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Rocket-Launching Billionaires Promise a New Pie in the Sky

Musk and Bezos are peddling new age-y religious drama of disaster and salvation, says author Mary-Jane Rubenstein.

Part of the Series

“What we’re getting from both Musk and Bezos is this classically new age-y religious drama of disaster and salvation. They preach, they tell us that the end is near, the disaster is coming, that the world is going to end, but there is another world that everybody can build together, a new world and a place that they’ve never seen and a place that seems totally impossible,” says professor Mary-Jane Rubenstein, author of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes and Rubenstein discuss the religiosity of “NewSpace,” and how activists can challenge the new “pie in the sky” ideology that billionaires like Musk and Bezos are crafting.

Music by Son Monarcas & David Celeste

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the new space race and the peculiar religiosity that drives it. Billionaires like Elon Musk have promoted fantasies that humanity’s best hope, in the face of an apocalyptic crisis, lies in the colonization of space. Jeff Bezos has argued that the extractive industrialization of space will ultimately make life on Earth sustainable. It would be easy to dismiss these ideas as the folly of billionaires who are playing with rockets like children with Legos, while spinning fantasies that portray them as heroes and saviors, rather than the catastrophic figures that they truly are. While I believe those characterizations are accurate, it is important for us to understand the narratives these men are shaping, and what gives those stories power in the world. Because we are living in unstable times, and as we have seen in recent years, people whose lives and worldviews have been destabilized can often be deceived, or even consumed, by elaborate falsehoods. The myth-making of the tech industry may strike many of us as absurd, but it has given the billionaire class a new pie in the sky to market to the masses. In the new space race, some of capitalism’s major players are exploiting our fascination with the stars, and our imperiled hopes for the future, in order to build a new religiosity from some very old, familiar parts.

Today, we are talking to Mary-Jane Rubenstein. MJ is a professor of Religion and Science in Society at Wesleyan University. She is the author, most recently, of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. If you want to understand how men like Musk and Bezos are exploiting sci-fi tropes and religiosity to advance their own agenda with regard to space, Astrotopia is an invaluable resource. The book also offers some insightful analysis of science fiction stories that run counter to the techno-mythos of the late capitalist billionaire class, and other ideas that can help us chip away at the narratives of space-obsessed billionaires.

This discussion of the new space race is part of an arc of episodes examining tech issues and how they relate to the work of making change. I wanted to create this episode block because I think our movements need a stronger analysis of what’s happening in Silicon Valley, and how emerging technologies, and the mythologies around them, are shaping popular worldviews. Late capitalism is an era of catastrophe, and catastrophe makes people vulnerable to cult-ish thinking and religiosity, among other things. If we are going to win narrative battles with billionaires and the cults of Silicon Valley, we need to understand those stories, why they are getting traction, and what their vulnerabilities are. I’m able to put together episodes like this one thanks to Truthout, which is a nonprofit news organization with no ads, no paywalls and no corporate sponsors. We are a reader- and listener-powered organization that does not hide behind the pretense of objectivity, because we understand that the world needs to change. We’re also a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry. So if you would like to support our work, you can sign up for our newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to Movement Memos on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, by leaving a positive review on those platforms, or by sharing your favorite episodes. Keeping a media organization afloat in these times is not easy, but with your support, we’re still in this thing, so thank you for believing in us and what we do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

Mary Jane Rubenstein: My name is Mary Jane Rubenstein. I use she/her pronouns. And I am trained up in a discipline called philosophy of religion, which tends to look at the way that religion works in the world, the way that it shapes people’s lives and hopes and expectations. The way it motivates people to act in the universe or not to act in the universe.

I’ve increasingly been working on the ways that religion shows up in places that we don’t tend to expect to see it, the way that it shows up in politics, for example, or economics. One of the places that I’ve been increasingly looking for resonances and echoes of our religious traditions is in the natural sciences, which might seem to be a funny and unexpected place to go.

But it turns out that even the natural sciences are shaped by stories that religions tell, assumptions that they make, teachings that they give us about who counts in the world, who’s important. So that is what I’ve been looking at recently. Most recently I’m looking at the way that religion’s been showing up in the contemporary space race and contemporary efforts to increase human presence in space, eventually to colonize other planets and other places in our solar system.

KH: One question I’ve heard a lot when talking to people about the new space race is, How the hell did we get here? When I was growing up, in the 1980s, space exploration was widely viewed as a noble undertaking — one that the U.S. claimed to pursue “for all mankind.” While not everyone bought into the lofty rhetoric of NASA in the last century, as Gil Scott-Heron memorably illustrated with his poem, “Whitey on the Moon,” something has definitely changed since then. So, how did space become the pet project of billionaires?

MJR: It’s a bit of a mess. So NewSpace is like a neologism, I don’t know, it’s one of those words that gets smushed together in camel case, the N is big and the S is big and they smush them together. NewSpace refers to the era in which private corporations are primarily driving our interests and our actions in outer space. Corporate presence, corporate interest, corporate capacity has shaped our presence in space since the very beginning.

The nation-states have always been contracting with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to make those rockets, to get NASA out of our atmosphere. But increasingly, corporations have been setting the goals, the priorities, the standards for what we do in outer space. The way this came to pass, I see recent history as having been marked by two major initiatives in the U.S. context.

The first is in 2011 when Barack Obama canceled funding for NASA’s space shuttle program and redirected those funds instead to the private sector. He had been advised by the major council to start turning over space interests, space traffic, space transportation to the private sector. The way that the railways have been increasingly privatized and bus transportation has been increasingly privatized and certainly cars are privatized. So that was the first big advancement toward this new space era.

The second came in 2015, when in response to some investors’ concerns, the U.S. pushed this staggeringly bilateral piece of legislation called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, or CSLC… It’s just a terrible acronym. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act guarantees investors that any resource, and I’m using this term in quotation marks, any “resource” recovered from outer space, can in fact be owned, bought, sold, and transported and transferred under U.S. law.

There had been some concern that United Nations legislation, a treaty that has been signed by over a hundred parties in the UN, would prevent anything like private ownership of space resources. So the U.S. just passed a law, its own law saying, “No, no, it’s okay. You can own the stuff that you recover in space.” And really from that point on, from 2015 on, there’s been an explosion of investment in space, of prospective space mining corporations, of private rocket companies, of space tourism companies, because now investors are ensured that they can make a profit in outer space.

KH: The privatization of space has ushered in the hyper-masculine competition between billionaires that presently defines NewSpace. Despite Obama’s stated intention of saving taxpayer dollars, early investments from government agencies have been crucial to major commercial space projects. Commercial space companies received $7.2 billion in investments from the U.S. government between 2000 and 2018. During its first year, SpaceX had an operating budget of about $1 billion. About half of that money came from contracts with NASA. In 2022, SpaceX brought in $2.8 billion in funding from government contracts.

In April of 2022, Bernie Sanders wrote in the Guardian,

“I am concerned that Nasa has become little more than an ATM machine to fuel a space race not between the US and other countries, but between the two wealthiest men in America — Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are worth more than $450bn combined.”

MJR: So Musk and Bezos are probably the two best known actors in the contemporary corporate space race. As you probably know, Elon Musk wants us to move to Mars. He wants to colonize Mars. Jeff Bezos has a different plan. He thinks Mars is too far away. He wants to build space colonies that are closer to home that are positioned between the moon and the Earth. It would be sort of like living in a mall, a space mall, like a rotating indoor shopping center where the climate is controlled and there’s no real outside. But presumably you’d be able to grow some plants and things like that, and you’d be able to get your food and it would be totally perfect weather all year round and things like that.

So anyway, they have different views about what our lives are going to look like in outer space. Again, Musk has this sort of homesteader ideal that we’re going to terraform Mars and make it habitable for human beings. Bezos wants to keep us a little closer to Earth in these rotating shopping malls. Both of them are convinced that in order for human beings to, well, survive for Elon Musk, or to thrive for Jeff Bezos, we have to leave the Earth. And each of them is using his massive economic status and power to channel ungodly amounts of money and resources into conquering the cosmos so that human beings can have a decent future.

KH: Elon Musk famously responded to Bernie Sanders’s critiques of his astronomical wealth by stating that, “I am accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary and extend the light of consciousness to the stars.” In keeping with other longtermist ideas, this statement suggests that unthinkable levels of inequality are necessary, for the sake of humanity’s deep future, but it also implies that astronomical personal wealth is what makes space exploration possible. In reality, we know that public contracts, and public money, are essential to NewSpace, which is why Bezos’s company Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX spent $2 million and $2.4 million, respectively, lobbying for government contracts in 2021. But Musk’s talk of using his vast wealth to “extend the light of consciousness” also helps spin popular mythos around extreme inequality in our times — like a new variation of the Divine Right of Kings. Instead of being chosen by God, men like Musk and Bezos are chosen by the market, and rather than representing an injustice, their absurd wealth supposedly represents our best hope for the future. I know a lot of you may not be religious or big fans of modern myths, but it’s crucial that we understand the role that such ideas play and will continue to play in an era of mass crisis.

MJR: So I said that at the beginning that I am a person who’s on the lookout for places that religion shows up where it might not be expected. When it comes to the contemporary space race, I think religion is showing up in two major places.

The first is that there is a specifically Christian heritage to the European idea that it is somehow the destiny of particular human beings to take new land, exploit its resources and remake that land in the image of the people who got it. There have been, again, particularly Christian justifications for this kind of seizure of land since the 15th century, when the Pope at the time gave Africa to Portugal and the so-called New World to Spain and said, “God wants Spain and Portugal to take these lands to exploit its resources for the glory of Spain and Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula and of course for the salvation of souls.”

So the idea that religion was providing there was this ideal of saving people through conversion that would also have these ancillary economic benefits. Of course, what the nations were really after were the economic benefits. Religion provided this justification that it is God’s will that we do these things. That notion that God wants particular people to take land, to remake it and to get rich from it was reanimated during the period of American manifest destiny when mainly white-skinned descendants of the European settlers moved their way across the continent under the idea that God wanted these European descendants to take over the entire continent of North America.

And it was reanimated again in the 1950s when the agents of the original space race started claiming that it was America’s manifest destiny now to conquer outer space. So in one sense, Musk and Bezos and the national space agencies at this point, particularly the U.S. national space agency (NASA), are reanimating this old religious drama of conquering new land in the name of some magnificent human destiny.

There’s also this other… This is the second place that religion is coming into play. There’s this different way that a more new age-y approach to religion is operating. This relies less on those old Christian doctrines of the Earth belonging to us and things like that, and relies more on the private charisms of very energetic men. So there’s a messianic component to the new space race where these guys set themselves up as the saviors of the universe and develop cadres of people who believe in them as the way to a kind of salvation.

In that sense, what we’re getting from both Musk and Bezos is this classically new age-y religious drama of disaster and salvation. They preach, they tell us that the end is near, the disaster is coming, that the world is going to end, but there is another world that everybody can build together, a new world and a place that they’ve never seen and a place that seems totally impossible. But just have faith and you will gain salvation from this coming disaster in this new world in some other place that again, nobody’s ever seen. So those are the two big things. We’ve got this sort of long legacy of Christian imperialism on the one hand and then these private cults of personality around Musk and Bezos on the other hand.

KH: Given the catastrophic damage that Christian imperialism and other conquest-driven ideologies have caused here on Earth, it is unsurprising that the environmental costs of extending these concepts to space are, in fact, astronomical.

MJR: The environmental damage that the contemporary space race is doing is one of the most under-discussed crises of our contemporary moment. We are just trying to get a hold on the kind of damage that factory farming does to our atmosphere and the kind of damage that plastics that we are dumping into our ocean and that private vehicles emit into our skies. Just as we’re trying to figure out if there’s any way to cap that kind of carbon, we have this intensification of rockets dumping fuel into outer space.

I think there are three major areas in which this intensified space activity is doing a lot of damage. The first, which may be the least visible, the first area in which the space race is doing a ton of damage is in the staggeringly high number of new satellites in orbit. As you may know, every two weeks, Elon Musk’s company Starlink sends 60 new satellites into orbit. Just for reference, before 1957, the Earth had one satellite. That was the moon. That was it. 1957, Russian satellite, Sputnik heads up with a little partner to help it out. Now we’ve got two more. There are two artificial satellites and then a moon.

Then as the old-fashioned space race intensifies, there are more satellites for military observation. As the telecommunications revolution gets going, we have more satellites for telecommunications, for weather mapping. Now, Elon Musk is trying to build what he calls a constellation of satellites to provide flawless internet connections, very high speed downloads no matter where you are on Earth. And the means of doing this is to launch tens of thousands of satellites into orbit.

So the problem is that once stuff goes up into low Earth orbit, it doesn’t come down unless it does. Every once in a while, something will just fall out of orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, which itself has some environmental effect, but when it doesn’t, it just stays up there forever. A defunct satellite just stays up there, hurdling at, again, tens of thousands of miles per hour and doing immense damage if it collides with anything else.

Any collision of anything else in space produces tens of thousands of shards of stuff from nuts and bolts to paint chips to cell phones. There’s just so much rubbish at this point in low Earth orbit that A: it’s becoming increasingly dangerous for anybody to do anything in space. So every so often, the International Space Station has to go into lockdown because there seems to be something coming at it at tens of thousands of miles per hour.

And B: with all this stuff in low Earth orbit, this stuff is now reflecting light such that many Earthlings, most Earthlings can’t see stars anymore anywhere. So astronomers are freaking out because they can’t get decent photographs of the stars, they can’t see the stars, they can’t teach their students about stars. Indigenous communities are up in arms saying, “We require access to the stars visually in order to navigate, in order to know the seasons, in order to conduct our festivals.” So the pollution in low Earth orbit alone is worth getting absolutely nuts about if you care at all about ecology.

But then there’s the issue of just sending rockets into outer space. A recent article was just published saying we’re looking at about a 5.6 percent increase in rocket traffic every year since the mid 2010s. The problem with rockets is that from the moment… I mean, there’s the construction, there’s the mining that goes into the construction. You can just think about this as an ecological disaster at every moment of it. If you’re Elon Musk and you’re building a 400-foot tall rocket, how much does that require you to mine? Where do you have to open new mines to get more materials for your rocket? So there’s that.

Then the rocket sits on the launchpad, the rocket launches from the launchpad and the rocket destroys the launchpad. So now you’ve got tons of concrete just being scattered to the wind. The launch of the first Starship in April ended up destroying its launchpad and sending slabs of concrete as far as six and a half miles away in Boca Chica, Texas, and just littering the entire landscape with particulate matter that was basically shredded concrete everywhere. The wetlands were blanketed in this stuff, people’s homes were blanketed in this stuff, the air was blanketed in this stuff. That’s just the launch.

Then Starship gets four minutes into its launch, it’s dumping all of its… Its fuel is kerosene, so it’s dumping kerosene into our air, and then four minutes in, it turns out the booster doesn’t separate. So they decide just to detonate the whole thing. Now rocket parts are falling into the sea and rocket parts are falling into, again, people’s yards, backyards and into those wetlands and little bits of plastic and little bits of steel… Just absolutely everywhere. So again, from my perspective, this is a complete environmental disaster.

Then, even if the rocket is successful, all of that fuel, whether it’s kerosene, whether it’s hydrogen, whatever the fuel is, starts depositing things like carbon dioxide; water, which at these heights can be polluting; chlorine, methane — not just into the atmosphere, but into the upper atmosphere where we’ve never really deposited a bunch of toxins before. So all we know is that in the upper atmosphere, they stay around a lot longer and can have an intensified global warming effect, greenhouse effect on our lower atmosphere. So those are the problems, and as you can hear from my intensely anxious tone here, I think we’ve got an ecological disaster going on when it comes to intensified space activity.

KH: As we talked about in our episode on longtermism, Elon Musk has supported the idea that every second wasted in the race to colonize space costs trillions of future human and digital human lives in the deep future. Does he really believe that? As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think it really matters what people believe when they partake in the weaponization of ideas, but I also wouldn’t underestimate an egotist’s ability to get high on his own supply. After all, Musk operates in the tech world, where lies and hubris are often viewed as precursors to innovation. In Silicon Valley, making up stories about what your company will accomplish, as a means to acquire investment, without knowing how to actually accomplish your stated goal, is a standard practice — as Wendy Liu and Corey Pein demonstrate in their respective books, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, and Live Work Work Work Die. In the tech world, hype and hubris come first, and actual blueprints for success may or may not come later, assuming a startup manages to secure the interest of venture capitalists. So, in a sense, Silicon Valley runs on cut-rate science fiction prompts, generated by people who often have no idea how to make their ideas materialize. When we consider Musk’s narrative style in this context, we can understand why he would claim that SpaceX would soon take carbon out of the air, and use it as rocket fuel, or that Tesla’s self-driving cars would be making cross-country trips without intervention by the end of 2017, or that SpaceX would probably build a base on Mars by 2028, because in his mind, this how innovation works. You just make up a story and solicit investment. If, on occasion, you succeed, people will call you a genius, and when you fail, there are few, if any, consequences.

In 2018, Elon Musk tweeted that, “About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth & half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves.” But in a 2014 interview, Musk made his disregard for what ultimately happens on this planet quite plain when he stated, “Fuck Earth! Who cares about Earth?” Musk argued that, “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonize the whole solar system, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel.” As we’ve previously discussed, Musk subscribes to longtermist ideas about the preservation of human consciousness through AI and space colonization — ideas that conveniently justify the extremity of his wealth and the continuance of any suffering, here and now, that his wealth might alleviate, if it were redistributed.

MJR: The way that Musk’s line goes is: Look, Earth is done. Earth is over. It’s used up. Also, it’s basically a ticking time bomb that eventually something is going to come and wipe out the only species that matters to him on Earth, which is to say humanity. Something’s going to come for humanity soon. This will either be nuclear war or it will be AI gone rogue to destroy us, or it will be an asteroid that hits us and wipes us out the way that it did the dinosaurs.

Elon Musk doesn’t tend to talk much about global warming. Jeff Bezos does, but Musk doesn’t. So anyway, some disaster is going to come wipe out humanity. So either we go the way of the dinosaurs and we go extinct. Or we’ve got to get the hell off this planet and find a way to colonize a backup planet so that we’ve got basically a backup drive for humanity, where all of the genius of human production can be preserved.

Where are we going to go? Venus is too hot. It’s 900 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a complete non-starter. We’re not going to live on Venus. The moon, I think he just thinks the moon kind of sucks. It’s too close by. His mentor, Bob Zubrin, will say of the moon: the cops are too close. It only takes three days to get there. Earthly regulation’s just going to get you.

Mars on the other hand, now there’s a planet. It’s not boiling like Venus. It’s nice and far away. It’s like three to four months on a good day to get to Mars, six months to get to Mars on a bad day. It just takes a while. “Sure,” says Musk, “It’s a bit cold,” he says. “But we can warm it up.” How do we warm it up? Well, there have been all sorts of proposals for generations about bringing prebiotic goo that might seed itself over tens of thousands of years, slowly into some kind of soup that might eventually become amoebas that might eventually become complex life at some point.

This takes far too long for Elon Musk. He says the planet will warm up a lot faster if we just nuke it. Nuke the polar ice caps of Mars, create a greenhouse effect akin to the one that is currently roasting the Earth and you warm up a frozen planet. Is it radioactive there? Sure. He doesn’t really care too much. He says the radiation thing isn’t really too big of a deal and we’ll just live underground in bunkers for a while until the planet becomes a little more hospitable by means of our nuclear weapons.

Yes, it is an absolutely absurd plan. That having been said, it doesn’t really matter that it’s absurd because of the hearts and minds Musk has won in the process. Will he eventually get a mission to Mars? Yeah, I absolutely think so. Will he eventually get a million people to Mars to start homesteading it? Probably not, but that’s the vision that he needs in order to sell the whole prospect of heading to Mars in the first place. And in the meantime, he’s got the Starlink satellites, and in the meantime, he’s got the NASA contracts.

What I’m trying to say is I don’t think Elon Musk, a private entrepreneur, would have gotten NASA to offload to him so many of its contracts — I don’t think that he would’ve had the wherewithal to set up this massive Starlink Constellation without a big vision that presents itself as humanitarian, as future-oriented, as ideologically pristine, which is to say it’s a vision of the salvation of humanity that’s going to take place on Mars.

And again, once you sort of shake off the ideological patina here, you realize that Mars is terrible. It’s a terrible planet. If you get an invitation to go homestead Mars, probably don’t do it. It’s bad there. It’s really bad there. But I think he needs that vision in order to sell any of it.

KH: So, in Elon Musk, we have a man whose preposterous ideas are propped up by extreme wealth, a cult of personality, and one of the most absurd privatization gambits in U.S. history. But his current endeavors, like those of Jeff Bezos and other men who would like to rule space, are also propped up by some of the same ideas that have allowed the wealthy to loot and pillage the world we currently inhabit. As MJ writes in Astrotopia:

Given its equation of knowledge of nature with power over nature, Western techno-science needs to view the natural world as composed of objects rather than subjects. After all, if the mountaintops were ancestors, then we couldn’t remove them. If the stones were persons, we couldn’t frack them. If the forests had spirits, we’d hesitate to clear-cut them.

MJR: So the point I’m trying to make about Western technoscience, seeing the world as objects rather than subjects is totally indebted to the mid-century historian named Lynn White who writes this essay that at this point everybody has read and critiqued and said that it works or it doesn’t work, but the infrastructure stands. His argument there is that capitalism and Western technoscience could not have gotten off the ground without the Christian conquest of what Christianity calls paganism.

Now he’s speaking in very broad gestures here, but what he means is that for the Indigenous traditions that Christianity calls pagan, the world, the landscape is inhabited by a whole host of more than human actors, agents, subjects. So non-human animals are subjects in their own right. They’re agents, they have their own wills and desires and communities and things like that. Rivers are said to be persons, [as are] rocks even, trees are said to be persons. Forests have either spirits or they themselves are communities of people.

And in order to interact with a forest in this kind of animate landscape, if a forest is alive, in order to interact with that forest, you have to talk to it. You have to bargain with it, and you have to negotiate with it. If you want to cut down a tree, for example, you have to ask a forest’s permission. You have to ask the tree’s permission, you have to find ways to make amends, to plant a tree elsewhere or something like that. So if the world is composed of subjects, then human needs don’t automatically supersede everybody else’s needs. Humanity has to interact with other persons in the world to figure out how to keep the balance in those ecosystems.

One of the problems of a particularly bad reading of Jewish and Christian theology, one effect of this is to see the natural world as just composed of objects rather than subjects. So Genesis will tell us that humans are made in the image of God, but that nothing else is made in the image of God. And in fact, that humans have dominion over the rest of the world, that humans have control over the rest of the world. Taken on its own, there are all sorts of ways to read this passage, but when these passages team up with imperial politics, the understanding of Genesis becomes: human beings are basically gods on Earth. Human beings are in charge of everybody else, and human beings are the only one that counts.

So as Christianity takes over the Indigenous, animist, pagan ways of relating to the landscape over, certainly the early modern period, what happens is that increasingly the world is seen as made up of objects, of things to use and exploit rather than subjects, which is to say, beings with whom we have to engage. It’s that kind of mindset that capitalism needs to exploit as many resources as possible, not just what we need, but anything we can get.

It’s that mindset that imperialism and frontierism need to say, “This land belongs to us and we can shape it in any way that we want.” It’s this mindset of course, that’s allowing us to think about asteroids as resources and the moon as containing resources and the moon as a possible gas station in the sky and Mars as something that could be nuked for human comfort.

KH: We’re talking a lot about conquest and visions for commerce in space, and as we know, historically, conquest and militarism traditionally go hand in hand. When Donald Trump announced the creation of the United States Space Force in 2019, critics responded with memes and mockery. Netflix even rolled out a satirical comedy entitled “Space Force,” starring Steve Carrell, the following year. But in a discussion of how Christian imperialist ideas are influencing the new space race, we would be remiss if we did not discuss the disturbing implications of militarizing space.

MJR: The implications of militarizing space are bad. My reading of the only significant piece of international legislation that we’ve got, which is to say the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. There’s a much longer name, but it’s usually referred to as the OST, the Outer Space Treaty. My reading of this treaty is that it was trying to say, listen, as human communities are headed up into space, we risk doing the kinds of things in outer space that we have done on Earth, which is to say colonization, which is to say rivalry over land, increasing militarization, competition over resources, et cetera.

The last two world wars (we might say in 1967) have absolutely decimated the planet. Did they care about the planet? Probably not so much, but have absolutely decimated the people of the Earth and even just the people of the overdeveloped nations, the so-called First World, even if they’re just concerned about that. Europe basically destroyed itself over the course of these two world wars.

My reading of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is that the authors were saying, “Let’s not do that again. Let’s not do this again. Let’s not do this kind of game of Risk again in outer space where things are much more dangerous now that we’ve learned from what we can do to ourselves on Earth.” So there are some stipulations of the Outer Space Treaty that say things like, “No nation can own a piece of land in outer space.” You just can’t. It’s the heritage of all humankind. So nations can’t own it. We can’t position any nuclear weapons in outer space, et cetera. Again, my understanding of the spirit of this law is to say you can’t own stuff and you can’t go to war in outer space, period.

But of course, in the intervening decades, nations led by the U.S. have increasingly found ways to find loopholes, things that they didn’t really say and have found ways to say, actually, we can own some stuff in outer space. Yeah, we can’t station weapons in outer space or station nuclear weapons, but maybe we could fly nuclear weapons without stationing them. Or maybe that doesn’t apply to regular weapons. Or if weapons are intended for peaceful purposes, then weapons are okay because the Outer Space Treaty says we’re supposed to use space for peace … so peaceful weapons are okay, but not nuclear weapons.

It seems to me that the creation of the Space Force, the military theorists will tell you this is nothing new. This is just the Air Force. This is what the Air Force has been doing for decades, just to say they’ve been monitoring activity in outer space. They’ve been developing anti-satellite technology and either using it or not using it. Right now, we’re not supposed to be using it. They’ve been tracking possible anti-satellite behavior on the part of other nations. The Space Force was just a big media circus, but it’s really just supposed to have been what the Air Force was doing all along.

I think symbolically and politically and rhetorically, the creation of the Space Force says that we do not agree that space is supposed to be a theater of peace. Rather, it’s supposed to be a theater of war. The way that the U.S. has justified the creation of the Space Force is by saying that Russia and China have already developed these capacities, therefore we need to develop them in order to fend them off. Therefore, the creation of the Space Force is actually in the interests of peace because any defensive strategies are actually peacekeeping strategies rather than aggressive strategies.

From the perspective of Russia and China, they think that this is an immense escalation of military presence in outer space and feel like this is actually an unprecedented move. So now they’re going to have to do the same and they’re going to have to start increasing the militarization of outer space. This too is a complete mess.

KH: Now, we have covered some pretty depressing ground here, from space travel as the new pie in the sky, justifying our continued oppression, to imperialism in space. We have talked about how our fascination with space and our love of science fiction are being leveraged by wealth-hoarding billionaires with agendas that are as wicked as they are absurd. But as I mentioned at the top of the show, I am actually a pretty huge fan of science fiction. I do not believe that our love of possibility or our fascination with the heavens are the problem. What we’re looking at is the exploitation of our awe, wonder and other worldly aspirations by the kind of people who will exploit anything in order to further consolidate wealth and amplify their own importance. That kind of co-optation can be fought in a number of ways, but one thing I really appreciate about Astrotopia is MJ’s exploration of science fiction stories that do not fit the imperialist framing of space exploration that Musk and Bezos have laid out.

MJR: So the bad news is that the way that the U.S. and increasingly other nations (and certainly the capitalist sector) are approaching outer space is motivated by really bad stories. They’re motivated by bad stories about human beings conquering land. About certain human beings mattering more than other human beings. About the rest of the biosphere not mattering at all. About destiny, about living room, breathing room for people who just want more space. About some kind of inherent desire for humans to want more stuff and take up more room. These are really bad stories. Again, it’s my sense that a lot of these stories come from a really icky reading of the Christian heritage.

The good news is there are other stories out there. There are a lot of other stories out there, and that actually most of the peoples of the world have stories that are motivated by ethics of reciprocity with other living beings and care for the land and care for the Earth, and of stewardship and giving back.

There are three places that I like to go to look for these stories. One of those places is in the stories that the either displaced or still emplaced Indigenous communities of the world can tell about how it is that we remain in relation to land. If land is understood as peopled, as occupied by beings, and a number of those communities – I’m thinking in particular of the Innuit of Bawaka Country, and in the Outback of Australia – will also talk about not just stewardship of Earth, but stewardship of space and the space ways too, that there’s a whole ecology that interrelates Earth and its neighbors in the cosmos. So there are better stories there.

There are better stories in the works of speculative fiction authors and science fiction authors who can think about ways to even try to live on really inhospitable planets that don’t depend on destroying those planets in order to live there. There’s some great work here by Becky Chambers, by Annalee Newitz, by N.K. Jemisin. Certainly, I know a lot of people have drawn heavily on the work of Octavia Butler to think about new ways to live among the stars that not only don’t replicate colonial strategies, but that in fact speak to people who have been their targets and who have been oppressed by these kinds of strategies. So utopias for people who have traditionally been oppressed on Earth. So there’s that kind of fiction that gives us these new stories.

Then finally, I think there are counter-traditional ways to read these biblical narratives themselves. If you were to ask Pope Francis whether human beings have the right to destroy the planet and go conquer others, he’d be like, “You have to get your head examined. This is a terrible way to read Genesis. You haven’t learned anything.”

It is no longer accepted as a decent reading of scripture that human beings are given the power to do whatever they like to the Earth, or that human beings are the only sentient beings on the planet, or that the planet is somehow here for us to exploit. Neither the head of the Roman Catholic Church nor the head of the Anglican communion, nor the head of the Eastern Orthodox churches — none of them would say that this is a decent reading of these texts. So there are contemporary ways of reading an ecologically sensitive and even robust way of understanding these texts.

So those are basically the ways that I look, the places that I look for different kinds of stories. Again, the stories of Indigenous folks, particularly the stories of Black and Indigenous and queer and feminist speculative fiction authors, and the work of these ecologically adoring, even Christian and Jewish and Muslim philosophers themselves. The question is: How do we get those stories as entrenched in the world of outer space as the old one is? That’s the challenge. That’s the difficulty, to say there are other ways to live. People know how to do it. In fact, a lot of people know how to do it. How do we turn those stories into policy and how do we turn those stories into practice? It’s always the activist struggle.

KH: The question of how we turn our own stories into policy and practice is one we will have to keep returning to. As we discussed in our episode about longtermism, people like Musk, as absurd as his ideas might be, have made great strides with regard to social, economic and institutional power. So that’s one thing I would really like people to take away from this conversation — it’s not enough to dismiss the ideas of people like Musk as being outlandish or absurd. Of course they’re absurd. Musk’s claim that he is going to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars is utter nonsense, but it is not enough to simply know or assert that. The world we inhabit has been carved up and ravaged by people who leveraged ideas that were, in my opinion, no less absurd. Stories have power. The hopes that we offer people, in bleak times, have power. We have to understand the appeal of space as humanity’s last recourse, in these times of catastrophe and crisis, and we have to build movement narratives in opposition to that storytelling. Toward that end, MJ had some parting advice for our listeners.

MJR: So the first thing that I’d like to caution is that we be suspicious of appeals to all of humanity. When we hear one of these new age-based prophets telling us that the salvation of the human species depends on conquering the cosmos in this way, we need to think along with Sylvia Wynter about what the category of humanity means, whom they actually want to save and what they actually want to save it for. At stake is not the salvation of humanity. At stake is the salvation of a particular way of living and a particular way of making a ton of money for very rich people, given that we live on a finite planet whose resources we’re exhausting.

Capitalism relies on infinite growth. We can’t have infinite growth. We’re on a finite planet. So what we’re seeing right now [are] convulsions of late stage capitalism; it’s realizing it’s reaching limits and is therefore seeking out other planets and using this humanitarian claim as a justification for primarily economic ends. So we need to know that. This is just as much of an ideological ploy as the idea that Spain needed to conquer the Americas in order to save Indian souls or something like that. So I’m recommending some suspicion when it comes to these big grand narratives about the salvation of all of humanity.

What we can do about it is to join… There actually are conversations that even NASA is holding about its policies and its priorities. There have increasingly been astronomers and activists and anti-colonial academics and just space geeks who have started communicating to NASA that they love space, but they don’t want to see space done this particular way. I think that the more people whose voices are heard in this regard, the more likely it is that somebody might eventually be listening.

But it’s not screaming into the void. They’re an increasing number of people who are trying to make themselves heard in this regard. So if you’re a space geek, you can find ways to love space, to love the idea of learning from space, to love the idea even of maybe getting to go there at some point, but while finding different ways to love it and learn from it than to ravage it.

KH: I am so grateful for this conversation, and for MJ, and her wonderful book, Astrotopia. I think the lessons this book offers about history, Christian imperialism, and the danger of treating the natural world as objects, rather than subjects, are crucial in these times. I also appreciated the book as a lifelong fan of science fiction, who happens to believe that storytelling is a fight for the future. Because while my hopes for humanity are grounded here, on Earth, I, like many of you, was raised on stories about space exploration. As I have often told friends, watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as a child did more to open my mind about imperialism, and the oppression of Palestine, than any other influence I had encountered at that age. Because genre fiction allows us to ask questions about ourselves and our world that we might not otherwise explore. Stories that defy the boundaries of our present technology, and the worlds we know, can raise important questions about who we are, what we value, and where we should and should not allow innovation to take us. As MJ wrote in Astrotopia:

The place of our most poetic imaginations and our most obsessive calculations, space is the place where art, science, literature, technology, and religion all attract and repel one another in a vortical frenzy, promising this or that path toward enlightenment, that or this more perfect existence.

Indulging the question of what if allows our imaginations to make new journeys and discoveries, and I believe in the importance of those odysseys. That belief only amplifies my contempt for people like Musk and Bezos, who would exploit our sense of wonder, and our hope for the future, to ensure our cooperation with their late capitalist agendas. The good news is that I believe in our capacity to tell better stories. But what does that work look like in practice? And how do we address the religion-shaped hole in people’s lives that people like Musk and Bezos are exploiting with cult-ish ideas and fantasies about space colonization? Well, we will be talking more about that in an upcoming episode, when I’ll be in conversation with Aaron Goggans, the “Dream Gardener” of the WildSeed Society. I’m also interested in hearing your ideas about the narrative work ahead of us, so if you’re on Facebook, be sure to join the Movement Memos Discussion Group, so we can reflect on these ideas together.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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