In deeply unequal societies, the rich and powerful never feel the environmental pain.
Will Mars save humanity? Or will our savior be Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and the Tesla electric car company? Musk humbly believes we don’t have to choose.
The planet Mars will save us, the 46-year-old is promising, and the mighty Musk himself will engineer this Martian miracle. In 2019, he’s claiming, his SpaceX will start making short trips to Mars. In the early 2020s, the claim continues, his corporate empire will begin colonizing the Red Planet with a human population.
Why this feverish haste to set foot on interplanetary terra firma? Musk sees a new “dark age” descending on our precious Earth. Another world war — or some environmental collapse — appears “likely,” he fears, to place our entire human species on the brink of extinction. Mars strikes Musk as our ideal refuge, the place where humankind will heroically regroup and eventually “bring human civilization back” to our mother planet.
And we can even have some fun in the process. The Mars colony that Musk envisions will have everything from iron foundries to “pizza joints and nightclubs.”
“Mars,” he quipped to a gathering in Austin early this March, “should really have great bars.”
Reporters have become accustomed to this sort of visionary whimsy from the Musk man. The billionaire has crafted an image of himself as “a quirky and slightly off-kilter playboy genius inventor capable of conquering everything from outer space to the climate crisis with the sheer force of his imagination.”
This carefully cultivated image has proven extraordinarily lucrative for our playboy genius. Investors now value Tesla, his 15-year-old car maker, at around $60 billion — not bad, note Wall Street watchdogs Pam and Russ Martens, for a firm that “lost almost $2 billion last year and has never delivered an annual profit to shareholders.”
Musk is pledging that his first missions to Mars will definitely not be “an escape hatch for rich people” like himself. He’s openly acknowledging that his early colonizers face a “good chance” they’ll die on Martian soil.
But Musk remains supremely confident that his enterprise on Mars will over time take root and prosper. He’s betting a good chunk of his fortune on that. Or rather, to be more precise, he’s betting a good chunk of what ought to be our fortune.
Musk owes his billions, as commentator Kate Aronoff points out, to the billions in direct taxpayer subsidies his companies have received over the years — and the billions more in basic taxpayer-funded research into rocket technology and other high-tech fields of knowledge.
So Musk these days is essentially investing our billions on his own pet projects, everything from the Mars gambit to establishing a mass-market niche for super snazzy high-tech flamethrowers.
None of this is going to rescue humanity anytime soon. Indeed, if Musk really wanted to ensure humankind a sustainable future, he wouldn’t be plotting escapes to Mars or marketing flamethrowers to the masses. He’d be challenging a global economic status quo that has left him phenomenally rich and our world phenomenally unequal.
This inequality — today’s grand maldistributions of income and wealth — may well pose the greatest threat to our well-being as a species. Stark economic divides invite deadly armed confrontations. Inequality and conflict, as Norwegian scholars observed last year in a major report for the United Nations and the World Bank, remain “inextricably linked.”
Analysts have been exploring how “inequality influences the outbreak and dynamics of violent conflict,” that Norwegian study points out, ever since the time of the ancient Greeks. In more recent years, researchers have made great strides in mapping out the actual pathways in unequal societies that turn conflict violent. But huge gaps in the research are still frustrating our understanding.
We still don’t know, for instance, “how and why inequality mobilizes certain groups for violence.”
What we do know: Hawking high-tech flamethrowers is never going to save humanity. Neither will bar-hopping on Mars.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. Among his books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, will appear this spring. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.