Roundup: Elon Musk’s naive plan to end global water shortages

Read to the end for a fun AI meme

Roundup: Elon Musk’s naive plan to end global water shortages
Elon Musk with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on May 20, 2024. Photo: Bureau of Press, Media, and Information of Presidential Secretariat

Every now and then, Elon Musk needs to take a break from lying about his companies’ future roadmaps to get lauded for doing absolutely nothing to solve a larger global issue. This time, instead of promising to save Thai kids stuck in a cave or send ventilators to hospitals being swamped with Covid patients, he claims to have the fix for global water shortages.

No surprise, Musk’s solution is firmly technological. He’s not interested in talking about whether we should be planning our communities differently to address water scarcity or targeting companies who have massive water demands to fuel their profit margins. No, Musk’s approach is flippant in the face of political and social considerations.

According to Musk, water shortages are “very solvable” because existing studies are obsolete and price estimates are outdated. All we need is more energy and better transport infrastructure, then we can desalinate whatever water we need because it’s become “very inexpensive.” Phew, good to know it’s all so easy, Mr. Musk!

“We've got a great water future ahead of us, and a great sustainable energy future ahead of us,” he told the attendees of the World Water Forum in Bali, Indonesia, where he appeared to promote Starlink’s launch in the country. With a good hydroponics facility, “I think you can basically turn any part of the world green, including the entire world.”

But does Musk really have a solution? New Atlas acknowledged costs have come down, but pointed out Musk missed a huge roadblock to the supposedly easy solution he outlined: money for capital expenditure. New desalination plants cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the cost of solar energy and battery storage has to be added on top of that. “This isn't a tech problem, it’s a very familiar money problem — and while it might be an easy one for a techno-optimist like Musk to overlook, it's a towering issue blocking progress for developing nations.” 

The billionaire blinders strike again!

Another great roundup this week with pieces on what Jack Dorsey really wants from “decentralized” social media, a nuanced look at the smartphone debate, and the broader impacts of California’s Prop 22 law. Plus, the usual labor updates and other news you’ve come to expect.

Over on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Nora Kenworthy about the problems with normalizing the reliance on GoFundMe for access to healthcare and how it further saps the energy for structural solutions.

Finally, I’m back from doing events and media in Copenhagen and Berlin. You can see a recording of my talk at re:publica about data centers. I was on Denmark’s public broadcaster to talk about the AI debate and on the Transformator podcast to talk about AI and other tech issues. More to come!

Have a great week!