Like a Frankenstein’s monster of history, we seem to have awoken to a planet fixated by space travel and the possibilities it holds for humanity. But this is no 20th Century fever dream, increasing amounts of time and money are being spent on space projects, and there are real implications for environmental movements.
Unlike the Space Race these obsessions are not originating from governments, but from the private sector. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, hoping to use his net worth to make exploring the solar system possible and in particular affordable, even though it has recently been revealed that it will be between $200k-300k a ticket to be one of the first up[i]. Bezos is not alone in using his wealth to work on space travel, Elon Musk is well known for his SpaceX project, landing a rocket back on Earth and even sending a car up into space, though the lack of motorways must have limited the capacity for driving. These are only two of a number of private sector space projects, but they represent some of the most vocal. The professed lofty ambitions of living on other planets and exploring the solar system may seem exciting, but I think they really represent a neglect of our own planet.
What I insist and believe must be at the forefront of the minds of environmentalists like myself is that we have a rapidly diminishing amount of time to prevent climate catastrophe. Kim Stanley Robinson, the acclaimed “cli-fi” author, has described our current period as “The Dithering”, a period of talk but no substantial moves to save our planet. What is needed currently is action, as much passionate and effective action as possible to control emissions, reduce waste and develop a proper social ecology. To misquote Tesco, “every minute helps.”
Now if you take this to be true, there are some possible views that can be taken from it. For example, for the students reading, the common graduate approach of working for environmentally damaging or neutral companies in search of an initial large income so one can focus later on environmental pursuits ignores the possible impact mass inaction can have in worsening the crisis. But most importantly for our current topic of discussion, the need for rapid action means we need the massive mobilisation of international capital to develop climate solutions and reduce current impacts, meaning the need for the “captains of industry” and in particular their resources. We do not need them 40 years from now once they are happy with their rockets, we need them mobilised now.
Amazon, and online shopping in general, is often criticised for their contribution to the increased carbon footprint and packaging of modern goods, yet here we have Bezos starting a space project as opposed to increasing work on mitigating these impacts. Musk, who has been working aggressively on solar energy, battery storage and electric cars, also focuses his time and money on SpaceX, as well as the odd flamethrower and submarine. Whilst the planet may benefit from new environmental technologies, it does not benefit from new rockets, submarines or flamethrowers as much. In these times of climate crisis, it’s ridiculous to waste money that could be spent on reducing emissions and staying at healthy planetary temperatures on pipe dreams of being able to voyage beyond that planet. It’s even more ridiculous to talk of making space travel affordable and accessible within the next few decades, when the next few decades are set to be the deciding ones in the battle against the climate crisis. The obsession with space that modern industrial giants seem to have is nothing more than an abandonment of the duties that should come with their ownership of the capital that could contribute to preventing global warming’s destructive impacts.
The private sectors obsession with space and the exploration of space has had shockwaves on the public sector as well. Donald Trump announced the development of a “Space Force”, a clear return to the Reagan “Star Wars” projects which aimed to militarise outer space[ii]. With our cultural returning to thoughts of outer space, led by figures like Musk and Bezos, it was only a matter of time before governments followed suit. This refocusing of space agencies and government resources to the conquest and control of outer space damages our understanding of climate change. This is due to the fact that most space agencies, in particular after the collapse of the Space Race, also work in climate modelling and research. NASA for example helps to provide data and analysis on climate change, and it remains conspicuous as an agency for doing so[iii]. If these resources are moved, then we can only assume there will be a worsening of climate science. Time will only tell how much this reorientation of outer space towards militarism and commercial exploration damages the funding and focus of climate science, but it should be seen as a disconcerting knock on effect and one citizens must keep an eye on.
This is not to say that outer space has no place in the thinking of environmentalists. The Space Race itself helped to found and contribute to the environmentalist movement, with the first photos of our planet contributing to the idea of “spaceship Earth” and the collective realisation of our shared home. Outer space forces humans to think about ourselves and our relationships with systems around us; for example, Kim Stanley Robinson uses outer space and other planets in his writing, most notably in the Mars trilogy, to interrogate environmental and political questions of great importance. But with a finite amount of time to fix the climate crisis, I suspect I am not alone in thinking I would rather space travel was delayed for a few decades even if it meant a significant reduction in projected global warming.
Our planet is amazing, unexplored, hardly understood, and ripe with capacity for amazing social successes. And in what is an extremely dangerous and uncertain time for planetary health, we have no time to distract ourselves with dreams of abandoning it for space, otherwise our home may abandon us.
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.