I love space. I am very excited for humans to explore space more, and I’m even OK with us going back to the Moon for starters. Space is a vast frontier of scientific discoveries waiting to be made; a chance for us to learn more about ourselves.
What space is not, and will never be, is the key to saving our species.
And yet that assertion — that we need to venture boldly into the final frontier to save humanity and perhaps Earth itself — has become prevailing dogma among a certain cohort of cosmically minded tech bros. In 2016, Elon Musk unveiled his vision to establish a permanent human presence on Mars, describing the project of making humanity a “multi-planetary species” as the best and only way to hedge our bets against extinction.
Last night, Jeff Bezos took that line of thinking even further in a 50-minute speech ostensibly intended to announce Blue Origin’s new lunar lander. In reality, the speech was a sweeping overview of Bezos’ vision to liberate humanity from the shackles of the Blue Marble’s finite resources.
“For all of human history the Earth has felt big to us,” Bezos tells the assembled audience. “That’s not true anymore. The Earth is no longer big. Humanity is big. It seems big to us, but it’s finite.”
After quickly dispensing of poverty, hunger, homelessness, pollution, and overfishing as “urgent immediate problems” Bezos lets the crowd in on the real crisis facing humanity.
“A very fundamental long-range problem is that we will run out of energy on Earth,” Bezos said. “We don’t want to stop using energy, but it is unsustainable.” According to Bezos, the only way to prevent us from eventually having to cover “the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells” is to strike out beyond our home world.
“If we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes we have unlimited resources,” Bezos said, explaining that we could have “a trillion humans” including “a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins.” As if boosting the human population two orders of magnitude wasn’t ambitious enough, Bezos then proceeded to suggest we do so by stuffing people by the millions into spinning void cities—also known as O’Neill cylinders — in which we’ll have cities, crops, and recreated national parks. Presumably, a benevolent corporation will ensure a continuous supply of air.
Earth, the Amazon man says, will end up zoned “residential and light industry” while all the damaging industries will move beyond our planet’s blue sheen.
“We get to have both,” Bezos said. Earth will be preserved for future generations, but humanity won’t have to give up “a future of dynamism and growth.”
Look, I get it. This all sounds very exciting, and there’s nothing a Silicon Valley billionaire likes more than bloviating a little techno-optimism. But aren’t we maybe getting ahead of ourselves, just a little bit here? Shouldn’t we try to, you know, figure out how to live sustainably on the one and only planet that supports human life before thinking about how to recreate a million pocket-sized versions in a cold, dark void?
Bezos hand-waves a lot of 21st-century problems away, but these are real crises facing real humans right now. If we don’t get prevent a million species from going extinct there is a very real chance we’ll never come close to maxing out Earth’s “finite resources,” because, you know, we’ll all be dead.
And frankly, we are nowhere close to using up Earth’s resources. Bezos acknowledges as much in his speech when he casually observes that we could transform all of Nevada into a solar farm and power the entire human enterprise off of it. The U.S. Department of Energy has calculated there’s enough energy blowing in the wind off American coastlines to more than power every U.S. home.
The rare earth metals we’re mining to support the energy transition are abundant in Earth’s crust, and while we can currently only access small pockets of them, developing new sources on Earth or engineering our technology to use them more efficiently are both far more reasonable solutions than harvesting the same metals from Saturn’s rings. We could put a fraction of the resources needed to develop O’Neill cylinders into a robust fusion energy program, and in a century or so we might be powering entire cities off seawater.
Maybe Bezos could even invest some of the resources Amazon is currently using to automate oil extraction?
In 2014, Amazon announced that it would power its rapidly expanding fleet of data centres with 100 per cent renewable energy. Apple, Facebook, and Google made similar pledges two years before that, and pressure from consumers and environmental groups drove Amazon to follow suit. For the next two years, the tech giant made admirable strides toward achieving its goal, bankrolling large solar plants and wind farms. Then, it stopped.Read more
And lest we forget, the most critical and finite resource of all is found here on Earth and nowhere else: biodiversity. We cannot exist without the intricate and delicate web of life our species is part and parcel of—the trillions of microorganisms that sustain and cycle nutrients through the soil and sea, the plants that produce our oxygen and nourish us, the countless species from which we’ve developed new pharmaceuticals or drawn inspiration for new technologies.
We have not figured out how to prevent a sizeable fraction of that utterly irreplaceable biodiversity from slipping away right here on Earth, and we want to try and re-engineer it from the ground up in a vacuum?
Our species is currently playing God on easy mode, and we are failing. Untethering ourselves from a planet with abundant water and oxygen that sits right in the Goldilocks zone of our solar system does not make things easier—it makes them way fucking harder.
One thing Jeff Bezos and I have in common is that we both love the The Expanse, a science-fiction series set a few centuries into the future in which humans have spread across the solar system. Millions live on Mars, which is in the process of an intergeneration terraforming project, and countless small colonies are scattered throughout the asteroid belt.
The show is great, but I suspect we have somewhat different takes on its core message. I imagine that, in the show, Bezos sees a template for humanity freeing itself by permanently escaping Earth’s gravity well. I see humans struggling to survive on a hostile frontier, their bodies changing in unpredictable and dangerous ways, just a steel hull and a few square feet of air away from a painful death in a cold, dark vacuum.
We might expand beyond Earth one day, and that would be incredibly exciting. But this planet will always be our home. And we need to figure out how to keep it habitable before we think about venturing elsewhere.
There are no do-overs if we lose it.