Space colonization, (Post-)colonial critique and the new new worlds
“There is no ‘planet B'” – Environmentalist slogan
“The power-accumulating machine…needs more material to devour in its never-ending process. If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to ‘annex the planets’, it can only proceed to destroy itself”
– Hannah Arendt, the Origins of Totalitarianism
“In many ways, the European domination of the world seems to have been inevitable”, writes John S. Lewis. Yet, he argues it might just as easily have been the Chinese empire that took control of 85% of the Earth’s surface if it weren’t for the intervention of ‘court eunuchs’ concerned with the expenditure of resources. By 1403 Chinese explorers had charted the coast of Africa and made their way almost to the opening of the Mediterranean. If it weren’t for these pesky eunuchs, Lewis argues, China could have beaten Europe to world-wide colonial dominance.
Is this an extract from the manual of a colonial governor? No, in fact, it is excerpted from the introduction of an influential text on outer space mining and colonization written in the mid-1990s. Lewis cites the aborted 15th century Chinese colonial project in order to convince his readers that “similar choices face us in the [present]”. Despite the ground-breaking missions of the Cold War period, he argues, the ‘Emperor’ (state funding) has died and the “Eunochs have won the day”. To ensure its dominant position in the universe, Lewis avers, ‘humanity’ needs to thwart the efforts of these men without gonads and engage in a new age of colonial expansion for which the “global expansion of European technology and civilization brought about by the terrestrial age of exploration is but a pale foreshadowing”.
Despite the fictional vignettes of a future in space dispersed throughout its chapters, Mining the Sky is not intended as a piece of science fiction (or, for that matter, satire). Indeed, it reflects a powerful impulse towards neo-colonialism that began at the height of European colonialism, gained speed during the Cold War, right around the period of ‘decolonisation’, and has intensified in the decades since. This is the project of space colonisation.
At the time of writing, there are multiple schemes underway to colonize outer space. One involves mining minerals from asteroids to supply humans on Earth and in future space colonies. Another entails the creation of human colonies on planets geo-engineered to fit human specifications. One of the leading figures in the space colonization industry, entrepreneur Elon Musk, suggests altering Mars in this manner by creating an accelerated greenhouse effect akin to the one driving global warming. In a different interview, Musk suggests that it might be necessary to bio-engineer organisms capable of surviving on other planets. Another proposed model, the ‘low-earth orbit’ approach, involves developing spacecraft into ‘forts’, around which would be constructed commercial trading posts, homesteads and urban areas powered by resources from Earth. Similar designs could potentially be applied to a ‘free space’ model, in which free-floating forts could sustain themselves using resources extracted from other space objects. Finally, space tourism is already a lucrative industry; the space travel company SpaceAdventures has been offering commercially-available space flights since the early 2000s, while Virgin Galactic continues to recruit participants for its outer space tours. So, as Ban Ki-Moon responds to world-wide climate protests with the environmentalist slogan ‘there is no planet B’ , space entrepreneurs are singing a very different tune.
There is no attempt to hide the colonial nature of these projects; on the contrary, colonization is touted as the only certain way to escape extinction and ‘bring life’ to a ‘cold, dead’ universe. In typical colonial fashion, these discourses place a great deal of emphasis on ‘expansion’ which, as Arendt contends, is the central tenet of imperialism. Considering the following quote:
“Why build space settlements? Why do weeds grow through cracks in sidewalks? Why did life crawl out of the oceans and colonize land? Because living things want to grow and expand. We have the ability to live in space…therefore we will”
This quote is extracted taken from a NASA-sponsored web-based primer on the subject of space colonization which has, amongst other things, been used as a resource to support space colony design contests for American schoolchildren. Its author, a long-time NASA contractor and researcher at its Ames Research centre, frames space colonization as a teleological tendency within living things and humans in particular. It suggests the inevitability of human expansion into space, and the prerogative conferred by technological capacity (‘we will because we can’). This image is complemented by discourses that treat space colonization as the next step in the stadial progression of human history. Eric C. Anderson, a principle of space mining company Planetary Resources, considers the ability to create interplanetary colonies the marker of an exciting new ‘stage of humanity’s history’. He goes on to state that “frontiers are opened by access to resources. We would like to see a future where humans are expanding the sphere of influence of humanity into space”. Meanwhile, Musk has quite explicitly compares this process to the enlargement and sustenance of an empire . “Let’s say”, he argues, “you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action would you take, to minimize decline?”. For these space entrepreneurs, interplanetary colonization is simultaneously a means for ensuring human domination of the Anthropocene Earth, and for extending this domination beyond the limits of the blue planet.
Indeed, space colonization projects promise humans the ability to transcend a comprehensively colonized Earth which limits their growth and imposes finitude on the ‘species’. Speaking at the ‘Humans to Mars’ conference in Washington in 2014, NASA Chief Charles Bolden stated that “we are, right now, an Earth-reliant species…but only a multi-planet species can survive for a long period of time”. Similarly, Planetary Resources argue that “unchained from Earth as a our single source, humanity could use this in-space resource to expand…into the solar system”. In both cases, humans are exhorted to throw off the chains of their Earth-bound existence, embracing Earth alienation as a means for achieving unlimited growth.
One of the mundane conditions from which space colonization seems to offer an escape is the effects of a rapidly expanding human population on Earth. On a video promoting Virgin Galactic’s new LauncherOne commercial spacecraft, Richard Branson argues that a ‘burgeoning global population with an insatiable hunger for dwindling levels of finite resources’ poses ‘humanity’s gravest challenge yet’.
Drawing on imagery bizarrely evocative of Hitlerian polices of expansion, one scholar of space law describes space colonization as a means of escaping the ‘povential devastation’ of overpopulation by enlarging “humanity’s living room”. Indeed, some proponents of space colonization want to respond to the effects of explosive human population by “catalysing humanity’s growth, both on and off the Earth”. Indeed, according to Lewis, it is a “pitifully small” population that prevents ‘humanity’ from attaining its full potential.
Realizing the unlimited growth of ‘humanity’ would require staggering amounts of resources – including what Branson terms ‘off-earth resources’. These resources are regularly described as nearly infinite in their quantity and free for the taking. Deep Space Industries claims that “our planet sits in a vast sea of resources” waiting to be exploited by humans.
Echoing this claim, Planetary Resources state that a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains approximately 174 times the annual output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum-group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum). Anderson states that:
“we need to use the resources of space to help us colonize space. It would have been pretty tough for the settlers who went to California if they’d had to bring every supply they would ever need along with them from the East Coast. That’s why Planetary Resources exists”.
Similarly, Deep Space Industries is preparing itself to be “the gas station, the oasis for food and water, and the building supply station for the frontier”. There is a clear resonance here with Aimé Césaire’s claim that the central actors in European colonialism were “the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force”. Their remit, he contends, was to “extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies”. The companies described here are positioning themselves as privateers and pioneers capable of extending these economies to an inter-planetary scale.
Indeed, like its Earthly predecessors, space colonization is seen as a process undertaken jointly by states and private entrepreneurs. In this dynamic, states often provide impetus and incentives for risk-taking on behalf of private entrepreneurs who may, in turn, help to resource the expansionist policy of states. This is certainly the case in the development of contemporary space colonization projects. The Canadian-based Space Security Index project notes that “There is an increasingly close relationship between governments and the commercial space sector. Various national space policies place great emphasis on maintaining a robust and competitive industrial base and encourage partnerships with the private sector. The space launch and manufacturing sectors rely heavily on government contracts”. However, existing international law relating to outer space fails to reflect the extent to which private companies compete with, and may even usurp, states as the main actors in the colonization of other planets. Developments in technology have made it possible for private companies (several headed by extremely wealthy individuals or small groups thereof) to undertake capital projects that previously only states could afford. Moreover, Musk claims that entrepreneurs are responding to a gap in the market left by the retraction of public funding for space programmes. As a result, the space colonization industry is emerging as a poorly-regulated field in which private companies, states and even individuals are laying claim to extra-terrestrial territory. Indeed, Branson concludes his promotional video for LauncherOne with the slogan “Space is Virgin territory”. This is not just a kitschy marketing ploy but also a reflection of the commercial territorialism that marks contemporary space colonization.
The history of colonial warfare has raised fears amongst international organizations that similar conflicts might arise in outer space. Both the UN’s Outer Space Treaty and the European Union’s proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities warn of a possible arms race amongst state or non-state actors and emphatically state the Cold War-era demand that space be a non-militarized zone. However, while the OST locates outer space within the scope of international law and prohibits any state or nation from appropriating it, it does not explicitly prevent individuals or private companies from pursuing a policy of ‘first grab’ . The later ‘Moon Treaty’ seeks to ban the appropriation of the moon or other space objects by any state or individual, excepting international bodies. Yet, as of late 2014 it has gained only 16 signatories, none of which are major ‘space-faring’ countries. This leaves unanswered the question of the right to occupy and exploit outer space – and of whom might possess the authority to grant that right.
Space colonization, however, is not only discussed in terms of financial profit and economic-(extra)territorial power. On the contrary, commercial discourses on space exploration frame their projects as means for fulfilling inherent human aspirations and potentialities. For instance, the UN’s Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development begins by stating that “humans have always gazed at the sky with wonder and…from such was born the curiosity… from which the foundations of modern space science and technology were laid”. The extension of human knowledge is also associated with the aspirations and achievements of a collective ‘humanity’. According to the mission statement of the 100 Year Starship , a charitable organisation devoted to outer space exploration, space colonization activates “not only our imagination, but the undeniable human need to push ourselves to accomplishments greater than any single individual [sic]”. Figures of the explorer and the “spirit of exploration” are also pronounced within these discourses. For instance, Deep Space Industries label themselves as “miners and explorers, makers and suppliers”. Some stimulate this sense of collective fulfilment by actively engaging members of the public. For instance, MarsOne is currently recruiting individuals from around the world for its one-way mission to create a space colony on Mars, a project that it thinks will “inspire generations to believe that all things are possible”. Other projects seek to recruit the global public in the imaginative labour of space colonization. Planetary Resources has recently funded a project called ‘Asteroid Zoo’ in which individuals from around the world are encouraged to ‘hunt’ asteroids using data from NASA’s Catalina Sky Survey. Not only does this site offer participants a chance to ‘discover’ a ‘mineral-rich’ asteroid, but it also offers them the sense of being directly involved in the collective process of colonization.
So far, this discussion suggests that contemporary space colonization is a continuation of the logics and strategies of modern European modes of imperialism. Indeed, its proponents use the term ‘colonization’ quite openly, apparently oblivious to the fact that this term conjures up images of mass-scale oppression, violence and injustice. However, it is not ignorance that underpins the use of this terminology, but rather the belief that this mode of colonization is entirely distinct from previous models in three important senses. This position is staked on three claims.
First, despite its overtones of optimism and energy, contemporary space colonization projects are pitched against the prevailing mood of extinction. Space colonization is framed as perhaps the only of maintaining human life beyond the exhaustion of the Earth’s resources and allowing this life-form to reach its full potential. It is also framed as a means of protecting humans from threats to their survival. According to Lewis, the ability to identify and mine near-Earth asteroids (which might impact with the Earth) would enable humans to grasp the “the sword of Damocles that hangs above our heads – and bea[t] that sword into plowshares to serve the future of humanity. Musk argues that colonizing other planets is akin to taking out insurance on one’s life or possessions: “It’s not because you think you’ll die tomorrow, but because you might”. In this statement, he frames the enterprise of space colonization as one of (highly profitable) speculation against the possible extinction of homo sapiens. In a separate interview, Musk switches to an imperative tone: “either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct”. Here, space colonization is framed in terms of necessity – an argument from necessity that takes for granted that human life must continue to exist at all costs. Musk’s statement also suggests that it is not only human life that must colonize other planets to avoid mass extinction, but rather Earthly life in total. Indeed, from this perspective, it is not only ‘other planets’ that must be colonized in order to evade mass extinction, but also the bodies and genetic material of animals, plants and other beings mobilized into the colonial project. Moreover, where modern European imperialism claimed to offer ‘civilization’ to the peoples and territories it subjected, space colonization claims to bring the ‘life process’ to the ‘dead’ and seemingly empty landscapes of ‘uninhabited’ space (see below). It suggests that humans must fill the universe with the intelligent, Earth-originating life that Lewis calls the ‘highest fulfillment’ of time, space and matter. These texts suggest that space colonization is an expression of necessity not just of power to expand, but also of life to continue in defiance of its potential extinction.
Second, and in a related sense, space colonization is framed as a universal project bringing universal benefit. Building on the notion of a universal subject embodied by international humanitarian organizations and structures, space colonizers claim to act in the name of ‘humanity’, extending its empire from the international to the interplanetary sphere. A prime example of this is the UN’s Vienna Declaration, which states that “outer space should be the province of all mankind”. This slogan simultaneously reflects the idea that outer space is a hinterland to be exploited by ‘humanity’, and that humanity will annex it as a single, unified actor. Moreover, the Vienna Declaration suggests that because outer space transcends national boundaries and interests, it permits “the development of global solutions to address common challenges… [by] providing a vantage point from which to view planet Earth”. In other words, the Earth-alienated viewing platform provided by space colonies enable a kind of cosmopolitanism capable of unifying ‘humanity’.
Like its precursors, the figure of universal ‘humanity’ is framed as a benevolent colonizer, as reflected in the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)’ slogan: ‘bringing the benefits of space to mankind’. Indeed the Outer Space Treaty clearly states that the exploration and use of outer space must be “carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”, irrespective of their ability to contribute scientifically or financially to these projects. Tellingly, the OST, the EU’s draft code and other key diplomatic documents seek a commitment to distribute the profits and benefits of space colonization across ‘humanity’ (although they are short on prescriptions for effecting the structural changes necessary to accomplish this). We might expect this kind of language from international organizations, but even Planetary Resources argues that “the entire human race will be the beneficiary” of space colonization. Furthermore, it is frequently suggested that space colonies can become refuges for those seeking freedom from political, ethnic or religious persecution; indeed, Lewis states that “space will at first be largely a haven for refugees”. In short, these discourses suggest that although space colonization remains a project of instrumental extraction, profit and power-generation, the agent enacting and benefiting from these activities is ‘humanity as whole’.
Based on this logic, the annexation of space by ‘humanity’ is positioned as a form of colonialism with no victims, and is frequently contrasted with modes of colonialism based on the expropriation and enslavement of human subjects. Instead, space colonization is depicted as an attempt to “build new land, not steal it from the natives” – indeed, according to Reinstein“there are no known natives to outer space”. As such, he contends, “in the absence of prior existing property rights…there seems to be nothing inherently immoral about a right of grab”. From this perspective, rather than victimizing one set of humans to benefit another, space colonization is framed as the acquisition of a true terra nullius – a place with no human or other identifiable inhabitants – in order to benefit ‘humanity’ as a self-contained ethical whole. Moreover, contemporary discourses of space colonization claim to do the dirty work of saving human life from extinction ‘safely outside of our delicate biosphere’ . Just as European colonizers delegated suffering and death to their Others , space colonization is designed to delegate the effects of massive-scale resource extraction to planets to Earth’s Others. ConsiderAnderson’s rhetorical question:
“Wouldn’t it be great if one day, all of the heavy industries of the Earth—mining and energy production and manufacturing—were done somewhere else, and the Earth could be used for living, keeping it as it should be, which is a bright-blue planet with lots of green?”
Similarly, Reinstein argues that “If minerals are extracted from dead asteroids floating through our solar system, perhaps there would be one less strip-mined rain forest. If solar energy is captured and beamed down to Earth’s electric grid, that could be one less oil spill in our oceans. In short, space colonization promises to externalize the processes used by humans to colonize Earth the better to sustain them, in particular through the more comprehensive management of resources. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space argues that Earth observation (or world-alienation) underscores our sense of the Earth’s fragility and enables more comprehensive management of natural resources and ‘environmental disasters’. From this perspective, space colonization offers incalculable benefits to ‘humanity’, along with the ability to more comprehensively colonize Earth, with no apparent victims.
A form of colonization that benefits all humans and creates no victims? This simply sounds too good to be true. Indeed, Edward Said points out that “every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all others, that its circumstances are special” and has been able to persuade intellectuals of this . And, as Césaire warns, “no one colonizes innocently…no one colonizes with impunity either”. It is beyond the scope of this short piece to explore the various ways in which contemporary space colonization may victimize its subjects. This includes the transportation (voluntary or coerced) of diverse life forms into space, along with their intensive bio-engineering to survive within an unaccustomed environment. Moreover, these forms of space colonization involve the massive terraforming of other planets, an activity which cannot be assumed to be ethically neutral, especially considering the effects of similar activities on Earth. Moreover, as postcolonial theorists from Cesaire and Fanon to Arendt and Mbembe remind us, one of the primary effects of colonization is the dehumanisation of both the colonizer and the colonized. In a context in which the colonizer is the Anthropocene figure of humanity, it is all of humanity, and many other life forms, that are made vulnerable to the violence associated with dehumanisation.
What all of this points to is the need for a mode of post- (and maybe also pre-) colonial critique that is capable of addressing the colonization of the new new worlds. As this discussion has suggested, existing postcolonial theory can help us to identify and critically examine many of the tenets of this expanding mode of colonialism. However, this body of thought needs to adapt to a form of colonialism in which the subjects and objects are significantly changed, in which the victims of colonial violence are obscured, and in which the scale is massively magnified. In other words, we need to draw on the insights of postcolonial international relations as a starting point for thinking about (post-)colonial interplanetary relations.