Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Maheen Behrana argues that the off-world delusions of technocratic billionaires show how keen they are to dominate humankind or escape it

As Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire to make it into space, a petition was also taking off demanding that he be denied re-entry to Earth. 

Its creator, Ric Geiger, initially started it as a joke – knowing, of course, that there was no way Bezos could stay in space forever. He nevertheless felt the petition was an important way of highlighting wealth inequality and its consequences.

Reflecting on the significant numbers of people experiencing poverty and food insecurity, Geiger said: “It’s a slap in the face to watch billionaires like Bezos, Musk and Branson play space race games with their hoards of wealth.”

For many people, the ‘space race’ currently unfolding between these three ultra-wealthy individuals is just that – a game. Many look at the trio’s excessive wealth and conclude that venturing into space is simply the next method by which those who have far too much wealth can burn through a small fraction of it.

For these three men, space exploration is little more than whimsy – an attempt to play at escaping a struggling Earth from those who are responsible for much of its ills. 

As space exploration shifts away from a national endeavour to a private pursuit, Bezos and his ilk are enacting a kind of pre-emptive commercial colonisation


Signalling Superiority

The motivations behind space exploration have always been rather dubious.

With the initial space race in the 1950s and 60s, we saw the USSR and the US launch a series of performative spaceflights in an attempt to signal their superiority. 

After America successfully conducted a lunar landing, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon, US interest in lunar spaceflight declined. The number of performative space expeditions led by America and the USSR gradually began to decrease, particularly after the Soviet Union repeatedly failed to make a lunar landing.

The initial space race showed that extra-terrestrial endeavours were never purely about mankind’s development. The stand-off between the two countries in this field was not born of a competitive desire to learn more or save humanity, but of a brute desire to show off amidst the Cold War. 

It is quite easy to map this desire directly on to Bezos, Branson and Musk – all of whom now have their own space exploration companies and are leading the transfer of space exploration from national to private pursuit. Each of them is showing off to the other, playing a game, as Geiger suggested. The fact that Branson’s flight so rankled Bezos is a clear sign of this.

As individuals whose wealth often exceeds the GDP of entire countries, the three billionaires’ obsession with space is part of a power display through which each of them wishes to signify that the universe is their oyster.   

But even though space can symbolically look like a game, it is, of course, a very serious science. Space exploration is a crucial way of understanding the Earth and getting to grips with the effects of climate change. The idea that humans could inhabit a space-based location as the Earth struggles with man-made problems may seem far-fetched, but it is not inconceivable. 


Off-World Delusions

Bezos, in particular, has always been fascinated by this aspect of space exploration. He has characterised his own desire to go into space as part of a wish to create a “road to space” for future generations, as part of an attempt to solve the issues earth is facing. 

How such a road would lead to much other than the ultimate abandonment of Earth by humankind is not clear, but it is plain to see that Bezos looks upon space exploration as a means of finding alternative habitats as our planet is consumed by the climate crisis.

Indeed, we know that while at university, Bezos attended and was impressed by lectures from physicist Gerard O’Neill, who theorised that humans would one day be able to inhabit floating cylinders somewhere in between the Moon and Earth. The worlds inside these cylinders would be able to mimic the best of Earth – beautiful, calm beaches; pristine lakes; and mountainscapes. 

Though it sounds fanciful, we ought to take Bezos’ interests seriously. Because in his capitalism-first worldview, the only people fit to control the empire of floating cylinders would be entrepreneurs – the people who would enable their creation in the first place.

If we were to find ourselves in dire need of an escape from Earth (not a wholly unlikely prospect) and floating space cylinders happened to be a possible solution, we would all be in thrall to the whims and power of a few multi-billionaires with a space obsession. Jeff Bezos really would control the world. 

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This might sound a bit like a conspiracy theory, but with their forays into space, each billionaire is attempting to plant a stamp of ownership onto a world as yet uncreated. As space exploration shifts away from a national endeavour to a private pursuit, Bezos and his ilk are enacting a kind of pre-emptive commercial colonisation. If they alone innovate in space, they will control space – and with it, they will potentially control all of us. 

We already know what a world under Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk looks like. We know how ordinary people working in Amazon warehouses are denied basic rights such as bathroom breaks and are stripped of their power to unionise. We know how the billionaires boast of their own apparent work ethic as a means of justifying gruelling labour conditions in their organisations. 

Amazon is a bit like a country in itself – it employs nearly 1.3 million people around the world. As individual wealth surpasses that of states and is subserviently pandered to by a world that allows the wealthiest to get away without contributing to its coffers, we should not be surprised that the billionaires prefer to leave a struggling Earth.

But we should be alarmed. These billionaires, and their vast corporate empires, hold so many of us in their power. As they consolidate their wealth, and their power extends beyond the globe, we may increasingly find that we are under their control. And, if we do get stuck up there in a Bezos-influenced space dystopia (likely powered by the toil of many so that a few individuals can enjoy unparalleled luxury), we may find that it is us who can’t come back down to Earth. 

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