On February 6th, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched and landed the Falcon Heavy rocket. One of the purported goals of SpaceX is to “make life multiplanetary,” locating and extracting resources in space. What happens when we apply the lessons of the biofuel boom and the 2008 world food crisis to SpaceX? This massive investment of earthly resources may not yield the desired returns, or could even spark an unforeseen global crisis.
While many touted ethanol and biodiesel as cleaner, greener alternatives to fossil fuels, the explosion of food-based agrofuel created a feedback loop that incorporates petroleum further into our lives while degrading the environment. Worse, the EROI figures for ethanol and biodiesel are dismal: corn-based ethanol produced in the US yields a 1.5-1 energy return; seed-based biodiesel fares slightly better at 2.5-1. SpaceX’s plans are touted as a solution to our resource supply issues, but may ultimately prove to be a similarly inefficient waste of what little we have left.
“Forward progress” often has disastrous effects for the most vulnerable among us. In a highly connected global economy crises emerge quickly, even from relatively minor shocks at lower scales. Food-based agrofuel played a role in the “perfect storm” of the 2008 food crisis, driving up food staple costs. If SpaceX grows unregulated, it may also have unintended effects on our food system. These projects require massive inputs of resources and energy, and Musk has the buying power to disrupt markets with global impacts. In fact, SpaceX’s demand for energy could further drive the demand for agrofuels, contributing to global food insecurity.
Technological optimists might disagree, but instead of looking to the stars to sustain human life, perhaps we’d be better served by examining and addressing the consequences of human activities on this planet thus far.