So, I’m sitting across the lunch table from Elon Musk, and I say, “The entire population of Canada — and, uh, Los Angeles — is going to die of hunger, and for just two per cent of your net wealth, you could save them all from agonizing death.”
Would you take that challenge? If you’re like plenty of Canadians, you owe two dollars for every one dollar you earn, so spending any percentage of your net wealth is meaningless, unless you took on more debt. But if you owned an average house in my home city of amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton), then two per cent of $378,247 would be $7,565 (let’s say $8000).
Now, I’ll be honest. I would really not want to hand over eight grand. But to save all Canadians and Hollywood? If I cheaped out, there’d be nobody left to watch Netflix with, and no Netflix to watch.
The reason I’m sitting across from Rocket Man was that recently on CNN’s New Day, UN Food Programme Director David Beasley challenged apartheid-fortune-scion, rocket-meister and richest human alive Elon Musk to donate two per cent of his wealth to save all Canada and L.A. (well, not really — starving people in places that most Westerners care far, far less about). Musk’s tweeted response, which enraged plenty of people, was, “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it. (sic)”
First, no one alive could describe a plan to save 42 million people in tweet form. So that part of Musk’s response is barely better than, “Whatever, dude.”
But asking for a plan is totally fair. I ain’t giving eight grand to anyone without a clear plan for delivery (not again, anyway — that jet pack I ordered from the oddly-spelled Tezla Company never did arrive). You’d have to be eating way too many “edibles” to assume that giant non-capitalist bureaucracies — even the UN — are automatically efficient or even benevolent (see “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes”).
Still, according to the Toronto Star, on November 1 alone Musk got (I won’t say “earned”) $36 billion. Legions of Muskies love to talk about Musk like he’s Tony Stark — a genius who can “disrupt” the world into paradise (or abandon it for Mars; he’s fine either way). And whereas I actually need my eight grand for mortgage payments, food, and that working light sabre I saw at Jedi.ca, Musk could drop $6 billion out of his November 1 haul alone and still have $30 billion to do life-saving, world-changing stuff such as launching a car into space.
And that’s why I asked Musko to meet me for lunch. So I could give him my plan to save 42 million parents, children, and other human beings from a miserable end.
“The major advantage of my plan,” I tell him, “is that it just connects the plans of other people who’ve already done the hard work of creating, testing, and proving how to deliver food abundance.”
“Don’t you mean food security?” he says, smirking like I’m using the wrong fork.
“No! Freedom from starvation is a pretty pathetic standard, when billionaires like you can shoot 90-year-old multi-millionaire celebrities and broken toilets into micro-gravity. I don’t want to hear about guaranteeing shipments of Plumpy’Nut.”
“So what are you saying?”
So I start telling Captain Space-X about the people who know how to create food abundance, such as the outstanding hydroponicists of Kenya (a country economically and technologically competing with Rwanda to become the South Korea of East Africa; currently 51 per cent of its electricity comes from geothermal production). Peter Chege of Hydroponics Africa has been advancing highly-productive, non-soil, no pesticide, water-conserving agriculture for years. After helping Kenyan “farm-preneurs” get started or get ahead, now he’s working in Djibouti and North Darfur, Sudan. In January 2020, Chege said that with a grant from a Canadian NGO, he’d delivered 150 hydroponics systems to many displaced families and trained forty women in nutrition and hydroponics best practices.
“Out of how many displaced people in Darfur?” he says, smirking even more.
“Point taken: there are half a million displaced people. But your billion Musk-bucks is way more than whatever that Canadian NGO provided. With your cash, you could ‘disrupt’ the hell out starvation-prevention with grants… or even just loans.”
“To who?” he snorts. “Governments? They’d just waste it!”
“Sure, some would, so why not work with Kenyan women such as Hope Wanjiru, and the Kenyan men who own Grandeur Africa? These people are building their local economy — and tax base — using hydroponics to produce far, far more food per square metre than water-wasting, pesticide-heavy outdoor farming. And if you synergize hydroponics with fish-farming, you’ve got aquaponics,” which these Kenyans, these Guineans, and this charismatic African-American aquaponicist are doing.
“I don’t know,” he says, cutting into his Wagyu. “Hydroponics? So 20th century. I’m a visionary. I want a bold technical challenge — or at least something that sounds new!”
“Okay. How about growing crops from seawater?”
He puts down his knife. “Go on.”
“Coastal Somalia. That’s one of the places where Seawater Greenhouse is operating, using cardboard filters to turn lethal saltwater into life-giving moisture and lowered temperatures for green-tent agriculture. The Sahara Forest Project says that under peak conditions, a saltwater-cooled greenhouse can produce up to twenty times the amount of food crops of outdoor farming in the same region. Hell, you can even grow some crops using untreated seawater itself, but whenever a dry region gets rain, you can also anchor that rain into the soil using hydrogels.”
“That’s all fine and good,” says Lord Tesla. “But what about interior regions that don’t have any seawater?”
“Glad you asked, Eels,” I say. “What do you know about atmospheric water-harvesters?”
“I can quote Star Wars and Dune verbatim,” he says. I’m sure he can, but probably for all the wrong reasons.
“So you probably already know that airborne moisture-collectors can draw up to 3750 litres of clean water from air per day. They aint cheap, but you’re the one who owns the trillion-dollar company, right? Add a waste water purifier to local pipes, and you can deliver another twenty thousand litres of drinking water per day.”
Just in case Elly wants to boost proven low-tech methods into high-tech productivity, I email him this series of short videos proving how easy reforestation and afforestation can be. Effective manual labour techniques — such as zaï planting, demi-lunes, fanya juu terraces, grass strips, stone lines, and contour bunds prevent erosion and desertification, extend grazing land, and promote agroforestry (growing crops around trees), all of which anchor water and prevent erosion.
I also email him a link to Professor Legesse Negash in the classic documentary Green Gold to show how reforestation protects communities. (I leave out how it does so by building co-operation to enhance and protect the commons — I don’t want to skunk the sale). In six years, Ethiopians transformed a parched Marscape into emerald splendour. “Like the Atreides on Arrakis say, ‘Water is life,’” I note, “and like the BBC says, water scarcity provokes wars.”
He falls silent while he’s eating his dessert (no lie — it’s a Mars bar. On a plate.)
“So, Lonny,” I say to jostle him back, “what do you know about building electric vehicles?”
He grunts at me.
“Well,” I say, “if we had some electric agro-industrial vehicles, small ones or giant ones, then immediately all the terracing, water-harvesting, and canal-building that would otherwise take manual labourers months to complete could be done in days, and over much wider territory. Cover those canals with solar panels like they’re doing in India, and the water helps cool the panels which makes them work better and reduce evaporation. The panels power irrigation, and generate electricity and economic opportunity! You love big projects, right? Why not put your money and these strategies into the Great Green Wall?”
Then I hand him my phone and show him the trailer to this film about the alliance of eleven Sahel countries growing a 15-km green protectorate from Senegal on the Atlantic to Somalia 8000 km east on the Indian Ocean. The GGW website says the project will bring “life back to Africa’s degraded landscapes at an unprecedented scale, providing food security, jobs, and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path.”
But when Musky insists on something more tech-dramatic, I offer, “Like, with mirrors and super heat-conductive geodesic domes that use green solar energy to boil saltwater and collect the steam as fresh water?”
“Sure,” he says, barely interested.
“If your ideas are so great,” ElMu snaps, “why aren’t you doing them in Canada? I hear you’ve got major hunger problems there.” He searches with my phone and says, “Like almost a million people using food banks every month!”
“Well, 840,000, but I take your point,” I note, taking back my phone, and explain that in the underserved North of our G7 country, a jug of orange juice can cost $26, a bag of flour can snatch $44, and a frozen turkey can bite $200. I tell him we need way more projects like the hydroponic “igloos” that cut local food food prices in half and create jobs while building capacity. Or amazing community greenhouses that leverage 56 days of 24-hour sunlight to grow watermelons in Inuvik.
“To grow food abundance everywhere,” I say, “we could be using 280,000 square metres of retrofitted greenhouses that the cannabis industry bought and abandoned because of the ‘weed-bubble,’” if this TD advertorial is correct, “to grow fresh food across the country, and locally so it’s fresher and reduces pollution from trucking it. If we had some of those Musk-ducats, we could heat and power those greenhouses geothermally.”
“You don’t need my money to do that,” he says. “Your government has all the money it needs. So do your churches. So do your unions.”
“You’re right. Totally. Every house of worship, union, school, grocery store, and restaurant, should and already could be part of building food abundance and jobs. Hell, urban farmers and guerilla gardeners are already doing it! But this isn’t an either/or. If you billionaires would just pay your taxes, we’d get it done way faster! Long before you got to Mars!”
He stands up, so I speed up.
“Look, dude, it was a cute stunt telling the UN Food Programme Director, ‘Show me the plan, then I’ll show you the money.’ But if you people just paid your taxes from all the money you got by gouging, threatening, and injuring workers, we wouldn’t need you ‘offering’ profits that your workers made for you so you can distract people from your tax bills and boost your share prices while doing it.”
And Musk is already out the door when the waiter brings me the bill.