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.
In consideration of how SpaceX and its plan to gather resources off world may have negative consequences on our world resources and food stability, it is important to consider that agro fuel was a major factor in the 2008 food crisis, but so are our increasingly wasteful methods of production and consumption. The usage of bio-fuels is clearly not an efficient use of energy if crops are grown primarily for this purpose. Using agricultural bi-products on the other hand does not have a direct impact on the food market. Solving food waste would be a much more appropriate approach. What might also be important to consider is the opportunities for innovation and creativity that scientific and technological change provide. Posing this as a binary is a mistake in my opinion. We can work on food security, energy efficiency, and sustainable consumption of resources, while also searching for new energy sources, and pushing our technology forward. Both need to be done mindfully, and with current limitations as a central consideration otherwise we will have neither food, nor home, nor space travel. Perhaps a more holistic and integrated approach is what we really need in this situation.
I see that my final statement reads as a binary, but I don’t disagree with you – I’m not suggesting that we must choose between scientific advancement/exploration and sustainability/survival. Perhaps it’s my anti-capitalist streak talking, but I don’t believe that the advances made by SpaceX specifically will ultimately benefit most of the people on this planet. Many scientific advances have been and are controlled in the interest of profit. In light of massive global disparities in power and wealth, I’m not terribly impressed by a man worth $20B chasing a vision of a “multi-planetary future” while workers in his Tesla plants face horrific labor conditions and are barred from unionizing.