Monday, May 26, 2014

Richard Branson & Elon Musk versus Elon Musk & Richard Branson (or The Cognitive Dissonance of the Entrepreneurial Mind)

What do Richard Branson and Elon Musk have in common (pick one)?
  1. They’re both environmentalists; passionately fighting for reduction in use of fossil fuels
  2. They’re both creating space-travel businesses based on rockets that burn more fossil-fuel-per-customer than any other type of commercial vehicle ever devised
  3. They both want to colonize mars because Earth may be doomed
  4. They both have bumped uglies with Cameron Diaz
  5. All of the above (except D, maybe)
The answer is…. E.  Yes, I know E sounds impossible, because how can a person of obvious intelligence think of himself as an environmentalist while at the same time be building businesses based on burning huge amounts of fossil fuels?

Holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time is known as cognitive dissonance.

In most people cognitive dissonance causes severe mental stress. What is special about these brilliant entrepreneurial minds that let’s them hold such diametrically opposing views without breaking?

Richard Branson

Richard Branson cares a lot about the environment of our planet. As an environmentalist, he created the $25million earth challenge for greenhouse gas removal. As an environmentalist, he launched a green energy plan for the Caribbean. As an environmentalist, he has pledged billions to fight global warming.

But there’s another Richard Branson: Richard Branson the anti-environmentalist. As an anti-environmentalist, he has built airlines (Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, and Virgin Australia) that burn about 1/4 of a billion gallons of fuel every year. As an anti-environmentalist, he has built Virgin Galactic, with the goal of giving rich douchebags two hours in space at a monetary cost of $200,000 per person, and an environmental cost of 5 tons of CO2 per passenger (this is to be followed by space hotels, and eventually flights to colonize Mars at an environmental cost of a jabillion gallons of fuel per trip). As an anti-environmentalist, he owns his own island on which he entertains politicians, business tycoons, and celebrities who he flies in on private jets for fun-filled cerebral meetings at which they discuss plans for a sustainable world.

How do these two Richard Branson’s live peacefully in the same body among such cognitive dissonance? How does he not wake up every night screaming to himself “My God, I’m such a fucking hypocrite?”

By many accounts, Richard Branson is just bat-shit crazy, and so his secret may be simple insanity. That’s the only way I can understand the cognitive dissonance of Richard Branson: that he’s just crazy.

Elon Musk

I have a harder time simply calling Elon Musk crazy. He’s too much of a personal hero to be dismissed so easily. And yet Musk also supports two diametrically opposing goals: On the one hand he sincerely wants to make a car that can be sustainably fueled; on the other hand he sincerely wants to make passenger space travel cheaper and to even fly people to colonize Mars.

How does Elon Musk reconcile this cognitive dissonance? By creating two separate companies. One Elon Musk runs Tesla, working hard to transport humanity across the land without burning non-renewable fuel. The other Elon Musk runs SpaceX, working just as hard to make it easier for more people to burn more fuel more frequently to travel into space.

The only way these two Elon Musks can get along, without constant bickering and self-hatred, is by working at separate companies where the two Elons never meet, never work together, and never have to talk to one another. It’s a very clever solution to a nearly-intractable problem, as you’d expect from a very clever man.

Can the virtues of Tesla offset the sins of SpaceX?

I wonder… Given the stupendous amount of energy use to launch a passenger for a ride in a SpaceX rocket, can even the most efficient Tesla car save enough fuel to compensate for that one SpaceX ride?

It takes a huge amount of energy to launch stuff into space, huge amounts–remember, you’ve got to push a weight, along with the weight of its fuel (which, for the shuttles, was 240 times the weight of the object itself), to 25,000 mph against gravity and with nothing to push against except Newton’s second law. Back when I was a young physics student I could have worked out some numbers quickly but now I just do web searches and find other’s estimates, which, in summary, come down to “huge mind-blowing amounts of energy”.

Using just a few optimistic numbers from Musk and SpaceX (who are trying to greatly reduce costs) we see that their Falcon 98 launch uses 30,000 gallons of kerosene and 40,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. That’s a huge amount of fuel. (How much fuel does it take to make 40,000 gallons of liquid oxygen? I don’t know, but I wager it’s a huge amount.)

SpaceX launch costs are currently at $1,862/lb (which I assume are mostly energy costs). Musk has said he wants to get that down to $500/lb. He’s a real smart guy, so maybe he can figure out how to achieve that, but even so that represents a huge amount of energy just to achieve orbit (that’s equivalent to the energy of something like 25,000 gallons of gas to put a single 200 lb person into orbit—start dieting guys!).

Compare: UPS will fly stuff around the world for about $10/lb (I’ve seen estimates for a few dollars per pound). A cargo ship can float stuff around the world for pennies per pound. Or we can push stuff to space for $500/lb (hopefully, someday, if they’re right about being able to bring costs down).

Question: If I replace my gas-driven car with a Tesla to save fuel, how long before I have saved enough fuel to make up for pushing my 190 pounds into space just one time?

Answer: Using Elon Musk’s most optimistic numbers, you’ll have to drive a Tesla for about 120 years to save up enough fuel for one spot on a SpaceX launch.

On saving humanity by going to Mars

Branson says he’s “determined to start a population on Mars”. Musk, who is also determined to start a Martian colony and to put a man on mars in 10 to 20 years, says (I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’ll let his sister do it for me) “With all the environmental problems on Earth, the next step is to move to a planet that we can live on”.

Sorry to break it to you, guys, but the humans on Mars will be made of the same stuff as the humans on Earth. If we can’t make it without fucking up our original home, then we’re not going to make it on Mars, either, and we don’t deserve to.

Here’s a very short science fiction story for y’all:

A conversation between parent and child, on Mars, sometime in the future:

Parent: See that little blue dot in the night sky? That’s Earth.

Child: What is Earth?

Parent: Earth was the planet of our ancestors, before people came to Mars.

Child: Who lives on Earth now?

Parent: Nobody. It’s a dead planet. The actions of rich, selfish people destroyed it.

Child: How did the rich, selfish people destroy Earth?

Parent: They burned it up as fuel, getting to Mars.

A final, private message for Richard Branson and Elon Musk

Everybody except for Richard and Elon, you can go away now. This last part is only for the two of them. So, bye bye, everybody else.

Dear Richard and Elon,

If you really care about the environment, then please stay on the ground. Please accept the limitations of known physics and chemistry, and understand that we are a long long way from any breakthroughs that will lead to a sustainable way to fling people into space. Sorry, but it’s true: there is no current way to be both an environmentalist and a space traveler. You’re just going to have to redirect your rocket-science level of brilliance to improving the planet we’re on.

Elon, you can go away now. This last part is only for Richard. So, bye bye, Elon.

Richard, now that we’re alone, I know what you’re thinking: “We'll offset the carbon footprint of our rocket launches by creating a new business, Virgin Forest, to plant trees on the moon.” No, Richard, that’s just stupid.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe a technicality, but here goes: I do not think humans will manage to create enough of a disaster to destroy Earth. Through times, Earth has lived through many totally devastating catastrophes, and every time, Earth has recovered just fine, often in even better shape than before. However, I believe humans are perfectly capable of destroying themselves. Egil.