Comic Book Billionaire Accelerates Earth’s Demise to Populate Mars

"He obviously is a divisive individual and a person who acts as a catalyst…."

Besieged by 99 counts of criminal conduct, former President Cobblepot is doing his best to avoid thinking about life in house arrest for his pathological narcissistic tendencies. Banished to the Tower penthouse overlooking Central Park, he may become as Sauron in the tower of Barad-dûr, until age and obscurity combine and, as Tolkien described:

…it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

I have been “reading” four books lately. By “reading” I mean listening to the audiobook. I move back and forth between them. The four books are Greta Thunberg’s Climate Book, Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed, Matt Winning’s A Hot Mess, and Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson. Musk just rolled off the press last week but quickly moved to the top of my queue.

Musk is being loosely portrayed by Jon Hamm’s Paul Marx character in the third season of The Morning Show on Apple TV+. “He obviously is a divisive individual and a person who acts as a catalyst for so much of the drama and the conflict inside of the season,” says showrunner Charlotte Strout, “but he’s also a living, breathing human being who subverts expectation in really interesting ways.”

My first takeaway is that Elon Musk should read Thunberg and Frankopan’s books and Winning should read Elon Musk.

I came to Musk wondering why a comic book billionaire was so obtuse on climate change but came away thinking there is more there than meets the eye. Musk resigned from various government advisory committees back when soon-to-be Fulton County inmate no. P01135809 pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. Musk made electric cars cool for the proclaimed purpose of putting fossil oil companies out of business. He tried to do the same with Solar City, chopping the cost of solar electric home installations and advancing battery technology before eventually absorbing all that into Tesla. He funded an X-Prize for entrepreneurs in the Carbon Dioxide Removal space.

It was only passing strange then, that on August 25, 2023, Musk tweeted, “Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming. Mark these words.”

In 2020, SpaceX needed to keep Starship moving onward to Mars without the hassle of bureaucratic processes and red tape it had at NASA sites, so it built its own Starbase launch center on the Gulf Coast of Texas. There a 90,000-acre federally managed wildlife refuge was home to more than 200 migratory species. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles nest on the beach shore each spring. Endangered ocelots roam the mud flats. Starbase filled in 20 acres of estuarine and non-tidal wetlands that had served to cool the Gulf and buffer the coast from hurricanes. As I posted here on September 3 in My New Trillion Dollar Annual Budget, “large-scale restoration of destroyed, degraded, and damaged ecosystems is the sine qua non for stabilizing climate at safe levels.” As one of the fastest and safest ways of withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere while providing myriad known and unknowable co-benefits, wetlands are part of the “blue-carbon” path to reversing climate change.

Blue carbon can sequester the most carbon in the smallest area at the lowest cost, but only if we stop destroying mangroves, sea grasses, salt marshes, and coral reefs, and start growing them back.

— Biogeophysicist Thomas J. Goreau

[T]he first integrated Starship launch on April 20… created a rock tornado that flung debris over 385 acres and a dust plume that coated Port Isabel 6½ miles away. And the 400-foot-tall rocket tumbled out of control before exploding over the Gulf of Mexico.

San Antonio Express News

“We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” Musk reportedly said at a press conference in 2018.

The Guardian

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), under the Clean Water Act Section 404, regulates dredge and fill in national wetlands, and requires compensatory mitigation (i.e., no net loss of “water resources”) for most projects. EPA, which would normally handle such permits, informed the Corps that the site changes could have “substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance.” SpaceX’s contracts to launch defense satellites may have had something to do with the Corps’ special treatment in issuing waivers.

Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law at Rice University, said complaints about a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations are common. “A lot of people think that because we have these laws, the environment is protected, but that’s not how it works. People working on the ground for these agencies are often well-meaning, but if the political will is there to allow a project like SpaceX to go through, that’s what happens.”

— The Guardian

I find it odd that in none of Isaacson’s interviews by the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christiana Amanpour, or Farzad Mesbahi following the release of the book did the word “climate” come up. Yet, in his WaPo interview with David Iglesias, Isaacson explained why Musk’s provocative tweets on the subject should not be surprising.

One of the things I learned about him is that he loves drama, he loves storm, and if things are calm he’s going to either call a surge in which excitement happens or he’s going to push chips back on the table and take more risks and excitement is guaranteed. And for me as a writer I like excitement as well but maybe don’t relish it quite as much as Elon does. And so I sometimes had white knuckles as I was holding onto my seat and we were riding through all of these storms.

Hmmm, sounds suspiciously like that malignant narcissist I mentioned earlier.

This apparent contradiction about climate change is all the more weird, maybe even improbable (Musk enjoys taunting his critics), because as Isaacson went through Musk’s formative years in the book’s early chapters, he described a youthful fascination with comic books and science fiction. Elon’s oldest son is named after the mentalist mastermind X-men character, Xavier.

Among the SciFi books young Elon loved was Asimov’s Robots and Empire. In that book, the villain, Levular Mandamus, plans to destroy the population of the Earth using a newly developed weapon, the “nuclear intensifier” that accelerates natural radioactive decay making the surface of the Earth radioactive. His base is at the site of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. The idea is that by forcing humanity into leaving the Earth, vigor will be reintroduced into humankind and the new settlers will populate space until all the governments of the interstellar colonies form the Galactic Empire.

So, on the one hand, Musk was fascinated as a child with Asimov and other SciFi writers who depicted humans precariously surviving in limited uncontaminated areas of Earth following a nuclear war thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years before the time of the plot — a common post-apocalyptic subgenre in the 1950s. On the other hand, Musk seems oblivious to the toxic dangers of nuclear energy and fancies that colonists will somehow make it across the long cosmic-radiation-bathed distance to Mars and set up camp in the intense radiation fields there that are antithetical to cellular biological systems. Asimov solved the space travel problem by (1) developing faster-than-light (hence invulnerable to radiation) parsec drives and (2) dispatching, as the earliest space explorers, robots that could withstand radiation when not in warp, only later to be replaced by engineered human wetware that had better immunity or repair abilities.

Jennifer Mercieca, author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, says that over a lifetime, some of that under the tutelage of famous fixer Roy Cohn, the Gotham Crime Boss who later became President developed a repertoire of strategies to avoid accountability for heinous conduct.

So, in some cases, he is ingratiating himself with his followers because he knows he can use his followers as cudgels to defend him and protect him from being held accountable. In other cases, he is using strategies that allow him to demonize; to turn people into hate objects; to turn them into people he can then scapegoat or blame for the things he has done.

Asked about comparisons between Trump and Musk, Mercieca said there are many.

It is unfortunate that the world’s richest man has this platform (X). It does prevent him from becoming accountable. He has so much power. He has so much access to communicate with the public and like Trump, he wields it like a cudgel. He gathers followers. He attacks others and has the followers attack. It’s incredibly dangerous. It is incredibly authoritarian. And it’s very anti-democratic, unfortunately.

This could lead us into a reprise of the discussion begun with our reviews of Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet and the conflict between engineering mind and nature-solutions mind, but in a recent interview on The Great Simplification with Nate Hagens, Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky took us through a different mind portal that framed both wizards and prophets within a greater context. Sapolsky unpacks how the innate qualities of our entangled biological organisms shaped by past and present hormone levels, hunger, stress, and much more, make what we think are free will decisions but are in fact driven by unseen and unremarked external determinants, some in the moment, some gained over a lifetime or in utero, and some the product of tens of thousands of years of adaptation to our environments.

Given this invisible determinism in our behavioral psychology, it is little wonder that we find ourselves up a climate cul-de-sac without understanding or being willing to make the essential changes required for survival, or that our cravings for stimulation astonishingly produced a narcissistic criminal mastermind turned reality TV star at the head of the world’s pre-eminent nuclear superpower during a time when the world was under attack from a climate-induced zoonotic mutant virus (likely the first of many).

It would make for a great Asimov story if old Isaac were still alive or could be revived in machine form (like his protagonist psychohistorian Hari Seldon). Until then, I have pre-ordered Sapolsky’s latest book, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will, which releases October 17.

The Morning Show releases new episodes Wednesdays on Apple TV+


Meanwhile, let’s end this war. Towns, villages, and cities in Ukraine are being bombed every day. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. There are 70 sites in Ukraine and 500 around the region. As you read this, 40 Ukrainian ecovillages and 300 in Europe have given shelter to thousands of adults and children and are receiving up to 1400 persons (around 200 children) each month. We call our project “The Green Road.”

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Joe Clarkson said…
I watched the same Sapolsky interview with Hagens. Sapolsky's take on free will is convincing, but I wish he had discussed the evolutionary aspect of beliefs like free will and supernatural beings. Both outlooks have evolved in humans and human cultures over and over. It would have been interesting to see Sapolsky speculate why.

Also, Sapolsky didn't explore the impact of lack of agency (no free will) on ethics. It seems to me that even though free will does not exist, humans need to act as though everyone has at least a modest amount of agency. It would be hard to have a group of humans create a society without it.
Mark Robinowitz said…
I read a lot of sci fi as a kid, but it didn't take long to realize that stories of going to other planets or solar systems were fantasies divorced from practicalities. Most of the best sci fi is metaphor for our behavior on our only planet.

As for the end notes, the estimate of "6.95 million people, and counting, have died" ignores how many governments deliberately undercounted the toll. The Economist magazine estimates the real figure is probably twenty to thirty million, if excess deaths are included. This also ignores the numbers of injured with long Covid and other complications who likely will have shortened lifespans from their infections.

Covid shows that many people are not willing to restrain their behavior for a societal good, which has me disbelieving in claims we're supposedly going to be proactive about climate chaos and other aspects of the poly crisis (anyone remember that fossil fuels are finite?).
Erik Sayle said…
Musk I find fascinating. There was a another area not mentioned, AI, that is extremely important.
Musk, being a sci-fi nerd sees the existential risks as many nerds do but not many “jocks” or politicians.

When Tesla rose up ~4 years ago I was pretty despondent that as smart as humanity was we could not even dent climate. Politicians and voters appeared to not care and humanity was hurtling to demise.
Then Musk appeared and said the right things and allowed me to “vote” by both buying stock and more recently a Tesla.
Yesterday I watched a surreal debate w Musk, Netanyahu, Tegmark and an open AI founder.

Tegmark has many valid concerns and I’m happy to see both Musk and a important politician on a stage with him. Tegmark is like a AI Greta. Bringing up existential risk. Good discussion.
I suspect there are 3 main ways each of us could die, climate, AI related, and viruses.
Musk is at the center of two of these and I feel confident he at least understands the magnitude of the risks where I think politicians do not and especially DonTheCon does not and may hasten bad futures.
I’m curious to see where mUsk goes. We need more people with vision like him. Jensen Huang is one like that but there are few others with vision who get the magnitude of risks.
One other thing is it seems many climate warriors don’t see the risks of AI and maybe vica versa.
Maybe AI will help with climate if it does not kill us.

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