Everyone around me seems to agree: These are troubling times. The world, it seems, is on fire. Scientists have for decades been warning about the environmental consequences of the twin ills of industrial mass production and industrialized mass consumption—the Alpha and Omega of the global ecocide now underway, the sixth worst extinction event in Earth’s history.
Shit is going to hell for a lot of us critters. But for tiny sliver of the world’s population, the White Male Elites of the North, things are great.
John Calvin would recognize today’s political economy: The Elect, confident of their place in Heaven, are Prospering in Glory. They’re richer than ever and plan on “living long enough to live forever”—by gobbling down enough fish oil to stay in the race until the kinks can be worked out of whole brain emulation and innovative start-ups hasten the rapturous Singularity, releasing them from their aging meat prisons.
Meanwhile, they keep innovators on retainer to cook up schemes for tastier bread and wilder circuses for the rest of us plebs.
Even old Jakob Fugger would recognize today’s “Masters of the Universe”: Their outward Zen-like Simplicity in Dress belies an interior defined by the spare Frugality of the Miser. Unlike the renown aristocrats of Europe, today’s noblemen have a hearty work ethic—Post-Protestant McMindfulness. These Neofeudal Kings no longer prove their virility by producing Strong Male Heirs, but through the number of Technological Innovations they can sire. Disruption, in this bare light, is the new Seminal Act of Creation, though disseminating one’s offspring far and wide remains their Kingly prerogative.
Their Heavenly Mandate to Innovate grants their majesties the pleasure of pursuing a great many glorious endeavors, though two in particular have captivated our Lords’ fancy.
Some are engaged in an adventure to find the Holy Grail of AI, the legendary Philosopher’s Stone of the Digital Age. It is said to grant the bearer any wish he so desires (as long as it can be computed). Others are in a race to take to the stars in Chariots of Burnished Chrome, extending their dominion to fiefs beyond our pitiful rock.
Though the attention of this humble scholar has primarily been dedicated to loving analyses of our Lords’ first noble aim, it is their stupendous Leap into Space that I wish to discuss here:
Decades ago, writing after the announcement of the unprecedented Blue Marble photograph, founding ecological economist Kenneth Boulding argued persuasively that what the world needs, if humanity is to live wisely on this planet, is more Spacemen and fewer Cowboys.
Spacemen know the world is round, bounded, finite, interconnected. Cowboys think it’s flat, without limit; and infinite expanse to roam.
Spacemen, familiar with the vast but limited ecologies aboard Spaceship Earth, know that what they do here will eventually turn up over there, and visa versa.
Cowboys don’t give a shit ‘cause they’ll just move on down the line when trouble comes—to the next town, the next job, the next woman, the next bottle…the next Planet. There’s always something else to “strive for,” and almost nothin’ left to stay for. Lean in, and push off.
Space Men, with nowhere to eject to, have no choice but to stay with the trouble.
But Elon Musk of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin, Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, and the Boeing CEO have a different idea. These broncos are boasting of their fitness for interplanetary travel and promising to make it happen. Mars is the first destination.
Just at a time when the world is beginning to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change and seek solutions for it, these propose to use vast reserves of highly refined petro-fuels to power joy rides for the rich and famous. Their desire for space travel is a shameful marriage of technophallic nostalgia for the cartoon rockets of their childhood and 19th century Robber Baron industrial-strength ego assuagement. At a time when the world is just beginning to come to terms with the legacy of imperialism, these men want to channel Columbus and the other greedy murderers to repeat the colonial act of domination on a grander, post-global scale by “discovering” a “New World.”
We’ve got wicked problems. Super-wicked problems. And more coming. But these innovators, these genius Captains of Industry who pride themselves on their intrepid Spirit of Adventure—the same spirit that is said to inspire children to “reach for the stars”—they are cowards, not heroes.
Just think: Their Big Idea is to run when trouble comes.
They talk about space, but they aren’t Spacemen. They’re just Cowboys in Rockets.
But like bumpkins wishing their betters bon voyage, too many of us are lined up along these Earthy shores, waving flags of support for these technological titans. I therefore humbly beseech you, Dear Reader: Let us come to our senses and stop praising these Cowboys for their “vision.”
Boulding didn’t put it this way, but I will: Cowboys are a legacy of American culture that needs to be shed if Humanity is to live well on this Planet. At the very least, no one should be cheering a Cowboy on his Rocket to Mars.
Instead, let’s take a good, hard look at what it is they’re runnin’ from—and kindly notify the Martians that some shiftless redneck billionaires are on their way over.