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Billionaire Space Colonialism Is a Dead End

Billionaires like Elon Musk want to project the same capitalist logic that is destroying Earth into outer space – they won't succeed, but their ego trips might prevent us from using technology to improve human life.

The world is in the grips of a global pandemic that has altered the daily lives of billions and killed more than 1.7 million people. You might think that that would refocus our attentions on ensuring the health and wellness of people around the globe, but as billionaires’ fortunes have soared, some of their number have kept their focus trained on the stars.

On 9 December, SpaceX launched its Starship SN8, a prototype of the spaceship it hopes will one day perform regular trips between Earth and Mars. The test flight ended in flames, but that didn’t stop space enthusiasts from declaring it a success — an important milestone in CEO Elon Musk’s ultimate plan to colonise the red planet.

Earlier in the month, after receiving the Axel Springer Award in Berlin (since border restrictions don’t stop billionaires), Musk explained that he expected SpaceX to send a spacecraft to Mars in 2022, followed by humans in 2024 or 2026. Those timelines should be taken with a large pinch of salt, given Musk previously said he planned to send an unmanned spacecraft to Mars in 2018, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bigger problems for this vision of humanity’s future.

The Sci-Fi Space Fantasy

Many of the space capitalists who champion space colonisation do so because they were inspired by science fiction. There are countless creatives who inform their visions, but one whose work is frequently cited is author Kim Stanley Robinson, who has published several well-researched novels that imagine various scenarios for human life in space.

After all that research into the science of space travel and settlement, though, Robinson has little time for the colonisation visions being advanced by billionaires like Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In 2016, he compared Musk’s plan for Mars colonisation to ‘the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his back yard.’

More recently, in a conversation with Jacobin, he declared that the capitalist visions for space colonisation ‘are fantasies, and billionaire fantasy trips are not going anywhere.’ He called asteroid and Helium-3 mining ‘bullshit’, and even acknowledged his own role when explaining ‘There is no profit in space. It’s just a fantasy of our culture right now, because everybody’s been convinced by science fiction writers, and they’re not paying attention to the numbers game.’

But that fantasy hasn’t only gripped billionaires who have effectively unlimited money to throw after their passion projects. Governments increasingly buy in, too, thereby constructing a barrier to addressing the bigger challenges that humanity actually faces in this moment.

State-Monopoly Capitalism in Space

On 30 May, while the pandemic was raging and Black Lives Matter protesters were marching in streets around the United States, President Donald Trump joined Elon Musk in Florida to celebrate a dual milestone: one, the first time astronauts had been launched from US soil since NASA stopped using its Space Shuttle; and two, the first time a private company had launched a crewed spacecraft.

As Trump declared that ‘a new age of American ambition has now begun’, he further fused Musk’s vision for space exploration to his white nationalist movement to ‘Make America Great Again’, and to the larger effort of projecting American power in an increasingly multipolar world. Even before Trump started the Space Force and signed an executive order to promote space mining, President Barack Obama had begun the process of privatising space exploration and adopting the vision for an American trip to Mars — and it’s sure to continue under President Joe Biden.

These moves must be placed in their historical contexts. As Dr. Gabrielle Cornish explained in the Washington Post, the Cold War space race was justified by its presentation as ‘a utopian dream to domestic, civilian audiences, framing it through art, music and pop culture as a romantic escape or glorious future’; the real goal was the projection of military and economic power by competing countries. We see this pattern repeated today.

The billionaires driving the modern space race sell it as essential to the future of humanity, either to maintain capitalist ‘growth and dynamism’ or to give humanity a second home in the event of climate apocalypse. The latter is a suggestion that Robinson considers ‘wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense’, because ‘it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health’. Indeed, if humans actually lived on Mars they’d probably get cancer.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because these justifications only exist to obscure the real incentives behind these projects: increasing American power beyond our home planet, extending capitalist property relations to other celestial bodies, and enabling US corporations to exploit extraterrestrial resources for the mutual benefit of those capitalists and the state — assuming the economics even work.

Salon senior editor Keith Spencer compared the ambitions of SpaceX to the history of the East India Company, which ruled colonised areas for the benefit of its shareholders, and in this way it could also be seen as another example of the state-monopoly capitalism observed by Tribune’s Grace Blakeley. These private space companies, despite being funded in part through billionaires’ fortunes, are still highly dependent on public subsidies and contracts – which is why getting the state to buy into their vision is so important.

There might not be people to colonise in space, but the consequences go beyond capitalist enclosure. Since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has recognised that space is a global commons, where ‘national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means’ is prohibited.

Haris Durani explained in the Nation that while this agreement is often seen as a compromise between the United States and Soviet Union, it’s better to understand it as a product of decolonisation which sought to ensure that ‘all states would collectively govern extraterritorial domains’, instead of allowing major powers to deplete resources because of their technological superiority.

The spirit of that agreement is already being breached by the efforts of powerful states to create a legal foundation for the plunder of space resources. Instead of powerful countries enclosing these resources for the benefit of their people, though—which would be bad enough—present trajectory suggests that the riches will be captured by billionaires, whose wealth allows them to ignore the problems of the rest of humanity while directing vast attention and resources away from much more pressing issues.

Refocusing on Real Problems

Between the climate crisis, various accelerating social crises, and the ongoing pandemic, humanity faces immense challenges that must be tackled in the coming decade. State power will be required to direct resources into building a sustainable economy, reconstructing the crumbling social infrastructure, and ensuring a good standard of living for all — but billionaires have no stake in any of those projects.

Space colonisation will do nothing to address these crises, regardless of the promises of billionaires and luxury communists alike. When they talk about how asteroid mining will bring great wealth to be shared with all or to power the green technologies that are heralded as climate solutions free of sacrifice for Western consumers, they’re simply distracting us from the difficult work that must be done if we’re to truly address the social and environmental challenges of our time.

We already know that emissions need to be cut in half by 2030. That means our societies need to be radically overhauled long before asteroid mining becomes feasible — if it ever does. Green capitalists like Musk are happy to sell us a false future of electric cars and solar-powered suburbia that allow them to profit in the short-term because they can simply seal themselves off from the rest of the population when the effects of a warming climate accelerate.

The capitalist logic of infinite growth that’s driving the desire for space colonisation is the same one that’s created the very problems we so desperately need to solve in the first place, and doubling down on it would be a terrible mistake. We should be particularly wary of aligning ourselves with a coalition that includes billionaires and right-wing politicians who make explicit comparisons to past colonisation projects, too: Ted Cruz, for example, has promoted space as ‘as vast and promising a frontier as the New World was some centuries ago’.

That’s not to say that humanity should turn away from the stars. We should continue funding space science, but the expansion of capitalism into space and the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources do not serve those goals. Justifying space colonisation through the need for a second planet is a self-fulfilling prophecy created by people who have little regard for the lives and wellbeing of the global working class — as the pandemic has demonstrated.

Capitalism is driving billionaires toward space as it drives the rest of us toward extinction. They must be stopped before it is too late.