Stop saying anyone is moving to space "in case we ruin Earth." That concept is fake
Photo by Seattle City Council
You know those environmentalist bumper stickers that say, “There Is No Planet B”? Cliche or not, those stickers are more scientifically astute than any billionaire who earnestly believes rockets are an answer to climate change.
Elon Musk, billionaire founder of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Blue Origin—and newly minted astronaut—are reputed to be building spaceships to escape an Earth that humanity has, through excesses and general neglect, destroyed. Most recently, I read a version of this idea on the July 22 business page of The New York Times: “Mr. Musk wants to colonize Mars in case we ruin Earth,” wrote Sarah Kessler. “The Rich Are Planning to Leave This Wretched Planet,” read the headline of a different Times story back in 2018.
This concept makes a sort of grim, apocalyptic sense to anyone with a cursory knowledge of climate change’s propensity for destruction and chaos. Were this plan to be put into practice, it would be a searing indictment of narcissistic billionaires and their ecological profligacy. But the plan is more than just selfish and morally suspect. It’s mythical. It cannot happen, and does not merit serious ethical evaluation, pro or con.
This vague plan—if one can even call it that—is a little like saying that Elon Musk, having seen the damage caused by a shotgun blast at close range when it turned Wile E. Coyote’s face and upper torso black with soot, is perfecting a soap-based method for curing shotgun wounds, and that Jeff Bezos is right behind him, and his cure is also going to work on injuries from sticks of dynamite.
It may feel like these powerful figures can make anything possible with the infinite money at their disposal, but even they can’t escape from the need for a livable Earth. No, I’m not saying they shouldn’t—and OK, they shouldn’t. But more importantly, they can’t.
Let’s start with Jeff Bezos, since he did literally escape Earth for about half an hour on Tuesday. But Bezos is back on his home planet now, and if you listen to him, he’s already touting a much revised version of the escape-from-Earth plan. “We can move all heavy industry and all polluting industry off of Earth and operate it in space,” Bezos told CBS News.
You can debate the ethics of this revision if you want (I’m not the boss of you), but it’s a very different animal from—and much more possible than—what Bezos had envisioned before he looked down on Earth in all its fragile beauty and claims to have had some kind of ecological Road to Damascus moment.
In 2019, Bezos was promoting a much more far-out vision of colonized space as prophesied by Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who earned fans in the 1970s by dreaming up vast cylinders containing, well, everything: houses, farms, hills and dales, tweeting birds—all the comforts of Earth. “These are very large structures, miles on end, and they hold a million people or more each,” Bezos explained in a presentation on his space ambitions.
O’Neill cylinders have long been a popular fantasy because O’Neill himself claimed they were, in a sense, feasible, insofar as they rely entirely on existing 1970s technology—just scaled way, way, way up. In fact, they’re scaled so far up that “feasible” would be a very generous word to use even now, particularly when you consider that Jeff Bezos just landed after his rocket trip using the same landing method—a set of parachutes—that NASA used for the Apollo program. O’Neill cylinders, meanwhile, involve mining building materials from millions of tons of moon rocks, and launching those materials toward orbiting, in-process cylinder scaffolds using giant space catapults.
It probably goes without saying that Bezos and Blue Origin have unveiled zero space catapults so far, and there is no evidence that they’re making the preparations necessary to build any of the crucial moon mines they’ll need to start making O’Neill cylinders within the next few years, nor does Amazon, Inc. have any stable, manned construction sites currently in orbit that can process moon resources into giant cylinders. So even if this technology makes sense on paper, it’s probably at least a thousand years away from reality due to sheer scale. If we’re being generous, maybe it’ll only take a couple centuries.
According to Elon Musk, the Bezos plan “makes no sense,” and, is a little like “trying to build the USA in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!” Musk apparently thinks his plan—a Mars colony—is much more grounded, because it all happens on the firm foundation of an extant planet. Terraforming a world is, after all, less work than building one. Musk may be right in this narrow regard—his plan might come to fruition sooner than Bezos’s—but probably not much sooner.
Mars isn’t even a good candidate for terraforming. Since it has only a negligible magnetic field, its surface is constantly being bombarded with deadly levels of solar radiation, meaning it’s never a good idea to walk around there. But the atmosphere isn’t breathable anyway, meaning residents of Musk’s Mars city would have to live in capsules or underground. The soil is also full of perchlorate, meaning any plant trying to grow there would be trying to take root in soil that’s essentially tainted with bleach.
One nice thing about Martian soil is that it contains potential greenhouse gases. See, Mars has the opposite problem as Earth: it’s too cold. The low temperatures on Mars make farming on the surface next to impossible, so Musk has stated that he’d like to essentially nuke the martian soil, fill the local atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and perform a sort of intentional global warming.
This last point, I think, runs the absurdity of these proposals up a flagpole for all to see. Jeff Bezos’s O’Neill Cylinders may be impractical compared to Elon Musk’s Martian base, but a Martian base still involves drastically changing the balance of gases in a planet’s atmosphere, and that’s just so the larger project of making that planet livable can begin.
Meanwhile, the balances of gases in Earth’s atmosphere are only slightly out of wack—CO2 here is at about 417 parts per million, and needs to get down to about 350. A few other gases like methane are also too abundant. We know how to fix these problems (no nukes are necessary), and we’re collectively dragging our feet instead of doing it. And that’s the biggest problem currently facing Earth.
Quite apart from the moral dimension, fixing global warming is just much, much easier and cheaper than colonizing space. Even if he brings all his money and effort to bear on the problem of creating an O’Neill cylinder, the best Jeff Bezos can hope for within his lifetime will be some kind of tiny lunar pod, perhaps at the base of a construction site where a space catapult is being built. Elon Musk, meanwhile, has expressed interest in spending his last days on Mars, and if he does, he’ll probably be in similarly dire straits. Maybe in the mind of Elon Musk, that would be a type of victory.
But if these men count themselves lucky to die in hardscrabble conditions aboard some early-phase version of a space colony, that’s their prerogative. Global warming or not, by that time even a worst-case-scenario Earth will be a much more luxurious place—and one that is much closer to permanent stability—than any space colony that could possibly exist within the next couple of hundred years.
A billionaire in space won’t have escaped misery at all by leaving his home planet behind. In his days of breathing recycled air and eating calorie paste, he’ll envy those of us he’s supposedly abandoned. Meanwhile, we non-billionaires, stuck here on our imperfect Earth, will be the lucky ones.