Why Elon Musk Understands Space and the Future While Jeff Bezos Doesn’t Get It
When it comes to saving the planet, being the richest man on it might not be enough.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Elon Musk and SpaceX shot his electric Tesla careening towards Mars, where he hopes to see a city with a population of up to a million humans by the end of the century. Jeff Bezos founded competing rocket company Blue Origin and also talks of sending millions of people to live and work in space.
While they might seem like similar and competing visions, a closer look at each reveals one stark difference and which man is a better model to follow for anyone looking to do business for the rest of this 21st century that's looking increasingly uncertain.
Recently Bezos went further in his futuristic daydreaming, detailing a vision he doesn't plan to be around for - a future in which a population of over a trillion humans is spread out through the solar system.
I've been following the maturing "new space" industry of which Musk is the de facto leader (and Bezos an up-and-comer to be reckoned with) for years, and some would consider Bezos' predictions conservative.
At a conference a few years ago, I heard University of Arizona planetary scientist John S. Lewis talk in all seriousness of "quadrillions" of humans spread between Earth and the asteroid belt.
"The most valuable resource in the solar system is human beings," Lewis said. "Imagine what a quadrillion people can achieve."
Bezos and Lewis are all really just doing the math. They are looking at trends including population growth, resource depletion and climate change and determining that it makes logical sense for humans to expand beyond just one planet, especially one which may become much less profitable in the medium to long term.
And herein lies the darker math that is often left unspoken. The past quarter-millennium has been marked by technological advances beginning with industrialization right up through the current period of globalization that have allowed for ongoing exponential growth of markets, profits and, yes, prosperity.
But recently, both the global economy and the environment have begun to hint that we are bumping up against some hard limits when it comes to unfettered growth. For magnates like Bezos who have succeeded through building insane sales volume at any cost, it makes sense to break through this limit by simply expanding beyond the limits of one planet.
Bezos has literally spoken half-seriously about using Blue Origin to build a human presence on the moon that could then be serviced by Amazon deliveries rocketed from Earth.
Musk, on the other hand, has always taken a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to using markets to slip the surly bonds of Earth. Tesla's ventures are aimed at mainstreaming more sustainable sources of energy and transport while SpaceX works to make humans a "multiplanetary species," lessening our impact on Earth by removing some of the most impactful species.
The difference between the two approaches is clear: Bezos has succeeded by cornering and growing markets - a very traditional approach that's worked for countless others over the centuries.
But Musk moved on from his early success at PayPal (another volume-driven concept) to pursue new ventures that are more focused on providing new forms of value to entrenched volume industries (energy and automotive via Solar City and Tesla). The value here is not just to owners who get more torque and efficiency, it also provides value to shareholders by protecting against future increases in oil prices and more stringent emissions regulations. And, or course, fewer emissions is better for the future of the climate.
You might just call it a simple case of disruption. After all, Musk certainly wants to increase the volume of Teslas sold and there are other environmental costs to constructing new electric cars, particularly in the manufacture of their batteries.
But the point is that Musk puts value before volume. Consider his other side ventures like the Boring Company and his Hyperloop design. The business prospects in the worlds of tunnel boring and speculative transit are certainly finite, but Musk's entrance in each could provide immense value at some point to a lot of people.
This is the new paradigm that we should all be taking note of.
Building to scale up endlessly as we have done for generations has built our marvelous society upon a shaky and crumbling foundation. It makes no sense to continue building upwards into the atmosphere and ultimately into space as Bezos would like to upon the same foundation.
Going forward, the way to succeed will be to provide value first that can shore up the foundation or lay down new ones. Businesses providing value through solutions that help us adapt to the changing climate and that reduce the human footprint driving those changes will begin to see advantages like those Musk enjoys.
Sooner or later the old ways of doing business will run into limitations or have to shoulder the costs they have been displacing onto the environment and poorer nations for decades, or both. When that happens, providing value in the form of smart, sustainable solutions will reign. Maybe even on Mars, too.