Elon Musk, in a recent interview with Aeon Magazine, announced his goal to put one million people on Mars in the next hundred years. As a space enthusiast myself, there is nothing I would like to see more than human being living on another planet. Given a democratic decision to go, and a flexible plan to ensure the equitable distribution of benefits and costs of the project, I can really get behind the goal of sending one million people to Mars (although I might intentionally stretch out the timeframe in order to increase the opportunity to learn from and correct mistakes). However, I am not under the delusion that human expansion into space will save humanity.
My disagreement is less with Musk’s points in the interview specifically, in which he focuses on the need for humans to go to Mars in case of unforeseen disasters, rather than those already on our doorstep. My issue is with the more general idea that human expansion into space will automatically solve the threats to humanity’s continued existence, most of which are caused by unsustainable human practices. Space exploration and development will not stave off these threats for long if they continue to operate on the basis of these same unsustainable practices.
One justification commonly marshalled in promotion of space development is that resource extraction in space will mitigate the impending shortages of water and important minerals on Earth. While there may be some immediate relief to the exploitation of terrestrial resources, we will still find ourselves with a shortage of resources in the longer term without any mechanism to reign in economic expansion. Basically, contemporary economies must expand exponentially in order to stay healthy. Money must constantly be invested into fixed assets,such as structures or machinery, in order to avoid over accumulation of capital and the high levels of inflation and monetary devaluation that result. These investments pay off, increasing capital accumulation, and the cycle starts all over again, but now with even more money that needs to be invested! So as we expand into space, and develop more resources in space, the next round of expansion must be larger and faster. Nor is this merely theoretical, space debris and overcrowded orbits provide a good demonstration of this sort of expansion. Not thirty years ago, policymakers talked about the limitless possibilities of orbital resources. Now, orbital debris and orbital crowding causes legitimate concerns over our ability to continue to exploit low Earth orbit (LEO) for satellites. If there had been some mechanism in place to allow citizens to prioritize which benefits from satellites were most valued and a longer timescale for development of LEO to account for unintended consequences rather than merely privatizing the satellite industry, perhaps this problem could have been avoided. It would be unwise to assume away this problem as an isolated case, and proceed on a mission to Mars operating under the same economic processes, with the end result of spreading unsustainability to two worlds.
In addition, by focusing only on sources of resources, and not accounting for resource sinks, the increase in resources from the exploitation of space resources will be a detriment rather than a boon. As resource availability increases, so does resource consumption. After all, companies like Planetary Resources are looking to sell the resources they extract for a short-term profit, not develop a stockpile of resources to ensure the longevity of their use. As resource consumption increases, so does waste. But space development does not incorporate new resource sinks, only sources. Lets use the lifecycle of lithium as an example. Lithium mined from an asteroid must undergo industrial refinement, which produces industrial waste. It then must be manufactured into a product, such as a battery, which produces more waste. Finally, the product has a finite life cycle itself, especially given planned obsolescence and other designed for the dump consumption practices. So the more resources extracted from extraterrestrial sources, the worse terrestrial waste problems become. Because space development of resources does not account for resource sinks, or address problems of over consumption, the problem of waste will likely undo even the minimal short term ecological benefits.
The interview with Musk starts with his statement “Fuck Earth!” While this is clearly a joke (Musk does seem genuinely concerned about ecological issues) I think it elucidates an interesting attitude among many space proponents. This attitude that going to space is sufficient in and of itself to solving the ills faced by humanity seems to me to be misguided and ill advised. Instead, I would argue that space provides a unique and new possibility for applying sociotechnical improvements without the barriers of obdurate terrestrial systems. If space is truly a new frontier, then I see no reason why our ideas about what spaceflight means for humanity have to be so socially antiquated.