Elon Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and Tesla and founder of SpaceX, wants to build a colony on Mars. Actually, make that a civilization. Why? Because sooner or later, he said, “some eventual extinction event” will wipe out human life on Earth.
Your own extinction event may happen a lot sooner should you be one of the intrepid richies to make the trip (projected cost, after all the bugs are ironed out: $200,000). “The first journey to Mars is going to be really very dangerous. The risk of fatality will be high. There’s just no way around it,” Musk told the International Astronautical Congress in 2016. “It would be basically: Are you prepared to die? And if that’s OK, then you’re a candidate for going.”
There won’t be a big payoff once you get there, either. No lounging about enjoying the desert views with a glass of champagne and a plate of cheese straws. It will be work, work, work building a livable environment from scratch: Mars has no oxygen or surface water or life forms. But for Musk, that’s no matter. Humanity must be saved!
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and the richest man in the world, thinks Musk’s plan is ridiculous. Why? Because Mars is horrible. “My friends who want to move to Mars? I say, ‘Do me a favor, go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first, and see if you like it—because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.’” For Bezos, saving humanity will require living in free-floating space pods instead. Because if we stay on Earth, overpopulation and dwindling resources will mean population control and energy rationing.
Neither of those things sounds so bad to me. We should be rationing energy right now, and aren’t people having fewer kids voluntarily? Staying on Earth, even if we all have to ride bicycles and have our Amazon purchases delivered by pony express, sounds a lot better than living in some four-by-20-mile space cylinder, seeing the same long faces every day. You might as well live on Staten Island.
However, apparently in a space pod you can have as many kids as you please; Bezos likes the idea of a trillion human beings scattered throughout the solar system. “We’d have 1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins,” he once said. That would be great, but what if it’s 1,000 Donald Trumps and 1,000 Melanias? And what if you’re stuck in a pod with one of them?
If Bezos spent more time reading some of the excellent books for sale on Amazon, he would realize that more people doesn’t mean more really great people. There’s a lot more to producing geniuses than raw population. Look at ancient Athens: It was one brilliant fellow after another, in a city-state with a population of 250,000, about the same as Lubbock, Texas.
Also, those space pods might have company. UFOs have been in the headlines recently because of reports from Navy pilots who claim to have spotted several in 2014 and ’15. A UFO could be a lot of things besides visitors from outer space, of course. (Don’t ask me what, though.) Could it be that aliens dropped by to check us out and didn’t like what they saw?
My point, however, isn’t about aliens or the number of geniuses in Athens. It’s this: These two zillionaires, having extracted insane amounts of wealth from our beleaguered planet, now want to abandon ship. Bezos can’t figure out how to let his warehouse workers take bathroom breaks, and he couldn’t bring himself to sweeten the deal enough for the New York City Council to let him build a second Amazon headquarters in Queens, but he thinks he’s the man to design the entire future of humanity. How’s that for business savvy?
As for Musk, I give him credit for Tesla, up to a point—electric cars would really help with global warming once they became affordable and convenient—but privatizing space exploration is a pretty frivolous way to spend a humongous fortune.
We’re to blame, too. Why do so many of us assume that the qualities that allow a person to amass a colossal pile of money are the same ones needed to make wise social policy? Whether it’s launching humanity into space, starting charter schools, or funneling their tax dollars to the nonprofits of their choice instead of contributing to the public good, rich people’s initiatives amount to an intellectual version of the trickle-down theory. Just as immense wealth supposedly lifts up all the rest of us (except when it doesn’t), we’ve come to believe that the financial and technical brilliance of entrepreneurs can guide society in quite different areas of life and foretell the future too. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson with Trump, whose chimerical wealth made people think he must be really smart and would have no reason to be corrupt in office, neither of which turned out to be true.
This is a good place to point out that historically, although people may have seen wealth as evidence of God’s favor, they didn’t always see it as proof of wisdom. In fact, it was usually quite the reverse. Traditionally, the people praised as the wisest have been poor—Socrates, Diogenes, Jesus, and Buddha, who was born a prince but gave up his wealth to acquire enlightenment.
In our society, the ability to make a ton of money shows cleverness and drive and probably more than a dollop of unscrupulousness—as Balzac supposedly said, behind every great fortune there is a great crime. But why should we listen to these people about anything more profound than how to design cars or arrange for the swift return of unsatisfactory purchases?
What do they know about how to live, and why? How to understand people who aren’t exactly like themselves? How to be happy? How to be good? If people had listened to Socrates or Jesus or Buddha, we wouldn’t be in this fix. But then again, in the words of King Solomon, the rare rich man who understood a lot about people and who wrote great poetry in his spare time, “All is vanity.”