The stars have always appeared to us effervescent with possibility, like we’re all looking up at the bubbles from the bottom of a champagne glass every night. Fiction set in outer space is not just filled with alien landscapes and creatures, but new ways of living; stargazing has always been an exercise in world-building.
The possibilities of world-building in space are what the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 represented when it was signed by over 90 countries during the first international space race. The international agreement, which is still in force today, states that space exploration “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind." It also states that signatories including the US shall be guided by the “principle of cooperation and mutual assistance.”
This treaty, clearly open to interpretation, was a springboard for efforts by developing nations to forge a new society free of Earth’s gravitational pull, and potentially free of American-led capitalism—as it turns out, both are hard to escape. A 1970s push to clarify the treaty's terms and make outer space and its resources “the common heritage of mankind” was seen in the US as an attempt to bring socialist principles into space (it was) and it was crushed. The lesson: world-building outside of the realm of science fiction is corralled—often terminally—by powerful interests.
Now, whatever possibility the Outer Space Treaty once represented for new ways of life to emerge on other planets is fading away. In late April, as The Outline noted, the US House of Representatives passed the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. The Act states that its purpose is to “ensure that the United States remains the world leader in commercial space activities” and says that the US government will interpret its international obligations “in a manner that minimizes regulations and limitations” on private space companies. Moreover, it states that the government “shall not presume” that the Outer Space Treaty applies to private companies, allowing even more wiggle room.
And if there were any lingering doubt about the Act’s intent, it further states: “Outer space shall not be considered a global commons."
This declaration is a powerful form of world-building—the same kind of world-building that Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist who founded Rhodesia and one of history’s most twisted grotesques, was doing when he sighed, “I would annex the planets if I could.” Rhodes sought to remake a whole people in the image of the white industrialist, and so it was only natural that he do the same with the heavens—if he could.
Star Trek’s collectivist Federation, sparkling and joyous Afrofuturist visions, the anarchism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed—all of these possibilities seem to buckle under the weight of unshackled industry forging a society for itself and its class interests with the help of the government. If you listen to the people who stand to benefit most from the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, like Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, American capitalism in space will have its own benefits.
In a recent interview with Business Insider, Bezos imagined a “trillion humans” living in the solar system with “a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts.” In short, a new kind of intellectual and cultural renaissance will ring across the solar system, led by the US greenback. It sounds utopian in its own way—a thousand Mozarts?—but it belies a cruel calculus. As Buzzfeed recently pointed out, Bezos’s world-building doesn’t say that everyone will have the opportunity and ability in space to decide their own destiny, but seems to imply instead that a trillion people can prop up a cultural, intellectual, and undoubtedly economic upper class.
One thousand gray planets, a universe of misery
Bezos also said that humanity will have “unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power and so on.” This doesn't mean that everyone will have equal access to these resources, like those gleaned from asteroid mining, or that they are really unlimited. Oil is also often said by those with vested interests to be a practically unlimited resource—last month President Donald Trump tweeted that there are “record amounts of oil all over the place.” And yet untold human suffering and deprivation stems from the extraction, production, and consumption of oil and oil products, and the distribution of profits from these activities. And there is no equal access; everybody knows only those at the top can afford to use as much gas as they please on their boats, planes, and so on.
And what will life look like for the trillion humans living in the solar system, many (if not most) under the yoke of American capitalism? It will look a lot like it does now, which is to say it will be a life of work while wealth flows up to an interstellar elite.
And if this vision expands beyond our solar system? Trillions of humans; one thousand gray planets, one thousand petty plutocracies, a universe of misery.
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