Elon Musk wants everyone to believe that he feels the world-situation from a cosmic perspective. He knows the scientific estimation for the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the age of life on earth, and the inevitable death of the planet and its inhabitants, which should come about 500 million years from now. These estimates are, though scientific, still very rough. Each of these numbers Musk confidently throws around has on either side of it the blur of billions or millions of years.
However, Musk, who, like me, comes from a region near the Eden of humankind, Southern Africa's Okavango Delta, developed this cosmic sense not for some metaphysical reason. For him, it comes down to the practical business of the survival of our species. Eventually the sun will expand, evaporate life and its medium on earth, and the remaining dead rock will be swallowed up by the solar photosphere. (This final catastrophe happens roughly seven billion years hence.)
It is against this super-vast background that Musk sees hope in Mars. He rejects reasonable Saganian pale-blue-dot humanism, which ties our destiny wholly to the earth, for the long-shot of survival on alien planets and moons. But here is the problem. We are faced with a catastrophe of our own making within the imaginable and calculable time frame of 50 years. But Musk wants us to skip what present, earthbound experience can tell us about the observable future, for something that, if the scientists are correct, will happen 500 million years from today. What is wrong with this thinking? Much. Too much. But we can begin with this: 50 years is within the circle of the human finite; 500 million years, on the other hand, is not. It is infinite to a human.
In Musk's view, we must make what is in essence infinite into what is relevant (finite). Humans are said to have left the Okavango Delta some 200,000 years ago. That time is nothing when you place it into the context of the Muskian state of emergency, which operates on timescales that are, for humans, utterly meaningless. Eternity is not forever; it just takes forever. Do not confuse the two. Even one million years takes forever for us. As for 100,000? At this shorter temporal level, the future is still radically unknowable, as the documentary Into Eternity makes very clear. Cut the time down to a mere five years, and we find the mists of time still surrounding much of what is at that distance. But in the region of the finite (five years, 15 years, 50 years), educated guesses have some power. The current climate catastrophe, for example, was already understood 60 odd years ago. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) owes its birth in 1970 to the establishment of this human-scale understanding.
But Musk wants us to leave the real of the finite and start making serious plans for the day when the sun (our general economy, which, as the Physiocrates knew, and also ecologists know, is the ultimate economy) roasts the earth. But if that's how Musk feels about it, why should he stop here? If he is already talking about 500 million years as if it were 50 years, he might as well talk about 15 more billion years ahead in time and land us smack dab in the middle of the greatest crisis ever: the end of the our (or the universe's) stelliferous era (otherwise known as the heat-death of the All).
My point: Musk's cosmic musings can be easily be explained by what inspired Mark Fisher's work on "capitalist realism." If you understand this concept, then you will understand why Musk has to reject Saganian humanism. It is essentially anti-capitalist.
Capitalist realism traps the mind into a corner that makes the destruction of capitalism less real than the destruction of the earth by cosmic forces. We can imagine a comet detonating an extinction level event on our planet far easier than putting a Wall Street banker behind bars. And this is where the white African Musk is coming from. We have a world whose climate is increasingly chaotic not because humans are inherently shortsighted or selfish (this is the moralism that grounds all Anthropocene thinking). The cause of the global-level climate disruption/destruction is found only in a culture that has as its core an economy whose end-all and be-all is endless growth. Musk, one of the top capitalists of our age, does not want us to look at what is right in front of our noses (the increasing climate disorder caused by the last quarter of the 400-year-old capitalocene), but to see right through the finite and focus instead on what the 20th century British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North White called Cosmic Epochs.
Confused about the #PolarVortex? Usually a strong jet stream confines Arctic air to the north, stabilized by a big difference in temperature between low and high latitudes. The smaller the difference in temperature, the more the wind belts meander (Via @RemoteLongitude & @NOAA) pic.twitter.com/GEpzwjw1dS
— UN Climate Change (@UNFCCC) February 15, 2021
When Musk opens his mouth, we need to plug our ears with wax. The song he sings is as dangerous as the song of the Sirens of the ancient world, because its charming familiarity (capitalist realism) is exactly what snaps our reason into two. But if we ever reach a political society that can imagine punishing corrupt bondholders with the severity with which we punish car thieves and porch pirates today, then we can open our ears and have a good laugh at whatever comes out of Musk's mouth.
I will note that not all billionaires are on the same Martian wavelength as Musk. For example, Seattle's senior billionaire, Bill Gates, recognizes and appreciates the realism of Saganian humanism, and, as a consequence, is using his considerable influence to set society on a path that reforms the materials of its economy, but not capitalism itself. As Gates well knows, the market system has been reformed before under great pressure (1914 to 1945), and it survived intact.
Now, how would this reformation occur in the Gatesian picture of the climate crisis? It is much like Diet Coke or decaffeinated coffee, to use Zizekian examples, but expanded to a global-warming scale. Capitalism sells us the solution to the problem it has caused. (I will have more to say about this in the next post.)
It's not a bubble if prices reflect actual opportunities.
Indeed, I'd say sustainability capacities are still generally undervalued. https://t.co/z4YHbDBqgD
— Alex Steffen (@AlexSteffen) February 9, 2021