Burning oil will probably destroy the environment, but why find out?
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and chairman of SolarCity, and the guy who dreamt up the hyper loop, says we shouldn't need an environmentally motivated reason to transition to clean energy. We're probably going to run out of oil sometime; why find out if we can destroy the world while we do it, if an alternative exists?
"If we don't find a solution to burning oil for transport, when we then run out of oil, the economy will collapse and society will come to an end," Musk said this week during a conversation with astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson.
"If we know we have to get off oil no matter what, we know that is an inescapable outcome, why run this crazy experiment of changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans by adding enormous amounts of CO2 that have been buried since the Precambrian Era?" he added. "That's crazy. That's the dumbest experiment in history, by far."
Tyson sounded surprised: "Can you think of a dumber experiment?" he asked Musk.
"I honestly cannot. What good could possibly come of [staying on oil]," Musk said.
Musk, with his supercharger stations, SolarCity (his solar energy company), his electric car company that will soon rely on a "Gigafactory" to create its batteries, has a huge financial stake in the future of clean energy. He stands so much to gain from the clean energy boom in part because he's realized that not only are fossil fuels dirty, they're unnecessary—and of finite supply.
Musk is probably not wrong. It's all but-settled that, if we continue to pump carbon dioxide and other emissions into the air at the rate we are doing it, something catastrophic will occur.
Maybe it'll be a churn of rising sea levels, ocean acidification, extreme weather, heat waves, forest fires, and drought. Maybe it'll be a worldwide backlash spurred from the developing nations that stand the most to lose from the looming specter of climate change. Maybe it'll happen slowly, maybe it won't.
Musk's comments reminded me of the time I visited another of the country's clean energy pioneers who also, outwardly, cared little about the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels. You probably haven't heard of him, but Roscoe Bartlett was an inventor who worked on the space race, was at IBM in its early days, and went on to be a 20-year US Congressman from Maryland.
Now, 88 years old, Bartlett lives in near obscurity, off the grid in the middle of nowhere in West Virginia. He was the first Congressman to drive a Prius, his compound runs solely on solar energy he built himself, he drinks water he has piped in himself. Bartlett is also staunchly conservative and doesn't care to learn whether or not climate change is real, and he doesn't care if humans are causing it or not.
I visited Bartlett on his compound for a story last year, and he told me that much of how he lives his life, and much of how he governed in Congress, was inspired by a May, 1957 speech by Hyman Rickover, a four star Navy admiral who was instrumental in the development of the nuclear sub.
"Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels," Rickover said. "In the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: The longer they last, the more time we have to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift."
And so, Bartlett spent much of his time in Congress pushing alternative fuels. Not because he cared about the environment, but because he realized American scientists and businesses could get rich by developing something new and better. We have the means, the financial incentive, and the imperative to switch to clean energy.
Musk knows this, we all, inherently, kind of know this. We were all taught in elementary school that oil is not forever. So, why don't we end this experiment, which will end in certain doom one way or the other, and find something else?