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6 June 2018updated 09 Jun 2018 8:09am

Has he flown too high? The imperial overreach of Tesla boss Elon Musk

An ongoing dispute over workers’ rights is undermining Musk’s do-good, ethical image.

By India Bourke

There was a time when environmental icons were more likely to wear second-hand clothes than Tom Ford suits. Not so now. Henry Thoreau-inspired dreams of quiet retreats at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, have been blown away by the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

In February this year, the star of Silicon Valley sent his very own red, electric sports car soaring into space. A live video streamed back images of the Roadster as it floated past Earth and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played on repeat.

The stunt marked the launch of new reusable rockets from SpaceX, one of the many companies Musk has helped found and run, along with electric car maker Tesla and renewable energy firm SolarCity. It was also a personal milestone for the 46-year-old billionaire, bringing him closer towards his goal of colonising Mars.

For Musk, who has already made a cameo in the film Iron Man 2 and received a name-check in Star Trek: Discovery, interplanetary expansion is essential if humanity is to avoid collapse at the hands of intelligent machines. He has even founded another company, OpenAI, to help ward off this fate.

But until then, it appears the tech tycoon will have to settle for helping to save the planet from ecological collapse. Over the last 12 months he’s introduced a lower-cost model of Tesla’s electric car, begun selling luxury solar roof tiles, and taken on construction of the world’s largest grid-scale battery at a wind farm in Australia. “I think it’s possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary,” he once declared.

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Yet has this modern techno Icarus flown too close to the sun? Tesla’s stock is down, production of the new Model 3 car has fallen behind schedule, and one of the company’s semi-autonomous vehicles was involved in a fatal crash.

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Musk’s personal brand has also diminished in recent months. An ongoing dispute over workers’ rights is undermining his do-good, ethical image. Tesla workers “just don’t want” to unionise, Musk tweeted recently in response to accusations of union-busting.

Tesla’s recent losses have spooked investors and, at the time of writing, Musk faced a shareholder vote that could see him ousted as Tesla’s board chairman. His position may yet be saved by major fund managers for whom his persona is a large part of the company’s appeal. But the balance between ego-warrior and eco-warrior is under ever greater strain.

To understand how Musk’s planetary-scale ambitions evolved, it is helpful to return to his childhood home in Pretoria, South Africa. After his parents’ separation, life with his father became a “misery”, and the young boy sought refuge in comic books and computer programming. “In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world,” Musk told biographer Ashlee Vance.

By 1983, Musk had made his first sale: a game called Blastar bought by a computer magazine. Then in 1995 he launched a software business, Zip2, with his brother, Kimbal, followed in 1999 by an online banking venture, which later merged with another company to focus on a money transfer service called PayPal.

Today, with nearly 22 million Twitter followers and a personal fortune of almost $20bn, Musk’s success may appear beyond question. But his preternatural drive can sometimes impair his judgement. As his ex-wife, Justine Wilson, reportedly said: “It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us just live in it.”

In recent weeks, this habit of over-extension took the form of an outburst against one of the tools of his rise: the media. After a series of negative stories about his operations, Musk took aim on Twitter at, “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie,” in an echo of Donald Trump’s attacks on “fake news”.

He then offered to set up his own crowd-funded site, Pravda, where the public would be able to rate the “core truth of any article”. Meaning “truth” in Russian, Pravda was of course the title of the Soviet Communist Party newspaper (which also inspired the character Squealer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm).

But while Musk’s choice of name offers another display of alpha-male wit, its doublethink logic symbolises the wider problem with many of his techno-utopian schemes: they don’t add up when it comes to environmental health.

If the plan to launch a new SpaceX rocket every two weeks goes ahead it will dramatically increase carbon emissions, while questions endure over the dubious supply chains for lithium-ion batteries.

One thing that will remain unquestioned, however, is Musk’s marketing prowess. When Dennis Muilenburg, chief executive of Boeing, recently claimed his company would win the race to populate Mars, Musk casually tweeted back the challenge: “Do it.”

And Musk’s inspirational egoism has finally made green technology alluring and desirable, which may prove one of the greatest environmental breakthroughs yet. 

This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family