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Cooling our Jets: The Case Against Space Colonization

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

Space colonization, or the idea of establishing colonies of humans on other planets, was once simply the science fiction behind stories such as Star Trek. Today, it has been re-imagined as the solution to our global problems. Enter Elon Musk. At a press conference last year, the Silicon Valley darling behind Space-X and Tesla described the need for inter-planetary travel between Earth and Mars in stark terms.

“History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event – I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy – but eventually, there will be a doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you agree is the right way to go.” – Elon Musk

Allusions to a “doomsday event” are to be expected: the mantra of space colonization does little to inspire without a looming existential threat. But beneath this lofty rhetoric lies a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. The current efforts to preserve our planet, from regulations to recycling, are based on the idea that resources are finite, and can only be preserved through deliberate protection. These efforts depend on conservation values. Space colonization, meanwhile, is based on expansionist values. It assumes that there is always more “out there” to consume. While conservation entails restricting demand to meet supply, expansionism supports expanding supply to meet demand. Clearly these two goals stand in conflict with each other. The expansionist mentality redirects valuable political resources away from environmental agendas and towards colonial agendas.

In order to drive investment, space entrepreneurs bank on the increasingly volatile state of our planet. The message here is that environmental collapse is inevitable, so we must establish a failsafe to protect ourselves before this happens. Yet if we have a failsafe, or at least the idea of it, why bother with conservation? Surely we don’t have to change our consumption habits if the supply of resources will be sustained through resource extraction on space colonies. And when the earth does collapse? We can always just escape to another planet.

But this sci-fi fantasy crumbles when we consider the economic and political realities of space travel. The current estimated cost of travel to Mars is a cool 10 billion dollars. Even if you could afford that, your stay on Mars would be quite lonely. Musk’s vision, to reduce the cost of space travel to around 200,000 dollars, is an absurdly optimistic goal by current projections. It certainly will not happen in our lifetime, and likely not happen for many lifetimes to come. And even that number is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of the world’s population.

The astronomical cost of space colonization ensures that space travel will only be open to the ultra-wealthy. A new class, the interplanetary elite, will eventually emerge. As political power and capital converges around this class, precious resources will be devoted to sustaining the new and expanding colonies. Scientific funding and prestige will likely be diverted away from conservation efforts and towards expansion and extraction efforts. Food and fuel will have to be diverted from earth as well – the process of terraforming Mars to the point where it can sustain agriculture will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Then there is the environmental cost of building and sustaining a space fleet. The resource cost of sending all these spacecraft into space, as well as the ozone depletion from rocket propellants and space junk, is unimaginable. And when our planet is destroyed, how many people will fall with it? There is no imaginable scenario where anything close to global evacuation will be possible, meaning that those who cannot afford to leave will die. If the human race does survive, it will be at the expense of the billions on earth who were not included in the interplanetary vision.

I expect that many readers will have rolled their eyes by now. Space travel has become such an enduring symbol of scientific progress that it is impossible to criticize it without seeming like a Luddite. To be anti-space is to be anti-science. But there’s nothing unscientific about conservation, nor is there any inherent reason why a critical vision of space travel is more unscientific than a positive one. Conservation ideals are based on sound science. It is sound science that tells us that the climate is changing, science that tells us that there are finite resources on earth, and science that tells us that accelerated consumption will deplete the supply of these resources. And it is common sense that tells us that expansion and conservation are simply not compatible.

Conservation isn’t very sexy, I know. Limiting our demand for consumer goods and fighting for environmental protections is a bummer. The allure of space is the possibility of the unlimited. Why should we care about our planet, if there are an unfathomable number of other planets to discover? If you’re in the business of selling futures, it’s easy to sell the ones with endless possibilities.

But we cannot suspend our scepticism just because the salesperson is a scientist or an engineer. Musk is the CEO of a major company, not a neutral voice of reason. Space X has contracts with a number of public and private sources, including the US military. It is certainly in the company’s financial interest to convince you that space travel is the only possible future. Yet for a vision that claims to be revolutionary, it is striking how conformist this policy is. A bold vision of the future would depart from the unsustainable resource extraction and eminent domain into local lands. The bold vision of Space X? To extract more resources and conquer more land. Why, indeed, should that be a more inquisitive or progressive vision than conserving the planet we inhabit?

When we let vested private interests imagine our future, we lose control of our present. When we don’t question the value of space colonization, it becomes increasingly difficult to question the agenda of these corporations. So even if space colonization is a distant future – indeed, even if it never comes – we cannot take it lightly. Environmental collapse is not a forgone conclusion, but accelerating the rate of resource extraction is one sure way to make it one. The future of our planet depends on conservation.

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