– by Geoff Olson –
We have to deal with our crap in the here and now
Earth First! We’ll wreck the other planets later
– bumper sticker
The respected Icelandic urban critic Ffeog Noslo is no Pollyanna. He insists that the invention of agriculture was something of a disaster for human beings: “It introduced a host of new ailments and problems through sedentary living, including the messy matter of waste disposal in urban environments,” he observes in his magisterial 2016 study, Where Do We Stick Our Shit? An Unnatural History of Civilization, Waste, and Entropy.
For centuries, there was enough of an “outside” to get rid of fecal matter and other waste products without ecological backlash rearing its ugly head, even though pre-20th century cities of the west were defined more by filth than wealth. With the industrial revolution came the miracle of urban sanitation (the arts and sciences of moving your shit away from you), which lowered mortality rates and energized population growth.
We got so good at moving shit away from us, we scaled it up to nation-state levels, says Noslo: “The First World has largely imported order – in the form of infrastructure, highly subsidized agribusiness, and all the bric-a-brac of hypercapitalism, by exporting disorder to the Third World. This has been done by shipping everything from electronic waste to poison-pill debt arrangements their way, all under the pretext of economic opportunity and philanthropic beneficence, while shipping back capital in the form of cheap resources. It’s always been the same old hypocritical crap, from the Dutch East India Company to The International Monetary Fund.”
Okay, there’s no such book and no such Ffeog Noslo. But it’s one I’d like to write: how in an effort to manage our affairs, we humans rationalize or disguise shitty collective behaviour toward our own kind and other planetary citizens – from honeybees to orangutans – undoing planetary life support mechanisms in the process.
Therein lies a story. One chilly San Franciscan night in 1966, writer Stewart Brand traipsed to the rooftop of his North Beach apartment building and dropped a small dose of acid. Wrapped in a blanket, and under the influence, it seemed to Brand that the streets of the city weren’t running parallel, but curving inward. It occurred to him that we tend to think of the Earth as flat, infinite in extent, and as a result regard its resources as endlessly renewable. “The relationship to infinity is to use it up,” he told author Michael Pollan, “but a round earth was a finite spaceship you had to manage carefully.”
Coming down, Brand wondered how to convey this core truth effectively to others. Why hadn’t anyone ever seen a picture of Earth from space? Obsessed with this question, he petitioned NASA to take Earth’s portrait. It’s unknown if it’s the direct result of his campaign, but two years later Apollo astronauts trained a camera on Earth from the moon and supplied us with the first image of our home from space.
Christened “Spaceship Earth,” the shot became the iconic image of the first Earth Day in April, 1970, and visual shorthand for the co-dependency of the planet’s living beings. A big ball of rock and water where there is no “outside,” with planetary resources recycled on a thin shell of life only a few miles thick.
It’s a long way from Brand’s sixties-era “aha” moment to the fever dreams of today’s billionaire investors, who believe shareholder salvation awaits in outer space. As the Earth proceeds along the arc of the Anthropocene toward uninhabitability, guys with deep pocket and big rockets hallucinate interplanetary space as the new Jamestown, with pilgrim astronauts staking claims for Hairless Primates in Orbit.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is eyeing the moon for colonization, and projects a time when a trillion humans, presumably all Amazon Plus members, live throughout the solar system in orbiting pods. For his part, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is eyeing Mars for colonization.
You may recall the 2015 film “The Martian,” in which Matt Damon’s abandoned astronaut farmer desperately claws at the Red planet’s rocky surface, trying to get it to cough up potatoes. I won’t get into all the theoretical problems with off-earth habitation, but there is one real-world parable to cite: the attempt three decades ago to recreate Earth’s living conditions in a self-sustaining, enclosed environment in a three hectare sealed environment in the Arizona desert. This brave and brilliant experiment, called “Biosphere 2,” encompassed a miniature rain forest, a mangrove swamp, and coral reef. But by the early nineties it had ran afoul not just of unpleasant ecological surprises (cockroaches), but of interpersonal politics between the eight crew members. And this was an experiment on Earth.
Imagine trying to get a “Biosphere 3” going on the surface of Mars. A small group of astronauts, on a mission that takes seven months to arrive on a planet they can likely never return from, are less likely to die from a shortage of potatoes than their own company.
Yet let’s imagine such first-wave colonization of Mars is successful, and the descendants of subsequent arrivals are able to survive – even thrive – on a planet terraformed into a chilly semblance of Earth. Without some enforced birth limits, within a few dozen generations the Martians would start straining what little resources the planet has to offer. And the pernicious Malthusian problem humans have now on Earth would return to bite these Martians in the ass.
By the way, let’s not forget that the greatest discoveries about our solar system were made by spindly unmanned craft, at a bare fraction of the costs of manned missions (I’m lookin’ at you, Voyager 1 and 2). So the latter are hardly about expanding the frontiers of knowledge.
Stewart Brand went on to introduce the Whole Earth Catalogue, the hippy-era bible of DIY technology and sustainable systems (it’s first issue featured the Apollo shot of Earth from space). His stoned musing about a limited planet is now a 1st grade given, with Earth’s portrait its cheery, science class avatar. Yet the mythic American trope, of motoring off to elsewhere and leaving your crappy past in the rear view mirror, dies hard. In it’s new inflection, arrested adolescents with too much money are prepared to hit the interplanetary road Kerouac-style, ejecting booster rockets like beer cans.
The ultimate sell: newly minted astronauts from the equestrian class will be spared an ugly fate on an overheated, resource-strapped planet by throwing themselves into orbit, before the planet’s population peaks at 11 billion (the premise of another Matt Damon film, “Elysium,” by the way).
Yet the operative term here is “Spaceship Earth”. How the flying fuselage do you beat a 13000 km-wide craft on a fixed solar orbit in the “Goldilocks zone,” with a biosphere regulated by trillions of organisms, and shielded from cosmic rays by an internally-generated geomagnetic field? Short answer: you can’t. We are sure to trash other less-agreeable worlds like they’re Motley Crüe hotel rooms, if we persist in doing a Nikki Sixx here.
As Ffeog Noslo didn’t write, “If we attempt to populate nearby worlds while allowing trophic collapse to proceed on Earth, then we have to ask what our gleaming spaceships actually represent to the cosmos. Are they seeds of life or vectors of infection? For there are no places left to stick our shit, much less outer space.”
Geoff Olson is a Vancouver-based journalist and political cartoonist. firstname.lastname@example.org