By Elisabeth Robson / Art for Culture Change
On May 9, 2019 Blue Origin — Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company — posted this video of Jeff Bezos speaking at the Going to Space to Benefit Earth event. One of the visions of Blue Origin, as outlined on the web site, and the focus of Mr. Bezos’ presentation is that millions of people must live and work in space in order to “preserve Earth” and that we will “go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy.”
He begins his presentation by making some true statements — that the Earth is not infinite (who knew!) and will eventually run out of energy for our use (again, who knew!). Mr. Bezos then quickly veers into human supremacy in the extreme, with a couple of innocuous sounding but telling remarks: that our lives are better than our parent’s lives, which were better than our grandparent’s lives (really better? Or just more energy intensive?) — completely ignoring all the non-humans we share this planet with — and that we could power our culture’s current energy needs if only we covered Nevada in solar cells. “It is mostly desert, anyway,” he says, ignoring the fact that deserts are in fact teeming with amazing life of all kinds from beautiful desert flowers to lizards, birds, tortoises, and so many more; ignoring the fact that solar farms in Nevada and other areas are bulldozed of all life before the toxic and deadly shining solar cells are installed.
As Mr. Bezos correctly points out, if we continue growing (GDP, energy use, etc.) at 3% a year, our historical trend in the modern era, we’d have to cover the entire surface of the Earth with solar panels to supply our energy needs in 200 years. Unintentionally, he’s hit upon a big problem with renewables: the land use requirements are unsustainable, and aside from the fact that along with running out of fossil fuel energy, we will eventually run out of the raw materials to make solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, smart grids, and so on long before 200 years passes. Of course, as he says, it is ridiculous to cover the Earth with solar panels, so we need something else.
Something else will include efficiency: our technology will continue to become more efficient, but Mr. Bezos acknowledges that growth in energy use will far outstrip energy efficiency. This relationship between greater efficiency and greater resource use is known as Jevons’ Paradox, discovered by William Stanley Jevons in 1865. Energy efficiency never reduces the amount of energy we use, because the more efficient our devices and cars and lighting and heating become, the cheaper they get, and the more we use. One example Mr. Bezos uses is air transportation: 50 years ago it took 109 gallons of fuel to fly one person from LA to NYC; today it takes only 24 gallons. And indeed, air travel is growing faster than any other transportation sector and is expected to double in the next 20 years, far outstripping the gains in efficiency made by airline companies. Efficiency gains just lead to more growth.
So, yet again, we need something else. Mr. Bezos never questions that growth is bad. He never suggests that maybe we should de-grow our population, our economy, our consumption, anything. He never contemplates that growth might not always be a good thing if it leads to the suffering of multitudes. No, he charges on assuming that growth is what’s best for everyone. Of course he does. As the CEO of amazon.com he is the embodiment of growth at all costs, including the lives of his own employees.
Does he even for a second think about the lives of non-humans at all? I don’t think so.
Unlimited demand + limited resources = rationing. This is the equation Mr. Bezos shows the audience, and he is correct. But rather than suggest we limit our demand, he focuses on how awful the rationing will be. According to him, that rationing means our children’s lives will be worse than our parent’s lives, and our grandparent’s lives. Again, I am blown away by the human supremacy of this thinking. It assumes that our lives have indeed, until now, been getting better. Which assumes that “our” means humans, because it surely cannot mean non-humans, whose lives have been getting demonstrably worse. Much worse. And which humans is he talking about? Clearly only the humans in the so-called Western developed world, because most humans on this planet have more recently been stripped of their land and livelihoods by colonization and “sustainable development”, and forced into menial, poverty-level jobs in factories, mines, and oil fields where their lives are demonstrably worse than they were before. For proof of this, simply imagine (or better yet, read the stories about) the life of a Native American Indigenous person who lived free on the land before white colonization and genocide and compare that with the life of a Native American relegated to living in poverty on a reservation with no access to land for traditional use, clean water, clean air, or cultural sites and activities. Mr. Bezos is arguing, as all techno-utopians do, that progress is always good. Only for people like you, Mr. Bezos.
And what is wrong with rationing? Well, god-forbid, it means we’d have to use less of everything we’re accustomed to using now. (Rich) Americans — 5% of the global population — would have to stop using the 25% of the resources on this planet that we use now. The horror! Cutting back and using less is fundamentally anathema to the American Dream(TM) — the idea that if we just work hard enough we can all achieve that fantasy of progress: having more money, owning more stuff, and of course, the unarticulated implication of using more energy that goes with that. “More” is the stuff American Dreams are made of.
The choice Mr. Bezos presents us with is between “stasis and rationing” and “dynamism and growth”. For Mr. Bezos, the choice is easy: we want dynamism and growth.
And here’s the good news: if we move out into space, we’ll have access to more! To unlimited resources!
Mr. Bezos’ solution to continued dynamism and growth is O’Neill colonies: giant tubes in space filled with a million people each. Here’s what he envisions this would look like:
These will be easy to get to from Earth, easy to move amongst so we can visit our friends and neighbors. We can have the atmosphere of the best day on Hawai’i, the best cities, the best recreational spaces (complete with a deer and a bird flying over!). We can have it all, if we are willing to leave the planet behind, willing to forgo our “planetary chauvinism” as he (and a clip from Isaac Asimov) says.
Earth will, according to Bezos, be zoned for “residential”, “light industry” and people going to college. That’s weird. Why would people want to go to college on the planet, but not on the colony? He never says why. He also doesn’t mention “other species” in his zoning plans for Earth… at all. Or forests, rivers, mountains, glaciers, prairies, or wild places of any kind. Or how we’ll go about cleaning up the pollution and what will be no longer needed nuclear power plants, roads, buildings, and so much more we’ve left in our wake. He just says Earth “will be a beautiful place that people will visit.”
A trillion humans in space means a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts, according to Bezos. He doesn’t mention a thousand white rhinos, or a thousand passenger pigeons, or a thousand great auks. Of course not, because — oops! — we already killed off those species with our insatiable greed and inability to set limits on ourselves. As if a beautiful sunset isn’t as valuable as a Mozart concerto, and a thousand physics geniuses is somehow better than an entire species. Mr. Bezos claims this would be a great civilization. Only for people who care only about people, Mr. Bezos. Yes, there are a still a few of us who care about more than that.
Mr. Bezos says it won’t be up to him to build this future; it will be up to the (presumably younger) people he points to in the front row. It will be those people and their children and grandchildren, those people who will need to create the companies and the infrastructure to move to space… well they’d better hurry because we have only a couple of decades to get our CO2 emissions down to zero to avoid catastrophic climate change, and I’m not sure you can build a million colonies in space each big enough to hold a million people in two decades. Perhaps Mr. Bezos envisions that all of Earth’s remaining resources will be used up in this process? In which case it is unlikely that Earth will be a “beautiful place to visit” once we’re done building these big metal tubes in space.
The rest of the presentation is an advertisement for Blue Origin and how the company is putting all the basic infrastructure — the road to space — into place so that future generations can take it from there, with gratuitous phallic images of rockets launching into space accompanied by rousing movie music. Jeff Bezos’ childhood fantasy come true.
At no time in this entire presentation does Mr. Bezos mention non-human species, except implicitly when he mentions (and shows fantastical pictures of) “recreational opportunities” and “agriculture” in the colonies. It is as if, for Bezos, “nature” doesn’t exist except for recreation and food. Who, I want to ask him, is going to be responsible for building the web of life on these colonies so his deer and his bird and the pollinators (not shown) in the colonies will actually exist for more than a few weeks, days, or hours? Unfortunately, knowing what we know about Jeff Bezos, it is entirely possible that the graphical rendering of the colonies shows a robotic deer and a robotic bird, and that pollination occurs entirely via miniature drones. And what about the soil in which the plants in the “agriculture” areas and the trees shown in the “recreational” spaces grow? It is likely that the soil, too, is artificial, and artificially fertilized… oops! Synthetic fertilizer is made from petroleum products, which implies that either we find fossil fuels out in space somewhere (where we’ll be putting all the “heavy industry” of the future, according to Bezos), or that we continue mining the Earth for fossil fuels so we can grow food in space. Or maybe once established, we’ll all be pooping out the fertilizer in these closed-circuit biospheres in space. Because that’s been so successful in the past.
Who knows what is in Bezos’ addled mind. I do know one thing that isn’t there: a fundamental respect for nature, for billions of years of evolution, for the intricacy of the web of life that supports us here on planet Earth, a web of life we know virtually nothing about in comparison to what there is to know. He very obviously sees humans as separate from nature; anyone who imagines we can live in space must believe that to some degree. What Mr. Bezos fails to understand is that we are completely, utterly, inextricably part of nature; that we are human animals, and that our attempts to pretend otherwise will last only as long as the planetary ecosystem here on Earth, the ecosystem that continues to function at some diminished capacity, despite the damages we keep inflicting on the one and only planet we know of that supports life.
To fantasize that it is somehow better to try to recreate in space what we once had on Earth, than it is to contemplate limiting our demand just a bit so we can continue to live on this beautiful blue planet is human supremacy in the extreme. This won’t be a popular position, I know. Humans, especially Americans, love a new frontier to explore, and almost everyone I know gets excited about new technology and launching things into space.
But launching ourselves into space with the idea that we can somehow live without the planet to whom we are tethered with blood, guts, bacteria, cells, water, phytoplankton, oxygen, breath, fish, birds, trees, … every living thing on Earth… is the insane hallucination of someone who’s been “successful” as measured by little bits of green paper and numbers on a computer screen, but who has absolutely no idea that his fantasy, like the paper and the numbers, is a delusion.