Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Elon Musk

Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Marcus Grassi was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

An engineer, entrepreneur, CEO, and inventor seeks to promote humanity and change the world through renewable energy production, sustainable light vehicle transportation, and the colonization of Mars: Elon Musk. In pursuit of higher education and his idealistic vision of America, Musk left South Africa at the age of 17 to begin college in 1982. He first studied at Queen’s university in Canada prior to transferring to the University of Pennsylvania to study business and physics. He then proceeded to Stanford University to begin a Ph.D. in energy physics yet instead decided to join the internet boom and launch his first internet company, Zip2 Corporation [2]. He soon sold the company to Compaq for $307 million and in the same year co-founded which merged with Paypal and was then acquired by Ebay. Instead of resting on these two successful ventures, Musk invested his own fortune into two new startups: SpaceX and Tesla. As a leading investor and entrepreneur, Musk pushes for sustainable technology and energy innovation through his companies and personal investments.

In the early 2000s, Musk envisioned an expanding space industry for which the ultimate goal would be to accomplish multi-planetary human civilization. He first attempted to purchase rockets from Russia, yet after failed negotiations decided to build rockets on his own. After reading countless books and teaching himself how to build rockets, he founded SpaceX in 2002. Despite doubt and speculation, Musk has succeeded in turning SpaceX into a multibillion dollar company with contracts awarded by NASA to transport cargo to the international space station. SpaceX achieved historic landmarks in the industry when it successfully returned and landed a private spacecraft from low-Earth orbit in 2010 [3]. In the future, SpaceX aims to transport NASA crew members to space. In the short span of its existence, the company has grown rapidly and achieved incredible feats. The quick innovation is driven by Musk and the desire to ignite the public interest and quest toward the colonization of Mars. Musk views the accomplishment of this goal as a necessary step toward ensuring the future sustainability of the human species. When asked about why space exploration is necessary and important despite multiple issues evident on Earth, Musk responded:

I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct” [4].

In 2003, Musk began envisioning joining the push toward converting the automobile industry toward electric cars. Musk aided and invested in Tesla Motors, and set them on the road to establish electric cars as dominant over fossil-fueled vehicles. Currently, Tesla vehicles are capable of both rapid acceleration and long mileage before recharging [5]. As Tesla motors progressed in terms of sleekness, reliability, sustainability, and affordability the company began to invest and explore new technologies. To accelerate the conversion to sustainable transportation, Tesla announced the grand opening of its first Gigafactory on July 29, 2016. The goal of the gigafactory is to produce 35 gigawatt-hours in battery production capacity per year. In a statement on Tesla’s website the “Gigafactory will produce batteries for significantly less cost using economies of scale, innovative manufacturing, reduction of waste, and the simple optimization of locating most manufacturing process under one roof” [6]. Furthermore, the gigafactory will be a net zero energy site meaning that it will generate as much energy as it uses through solar technology. When asked of Musk’s motivation in electric vehicles, he replied:

“ original interest in electric cars and solar energy, which goes back to when I was in university, was not based on environmental concern, it was based on sustainability, in the sense of ensuring that civilization can continue to progress” [7].

In addition to SpaceX and Tesla, Musk was one of the first investors in SolarCity in 2006. In August of 2016, Musk merged Tesla Motors and SolarCity in order to promote integrated and sustainable energy solutions. In a blog post about the merger, Tesla stated “As one company, Tesla (storage) and SolarCity (solar) can create fully integrated residential, commercial and grid-scale products that improve the way that energy is generated, stored and consumed” [8].

Musk is altering the way business and technology evolve. He is not just a capitalist or entrepreneur seeking wealth or power. While he is successful and has great personal wealth, this has not been his motivation. In 2008, Musk was on the verge of failure in his personal and professional life: SpaceX had three failed space launches, Tesla’s Roadster had production issues, and his wife had filed for divorce. SpaceX and Tesla were on the verge of bankruptcy and Musk had $75 million left to his name. Instead of cutting his losses and protecting his remaining fortune, he invested all of it into his businesses. Afterward, SpaceX succeeded in the fourth launch and landed a large contract with NASA while Tesla pushed through its potential bankruptcy and gathered funding just in time. When asked why he took the risk and invested his remaining fortune, Musk replied:

“I just thought, these are important things. And if Tesla were to fail, it would be held up as a warning for ever, a setback for electric cars in general. Same for SpaceX and commercial rocket companies. Everyone would have said, “That was pretty stupid because everyone knows that rockets are just done by huge government organizations” [7].

Through perseverance and ingenuity Elon Musk has changed the way we approach engineering solutions to sustainable energy. For Musk, sustainability is a word that refers primarily to the future of the human species and as a result the environment must be cared for. He truly wants to better humanity as a whole, demonstrated further in his response to what motivates him:

“How can we make things better?” And a lot of my motivation comes from me personally looking at things that don’t work well and feeling a bit sad about how it would manifest in the future. And if that would result in an unhappy future, then it makes me unhappy. And so I want to fix it. That really is the motivation for me” [7].

Elon Musk and quote [9]


[1 ] "The Elon Musk Method – A 3-Part Bulletproof Self-Promotion Strategy." The Quintessential Man. N.p., 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[2] "Elon Musk." A&E Networks Television, 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[3] "Company." SpaceX. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[4] Andersen, Ross. "Exodus." Aeon. Aeon, 05 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[5] "About Tesla." Tesla. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[6] "Tesla Gigafactory." Tesla Gigafactory. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[7] Smith, Andrew. "Meet Tech Billionaire and Real Life Iron Man Elon Musk." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[8] "Tesla and SolarCity to Combine." Tesla. N.p., 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017. <>.

[9] Tang, James. "Elon Musk." Ace Tutors. Web. 05 Feb. 2017 <>.