Conservation and the final frontier

A few weeks ago I settled down to watch a BBC TV programme called The 21st Century Race for Space, hosted by celebrity physicist and one-time pop star Brian Cox. I had spent all day thinking about conservation at work, and was looking for a bit of escapism. In the programme Cox spent a lot of time ogling large shiny spacecraft in even larger hangars in the Nevada desert, putting on space suits and visiting simulated mars colonies. It was like a Top Gear special all about space rockets.

One of the striking things about the programme was the people that Cox was able to talk to. He had 1:1 interviews with Dennis Tito (the first space tourist), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and owner of Blue Origin, a ‘spaceflight services company’), and Richard Branson (founder of Virgin and owner of Virgin Galactic). He tried to get Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and owner of SpaceX) but had to settle for some guy who had once met him at a party.

These billionaires are revolutionising space innovation by moving it from being the exclusive preserve of state organisations (such as NASA) to the hands of private enterprise. They have extraordinary ambition – not just to advance our civilisation into space, but to make money while doing so. Bezos in particular spoke with fanatical zeal about the opportunity to provide a whole new canvas for human innovation and economic growth off our planet. Scholars of capitalism would recognise this as the ultimate spatial fix – capital seeking new frontiers for expansion in space (outer and virtual) once the possibilities on Earth are exhausted.

I found all this very interesting, but what really got my attention was when the subject unexpectedly turned to conservation. Several of the interviewees described their plans as part of a conservation strategy – both for biodiversity on Earth in general and human survival in particular (their arguments are very usefully summarised in this article from which I sourced some of the quotes below). This idea of ‘conservation through space travel’ builds on some thinking put forward by Stephen Hawking recently when he said “the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive. With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious”.

Bezos explicitly extends this logic to non-human life, stating at the Recode conference “Let me assure you, this is the best planet. We need to protect it, and the way we will is by going out into space. You don’t want to live in a retrograde world where we have to freeze population growth. Energy is limited here. In at least a few hundred years…all of our heavy industry will be moved off-planet. Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial. You shouldn’t be doing heavy energy on Earth. We can build gigantic chip factories in space.”

This is a truly remarkable idea – something like Ecomodernism on steroids. In this technotopia human activity will be efficiently organised to ensure growth, environmental protection and happiness all round. It offers a fundamental challenge to traditional environmentalism, which is built on the idea that we have a single planet available to us and should use it sustainably – a one world environmental ontology. For example, WWF regularly talk about how many Earths would be needed to meet our current consumption habits. Bezos et al. offer an alternative to this one planet thinking – hey, if we need three planets, let’s just colonise two more! Forget half Earth or whole Earth, let’s think whole universe!

These ideas are seductive, and it is clear from his programme that Brian Cox has fallen for them. I am not convinced, for several reasons.

Firstly, the Bezos vision has a serious governance problem. There is no consideration of how the proposed optimum allocation of land, people and resources will be achieved. We have done a pretty terrible job of coming up with a conservation governance system on Earth that can do this (a major weakness of the Ecomodernist Manifesto), so what kind of global authority would have the power to shut down industry on Earth and force people to follow the masterplan? We are not playing a game of Sim City or Civilisation, and we don’t have a global president who can ‘zone’ the planet for different activities. This zoning would doubtless run counter to the interest of many of the states and large corporations already on Earth, who would resist it fiercely. Governing outer space might be even more challenging – it is effectively open access, and pollution and space debris seem to have been conveniently forgotten about in the Bezos plan. Star Trek and Star Wars offer some ideas on how intergalactic governance might work, none of them particularly appealing.

Secondly, who would be sent to work in the heavy industry colonies in space? Early space travellers are likely to be the super-rich who have already spent millions on tickets for not yet built spacecraft (or are looking to jump off a sinking ship, as in Ben Elton’s Stark). But if space travel and off-Earth industry really get going, it will doubtless be the super-poor who are sent to do the dirty and dangerous work in space, leaving the wealthy behind on Earth to enjoy all the lovely nature. Versions of this separation of the rich and poor on and off Earth come up multiple times in Sci Fi – see for example Passengers and Total Recall or, if things are left too late, Elysium (in which the rich move to a giant space craft, leaving the poor behind on a ruined Earth).

Perhaps the greatest problem of all with the ‘conservation through space travel’ plan is the risk it entails for life on Earth. Getting to the utopian future described by the space entrepreneurs is going to take a lot of R&D, with a lot of resources and effort. This will have a significant negative impact on the Earth environment – unless we get highly energy-dense clean energy sorted out very soon, a new generation of energy guzzling space craft is surely going to make climate change and everything associated with it much worse. It would also come with huge opportunity costs – all those same resources could instead be invested in efforts to live sustainably on the wonderful planet we already have.

Calling space exploration a conservation strategy is betting the future of the planet on a long shot. Things may be bad on Earth, but are they so bad that putting all our chips on the intergalactic technical fix is our best bet? Bezos talks with great disdain about how boring it would be to remain on Earth in a condition of “stasis”. If that means prosperity without growth, and living within our limits, then I will take stasis over hubris any day.

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