It’s not a bad comic, and it’s not a bad article. But I disagree that delivering vaccines, transporting grain, plowing farmland, or cranking a generator are anywhere near the best application of Superman’s powers. For one, I don’t think Superman’s the best example to use in this case, especially given that he exists in a setting routinely threatened by apocalyptic aliens and world-destroying evildoers. If Superman’s the only one who can defeat his enemies (especially those bent on the annihilation of the universe, say), then without him “fighting crime” there’d not be anyone to deliver vaccines to. A much more obvious case of under-utilization is found in the “genius inventor” types, though the why there is clear for Doylist reasons (e.g. you want your story to take place in a familiar setting).
But suppose (different incarnations of) Superman suddenly appeared in our world (lacking as it does in “Kryptonite”, though I reckon a crafty superman shouldn’t have much trouble there either). In what ways could he leverage his powers to do the most good? Vaccine delivery seems a pretty great waste, since well-worn channels already exist for that and there would be other limiting steps (e.g. training people in vaccine administration, refrigerated storage for vaccines on site, convincing locals to take vaccines by teaching them what they do, etc.). Transporting loads of grain, plowing farmland, and cranking a generator ( which is presumably magical and indestructible? I suspect any lever or arm would disintegrate long before superman reached max capacity, especially if he’s turning it fast enough or against enough resistance to actually make a dent in global energy demand. Nevermind the difficulties in actually storing energy, and that Superman is unique in that his power output is contained in a remarkably compact package, but — depending on the incarnation — doesn’t necessarily hold a candle to global power output) also all seem goofy, since supermen who can do anything worthwhile there would better apply their powers elsewhere. The clearest and most obvious use of Superman’s powers to me seems careful study in the hopes of reverse engineering (e.g. modern physics would probably need to be rewritten), but that’s boring (and maybe sufficiently impossible with our current understanding of how things work. It could also screw us all over if some baddies reproduce his powers early enough and blow up the earth). Otherwise, if Superman wanted to do the most good, I’d say he should (drawing from sites like this, this, and this):
(Early) Golden Age Superman: Early Superman could leap a few hundred feet, withstand small arms fire, run faster than an express train, and lift large vehicles. So there’s not much he could do directly that existing machines couldn’t do better, but he could easily make bank as a celebrity and athlete. Superman would completely dominate almost every sport in existence, which he could leverage into further fame with movies, TV shows, action figures, cereal sponsorships, etc. Especially if he looked like Christopher Reeve or Henry Cavill (source).
Michael Jordan’s current net worth is over 1B USD (much of it from endorsements and investments) — Superman shouldn’t have any trouble clearing that. With money on that scale he could save millions of lives by improving infrastructure, healthcare, access to basic resources, etc. in the developing world, as well as funding research into new technologies and medicines. He could essentially establish a foundation to rival that of Bill and Melinda Gates, and if Superman has any cognitive enhancements, potentially even dwarf it. Of course, if he wished to compete in modern organized sports his true nature would quickly be discovered (think urine and blood tests for PEDs), though he might be able to argue that merely possessing Kryptonian physiology is not grounds for expulsion (especially since he looks perfectly human). And while he might fail medical examination in drug-tested competitions, or give away the game too early if he remains unscathed in response to something that would be otherwise traumatic to normalman, I imagine some care, caution, and several exceptionally large bribes would be able to take circumvent many problems there (and afaik most athletes at the upper levels already engage in some form of hormonal supplementation, and while drug tests can be fooled with careful cycling, they can be also be fooled in more direct ways as well. Also, Superman’s skin is pliable and fairly indistinguishable from human skin if you don’t do anything too invasive).
Xenophobia might then threaten his popularity, or maybe his alienness would cause it to skyrocket (if he takes advantage of obvious Messianic connotations). If it’s sufficiently large, he could also wield his celebrity to bend the zeitgeist to his liking, but I dunno how effective that’d be relative to straightforward earning-to-give (given the huge amount of competition). I’m not sure how stringent people were at drug testing in past decades, so if Superman appeared before the present he could also limit himself to more plausible levels of performance and so better evade or delay discovery. In fact, such a self-limitation might be best to build his popularity — if he performs at all times just above his competition, perhaps even suggesting the occasional possibility of defeat, he’d doubtless get more views than if he trivially and routinely trounced all challengers (no humans ever try to outwrestle a gorilla, for example).
Silver Age Superman: Whatever he wants. IIRC this version of Supes is pretty goofy and had powers as the plot demands — super hypnosis, super ventriloquism, super mini-superman generation, etc., in addition to more mundane stuff like MFTL travel, interstellar clairvoyance, super-genius, sneezing so hard as to blow away planets, and so on. He could use his super-intellect to create a “fix everything” button and fly back in time to activate it or something. I guess if time travel’s possible and our universe abides by the Novikov self-consistency principle he could go back to the moment of death of every sentient being and rapture them away to super-heaven, leaving convincing replicas in their place. He could write the super-program that simulates our universe on his super-computer. I dunno.
Post-Crisis, Modern Age, and New 52 Superman (afaict their power sets are fairly similar): Here Superman is limited to subluminal speeds, can “lift” and move (with some effort) the earth and other planets, and can be damaged by ~40 Mt nuclear bombs (just under the yield of the Tsar Bomba — the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated on earth) — though of course these are pretty inconsistent, as traveling any large fraction of the speed of light or having the strength to move worlds suggest durability far in excess of what would be scratched by a piddly bomb. At least without too much handwaving.
At his lower showings, I’d say he could best earn (and redistribute) money schlepping satellites into orbit, setting up a base (and eventually colonies) on the moon and mars, and gently towing asteroids to earth for mining purposes (of common things like iron and nickel, and also stuff like rare earth metals). Supposedly “the value of many asteroids are measured in the quintillions of dollars”, thousands of times more than global GDP, so I suspect some markets would get a bit distorted. Doing so, he would dominate the astronautics and mining industries and revolutionize communications and technology and science and space exploration. In addition to the direct effects, he’d have no problem making, at the very least, trillions of dollars (or their equivalent in multiple currencies and real world goods), which he could use to bring the entire world up to post-industrial standard of living and beyond. Before doing so, he could also be pivotal in the prevention of natural disasters — what’s that, the Mosul Dam collapsed? In comes Superman with his freeze breath, buying time for the evacuation of millions. Experiencing a drought? Let superman tow a comet or a glacier or something in (or boil some ocean, freeze the resulting cloud, and transport that).
At his upper levels of power, he could help set up sci-fi megastructures like Dyson spheres. This Superman’s also occasionally a supergenius, and could probably read all the textbooks ever and progress all fields of science and math by decades in an afternoon, cure all disease, etc. If he were willing to flex some political muscle and get his hands dirty, nothing could oppose his takeover of the earth, ending of war, etc. Yearly global military expenditures are over a trillion USD, so if nothing else he could contract himself out and severely undercut the military-industrial complex, if he doesn’t want to push for disarmament and serve as a personal deterrent, for whatever reason.
Closing Thoughts: Of course, if Superman appeared before me and asked me for advice on how to do the most good, I’d foremost recommend that he consult a wide range of experts in various fields (economics, health, civil engineering, politics, materials science, etc.) and see what they have to say. Doubtless they could think of much better applications of his powers than anything I could come up with here in half an hour of fairly superficial thought.
(header image source: Alex Ross)