Space Race, Electric Cars and Climate Change: Elon Musk’s Misguided Bid for South American Access and Resources
If anything, Elon Musk’s recent trip to South America demonstrates the futility of attempting to solve the climate crisis by means of technological innovation. Heading to Brazil, the Tesla billionaire and SpaceX chief executive met with President Jair Bolsonaro, as well as prominent business leaders and high-ranking military officers. Reportedly, Musk traveled to the country to discuss projects designed to help protect the Amazon, which is ironic considering that few politicians have done more to harm the rainforest, or encourage deforestation, than far-right Bolsonaro. Officially, discussions sought to exploit SpaceX technology in an effort to promote internet connectivity in the Amazon. Speaking at a luxury resort outside São Paulo, Musk remarked that extending his Starlink satellite network would make broadband internet available to thousands of schools in the rural hinterland.
The satellites, Musk claims, can also be used to improve monitoring of the rainforest and the project would be “really good” for deforestation. No official contracts were signed, and needless to say, journalists were kept at a distance from the meeting. One of the richest areas on the planet for biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest contains trees which are critical for slowing climate change since they absorb carbon dioxide. In theory, the deal involving SpaceX subsidiary Starlink could help Brazil by providing services ranging from rainforest analysis to surveying potential fires. The notion, however, that a politician like Bolsonaro has become an overnight champion of the environment simply strains credibility. Indeed, the president has dismissed claims about rainforest destruction while providing a green light to mining, cattle-ranching and logging interests.
On the surface at least, satellite monitoring of Amazonian deforestation sounds like a welcome development. Some critics, however, argue that what is most needed is not so much monitoring, but rather fundamental action. Brazil already has satellite imaging projects in place designed to monitor such deforestation, which raises the question of whether the Musk-Bolsonaro confab might have been a PR stunt. In 2019, the head of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (known by its Portuguese acronym INPE) left his position following a public spat with Bolsonaro over agency data, which indicated an accelerated pace of deforestation. Denouncing INPE, Bolsonaro called the agency’s figures a lie designed to tarnish Brazil’s international reputation. According to the Lancet, Bolsonaro’s moves are part and parcel of wider government efforts to discredit and even get rid of scientific research, all of which has resulted in a “brain drain” and “demoralization” amongst researchers.
The Hunt for “White Gold”
Behind the official headlines, Musk may have had other motives in courting Bolsonaro and big business. For the tech mogul, Brazil could be a key strategic linchpin since the country is engaged in substantial lithium mining production, principally in the southeastern states of Minas Gerais and Paraíba, and in the northeastern states of Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte. For its part, Tesla recently announced the company was interested in acquiring lithium iron phosphate batteries for its electric cars. Such batteries are in high demand, and could account for powering up to sixty percent of new car sales by 2030. The lightest known metal on the planet, lithium is useful not only for cars, but also electric devices, mobile phones, aircraft and laptops.
The silvery white commodity, coveted as “white gold,” is less toxic than other minerals and elements utilized in the manufacture of batteries. Nevertheless, lithium mining comes at significant environmental cost. Indeed, lithium can ironically be described as a “non-renewable mineral that makes renewable energy possible.” Extraction of the resource damages soil and results in air contamination, increased salinity of rivers and biodiversity loss, while also jeopardizing access to water supplies. Refining lithium adds carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, which is ironic given Tesla’s mission to get as many people driving zero-emissions cars as possible. Though some junior miners and startups are developing greener technologies to mine lithium, none of these efforts have achieved commercial scale.
Brazil has large quantities of lithium, but the resource is particularly abundant in the so-called “Lithium Triangle,” an area bordering Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Though lithium can be found in hard rock, Andean countries possess natural deposits located underneath vast salt lakes. Mining in the vicinity requires something called brine extraction, which unfortunately wastes immense quantities of water. In the Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile, mining has already resulted in water-related conflicts, as well as declines in two threatened flamingo species.
While Tesla purchases lithium from China, and has secured supplies of the mineral in both Nevada and Australia, the company has also expressed interest in Chilean reserves. However, Tesla’s bid to secure future lithium deposits could run into resistance from leftist governments in South America, which are intent on pursuing “resource nationalism” while balancing environmental concerns. Such a posture is anathema to the likes of Musk, who became an internet punchline when he said the U.S. had every right to overthrow former Bolivian leftist president Evo Morales, a politician who had sought to nationalize lithium reserves.
Nickel, yet another key component of Tesla’s car batteries, is also problematic from an environmental standpoint. The mineral, which is employed in positively charged battery cathodes, increases energy density. Reportedly, Musk has signed an agreement with Brazilian mining company Vale for the purchase of nickel, which would likely come from the corporation’s Canadian holdings. But Vale, which owns nickel projects in the Onça Puma project in Pará state, has already contaminated rivers belonging to the Xikrin indigenous people. The company, which operates in an opaque fashion, severely contaminated waterways with heavy metals such as iron, copper, nickel and chrome, which resulted in serious risks to human health.
Currently, there aren’t enough planned facilities to produce sufficient quantities of high-grade nickel for electrical batteries, and, since nickel isn’t naturally pure, the mineral needs to be refined. To satisfy voracious demand, additional nickel could be derived from lower-quality laterite, a type of nickel ore found near the earth’s surface which is extracted through open-pit mining. However, upgrading such low-grade nickel laterities to manufacture electrical batteries would require high pressure acid leaching resulting in high carbon emissions. Currently, Brazil has large reserves of laterites, though environmentalists worry how much toxic nickel will be released when underground mines develop gaps or fissures, let alone how much of the mineral will seep into drinking water.
Musk has urged the industry to get its act together by mining nickel “in an environmentally sensitive way,” and Tesla has signed a deal with Talon Metals, a company pursuing new carbon capture technology. Musk’s PR moves are hardly convincing, however, in light of nickel mining which already supplies Tesla. Such operations have resulted in rainforest destruction, land conflicts with indigenous peoples and release of cancer-causing chemicals. For years, in fact, environmentalists have warned of nickel mines linked to the electrical vehicle industry, which have given rise to plumes of sulphur dioxide, earth blanketed in cancerous dust and rivers running eerily blood-red.
Electric Vehicles Won’t Save the Planet
The disadvantages of nickel mining become even more apparent in light of supply chain issues. After nickel is mined, the mineral is frequently shipped to another country for further refining, or alternatively transformed into nickel sulfate, before finally being sent overseas for battery assembly. Needless to say, all this transportation just adds to the carbon footprint, which points to the need of dismantling boondoggle supply chains altogether. Scientists, meanwhile, remark that mining of nickel ores, not to mention crushing and transportation by conveyor belt, truck or train, can give rise to high concentrations of dust in the air. Such dust contains toxic metals, including nickel itself, as well as chromium. For all these reasons, experts recommend reusing nickel, rather than extracting further reserves. Though recycling technology is quite new, some companies have jumped into the market. Meanwhile, though Tesla claims that nickel in company vehicles is 100% reusable at the end of life, others have questioned the devil in the details.
In order to avoid environmentally-polluting supply chains, industry execs should consider developing clean nickel sulfide mines in the domestic U.S., though currently there’s simply not enough supply to satisfy demand. There are other festering issues, for example particulate emissions from electric car tires, a situation which is “only made worse by the heavier battery packs fitted to electric vehicles, which increase vehicle mass and, in turn, place further strain on the tires.” Particulate emissions can spread throughout the environment, killing wildlife in the process. If all this weren’t serious enough, there’s also rare metals to consider, which are sprinkled throughout electric vehicles, principally in the form of magnets which show up in everything from headlights to on-board electronics. These rare metals are frequently sourced from environmentally destructive mines located in places like China, and needless to say all this cumulative activity gives rise to even further emissions. Meanwhile, even though electric vehicles don’t run on gas, they still might require energy from burning carbon, depending on whether consumers’ local grid relies upon renewable sources.
Quilombos and Space Race
Given all these related downsides, some observers have criticized the “consumer and car-based approach” to addressing climate change, which could result in so-called “carbon-lock in.” That is to say, by investing in entirely novel infrastructure, society then incentivizes continued operations, a “sociology of new production” and new jobs. With a whole new manufacturing line set up for cars, it will become that much more difficult for governments or the public to extricate themselves or carry out improved solutions addressing climate change, such as building mass transit or developing denser urban cities.
Not only will electric cars fail to fundamentally solve the climate crisis, but other environmental questions loom over Musk’s recent visit to Brazil. Reportedly, the tycoon is interested in using Brazil’s Alcântara space center as a base from which to launch SpaceX rockets. The base is considered advantageous, since it is located in close proximity to both sea and the Equator. However, there’s a long history of social conflict at Alcântara, home to dozens of traditional black communities known as quilombos. Descendants of escaped black slaves, residents say authorities have shunted them aside while ignoring ancestral land claims. The base itself has a troubled history: in 2003, a rocket explosion killed 21 people and destroyed two research satellites.
As if all this wasn’t enough cause for concern, recent studies have raised the environmental alarm about the overall space industry itself. Indeed, fossil-fuel based rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, could exert a damaging effect on the ozone layer. Though Musk has remarked that SpaceX is starting a program to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it as rocket fuel, the Guardian reports the company employs carbon-emitting kerosene as fuel.
Neuro-Minorities, Bolsonaro and Alternative Facts
As a member of a so-called “neuro-minority,” Musk’s bid for South American resources and access seems a bit out of place. While hosting Saturday Night Live last year, the tech mogul remarked that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. According to the National Autistic Society, people with Asperger’s “see, hear and feel the world differently to other people.” Though individuals on the autism spectrum may experience difficulties interpreting verbal and non-verbal language, or even have trouble expressing feelings in a conventional way, they nevertheless display a remarkable degree of focus, an “aptitude for recognizing patterns,” “attention to detail,” and highly focused interests which can sometimes be channeled into a successful career.
“I don’t always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak,” Musk said during his opening monologue, “which I’m told makes for great comedy.” For good measure, Musk added “to anyone who I’ve offended [with my Twitter posts], I just want to say I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” The billionaire has remarked that he had an unhappy and lonely childhood, lacked a sense of social cues and spent most of his time reading books as opposed to playing with others. Developing a fixation on computers and physics, Musk later became “absolutely obsessed with truth.” The Tesla CEO says he was bulled for being autistic, though his experience with Asperger’s wound up contributing to his future success, since his mind was hyper-focused on science and technology.
But if Musk is so concerned about truth, then how to explain the billionaire’s outreach to Bolsonaro? Hardly known for his allegiance to fact-based reality, the Brazilian politician remarked that Musk’s trip to South America represented a “milestone,” since technology would underscore the “truth” about how the Amazon rainforest is being preserved, despite the fact that such deforestation has risen exponentially in recent months. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s social media posts have been deleted over the years amid accusations the politician employs falsehoods for political gain. Not surprisingly, Bolsonaro has hailed Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter as a “ray of hope.” Already, the Tesla CEO has said he would reverse Twitter’s ban on Donald Trump, who served as a political role model for Bolsonaro. If Musk were to follow through and buy Twitter, this could spell good news for the Brazilian politician, who hopes to overturn social media restrictions in advance of his country’s presidential election in October.
There is No “Planetary Off-Ramp”
The response to Musk’s personal disclosures has been decidedly mixed. Some have praised the tech mogul for encouraging awareness about neuro-diversity. Others in the medical profession say that by lifting the stigma around autism, Musk has shown that individuals on the spectrum can become successful and form part of society. Sara Luterman, the founder of a news magazine site by and for autistic people, has been far less complimentary, however. Musk’s monologue on TV, she writes, was “self-serving and hollow,” and a “poor attempt at laundering his image.” In contrast to many autistic people who live in poverty and suffer from high levels of unemployment, Musk is the richest man in the world. Luterman has criticized Musk for focusing on high-tech fixes to societal problems, as opposed to addressing fundamental human needs.
Musk has also been criticized by the likes of Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, who similarly falls on the autism spectrum. Though the tech mogul has praised the young environmentalist, apparently the admiration isn’t mutual. In a satirical travel video produced by Thunberg’s environmental group, a narrator remarks, “Mars offers the ultimate freedom. Freedom to pave a new path for humans. Freedom to create a new way of life. Freedom to forever change the course of humanity.” At the end of the video, a caption reads, “and for the 99 percent of humans who will stay on Earth, we’d better fix climate change.”
Like Musk, Thunberg can be blunt. Hardly intimidated by politicians or bigwigs, the environmentalist has remarked, “I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t really care about social codes that way.” Dania Jekel, Executive Director of the Asperger/Autism Network, has said that “when you grow up feeling like you’re kind of on the outside or you’re different from other people, I think it makes you empathetic for animals or people who have differences in our society.” Perhaps, since individuals on the spectrum are adept at picking up on errors and inconsistencies, such abilities can be helpful when developing critical social and environmental awareness. Tony Atwood, a British psychologist and professor, claims that autists are renowned for being direct, and “don’t like it when something doesn’t seem fair and breaks with routine. Their allegiance is to the truth, pointing out errors and even people in power.”
Musk, Asperger’s and Environmentalism
In light of Atwood’s observations, Musk’s courting of powerful politicians and the business elite might seem ironic. On the other hand, corporate America has sought to recruit people on the spectrum for some time. The business press notes that the neuro-diverse population remains “a largely untapped talent pool,” and many companies have reformed their HR departments in order to access “neuro-diverse talent,” ranging from Microsoft to JPMorgan Chase to UBS. CNN Business, meanwhile, has praised Musk for opening up “a larger conversation about business leadership and the autism spectrum,” while other experts believe Asperger’s can be an advantage for entrepreneurs such as Musk, “because their blindness to social rules and conventions can free them to flout those rules and try new things.”
The World Economic Forum remarks that autists can be an asset to the corporate world, since “they are all logical thinkers, curious, evidence-based decision makers, tenacious, persistent at solving problems and focused. They offer different perspectives and don’t succumb to the sort of groupthink…that lands many companies in trouble.” Research has shown that when autists are placed in teams of their own, they communicate more effectively than in mixed groups. Although neuro-diversity programs are still in their infancy, managers have reported productivity gains, quality improvement and boosts towards innovation.
Perhaps then, autists can be successfully integrated into the power structure, but the real question is whether this is actually desirable? Oddly enough, it has been business for the most part, and not environmentalists, which has seized on Thunberg as a means of advancing neuro-diverse teams. The World Economic Forum proclaims “greater awareness of neurodiversity is needed and will hopefully lead to similar changes for people who think differently to the majority. We need all kinds of people – women, different races, cultures, sexual orientations and neurodiversity – at all levels of our organizations to create our future. Whether that’s activist Greta Thunberg daring to confront political leaders on climate change, an academic challenging practice and policy through evidence, or an employee finding an innovative solution to a problem.”
Since when has Thunberg become a business icon, and where is the progressive counter-response which seeks to re-frame the entire debate around neuro-diverse teams and the potential benefits to society? Save for a few Facebook groups and a stray YouTube video here or there, it does not seem as if these debates have made much headway amongst environmentalists. Who speaks for the autism community, corporate America and quirky tech CEO’s like Musk, whose so-called solutions to the climate crisis will merely shift supply chains and cultivate the powerful in South America, while dislodging wildlife and marginalized communities in the process? With human survival literally now at stake amidst climate change, it is to be hoped that autists may help to come up with creative solutions which challenge power structures, as opposed to reinforcing them.
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