Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on Elon Musk’s offer to fund the UN’s World Food Programme.
My last visit to the US (thanks, Covid) was in September 2019. One of our long-term bucket list adventures, a road-trip down California’s Pacific Coast Highway was both enjoyable and confronting in equal measure. The fragrant, eucalyptus-fringed countryside was reminiscent of my Australian girlhood. The homeless encampments in San Francisco and Los Angeles made us think we were in a developing country.
The poverty—as so often the case in the third world—was cheek-by-jowl with staggering wealth and striking architecture. There were cannabis retailers that looked like Apple Stores and down-at-heel drug-dealers lurking outside five-star hotels, wares at the ready. We drove on six-lane highways festooned with vehicles from some science fiction fantasy. Our rental car was a souped-up Dodge Charger, pleasingly fast at the lights. I didn’t care about fuel costs: I was on holiday. We did notice the cars that routinely burnt us off, though. They were Teslas.
Yes, my misspent youth as a petrolhead may be showing. NB: it’s possible to be a petrolhead without petrol if you’re tooling around in a Tesla. Before that road trip, I’d paid no attention to Elon Musk or the things he makes, so I was unaware of his distinctive approach to business, politics, and conservation. That failing has since been remedied.
An environmentalist who thinks public transport is for the birds; a tech whiz who maintains climate change can be fixed with science rather than global treaties mandating we all dress in sackcloth and ashes; a clueless Asperger’s sufferer who thinks aloud about business plans on Twitter in ways that set the SEC’s hair alight; a space entrepreneur who wants to fund a Texas Institute of Technology and Science (TITS).
Sure, there’s normal “big business” stuff in there, too. Musk has scrapped with unions, particularly the United Auto Workers. He’s frank that he makes huge donations to both Democrats and Republicans because it’s the only way he can guarantee a fair hearing. And if Elon Musk does this, it’s a salient comment on America’s broken politics. One wonders if the reason Biblical Egypt’s eighth plague wasn’t lobbyists instead of locusts was because neither Ancient Egypt nor Ancient Israel had invented lobbyists. And perhaps God was being merciful.
Which is why, when Musk—popping off on Twitter in his characteristic way—said that he was willing to sell off six billion dollars’ worth of Tesla stock to solve world hunger, I thought this may be interesting. He’s sold the stock, too, although a more recent Twitter contretemps (including a comment both rude and funny directed at a tax-and-spend Democrat politician) suggests he’ll be using at least some of it to retire outstanding tax liabilities.
That said, I do suspect Musk has both the money and the ability to solve world hunger, which is why, if I were him, I wouldn’t use the United Nations as my salvific vehicle. His personal idiosyncrasy and ability to problem-solve are much better adapted to the task. He appears to know this: he demanded costing transparency from the get-go when engaging with David Beasley, director of the UN’s World Food Programme. Thing is, you could fire the entirety of the UN out of the solar system and not many people would notice. New York’s City Council would be saddled with fewer unpaid parking fines while Israel says goodbye to being blamed for everything wrong in the world, but otherwise? Not much.
Musk does think in terms of how to avoid civilisational collapse; he wants to maximise the chance of surviving such a collapse. If there’s such a thing as “good billionaires” and “bad billionaires,” he’s a world away from George Soros, who seems determined to embody the villainous financier screwing over and disenfranchising resident members of the working-class. Why else would you short the pound so hard you break the Bank of England? When it comes to Soros, one starts to wonder where he’s hidden his fluffy white cat.
A great deal of environmental activism is innumerate nonsense that asserts modern civilisation can stop using fossil fuels, not use nuclear power, and yet retain a high energy civilisation and economy. It forgets that a very high level of energy usage is modernity’s most salient feature. Our way of life and all modern institutions depend on intensive growth. A common fantasy, for example, is that the internet would survive and keep us all together. However, the internet emits as much carbon as the (pre-pandemic) airline industry. Its energy use is massive and constant and cannot be maintained with renewable energy alone; such energy is too diffuse. Any reduction in energy usage will require fundamental, structural changes.
Musk, by contrast, makes things. He provides good jobs. He builds environmentally friendly cars without telling us all enormous lies about how good they are. This alone is remarkable. If anyone can jab an accusing finger at one of the global rules-based order’s useless alphabet soup agencies, it’s him. Let Musk take his chance with solving world hunger. We may be pleasantly surprised.