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.