Category Archives: Space colonisation

Cosmology clash: Mauna Kea

si-tmt_0

Courtesy of TMT Observatory via Wikimedia Commons.

“Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?”

– David Jewitt, quoted in the New Scientist 

The quote above is part of a well-known UCLA astronomer’s response to protests against the construction of the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From Jewitt’s perspective, proposals to build notorious polluters such as coal-fired power plants or factories on such a site might justifiably cause a ruckus. But why, he wonders, should the ‘pure and clean’ work of astronomers raise problems?  The assumptions behind this line of thinking are preventing proponents of the TMT from understanding and engaging constructively with the protests.

Since mid-April 2015, work on the planned 18-storey, $1.4 billion TMT structure has been non-violently disrupted by protests led by indigenous Hawaiians, who see the project as the desecration of a sacred site.  In indigenous Hawaiian cosmology, Mauna Kea is the place where two deities – the sky father Wākea and the Earth mother Papahānaumoku – married and gave birth to the Hawaiian islands. Mauna Kea itself is understood literally to be the eldest sun and navel of the living body of the islands. Its flesh is merged with that of humans, who for centuries have deposited cremated remains and the umbilical cords of newborns on its slopes. It a place where human and nonhuman, living and deceased, past, present and future co-exist. To the protesters, Mauna Kea is not an extinct volcano, but rather a vital being capable of being harmed.

While previous protests have contested the building of 13 existing telescopes on the mountain,  the current movement is notable for its international profile. Indeed, it has been propelled into the international spotlight by social media campaigning (for instance see @ProtectMaunaKea and hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea), including the notable interventions of celebrities. As a result of its global reach, the arrests of 31 protesters on 29th April drew widespread attention, and construction stopped for two months. By last week another dozen protesters had been arrested for allegedly placing boulders in the way of construction vehicles on the project’s access road. While it’s not uncommon to hear of the arrest of protesters, the circumstances surrounding this incident are unusual. According to activist Walter Ritte, many of the protesters deny that they (or any other humans) can be held responsible for the blockade. Instead, Ritte states, “the Hawaiians are saying that the rocks were put there by the Menehune”. In Hawaiian lore, the Menehune are small people who live deep in the forest and hills, constructing ponds, roads and temples during the night. From the perspective of these protesters, the Menehune, too, are joining in opposition against the construction of the TMT.

This statement might not make much sense to the scientists who want to see the TMT built quickly. Western secular science is not renowned for its openness towards worldviews that attribute agency or ethical status to nonhumans. It is based on a cosmology that understands humans to be the only sources of agency, creativity and subjectivity, and the rest of the universe to be material for human use. This set of beliefs makes it difficult to understand why the construction of the TMT is a ‘big deal’ because it obscures the root of the conflict. While it has been framed in terms of a confrontation between ‘science’ and ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ or ‘spirituality’,  this is actually a clash between cosmologies. For the scientists, too, Mauna Kea  could be understood as sacred –  albeit in a very different way. The unobstructed views from the top of the mountain offer a ‘crystal-clear window into the cosmos and the ability to look 13 billion light years into space. This kind of vision could transform human knowledge of the universe and the ability better to locate themselves within it. Moreover, planetary scientists believe that if they are able to study the formation of exo-planets, they may unlock the origins of the Earth – and potentially other Earth-like planets. So, in fact, both parties in this protest are concerned with affirming their beliefs about the origin and sustenance of the Earth and its inhabitants. Both seek to preserve and/or assert an explanation of how these beings came to exist by locating them within the broader cosmos. And for both communities engaging with the cosmos connects them to deep history and to the future of humans.

Understanding the situation as a clash of cosmologies helps to explain why the two ‘sides’ are failing to find common ground. Most importantly, the TMT’s proponents have not engaged with the cosmological claims of the protesters in their own terms. They have not ignored these concerns entirely, but they have reframed them in terms of Western secular cosmological beliefs. Specifically, they have framed protestors’ concerns in terms of two issues: ‘environmental impact’ and ‘cultural impact’.

These concerns are reflected in the 379-page Environmental Impact Statement produced as part of the seven-year process in which approval for the project was obtained. This report gives a brief account of the beliefs associated with Mauna Kea, as well as the ecosystems that will be disturbed if the project proceeds as planned. It acknowledges that “the impact of past and present actions on cultural, archaeological, and historic resources is substantial, significant and adverse” (and that it will continue to be in future). In particular, the project will involve transforming one of the mountain’s unique cinder-cones (as have the construction of the other telescopes before it).

The Statement addresses these concerns in two ways. First, it claims that the site has been designed to minimize (not to eliminate the risk of) damage. According to Sandra Dawson,  TMT’s Hawaii Community Affairs representative, the structure was carefully sited so that it did not displace archaeological shrines, is not visible from holy sites, and is designed to minimize ‘visual disruption’, including particular views of the mountains.

Nene_goose

Nene goose by Benjaminkeen via Wikimedia Commons.

In some cases, ‘limiting damage’ takes the form of re-classifying the objects in question so that they are not understood as subjects of damage. For instance, the Statement claims that areas disturbed by construction are ‘not determined to be historic properties’. One site believed to be a historic shrine is thought to have been constructed 10 years ago. Another, it claims, is ‘likely to be a natural geologic feature’. From this perspective, damage is only done if the site in question is deemed to be both ‘historic’ and ‘manmade’. This approach assumes that history is something that happened in the past (or at least more than 10 years ago), ignoring its continuities with the present and future, and their sustenance within living communities. It also devalues sites on the basis of their being ‘natural’ rather than human-made, which ignores the entanglement of human communities and geological forces (see Nigel Clark’s seminal work on this subject). Similarly, while the project could affect two endangered species (the Nene Goose and the Silversword plant) and endanger a third (the Weiku beetle), the report determines that the species and ‘resources’ damaged “are not unique or critical to the survival of any species in that area”. In other words, these creatures are understood not as the co-constituents of a unique world, but rather as replaceable units of a generic category (species).

Second, and in a related sense, the Statement suggests that where damage cannot be avoided, what is destroyed will be replaced or traded for something else. Along with the numerous economic benefits it outlines, the TMT promises to be a bastion of ecological sustainability, as the first zero-wastewater producing facility on the site. It also proposes to replace every displaced mamane tree with with two more, and to introduce a program to limit the incursion of ‘invasive species’ (a hot-button issue in Hawaii ).

In terms of ‘culture’, the Statement suggests that significant funds should be earmarked for a ‘community benefits package’ to include exhibits exploring the “links between Hawaiian culture and astronomy”. Those working at the facility will be given training in cultural and ecological ‘sensitivity’ and the facility itself is to be furnished “with items to provide a sense of place and remind personnel of Maunakea’s cultural sensitivity and spiritual quality”. Moreover, stemming from the protests, Hawaii’s governer David Ige has demanded that the construction of the new telescope be offset by the decommissioning ¼ of existing telescopes by the time the TMT is operational. All of these measures appear to minimize, trade-off or compensate for the harms feared by protesters. From the perspective of the project’s proponents, the TMT offers fair trade-offs: what is lost will be replaced, so no harm no foul.

This kind of reasoning only works, however, if one is immersed in a cosmology that understands the nonhuman universe as disenchanted. From such a perspective, material goods (including living things) can be replaced or traded for other goods. This logic does not hold, however, in a cosmology in which a place is unique and irreplaceable – in short, a living being that cannot be disassembled and reassembled at will. Within the latter worldview, the sacredness of Mauna Kea cannot be reduced to the minimization of ‘environmental damage’ or by trading it for economic benefits. And it certainly cannot be compensated for by fetishizing ‘native Hawaiian culture’ as a museum-object, a topic for ‘sensitivity training’, or a motif for interior decoration. On the contrary, this approach seems only to compound the colonial strategies which have marginalized the Hawaiian people since the late 19th century.

Indeed, the Mauna Kea protest highlights an important new development in the history of colonization. It is marked by a clash of cosmologies in two senses: not only the conflict described above, but also the link between ‘cosmology’ as space science and the lifeworlds of indigenous peoples. The struggle unfolding around the TMT is a decolonial one – and it is oriented not only to the colonial history of indigenous peoples, but also to a potential colonial future.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner http://bit.ly/1U16tXu. Licensed under CC  Attribution-Non-Commercial.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner http://bit.ly/1U16tXu. Licensed under CC
Attribution-Non-Commercial.

To appreciate this, it is necessary to place the protest in the context of emerging projects of space colonization. Crucially, one of the scientific benefits of the TMT is that it will enable scientists better to identify and study exo-planets. While some planetary scientists pursue their work primarily in the interest of furthering knowledge, recent anthropologies (see for instance, the work of Valerie Olsen, David Valentine and Lisa Messeri) suggest that many are driven by a vocational desire. Namely, they want to identify other ‘Earth-like planets’ orbiting other stars, where humans might one day make a home. While there are important differences between the science carried out at observatories like the TMT and the goals of space entrepreneurs, planetary science cannot be neatly separated from the goal of space colonization.

Elsewhere, I have outlined some of the continuities between Earthly colonization and the ambitions of ‘NewSpace’ entrepreneurs. One of the key claims of these entrepreneurs is that their projects differ from historical colonial projects because they are victimless. This claim is based on the belief that there are ‘no natives in space’. I argue that this hardly guarantees a lack of victims. On the contrary, humans (let alone other beings) are harmed when they are subjected to the disciplinary processes of colonization. Although this is not the explicit aim of protesters, the Mauna Kea protest highlights two additional dimensions of this argument.

First, it shows that the attempt to colonize other planets can generate harms on Earth. As Messeri’s rather brilliant doctoral thesis suggests, planetary scientists simultaneously occupy virtualized places in outer space and very real spaces on this planet. The places in which these real structures are located – mountaintops, deserts, forests – may appear to be as isolated as the lunar, Martian and other surfaces they allow humans to survey. But modern history suggests that claims about ‘empty space’ can rarely be trusted. Indeed, as Peter Redfield’s work suggests, the development and testing of the European and American space programs was largely enabled by the use of (previously) colonised territories. In other words, the colonisation of outer space rests on the further (or continuing) colonisation of parts of the Earth. This certainly seems to be the case in Mauna Kea, where the desire to colonize outer space further displaces groups originally marginalized by the colonization of the Earth. In this sense, astronomy may be relatively ‘clean’ in terms of its ecological impacts but its practitioners and funders do not have entirely clean hands.

Second, careful attention to the issues raised by the Mauna Kea protesters helps to contest the idea that outer space is ‘empty’ and devoid of life. On the contrary, many indigenous communities understand outer space and its bodies to be a continuous part of what Western secular science usually glosses as ‘nature’ and limits to the Earth. To give just a few examples, a piece by M. Jane Young from the late 1980s explains how many Inuit and Navajo people believe that the moon is either a living being or the home of deceased ancestors, while the Skidi Pawnee believe that human beings originated in the stars. More recently, Debbora Battaglia has described how the communities she worked with in Papua New Guinea believed the moon to contain a woman with a child on her back. According to Battaglia, when one of her respondents encountered one of the moon rocks distributed by the Nixon administration as a diplomatic gesture, he was dismayed by the claims of returning astronauts that it was ‘only a rock’. I am certainly not an expert on Hawaiian cosmology, but it seems clear that a similar belief system animates the current protest. That is, the sky is understood to be a being – the Sky Father – whose integrity and relations with other beings (the Earth, humans, other living beings) is harmed by the building of the telescope. From this perspective, space is not empty and lifeless – and it can be harmed by colonization, even before would-be colonisers lift off from Earth.

Attending carefully to these beliefs illuminates why the TMT is such a ‘big deal’ to indigenous Hawaiians – and why this is so difficult for its proponents to understand within their own frames of reference. Many proponents of the TMT have expressed surprise at the fact that the measures they have taken have not assuaged the concerns of the protesters and a desire to engage respectfully with protesters. If they are serious about this, it will be necessary for them to change tack. At the moment, their efforts involve translating the concerns of the protesters into the terms of Western secular cosmology – that is, language of replaceable, compensable environmental or cultural damage.  Instead, it would be better for both parties to engage in what Bruno Latour  and Isabelle Stengers (amongst others) have called ‘diplomacy’ and ‘cosmopolitics’. This would require that none of the parties make a claim to universality and dominance.  In contrast, it demands the creation of political fora in which drastically different worldviews can be expressed without subsuming one into another. Instead of ‘rushing towards universalisation’, as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitics provides an opportunity for the expression of incommensurable difference. In this context, ‘diplomats’ are those who are able to travel back and forth between worlds, recognizing and conveying profound difference, rather than simply imposing the norms and structures of one world on another. In short, cosmopolitics means that multiple world views and forms of being need to be considered on their own terms rather than translated into a dominant paradigm.

Cosmopolitics, however, does not just happen. It requires work, the ability and willingness to peek beyond one’s own cosmological assumptions (if only partially), and above all, patience. By slowing down the process of the TMT’s construction, the Mauna Kea protest creates a profound opportunity to reflect on the conflictual co-existence of multiple cosmologies and the ongoing, subtle and not always intentional violence of colonization. It will remain to be seen whether the parties involved will seize this opportunity to engage in cosmopolitics. By publicly articulating and embodying their worldviews, the protesters have taken the first step in doing so, and  it’s now up to the TMT’s supporters to reciprocate. The collision of cosmologies currently unfolding on the slopes of Mauna Kea offers these parties a chance to inaugurate a politics attuned to the multiplicity of worlds on Earth (and beyond), and to the brutal but subtle, sometimes unintentional, violence of colonisation.  Let’s hope they take it.


Planet B (C, D, E…)?

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

Greetings from the Moon by Andrew Forgrave (http://bit.ly/1p9XVvr). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode)

Greetings from the Moon by Andrew Forgrave (http://bit.ly/1p9XVvr). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode)

“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.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 and the Eta Carinae Nebula by NASA (http://bit.ly/1moXQIo). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution- Non-Commercial (http://bit.ly/1moXTUG)

Asteroid 2012 DA14 and the Eta Carinae Nebula by NASA (http://bit.ly/1moXQIo). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution- Non-Commercial (http://bit.ly/1moXTUG)

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.


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