Space flight risks the destruction of both terrestrial and celestial environments, through extension into the cosmos of economic systems that have contributed to gross inequality and climate catastrophe on Earth.
On July 11, billionaire Richard Branson flew to the edge of space to experience four minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth a few minutes later. Early Wednesday morning NZ time, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will launch his own private suborbital flight.
Timing is everything. Enormous marketing opportunities to commercialise space are at stake, not to mention enormous egos.
As columnist Joe Bennett wrote: “How can one not suspect that here we have a brace of cocky schoolboys seeing who can pee highest?” What are we to make of the space ambitions of three billionaires – Elon Musk, Bezos and Branson? And what are the implications for those of us whose feet remain firmly on the stricken Earth?
Diverting attention from humanity’s existential crises
Space flight throws up competing dialogues between advocates of space exploration and commercialisation, and those who see expansion into space being at odds with issues of terrestrial importance such as fighting poverty, ecosystem collapse, biodiversity loss and climate change.
As currently the only viable habitat for the human species and the only known bastion of life in the Universe, Earth is imperative for the near-future survival of all human and non-human living entities.
Will the billionaire space race distract our focus, and undermine our efforts to achieve a liveable planet Earth over the critical 10-15 years ahead?
Changing the spatial and temporal framing of sustainability
International organisations such as the UN and OECD typically use the years through to 2030 or 2050 as the critical timeframe for humanity to avert catastrophic global climate change and ecosystem collapse.
Space flight renders these spatial and temporal parameters of sustainability obsolete. We must now consider the celestial impacts of human activities, such as space junk and pollution of the night sky.
Space flights consume non-renewable resources that required millions of years to form, producing materials and pollutants that will outlive us by tens of thousands of years, not to mention the carbon compounds associated with global warming, 25 percent of which will still be in the atmosphere 30,000 years from now.
Sustainable production and consumption
Guzzling Earth’s resources and destroying Earth’s biosphere for the sake of four minutes of weightlessness is perhaps the height of destructive consumerism.
Even if one accepts the imperative to decouple human life from Earth as a safeguard against future meteor strikes (or climate catastrophe), responsibility for any such initiative should not lie in the hands of private entrepreneurs driven by grandiose personal ambition, operating in a regulatory vacuum.
Currently billionaire egotism and rampant consumerism in space seem to be exempt from concerns for the sustainability for all living entities on Earth.
Sustainable tourism and transportation
Scientists inform us we must make rapid and unprecedented changes to our lifestyles to avoid climate catastrophe.
They pinpoint flying as the most destructive form of travel, and over 30 years, the failure to allocate and account for international aviation emissions has continued.
On a per capita basis, few other human activities contribute such substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions in a comparably short period of time as air travel. Given that we have failed to account for the emission of international tourist air travel, where do we begin with regulating the emissions associated with discretionary tourist space flights?
Space flights emit ‘black carbon’ at very high altitudes where radiative forcing multiplies the climate impacts of emissions. A paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in 2010 reported that 1000 spaceflight launches per year would constitute a contribution to climate change equivalent to the annual emissions of the entire global aviation industry.
This contradicts Branson’s unsubstantiated claim that his space flights have a carbon footprint per passenger comparable with a trans-Atlantic business class seat.
Branson claims travelling to the edge of space and looking down on Earth draws attention to the fragility of our planet, transforming paying tourists into environmental stewards.
The same argument was made for increasing tourist visits to Antarctica in the 1980s, but there is no evidence to support this claim.
Perhaps wealthy tourists could find equal inspiration by travelling to the bottom of their gardens to look at butterflies, or watching a David Attenborough wildlife documentary on television, both of which come with zero emissions.
Historically, tourism has been commonly justified as a mean for addressing the pitfalls of capitalism.
It is argued that ecotourism justifies environmental protection, voluntourism alleviates poverty, cultural tourism promotes indigenous rights, and agritourism connects people to the food that they consume.
Despite Branson’s claims, space flights are a new form of consumer capitalism that raise the sustainability and climate stakes at a critical moment for Earth’s life support system.
The Anthropocene … or the Capitalocene?
We have entered a new, human-induced geological age. The Anthropocene is characterised by environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale caused by humanity; mass extinctions, elevated levels of climate-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, ubiquitous microplastics, nitrogen and phosphorus overload and airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice from fossil fuel burning.
Fundamentally, space flight actually draws the concept of the Anthropocene into question.
The billionaire space race is motivated by a tiny cadre of unimaginably rich individuals and a select number of extremely wealthy tourists, generating enormous negative impacts that extend throughout societies, across the planet, and into the cosmos.
The Anthropocene is problematic because it treats humankind as a unitary and undifferentiated force of unprecedented environmental destruction.
The reality is that environmental degradation is a sociogenic issue caused, more precisely, by unrestrained and unequal capitalist production and consumption. Unregulated capitalism is now motivating a tiny fraction of humanity to extend the process of capital accumulation beyond Earth.
By failing to critically consider the implications of space flight, we ignore ever greater scope for inequality and injustice through the extension of capitalism into the cosmos, access to space resources, and the build-up of debris in Earth’s orbit. Wherever we stand on these issues, we should not let the motivations of space billionaires go unquestioned, nor should their actions and interests escape critique, when the stakes for humanity are so high.