Risking it all: For fans only

Michael Vlismas’s Elon Musk biography is full of manufactured praise

Opinions on billionaires – their very existence, that is – tend to be polarised. People either worship them or despise them.

Those who worship them, read their books (ghost written, generally) on how to be successful, follow their tweets and write Facebook posts fawning over how prophetic their favourite billionaire is, tend to be the same people who think capitalism, especially unfettered capitalism, is a good thing. Of course these are the same people who hold the logically flawed belief that endless economic growth on a finite planet, without catastrophic consequences, is possible.

Then there are those capitalist evangelists who realise the flaw in this view, and see space exploration in order to mine other planets as the answer to feeding our lust for an excess of things we don’t need. What they seem to forget is that in order to become an interplanetary species (if that is biologically even possible), we’d have to completely destroy Earth, which we are well on our way to doing. The amount of resources we’d need, the amount of fossil fuel we’d have to burn, would leave Earth resembling a ball of Swiss cheese floating in a sulphurous bubble. No amount of solar or wind or wave or even nuclear power is going to change that, as they too, require resources to manufacture. Besides, space looks pretty, but is a really, really awful place to live.

However, Elon Musk’s stated ambition is to use his obscene wealth to make us an interplanetary species, which paradoxically explains why he seems to be the most worshipped billionaire of all. People who love money love money, and that is, sadly, most people. Currently valued at $251 billion according to Business Insider India, he is also the richest man on earth. Another reason for the worship by billionaire wannabes.

Personally, I’m with those who see billionaires in our contemporary world as a suppurating boil in a society which seems to think it’s acceptable that a few spend millions of dollars on sports cars and other completely unnecessary ego toys while their literal neighbours, along with almost a billion people across the world, suffer from hunger. That’s not to mention homelessness, preventable deaths by under-researched diseases (mostly in Africa, of course), and the fact that the richer you are, the more you contribute to global heating.

But in the interest of a balanced view, such as maybe someone like Musk actually does some actual good, and the formation of a balanced opinion, I read Elon Musk: Risking it all by Michael Vlismas, who calls himself a journalist.

It was a painful task. Not because it challenged my views on Musk and billionaires in general, but because not only did Vlismas take the tone of a gushing, star-struck fanboy, it made me keep company with Musk; someone whom I previously only disliked in the abstract.

South Africans in particular seem to bow to Musk, claiming him as one of ours because he grew up here. Musk, like the billionaire he is, doesn’t give a shit. This much Vlismas seems to acknowledge; Musk went to US because that’s exactly the selfish, uber-capitalist society that fosters a wannabe billionaire’s dreams. Only Vlismas doesn’t put it that way.

Vlismas shows an astonishing lack of critical thinking in his unauthorised biography. Perhaps because an actual critique of Musk would not go down with the hordes of Musk acolytes, and most of those who don’t like Musk wouldn’t bother to read it anyway. Can’t say he doesn’t know the market, but there are a number of places where it becomes embarrassing. Such as when he writes about what a “brave decision” it was for Musk to leave South Africa for Canada after matric in order to avoid conscription. Seriously? Travelling overseas is generally a teenager’s dream, he had an uncle in Canada, and his escaping conscription was hardly a political decision. And then Vlismas writes how the uncle wasn’t there when Musk arrived, leaving him with $2,000, a backpack full of books and nowhere to go. Bear in mind this was 1989 and $2,000 was a fortune, especially for a teenager on a travelling jaunt. Vlismas then goes on about how hard Musk worked on the family farm in Canada, putting his back into the “unglamorous work” – for six weeks. This is but one example.

There’s also, of course, then uncritical espousal of Musk’s vision to prevent ‘the extinction of human civilisation’ by taking us into space, as if human civilisation wouldn’t be in danger of extinction through global heating if people like Musk put their energies into holistic, sustainable practices which would halt runaway climate crisis by perhaps finding ways to scale up already invented methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to an industrial scale, such as turning plastic waste back into the fossil fuel from which it was manufactured.

There’s a lot in the book about Musk’s obsession with space exploration being about making his boyhood dreams sparked by sci-fi comic books a reality. As if this is a good thing and there isn’t a reason we mature and put away childish things.

Vlismas does write a few pages reflecting the views of Musk’s critics, but within the general tone, it is little more than a shallow nod to fact they exist. Overall, this book gives little insight into what makes Musk – who undeniably has an inventive mind – tick. For all the focus on his apparently troubled boyhood, the only time he was able to elicit any of my sympathy for young Musk was when he writes about how he was so badly beaten by bullies at Bryanston High – which he attended before his father transferred him to Pretoria Boys – that he was hospitalised for two weeks. But if one really has to read between the lines, the conclusion is that Musk is probably a sociopath, albeit a very intelligent one, which many are.

Of course, this is something Vlismas doesn’t explore.

*For a few hours, the header stated the author was Mark Gevisser. Unreserved apologies to Mark.

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