Capitalism in outer space

Would it be possible to circumvent Earth’s physical limitations with a rapid colonization of the solar system? Yet it would be a temporary panacea since humanity would still not have unlimited resources.

To put this another way: Could humanity pull a rabbit out of the hat by industrializing space and tapping the solar system’s abundant metal and gas resources to overcome the dwindling availability and environmental devastation of our home planet? Would we want to?

I’ve been stimulated to think about these questions since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 2312. Set three centuries into the future, around the year that is its title, the novel envisions a time when humans live comfortably on Mercury, Mars, the Moon, satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, the asteroid belt, and more than 19,000 hollowed-out asteroids engineered to create a staggering assortment of environments. Still more real estate is being opened up with the terraforming of Venus nearing completion.

Complex political, environmental and social problems nonetheless endure, with multiple political blocs stretching across the solar system: a still capitalist Earth struggling with vast environmental distress, including a 20-meter rise in sea level, with various off-Earth colonies still under control of major countries; a “Mondragon Accord” consisting of off-Earth localities working together within a cooperative economy modeled on the eponymous collective enterprise; a socialist Mars, now one of the solar system’s biggest powers; and an unknown number of those hollowed-out asteroids that comprise the “unaffiliated,” some of which exist in self-imposed isolation.

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

This imagined 24th century, for all its technological wonders and the copious free time of many off-Earth inhabitants, is a time of hideous inequality, particularly for Earth’s billions of desperately poor and billions more comprising a planetary precariat; these broad groups still comprise most of Earth’s population. Capitalism continues to do its work, centuries in the future, only now the divide is not North/South but rather Space/Earth.

Despite the social consciousness Mr. Robinson brings to his marvelous novels — I have been a fan of his since reading his Mars trilogy in the 1990s — this all seems rather too easy. His 2312, as with his earlier works, is outstanding literature that soars vastly above ordinary science fiction, wrestling with complex socio-economic problems and human relationships from a Left perspective through characters that are actually fully formed human beings. One of these is rare in the genre; having both puts him in very rarified company, with, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Industrializing the solar system

There has frequently been an underlying pessimism in Mr. Robinson’s novels despite his creation of worlds with alternative social systems, dizzying technological advances, and racial, gender and sexual-orientation equality. That is, capitalism seems unmovable, continuing to grind down large sections of humanity and further degrading environments long past the point of any rational excuse and despite alternative socialist systems flourishing somewhere.

In light of this, let’s rephrase the opening questions I asked: Can capitalism be saved by industrializing the solar system? In the world of 2312, that is what has happened. Earth is in bad shape indeed, with 11 billion mostly precarious inhabitants, countless species wiped out and drowned cities. Food grown in and imported from hollowed-out asteroids devoted to agriculture, and access to natural resources mined across the solar system, are what keep it from complete collapse.

But, again, it seems too easy. Our present-day course continues through this century into the first decades of the 22nd century before a series of technology breakthroughs — including space elevators, artificial intelligence and automated self-replicating factories that convert raw materials into finished products — touch off a fantastic exodus into space; in less than a century the solar system out to Saturn is settled and thousands of asteroids are hollowed to create new, artificial worlds to inhabit.

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

I can’t help but think of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. So it is here, with robotic machines creating the infrastructure both to make planets, moons and space rocks inhabitable and collecting and delivering vast amounts of raw materials from across the solar system. The terraforming of Mars is made possible by stripping the Saturnian moon Titan of half of its nitrogen. Venus’ terraforming requires the disassembly of another Saturnian moon and bombarding Venus with the ex-moon’s ice while Venus cools off behind a sunscreen that blocks the Sun, freezing out its carbon dioxide atmosphere.

A truly gargantuan amount of capital would be required to finance these projects! And surely there would be a pushback against such wholesale destruction. In the author’s Mars trilogy (a different universe and story), the Mars colonists, having effected a revolution to free themselves from the grip of Earth’s dominant corporations, are divided into those who wish to go no further than the pre-revolution partial terraforming already forced through by Earth and those who wish to make Mars fully Earth-like.

In 2312, however, environmentalism is strangely absent, although internally understandable as most of the action is off Earth and virtually every character of note is a “spacer” native to someplace else — their very existence is based on artificial environments, technology, the use of resources across the solar system and political alliances across space. In such a time and place, the vast engineering that makes space civilization work would appear as an inevitability; such environmental disputes that do exist are territorial.

The chicken and egg of space

Setting aside that any systematic attempt to exploit other worlds would surely be accompanied and critiqued by an environmental movement, the depicted 24th century civilization rests entirely on magic in the Clarkeian sense. The depicted mechanics of engineering are physically possible but would they be viable for an Earth destroying itself environmentally, economically and morally?

Although ever mounting inequality could conceivably pool enough capital to make early stages of space colonization financially possible, the countervailing factors of environmental destruction, global warming, depletion of natural resources and increasing unrest on a world scale as more billions are immiserated (and all the problems that flow from them) should give us pause. Were humanity to continue on its current course into the 22nd century, it would most likely be too late.

The metals, gases and water to be found throughout the solar system would greatly expand the natural resources available for humanity, surely providing enough to create the necessary early space-colony infrastructure, but we have a chicken-and-egg problem: The resources to establish a space presence exist, but can’t be reached until we are present in space.

A rational system geared for human need rather than private profit, in which a healed planet has reversed its gathering crises, seems better equipped. There would not be the concentrated capital that now exists, but with a planned, democratic economy it might be possible to slowly establish bases on the Moon, or perhaps Mars or nearby asteroids (presumably accompanied by an environmental movement), should humanity see it in its common interest and as a spur to useful technological development distributed in an egalitarian manner.

Under capitalism, it is inevitable that private enterprise will take the helm, with expectations of the highest possible profit. But space capitalists would have to be heavily subsidized by governments; already, the U.S. space agency NASA is shifting more of its budget to contracts with private companies to launch rockets for it. Should a space program become just another corporate subsidy? And as tempting as grabbing the solar system’s natural resources may be, limitations will assert themselves. Capitalism requires ceaseless expansion and growth and that is no more possible in a finite solar system than on a finite Earth.

A badly degraded Earth, saddled with massive poverty, environmental degradation and billions struggling to survive in the face of dwindling resources and global warming, is an unlikely candidate to, in the nick of time, develop a series of magical technologies that save the day. But even this outer space cornucopia, where spacers routinely travel billions of miles the way the more privileged among us take airplane trips, is dependent on the surplus value extracted from Earth’s inhabitants, both on Earth itself and on major projects, such as the Venusian terraforming. That is so even though Earth in turn is dependent on the food and raw materials continually sent to it by spacers.

None of this, I wish to stress, is meant as a criticism of Mr. Robinson. His novel 2312 does what the best literature does — stimulate thinking at the same time we enjoy well-crafted writing. As I was reading it last month while on vacation in Vermont, my partner asked me to read a bit of it out loud to her and just the first six pages, vivid descriptions of the Mercurian city moving along a planet-circling track while “sun walkers” walk the surface ahead of the deadly sunrise on excursions, matching the pace of the city, made her want to read it herself, so enraptured did she become. Me too.

19 comments on “Capitalism in outer space

  1. nicciattfield says:

    There’s quite an interesting book by Bron Taylor ( I think it is) about the Avatar movie, and talk of colonising outer space, and the need for a re-turn to the natural environment. The image of earth from outer space had inspired astronauts to care for earth more deeply. At the same time, the movie apparently offered up the belief in exploring space more deeply. But I hope not.

    • I ordinarily don’t care about such things, but I was rooting for Avatar to sweep the Academy Awards because of its anti-militarism and anti-exploitation themes. In a quick reading of Bron Taylor’s prologue, I came upon this: “the negative reaction to the film by most conservative commentators, whether political or religious, revealed significant concern that such views and imperatives might be gaining more adherents and cultural appeal.” Let’s hope so.

  2. WrenchMonkey says:

    Remember the aliens from the movie (1996) “Independence Day”?

    Bill Pullman, playing President Thomas Whitmore:

    “I saw… its thoughts. I saw what they’re planning to do. They’re like locusts. They’re moving from planet to planet… their whole civilization. After they’ve consumed every natural resource they move on…”

    Sounds a lot like “capitalism” to me. Just think. If we hurry and put all our eggs in one basket, as it were, we could spend countless millennia doing to the entire universe what we’re presently doing to Earth.

    We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo

    The human race is in trouble. So is all Life on Earth. And we all spend our time arguing over how to treat the symptoms of the disease that is murdering the planet rather than trying to eliminate the disease itself.

    A disease is not cured by putting band-aids on the symptoms. To be rid of the disease, the source must be eradicated. The source of the disease that’s killing our Mother is industrial civilisation. The end of civilisation as we know it is prerequisite to the continuation of human Life on Earth.

    This is not to say that the human race must be destroyed. But, after many years in denial, during which time I clung desperately to a utopian illusion of a sustainable, enlightened, techno-industrial society, I have finally reached the conclusion that industrial civilisation must be brought to an end or the human species will effectively destroy itself and possibly all Life on Earth.

    Acculturation to the compartmentalised nature of industrial civilisation makes it extremely difficult for its individual members to reach an understanding of its mortiferous nature. The forest cannot be seen for the trees as it were. People just don’t see the “big picture”. They are consumed with their own pet issues, their specialised functions and their own self-interest. They are incapable of taking a holistic viewpoint.

    However, it should, by now, be getting a lot easier for people to see that this system cannot be “fixed”, that we can’t get things back to “normal”, that our “civilised” normal is the problem, not the solution.

    That the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources without restraint cannot go on forever should be self-evident to anyone. Yet this culture not only consumes non-renewables with reckless abandon but devours or destroys renewables, like land, trees, food, air and water, at a rate far surpassing that of their recovery. Any culture or species that depends for its very existence upon such a system cannot endure.

    What is the big picture?

    Industrial civilisation is unsustainable and irredeemable. Its members, both rulers and ruled, will not voluntarily enact the changes needed to transform it to a culture that is rational, sustainable and natural. Therefore, it will collapse.

    Civilisation will collapse in due course without any extra “help” or it could be dismantled voluntarily, logically and rationally with the aim of making the transition as painless as possible.

    The human species, if it is to survive, must return to the natural world, find its proper place there and accept it with humility.

    Just my opinion

    • Thank you for such a well-thought-out comment. World society in its present form — or to be more to the point, capitalism — can’t endure. Either we bring into being a more rational economic system or a collapse will force it on ourselves. Unfortunately, virtually all incentives in capitalism are to continue, even accelerate, our present path. The later we wait, the more painful any transition will be.

      I don’t believe a collapse will be a sudden, dramatic event, but rather a decline punctuated by more frequent and more severe crises. Look at North America’s Lake Erie — more than one million people depend on it for water, yet the poisonous algae blooms from pesticide runoff get worse. What happens when not only Toledo but Cleveland have their water supplies shut for weeks or months instead of two days? What happens when other water supplies are poisoned or run dry due to global warming-induced drought?

      • WrenchMonkey says:

        Thank you for the thought provoking essay. I concur fully with your observations.

        The template of the dominator cultural that has destroyed america is being applied to the rest of the world. The economic colonialism of capitalist globalisation is spreading its cancer to every corner of the planet.

        The united states has been wholly owned by the banking cartel since at least 1913 when the federal reserve act turned control of the monetary system over to the private sector.

        In america most people still seem to cling to the illusion that there are two opposing parties of “left” and “right”. A party of the true left must begin with the unequivocal rejection of capitalism. In america there is only the capitalist party duopoly. Its two wings exist solely for the purpose of keeping the People convinced that they have a “choice”.

        Around the world, regardless of the number of “parties” nations may boast of, the fusion of government into a single patriarchal, corporatised hierarchy, owned and operated by the international banking cartel, is proceeding apace.

        There will be no recourse to be found for the general population within the “system”. There will be no governments with which to seek redress of grievances. There will be no laws to be invoked in order to stop the criminal psychopaths who now control virtually all Earth’s vital resources. The “laws” are and will be written by and for them.

        We have come to the moment when the pathocracy is very nearly ready to stop pretending it is something other than a totalitarian ruling class and blatantly declare themselves masters of the world. The charade of “democracy” and “freedom” will soon be dropped completely. The effort to disguise the reality of the oligopoly will end and a totalitarian global plutocracy will reign.

        The pathocracy is becoming so confident of success that they are allowing the charade of civil society to dissolve. Their contempt for the People is becoming more evident every day and their true intent more clear.

        The control of america and, in fact, most nations of the world has been completely surrendered to the money power.

        There is no “american empire”. There is the global empire of the international banking cartel. The united states of america is simply the “superpower” du jour, now an unmitigated rogue state, being used as both the sharp end of the stick, to back everyone into a corner, and a blunt instrument to beat them into submission.

        The “new world order”, which most people apparently consider to be just another wacko “conspiracy theory”, seems to be shaping up quite nicely.

        The nations of Earth are being steadily reduced to “third world” status.

        The rapidly accelerating effects of global warming will soon render much of the planet increasingly hostile to human habitation.

        Over the next few decades, I think many major cities and population centers will begin to experience massive infrastructure failures. These collapsed essential systems will not be repaired or replaced and the cities will be left to rot. The general populations will be thrust into increasing poverty and chaos.

        The ruling class will retire to select fortified locations, guarded by privatised armies and served by privatised providers. From these castellated control centers they will administer a single world government, with a single electronic global currency and economy, all of which will be enforced and protected by a single privatised world military force.

        Earth, for a while, will become a third world planet.

        Just my opinion

        • Big banks’ control of the monetary system predates the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve. Banks actually had more control earlier — because they printed the money rather than the government. I certainly share the sharp critiques of the Fed that many hold, but the Fed, as with any central bank, is merely a tool. That’s why every capitalist country has one. The economy would be even more unstable without them, which is the reason they were created. As I have frequently said, if you don’t like the Federal Reserve, what you really don’t like is capitalism.

          The ruling class won’t likely be enjoying life in their fortified castles very long (as you hinted in your “for a while” caveat). Repression and propaganda can keep the one percent’s party going for a while, but if the world isn’t sustainable, it isn’t sustainable. If a global movement doesn’t coalesce, then the future you have outlined is likely.

          • WrenchMonkey says:

            “The united states has been wholly owned by the banking cartel since at least 1913…”

            I guess I should have been less absolute in my tone. And, as a matter of fact, I utterly loathe capitalism.

            If you happen to favour religion you can see the “bankers” in the parable regarding Christ driving the “money changers” from the temple.

            But “central banks”, the fed in particular, are not part of “government”. The federal reserve is a privately controlled, for-profit business. No, it doesn’t “print” the money. It pays the treasury a pittance to do that. It then lends the money back to the government with interest due. Unfortunately nobody ever prints any money to cover that interest so all the payments must come from the principle that was loaned into circulation.

            At this point, printed money isn’t really of much importance anyway. Every time a bank makes a “loan”, it creates electronic “money” out of thin air by simply entering the transaction into a data base.

            How far back must we go to find the origins of this criminal, privately owned, usurious international banking cartel?

            “Overvaluation did not depend on coinage. Banking is one form of such representative money. In the ancient empires of Egypt, Babylon, India and China, the temples and palaces represented important centers of production and they quickly became the centers of storage of grains and the precious metals, typically under the control of palace administrators and the priesthood.
            When commodities were thus accepted in the centralized warehouses, it would have been natural for the stewards of the palaces to issue some kind of certificate of deposit that would certify the evidence of debt. Probably these certificates from the temple-banks would be readily accepted in [generally payments] [sic] and could circulate as a form of (overvalued) money.” (emphasis added)
            Columbia University, Department of Economics, Discussion Paper Series, The Birth of Coinage, Robert A. Mundell, Discussion Paper #:0102-08, Pages 12 & 13

            The evidence is clearer for the goldsmith bankers of seventeenth century England.
            Merchants of that time bartered with gold. They also found it necessary to travel a good deal to conduct their business. Gold in any significant quantity was too heavy and cumbersome to be carried everywhere about. More significantly it was too great a temptation to those who didn’t have any and knew that travelling merchants did.
            It became common practice for these merchants to store their precious metals with goldsmiths, who had the strongest, most secure safes and storage facilities available. The goldsmiths would issue paper receipts to their depositors, which were then used as a medium of exchange in place of the gold coins they represented.
            These receipts were also used by people who needed to borrow gold coins.

            From “Web of Debt” by Ellen Hodgson Brown, chapter 2 – “Behind the Curtain”, page 27

            The Shell Game of the Goldsmiths Becomes “Fractional Reserve” Banking

            “The mischief began when the goldsmiths noticed that only about 10 to 20 percent of their receipts came back to be redeemed in gold at any one time. They could safely “lend” the gold in their strongboxes at interest several times over, as long as they kept 10 to 20 percent of the value of their outstanding loans in gold to meet the demand. (added comment, so usury was part of the banking scam from the beginning)
            They thus created “paper money”* (receipts for loans of gold) worth several times the gold they actually held. They typically issued notes and made loans in amounts that were four to five times their actual supply of gold. At an interest rate of 20 percent, the same gold lent five times over produced a 100 percent return every year, on gold the goldsmiths did not actually own and could not legally lend at all. If they were careful not to overextend this “credit,” the goldsmiths could thus become quite wealthywithout producing anything of value themselves. (added comment, as do today the pathological parasites of the spurious “financial industry”)

            Since only the principal was lent into the money supply, more money was eventually owed back in principal and interest than the townspeople as a whole possessed. They had to continually take out loans of new paper money to cover the shortfall, causing the wealth of the town and eventually of the country to be siphoned into the vaults of the goldsmiths-turned-bankers, while the people fell progressively into their debt.” (emphasis added) (added comment: This is exactly the situation that exists today but on a global scale. And not only individuals but governments and businesses are trapped in this quicksand of usury and debt.)
            *[Note; in my opinion, the statement that the goldsmiths created “paper money” is not entirely accurate. In reality it was representative currency. It was not actually money at all.]

            (I sure hope I got all the HTML right!)

            • Modern finance indeed is the product of long development, and as long as banking is private rather than a utility under community control the power of financiers will be immense. Yet there is no neat separation between financiers and industrialists; both broad groupings of capitalists are dependent on the other and are intertwined.

              In turn, the increasing financialization of the global economy reflects increased inequality as those possessing bigger concentrations of money have fewer places to profitably invest, and as wages stagnate and investment declines, depressing demand, it becomes more profitable to speculate than invest in productive activity.

              We’ll have to disagree on the status of the Federal Reserve vis-à-vis government. Private companies do not have a board appointment by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. As I have this debaate with several readers of this blog, I won’t repeat what I’ve previously written but instead I’ll just sum up: Whether the Fed is private or not doesn’t matter. What does matter, in my opinion, is that the Fed (as with all capitalist-country central banks) is completely undemocratic and unaccountable, run by and for the benefit of financiers against the interest of working people. It is a tool of the most powerful representatives of finance capital and can’t be anything else given the nature of capitalist government.

              So, again, the problem becomes one of dismantling and replacing the system rather than this one particular institution of the system. My apologies if I sound like I am telling you things you already know; I of course take note of your stating your loathing of capitalism and the learnedness of your comments.

              • WrenchMonkey says:

                The degree to which we disagree is so minute and semantical as to be unworthy of the distinction.

                Dismantling the “system” is the exact and most crucial action required and the only possible chance for the salvation of the human species. And by “system” I refer specifically to industrialised “civilisation”.

                Consummatum est

  3. backwardsevolution says:

    WrenchMonkey – “The end of civilisation as we know it is prerequisite to the continuation of human Life on Earth.” I agree. Great comments. Thank you.

    Systemic Disorder – excellent work! Great writing!

  4. JAH says:

    I read the Mars Trilogy as well. Much of the science was spot on. The societal conflicts seemed realistic projections of our current crisis of inequity.

    While I believe our future will be interstellar, the technology will take much longer to evolve.

    No molten planetary core means Mars has no Van Allen belts, to shield it’s new terraformed atmosphere and life forms. The first men on Mars will be living IN Mars, venturing out to the surface only upon the most necessary of tasks, which rovers are unable to accomplish. We’ll get there, but the humans who end up constituting “Homo Interstellus” will be a far more communal and rational group then those remaining on the home world. It only takes one malcontent to terminally sabotage a habitat.

    • Earth’s atmosphere shields us from some cosmic rays in addition to the Van Allen protection. A terraformed Mars would at least have a start but your overall point is very much true. Not to mention bone-mass loss likely to result, long term, from living in 0.38G gravity.

      Living in such a hostile environment, and dependent for a long time on supplies from Earth, you are surely correct that only a communal, cooperative community could make a go of it on Mars. A hyper-competitive, I’ve-got-mine-screw-you capitalist mentality wouldn’t last long when everybody relies on the community to survive.

  5. tubularsock says:

    No surprise here SD. Great post. Not for a minute would Tubularsock not think that the capitalists couldn’t ruin the rest of the solar system as they have done on earth. They just have this way about them. Tubularsock just can’t wait for the oil pipeline from Mars. But that wouldn’t be the worst that could happen ……… BP’s deep-space-drilling, now just think of THAT when it blows.

    We as “earthlings” have already littered space with garbage as far as we have gone to date. I just can’t wait to see the new tech equipment needed to push through all the garbage floating around earth by the time we start our “real” space-ruination-program.

    Tubularsock has always believed that the reasons the UFO’s don’t hang around too long is because they can see that humans are crazier than bat-shit!

  6. This strikes me as just another example of the elite planning for and looking after their own interest. They clearly have no intention of incurring the expense of transporting the homeless of the industrialized world or the 2 billion souls who live on less than 2 dollars a day to outer space. They won’t even look after them now, much less on some remote planetary colony.

    Planetary travel will be strictly limited to the ruling elite, their lieutenants and hand maidens and a few carefully selected slaves.

    • The current commercial vision of space, one that is increasing being adapted by NASA but by no means only that agency, is a source of natural resources. An Abu Dhabi in space — very underpaid workers toiling in awful conditions to produce super-profits and trophy infrastructure projects — is likely the model that executives at multi-national corporations have in mind, no matter the lofty rhetoric on offer by the small start-up companies that currently are developing launch vehicles and shuttle craft.

      If those small companies demonstrate viability (i.e., profitability), then the bigger corporations will muscle in. The days of scientific inquiry being a primary reason for sending probes into space may soon to be behind us.

  7. Jeff Nguyen says:

    I’ll bet you’re a Douglas Adams fan. Perhaps, a criteria could be set that anyone in the 0.01% bracket of planetary wealth gets fast tracked for the inaugural space launch. Of course, the space ship would be monitored 24/7 by Verizon and Google.

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