The billionaire space race has been everywhere over the past weeks. Covered by major media outlets. Photos and videos all over Instagram. And—how could we forget—shamed on Twitter. But as the dust settles… and after the (valid) anger towards the obscene display of extreme billionaire wealth dissipated, a disturbing question remains. Have we, well and truly, entered the era of space colonialism?
The billionaire space race, at this point, might as well be a viral meme. Everyone has heard about it, and everyone has weighed in on it. (Except it’s not at all funny.) One of the most concise explanations of the absurdity and the cruelty of it all came from journalist George Monbiot. He broke down why exactly the desire of these billionaires isn’t to advance humanity. But rather it’s to boost their own already massive egos. It’s a race, Monbiot says, that we’re all paying for. And the cherry on top, of course, is that this is happening while ecological breakdown and political, social and economic crises are ongoing around the world.
In the criticism of the billionaire space race, much airtime has been given to this. The fact that the billionaire space race is unnecessary frivolousness at a time when we need anything but. Much has also been said about the global inequity that is a cause of, and yet also contributes to, this billionaire space race. These are valid critiques, and we can’t overstate them. But the billionaire space race is concerning in another disturbing way too: in that, it’s (re)ushering an era of space colonialism.
It’s in the way the billionaires (and the media) frame the space race. It’s in the way they talk about how they want to dominate, own, and control space. And it’s even in the way they behave now, on planet Earth, that’s especially telling too. Space has become a colonial project (and perhaps it has always been, even before the billionaires took to it). But what does that mean? How does the billionaire space race have ties to the time of colonialism? Should we abandon space exploration entirely, then?
Let’s dig into it.
What are the billionaires saying?
You’ve probably heard, or heard about, their respective visions. But just so we’re all on the same page, here’s what they’re proposing. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, the one behind Amazon, wants to establish artificial tube-like structures floating close to the Earth. Elon Musk, also part of the rich billionaire boys club, the one behind Tesla, wants to terraform Mars. If all goes well, in Bezos’ version of the future, we’ll be hovering around Earth, staring down the planet that we used to call home. And in Musk’s version, we’ll be on an entirely different planet.
Though these seem like technically different plans, Alina Utrata writes for Boston Review, “the political philosophies underpinning them are remarkably similar”. Basically, the two of them are offering up too-good-to-be-true utopias in space. As solutions for the havoc that has been wreaked on planet Earth. And in doing so, they’re repeating the same kinds of narratives that we’ve heard before, back when colonialism first happened.
Resource extraction: space as the next region to plunder
Let’s look more closely at what Bezos is saying. Bezos told a crowd recently that if we don’t want to become “a civilisation of rationing and stasis,” we have to expand to the stars, where “resources are, for all practical purposes, infinite.” Bezos is essentially saying: look, we’ve run out of resources here on planet Earth. If we want to grow, and we do, we have to expand to space. Space is the only place with infinite resources, that will support our infinite growth.
Musk isn’t saying exactly the same thing, but he said that “history suggests that there will be some extinction event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilisation and multi-planetary species.” Embedded in his words here, too, is this idea that we’ll have to expand to space because there will be no more resources for us here. That we have to innovate and adapt to life in space, and utilise the resources there instead.
This idea that we should explore new frontiers and plunder these explored regions for resources and use them for ourselves is an age-old idea that sits at the heart of colonialism, and capitalism. As Eleanor Penny writes for NewStatesman, the need for the capture of untapped markets “has guided the steady march of this economic system from the enclosure of the common land in early modern England to the brutal march of colonialism. Cecil Rhodes, one of British imperialism’s most dedicated villains, once said “expansion is everything… I would annex the planets if I could.””
Land ownership: space as the new frontier
Perhaps we need to think more deeply about the assumptions that undergird this idea that we should expand to space to take the resources there. In other words: let’s take a step back. Is space ours for the taking?
Utrata, along with many others, contends that it’s not. “The idea that [we can “take” space] simply because “no one is there” finds root in the exact colonial logics that have justified settler genocide for centuries: that only certain people, using resources in certain ways, have a claim to land and ownership. Imperialist conceptions of ownership thus transform space into an “empty frontier” where certain individuals can project their political dreams, whether they be extractive manufacturing industries or settler colonies.”
The problem here isn’t exactly space exploration itself, as we’ll dig into further, but rather the way in which we think about exploring space. And “we”, in this case, referring to anyone who subscribes to the ways in which the likes of Bezos and Musk talk about space. Feminist theoretical physicist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shares on an episode of the “UNDISTRACTED” podcast recently that “maybe instead of saying discovered, we [should be] saying learned about… Discovery is so wrapped up with colonialism.”
Indeed, “discovery” is the language of colonialists. The language of the people who, just by the way they spoke, and certainly by the way they acted, disappeared people who were there before them. To this, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein says, “I want us to think carefully about why we’re doing it, and who it serves.” Certainly, examining the language that we use to talk about billionaire space “exploration” reminds us that for them, this isn’t about the science, nor is it about humanity. It’s about them, and ultimately, it can be seen as a dick-measuring contest.
What happens when we use this language and adopt this thinking?
And who does this language and thinking harm? It harms people even before the space-conquering even happens. Because this language and thinking naturally allows for a disregard of what stands in the way of the mission.
Here’s an example: Elon Musk’s SpaceX moving into Texas displaced residents from their homes, because the area became unsafe from rocket activity. (It’s damaged a wildlife refuge in the area already, but let’s not even start on the environmental impacts of space exploration.) SpaceX offered to purchase the residents’ homes, though at unfairly low prices. Eventually, it sent out a notice to the residents that their property would “frequently fall within established hazard zones [and that no civilians could remain within these zones], in order to comply with all federal and other public safety regulations.”
This story is not a new one, nor is it just the billionaires who act questionably in the name of space exploration. Adam Mann notes for the New Yorker that in the 1990s, the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council fought officials on a plan to build a “Columbus telescope” on the tribe’s traditional homeland; in 2005, the Tohono O’odham Nation contested construction of a proposed gamma-ray detector on sacred land; more recently, Native Hawaiians objected the placement of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Mann notes that today, each of these mountains hosts multiple telescope domes.
The scientific field of astronomy and space exploration, says Hilding Neilson, a Canadian astronomer and possibly the only First Nations faculty member in astronomy or physics in Canada, to Mann, is “one that doesn’t necessarily hear voices from non-Western perspectives.”
Sacrifice as necessary in space “exploration”
The worst of this kind of language and thinking in space exploration is this: when billionaires begin to think that sacrifice is unavoidable, or even necessary, in the name of “humanity”.
Utrata notes that Bezos “looks at this as a utilitarian calculation… If humanity expands into space, he urges, “trillions of humans” can prosper, “which means thousands of Einsteins or Mozarts.” While not explicitly said, Bezos, it seems, doesn’t care about the sacrifices needed to get to the utopia he imagines. This isn’t surprising, given his track record on planet Earth. As writer Paris Marx puts it, “he’s succeeded at turning human workers into virtual robots who have almost no autonomy and [at treating them] as disposable inputs from which to extract labor at the lowest possible cost. He then discards them once they’re spent.”
Musk, on the other hand, is more explicit. He’s said before that Mars is “not for the faint of heart”. And that there’s a “good chance you’ll die. And it’s going to be tough, tough going. But it’ll be pretty glorious if it works out.” There’s empirical evidence that the richer you are, the less empathy you have for others, but this kind of disregard for human sacrifice, in the name of “humanity”—we will question this in a bit—is another level of twisted and cruel.
But this kind of “sacrifice”, of course, returning to the topic of colonialism, has its parallels in history too. As Utrata reminds us, colonialism depended on the destruction and genocide of Indigenous land and communities. And that, too, “was but one component in a global regime of racial violence. Indeed, the labor needed to support the system of colonial-capitalism in the United States fueled the atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade.”
Why are they doing this?
Author of Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, Manu Saadia, shares on an episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us Podcast, hosted by Paris Marx, the two paradigms in the way we conceive of space exploration. Which he takes from Daniel Deudney, in his book, Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity. On the one hand, there’s von Braun and Tsiolkovsky, “people from the 20s and 30s who [were of the opinion] that humanity had to jump into deep space and colonise and multiply and settle everywhere, and that it’s [our mission as a species].”
On the other hand, there’s the Carl Sagan paradigm. And Sagan, known as “the astronomer of the people”, was of the opinion that we should invest in science to learn about the world, and in the process, learn about ourselves. It was “borne out of a deep commitment and earnest commitment to know more, not just about nature, but about ourselves, because we are a part of nature”. Saadia notes that this “fascination with life, nature and the cosmos” is what a lot of people who work at NASA today live by.
And in contrast, Saadia says, “these space bros [Bezos and Musk] are not [doing] science for science’s sake.” How do we know that? He explains that we’ve known for decades now that space probes, and remote-operated machines are much better at doing science than people. So if they were really interested in “the science”, in advancing humanity, they’d be doing that. Instead, they’re interested in “sending people there“.
A different kind of “advancing humanity”
In some ways, the likes of Bezos and Musk actually do want to “advance humanity”. That is, the kind of advancing humanity we associate with colonialism and capitalism. The kind of advancing humanity that comes at the cost of people and the planet. And the kind of advancing humanity that’s all about progress at any cost. Indeed, Saadia notes, “there’s none of that desire for [scientific] knowledge, [instead] there’s that desire for a certain kind of progress.”
It’s the kind of progress that’s wrapped up in billionaire ego, in colonial ego. It’s a “certain conception of humanity where it has to necessarily be heroic. And the proof of heroism is in the absurd domination of nature.” Marx responds to that and summarises how this all ties together: “Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos… really have this kind of von Braun approach. This dominating space, controlling space, colonising space.”
(The scariest part about their desire to dominate space? Saadia puts it this way: “if you’re living in space, you’re at the mercy of technology, and someone owns that technology, and therefore owns you. I call that technological supremacy, and that’s the dream. The dream of control, the dream of subjugation. It’s the boot of capitalism stomping on the face of humanity forever. That’s what it is.”)
And when you think about “advancing humanity” in that way, the questions that follow are: for what? For who? At which point we begin to realise that this isn’t really advancing humanity at all. It’s an empty promise, a guise, and a trick, that many have fallen for. These powerful people are making use of a narrative to pursue a project that really only serves them, a narrative that has kept the capitalist system running today—a system that too, really only serves them.
Like how can u not be freaked out that the literal endless expanse beyond our planet is becoming the new frontier and the new site for a Neo-Manifest Destiny for white patriarchal capitalism who will always run the narrative that they “know better” what is to be done Out There™️
— 🌻☀️Ecology With Adjectives☀️🌻 (@ab0lishICE) July 21, 2021
So what now?
What do we do with this information? Do we freak out that billionaires are literally trying to bring us closer to an era of space colonialism? That it’s already here? Do we stop space exploration entirely if it’s so problematic?
The whole point of talking about space colonialism is to problematise the ways in which billionaires, and perhaps states, and maybe even some scientists, think about space exploration. As to the billionaires: let’s not entertain their escapist fantasies, and allow them to perpetuate, as Saadia says, “whatever doesn’t work on earth and [spill] it to space”.
“We have serious problems down here, that we need to address. Instead of talking about terraforming Mars, perhaps try to make Earth habitable for everybody. Start with that, then we can discuss [space and everything else].” Paris Marx echoes this in their essay for Jacobin, writing that: “Our future is here on Earth, building a society where ordinary people are put before the rich and powerful.”
And as to the question of space exploration more broadly?
An anti-colonial approach to space exploration
Some scientists are already thinking about alternative ways of engaging with space ethically. And what they’ve come up with might offer some hopeful insights. See, a team of scientists submitted an essay way back in 2010 to the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey—“a once-in-ten-years affair in which scientists discuss their research priorities”.
In the essay, the scientists argue that: “Rather than an escape, or a continuation of manifest destiny, the Moon and Mars may provide the key to practicing other ways of exploring and of being.” The essay first explores colonial structures and how they are of relevance to space exploration today: including biological contamination and ecological devastation, race science, land appropriation and resource extraction, and more.
If the space exploration community were to address the ways in which space exploration can replicate the past (and in some cases, ongoing) harms of colonialism, this would not only right past wrongs and ensure ethical interactions with extraterrestrial environments and potential forms of life, but also pave the way for an ethical and liveable future for humanity.
“Proving that we can interact with other worlds in ways that don’t reproduce capitalist extraction, that respect and preserve environmental systems, and that acknowledge the sovereignty and interconnectivity of all life,” the essay argues, “will illustrate these practices are not only possible, but necessary and liberating.” Perhaps space exploration “can be a catalyst for a transformative change in how we consider our relationships to other forms of life, to land, and ultimately to each other.”
Now if only someone could get this essay to the billionaires…
FEATURED IMAGE: via unknown source | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: An illustration of people on a planet, presumably Mars from the reddish-orange colour palette used; there are two adult-child pairs, one in the foreground and one in the background, they are all faced away towards what appears to be a site of buildings and structures, all of which are self-contained or domed, and there is a rover-looking vehicle parked in front of a huge dome structure
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