Plutocrats in high orbit: Whether Musk or Bezos win the space race, we all lose

In one corner is Amazon chief executive and the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. In the other, is South African entrepreneur Elon Musk. Their respective companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX, are competing to become the dominant force in commercial space travel. Although Bezos and Musk started on friendly terms, the early success of SpaceX inspired a bitter feud conducted through patent fights and Twitter insults.

Despite their personal antipathy, both men are fueled by the messianic conviction that they are securing the long-term survival of humanity by establishing permanent settlements in the solar system. Bezos has a vision of returning astronauts to the moon, before eventually creating floating space habitats that can house millions. According to Bezos, this migration is necessary to prevent the Earth from stagnating and dying as we deplete its resources. Dirty industry will be moved into space, while the circular O’Neill platforms he proposes will apparently create a new kind of enlightened human, birthing “a thousand Einsteins”.

Musk has a grimmer view of the future, perhaps because he grew up in Pretoria. He sees the Earth as irrevocably doomed, whether from global warming, rogue artificial intelligence or just old-school nuclear war. This necessitates establishing a colony on Mars, which can preserve human civilisation and eventually return to restore order to the post-apocalyptic Earth. Interestingly, Musk’s idea of a select group retreating to a harsh environment to survive impending disaster has inadvertent parallels with the Manson Family’s plan of riding out the apocalypse by hiding out in Death Valley. 

Make of that what you will.

Much of the business and science press presents the Musk-Bezos feud as ultimately a good thing, that will somehow ensure a bright future in space. But this optimistic view ignores how these two plutocrats become rich from grimy, Earth-based exploitation. And their schemes are being dreamed as we live through an unfolding climate and ecological catastrophe that is turning our home world into an inhospitable, alien environment.

However they may act once in space, Musk and Bezos are objectively terrible bosses down here on the surface. Amazon is notorious for its aggressive anti-union tactics and for the deplorable working conditions in its warehouses. Despite his platitudes about cleaning up the environment, Bezos is heavily invested in the oil and gas industries. At a recent shareholders’ meeting, he refused to appear on stage to listen to his employees’ fears about climate change.

Musk is equally anti-union, while workers in his factories have told of suffering from terrible pain and stress. In fact, he uses his self-proclaimed role as the saviour of humanity to legitimise exploitative practices. As his biographer Ashley Vance writes: “When Musk sets unrealistic goals, verbally abuses employees and works them to the bone, it’s understood to be on some level part of the Mars agenda.”

Constantly hearing about his own genius has blown Musk’s narcissism to cosmic proportions. Musk slanders less powerful people on Twitter and releases woefully unfunny gimmick rap songs just to keep in the public spotlight. Reading about him, you get a sense of a very talented, but unstable and profoundly miserable nerd-king, desperate for the world’s constant, fawning acknowledgement. Though he looks to fly to the void of space, Musk seems blind to the howling spiritual vacuum at the core of his very existence.

As seriously avaricious people, Bezos and Musk are well aware that there are dollars in the heavens. The asteroid belt, for example, is brimming with rare, mineable minerals. A current bromide in tech circles is that the first trillionaire will be made from space commerce.

The thrashing elephant in the room here is the reality of impending climate catastrophe. We are already starting to see its ravages around us and, as the United Nations warned last year, there is a very small window of time to convert to renewable energy systems and avoid a complete ecological collapse.

As our self-appointed saviours, you would think that Musk and Bezos would want to use their skills and resources to address this unprecedented existential threat to human existence. But neither has any particular urgency about addressing climate breakdown. Musk had made progress in renewable energy with Tesla, but this is still very much aimed at an elite market. If he were truly concerned about preserving humanity, Musk would direct resources to finance immediate, open-source research and engineering into surviving climate change. Hell, he could probably fix Eskom. Instead, he’s firing cars into space as a publicity stunt.

But from a cynical, realpolitik perspective, it makes sense for the super-rich not to care about unfolding ecological horror. Quite simply, they are confident that they are protected from it. The neoliberalism of the past few decades has seen the biggest upwards concentration of wealth in human history, creating a transnational oligarch class unrestrained by political restraint or taxation. As scientific research presented in the journal Nature recently showed, the wealthy are both the biggest drivers of carbon emissions and the most shielded from the new reality of extreme climate.

Despite their philanthropic rhetoric, Musk and Bezos are ultimately concerned with moulding the future in their own image. As journalist Christian Davenport puts it, they see themselves as “space barons” controlling the course of the 21st century. The future they are laying out looks a lot like a new high-tech feudalism, in which they are the transhuman pharaohs creating artificial paradises while the rest of the world disintegrates into heat, thirst and resource wars.

Space exploration is a worthwhile endeavour. It has taught us not just about the universe we live in, but has also drastically increased understanding of how our own planet works. Space should fill us with awe at the beautiful and terrifying weirdness of the cosmos we are part of. And, as the amazing photograph of the black hole showed earlier this year, the harshness of space is a stark reminder of how rare and fragile life on our own planet is. There is no plan B or escape hatch for us — this is the only home we have.

Perhaps one day, humans will migrate outwards. But for now, the real challenge is here on Earth. The same system of endless, rapacious growth that is destroying the environment has allowed Bezos and Musk to become so rich that they can channel their wealth into realising adolescent dreams of ruling space.

Surviving the next century will require our species using all its ingenuity and creativity to create political, economic and technological systems that are fairer, freer and cleaner than anything we have today. Perhaps it’s impossible and we are doomed. But the dream of regenerating our planet, societies and ourselves has both an existential grandeur, and human warmth, that is missing in Musk and Bezos’s ludicrous dreams of becoming God-Emperors of the solar system, or whatever other sci-fi stories they surely tell themselves in private.

When I see Musk’s plans for the future, I don’t see the culmination of all human endeavour. I see an obscenely rich South African trying to sell you a golf estate on Mars.

Christopher McMichael is a writer, researcher and filmmaker based in Johannesburg. He has a PhD in political studies from Rhodes University. 

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Christopher McMichael
Christopher McMichael is a writer based in Johannesburg. He has a PhD in politics

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