by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 4
December 2019
Debate
08:14

To boldly go? You first, Mr Bezos

Jeff Bezos introduces a lunar landing module called Blue Moon. Credit: Getty

What is it with billionaire businessmen and private spaceflight ventures? Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk has SpaceX and Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin.

The latter is the target of an excoriating piece by Paris Marx in Jacobin:

“Bezos is convinced that humanity will fall prey to ‘stasis and rationing’ if we remain on Earth. The Jeff Bezos brand of never-ending growth will require constant population gains, increased energy use, and more resources than our planet can provide — so, into the stars we must go.”
- Paris Marx

Technically this is correct, we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. So eventually we either need to stop growing or radically expand our horizons.

In the meantime, however, we need to buy ourselves some wiggle room by pursuing greener growth. Jeff Bezos as the boss of Amazon has more influence over the future direction of capitalism than almost anyone else on the planet, so why on Earth wouldn’t he want to focus on that as opposed to messing around with rockets? After all, we’re going to have to head-off catastrophic climate change long before we have the option of high-tailing it to heavens. The order of priorities should be obvious.

Giving up fossil fuels won’t be easy, but it’s a doddle compared to colonising space. You may remember the circus surrounding Amazon’s choice of location for its new corporate HQ? Cities across the US competed for the honour, but in the end Amazon chose Washington DC. Heartland America was judged to be too far from the action. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that distance might also matter when it comes to extra-terrestrial economics.

One day, we might slip the surly bonds of Earth, using technologies we haven’t imagined yet; but for now the firmament is firmly closed to the economically viable expansion of the human population. We can’t even find a sensible case for moving in large numbers to, say, northern Canada — which is many orders of magnitude warmer, closer and cheaper to get to than the void. Indeed, the place comes supplied with luxuries like air, water and gravity that aren’t available in outer space.

So, restricting ourselves to a vaguely relevant timetable, what is the point of all these private spaceflight ventures? Yes, there are some commercial and scientific applications — satellite launches and the like — but nothing that’s going to fundamentally change the game for us down here.

To save our skins from global warming and other environmental threats we need big changes to the Earth-bound economy. Any other option is a distraction.

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