during Tesla’s Battery Day event this week, which included a plan to eliminate the use of cobalt, a controversial mineral associated with rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo where most of it is mined.
In her UN speech, Greta Thunberg said eternal economic growth was a fairy tale. Even if she is right, it is inconceivable for a democratic government to stay in power without promising greater prosperity. Electorates, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, want the fairy tale. If the fairy tale of economic expansion paired with lower emissions is to become a reality, we need companies like Tesla to succeed, which induces me to overlook everything Musk says in favour of what he does.
Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.