Category Archives: Fragility

Elon Musk vs. the Environmentalists – Some Lessons


One of the core values of our team is: we face and solve brutal realities.

Another on of our values is: we ask why. 

Recently, at a team retreat, we read and discussed Musk’s biography. It is well worth reading.

In reading the book – and reflecting on our values – I was struck by how Musk differs from many environmentalists.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Climate Change

Both Musk and the environmentalists care about the future of humanity.

Both Musk and environmentalists believe that humanity is at-risk due to human induced climate change.

In this sense: each has faced the brutal reality of the dangers of climate change.

Because of this brutal reality, environmentalists are doing important policy and conservation work.

Because of this brutal reality, Musk launched Solar City and Tesla.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Single Planetary Existence 

But Musk, in considering the threat of environmental disaster, did not stop asking “why” when it comes to the risk of human extinction.

Rather than being satisfied with the (true) morality tale of humans destroying the planet; he kept on asking why humans were so exposed to environmental collapse on Earth in the first place.

The answer is of course obvious: Earth is the only planet we live on. As it goes, so do we.

In terms of human continuity, it is very fragile to only live on one planet. Ultimately, even natural environmental shifts (volcano explosion, meteor, etc.) can destroy humanity. Musk realized this was a major problem that many environmentalists did not seem to be working on.

Yes, slowing human made climate change is important, but it is only a stop-gap solution. Leaving Earth is the more sustainable solution.

Completing this logic pathway (of asking why humanity is truly at risk) only requires the knowledge one might pick up in high school.

Ultimately, getting  down to the root solutions is as much as about mental habits as it is about knowledge: facing brutal realities, continuing to ask “why,” having the boldness of vision to put forth a solution – this is what is needed…. as well as having the operational capacity to make a good attempt to realize this vision.

It is rare that all these qualities sit in one person. This is what makes Musk so special.

And it is why we have Space X.

Our Work 

I’d like to think that some of our greatest successes in New Orleans were because we faced brutal realities and we asked “why” a lot.

Some of our biggest failures likely came from a failure to live out these two values.

When it comes to facing brutal realities, I find the following to be of use: soberly analyzing existing performance data; reading the criticisms of thoughtful people in other tribes; taking the time to quantitatively role forward your expected impact over 10-20 years.

When it comes to asking “why,” I find the following to be useful: sitting on potential solutions before acting on them; setting-up a culture and process for rigorous team questioning; having a board of directors that constantly questions your work; reading broadly to build-up false solution pattern recognition.


2015 Year in Review: Is the World Getting More Fragile?

Through what lens do you understand the world’s hardest problems?

Arnold Kling’s Three Axis Model posits that conservatives understand the world on an anarchy-civilization axis, liberals understand the world on a oppressor-victim axis, and libertarians understand the world on a coercion-freedom axis.

I find this model useful, and for much of my life I understood the world on the oppressor-victim axis; over the past few years, the coercion-freedom axis has also become a frame of common use.

2015, however, was the year when I more fully adopted a new axis: the fragile-antifragile axis.

In short, while I find Three Axis Model useful in understanding how others think, I find it out of synch with my own values (none of this an attack on Kling, he was only describing the dominant camps).

Moreover, I read two books this year (War! What is it Good For? [non-fiction] and Nexus [fiction]) that reenforced the notion that the traditional three axis viewpoints did not reflect how I approached the world’s hardest problems.

The Fragile-Antifragile Axis

Quite simply: things that make the world more fragile are bad, and things that make the world less fragile are good.

Nassim Taleb wrote a book about it. There’s a lot in that book I disagree with, but I think the thesis is roughly right.

The Issues at Hand 

The following things are making (or have the potential to make) the world much more fragile: climate change, AI, weapons of mass destruction, Donald Trump becoming president.

The following things don’t really affect the fragility of the world: domestic gun policy, reproductive rights, tinkering with tax policy.

Now, all of these issues are important, and I care about all of them. But when viewed through the fragile-antifragile axis, some or much more important than others.

Moreover, some of these issues (weapons of mass destruction) cause me to be open to supporting policies that I would not support if I only viewed the world through the liberal or libertarian axises.

How to Make the World Less Fragile? 

I previously spent a few months worth of free time creating a pitch deck for an existential risk venture fund, whereby success would be measured in reduction of existential (fragile) risk rather than profits. I pitched it to a few high net worth individuals but got nowhere. Perhaps I got rejected because this is a bad idea.

But this year has seen the rise of two anti-fragile funds: Open AI and the Gates energy fund.

Also, Elon Musk has plans to make humanity less fragile by colonizing Mars.

And when you consider the Paris climate treaty, a taxonomy of antifragile tactics begins to emerge: innovation (Gates), knowledge equity (Open AI), exit (Mars), and coordination (Paris).

Is the World Getting Less Fragile?

This seems difficult to quantify. On one hand, given the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology, we can survive many things that would have wiped our ancestors out.

On the other hand, these very two conditions – the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology – also increase fragility. In a world where it becomes easy to build a virus that wipes out the world, it’s pretty dicey to have billions of people out there walking around.

It’s interesting to think about what was the least fragile time in human history (1890s?).

If I Had to Bet

My guess is that exit is the best strategy to reduce fragility.

And while I appreciate Musk’s strategy (humans on mars), my guess is that exit will be achieved via robots (less fragile bodies) all over space (less fragile geography).

Though of course I’m not sure.

Anyways, that’s my reflection on 2015.