Opinion: Tesla gigafactory protesters and Musk both in self-defeat mode

Musk's confrontation with Berlin protesters resembles a battle of who can be the most self-defeating

Opinion: Tesla gigafactory protesters and Musk both in self-defeat mode
Musk is cosying up to the American right, while still championing his own environmental motivations

"On the current state of evidence, we are operating on the assumption of arson." So said Brandenburg Police after Tesla's Berlin-Brandenburg gigafactory this week suspended production after a nearby fire caused power outages.

The far left 'Vulkangruppe', or Volcano Group, later claimed responsibility for setting the fire at a nearby electricity pylon, leading Tesla CEO Elon Musk to claim that attacking a leading EV manufacturer made little sense from an environmental standpoint.

At best, the actions of the protesters can be said to reveal a tension at the heart of environmentalism in the competition between local and global environmental causes. At worst, they could be accused of myopic posturing, and taking aim at a company making significant contributions to cutting emissions in one of the world's most polluting industries.

The group wants to derail further expansion of the factory, which would require clearing more than 100 further hectares of the adjacent Gruenheide wooded area.

The local water authority in the Gruenheide area of Berlin has also accused Tesla of polluting the city's drinking water, two years after the automaker first attracted criticism from the authorities for its pollution levels in the area.

"The factory signifies a hazard for the security of our drinking water, for the climate, and for workers worldwide," a user purporting to be a member of the group wrote on Musk's own social media platform X, formerly Twitter. The first point may be relevant; the second ludicrous on a global scale; the third instructive of another of the group's underlying motivations — this is likely more anti-capitalism than environmental activism.

"We regret that many people in the region were and are affected by the power outage," they added.

The net carbon emission benefit of an electrified automotive industry is sure to have a far great environmental impact on a global scale than any wins on such a local scale. Defenders of Tesla would likely say that, if the cost of additional BEV production in Berlin, is 100 hectares of forest, then that is a price worth paying — a point which Musk himself made in a post on X.

"Stopping production of electric vehicles, rather than fossil fuel vehicles, is extreme[ly] dumb," Musk wrote.

"These are either the dumbest eco-terrorists on Earth or they are puppets of those who do not have good environmental goals"
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Pot & kettle

But the Berlin protesters appear not to be the only ones with conflicted motivations. Musk is reported to have met recently with presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and is apparently mulling endorsing the staunchly anti-EV presidential candidate.

Trump's policy platform, if elected, will almost certainly involve scrapping ICE phase out mandates and EV subsidies.

During September's UAW strike which affected the 'Detroit Three' automakers, Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform that the UAW should boycott “all electric cars” on the grounds that “they will all be made in China and the auto industry in America will cease to exist”.

In a leaked email widely reported in the US media, Musk also recently urged Tesla staff in Austin to vote out the "far left" Austin District Attorney, Jose Garza.

This should come as no surprise, however, amid Musk's increasingly frequent criticisms of the Biden administration on X, and his apparent conviction that the US government is standing idly by while allowing an endemic crime wave – factors which appear to be pushing Musk towards Trump.

This is all despite of Musk's self-proclaimed environmental credentials, which he championed in a November interview.

"It would be fair to say then, therefore, as a leader of the company, I have done more for the environment than any other human on the planet," Musk said.

In the same interview, Musk stated that "I think I would not vote for Biden", although he clarified, "I am not saying I would vote for Trump."

Read the room

However, rubbing shoulders with Trump is sure to alienate a sizeable proportion of the overwhelmingly liberal target market for US EV buyers. Many online Tesla forums attest to the fact it has already damaged the automaker's brand image with its customer base.

Environmental advocacy has been a key factor in the first wave of EV market penetration by early adopters. Indeed, at a time when other US EV pure play start-ups such as Rivian are positioning themselves as the brand of the tech-savvy coastal progressive, Musk's increasingly outspoken conservatism may leave Tesla losing the battles for hearts and minds.

"One must accept that Elon's white supremacist motivations are absolutely damaging the brand because he is equated with Tesla," Ross Gerber, CEO of Kawasaki Capital Management, recently told Yahoo Finance.

"My main problem with Musk’s comments is they are impulsive and reckless and needlessly damaging to his stated goals. Just like Trump, sometimes it is better to not tweet," says Ethan Lipman, founder and CEO of electric vehicle consultancy EVPV.

Musk, as well as Vulkangruppe, seems to be suffering from a serious case of lack of joined-up thinking. But, at least on the part of the German protesters, the dissonance appears to be protesting one form of environmental harm while ignoring a far bigger win for the planet.

In Musk's far more consequential case, however, the influential billionaire sits at a crossroads which could permanently alter the hue, or even progress, of the EV transition and the future of its most successful company.

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