One Small Step for Man…

Photograph Source: ThePenultimateOne – CC BY-SA 4.0

A new first in human history happened on 11 July of this year: the first commercial flight into space, or at least to the edge of space.  It didn’t stay first for long however. Days later, on 20 July, the second commercial space flight happened.  No doubt, these events are impressive feats of human ingenuity but what is their significance, if any?  Are they advancements in human development or are they taking us down a slip road?  And does it matter either way?

The men behind the flights on 11 and 20 July are Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos respectively.  From an early age both have wanted to go into space. Bezos says he’s longed for it since he was six years old.  Branson watched the moon landing with this father and sister and has dreamed of travelling into space ever since.  Being a multi-billionaire, he didn’t just dream about doing it; he made it a reality.  Branson established his aerospace company, Virgin Galactic, in 2004 and is estimated to have spent at least $1 billion since then developing VSS Unity, his space plane.  Blue Origin, which built the New Shepard space shuttle, was founded in 2000 by Bezos and sets him back around $1 billion a year.  The 11 and 20 July flights are the latest achievements of both companies.

It has to be said that footage of the flights was about as exciting as watching two flies crawl up a wall.

VSS Unity takes off up into the air, higher and higher into the sky, getting smaller and smaller but never quite disappearing from sight.  Cameras inside Unity reveal shots of the trip from inside and outside the craft.  Mostly, we see interior shots of Branson and the crew of three others, sitting in their seats. They reach 53 miles above the Earth, that’s the highest they’ll go—some would even dispute whether they went high enough to reach space at all.  They hover at that height, in zero gravity, for mere minutes, clicking off their seat belts so they can float around the cabin like pieces of driftwood.  They’re in jubilant mood.  Now and again, the crew takes time to look out the small windows and catch glimpses of the precious blue jewel that is Earth.

Bezos flight is a little more boisterous.  When his New Shepard space shuttle fires into the sky, the camera follows it as it goes up and up.  Commentators do their best to make it sound exciting…but fail.  There comes a point when ground control calls him Astronaut Bezos.  I’m betting whoever dubbed him will get a bonus in their pay cheque—or a pizza.  The shuttle goes up a few miles just over the Kármán Line, the 62-miles threshold that’s recognised as the beginning of space.  Like VSS Unity, it stays at that height, in zero gravity, for no more than a few minutes.  We see footage of the passengers—oops sorry, astronauts—inside the tiny confines of the capsule, a-whoopin’ an’ a-hollerin’, hovering above their seats and goofing around in the weightlessness.  They do take a peek outside the window at the wonder of the living-giving miracle called Earth—they’re doing this for the Earth and for future generations, after all.  But they don’t let that distract them from what’s important and soon they’re back to goofing, playfully throwing Skittles and catching them in their mouths.  It is no coincidence that Bezos is wearing tanned cowboy boots and a cowboy hat—how the final frontier was won, indeed.

Reporting of the 11 and 20 July flights was much as you’d expect from the mainstream media.  For the most part, the flights were communicated as good news stories with much ohh-ing and ahh-ing at the marvel of what had been achieved and praise heaped-high on the billionaires.  No alternative narrative or analysis was provided.  And juxtaposed with segments on the space flights were segments on the infernos raging in North America, the devastating floods in central Europe and Bangladesh, the record-breaking temperatures hitting most countries around the world, and the ongoing ravages of the COVID pandemic.  Again, not a squeak about the possible interplay between these climate catastrophes and commercial space travel.

Lest you think the effort and money gone into Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are merely to satisfy boyhood fantasies, it should be pointed out that Branson and Bezos have ambitions to initiate a commercial space travel industry, with the 11 and 20 July flights marking the first small step in achieving those ambitions.

Branson’s goal is space tourism.  His vision is to have multiple space ports handling up to 400 commercial flights per year travelling to the edge of space, and Virgin Galactic already has its first space port in the Nevada desert.  Branson believes he can turn this into a multi-billion-dollar business that will create an unspecified number of jobs and spin-off businesses.  A ticket on one of these future flights will cost in the region of $200,000 and reports have it that there’s already a long waiting list, allegedly including names such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, and Ashton Kutcher.  Bezos has yet bigger aspirations.  Blue Origin is the just beginning of a new era in commercial space travel that will eventually enable humans to become a multi-planetary species, unfettered by the limitations of one-planet living.

Both men are passionate about the protecting the environment.  Of course they are.

VSS Unity uses solid fuel but Branson is quick to point out that the journey to the edge of space and back uses no more than a return trip on a transatlantic flight.  Not bad.  Until you remember that VSS Unity is using that amount of fuel for a round trip of 100 miles while the return transatlantic flight is nearly 7,000 miles.  That makes the VSS Unity emissions about 60 times greater than a transatlantic flight.  The emissions will not be insignificant if Branson reaches his target of 400 flights a year.

The New Shepard, on the other hand, is fuelled on liquid hydrogen.  This is better than solid fuel since it doesn’t emit carbon when used.  However, its production can be carbon-intensive and expensive, and environmentalists recommend it should only be used in exceptional cases, for example, heavy industry, when no viable alternatives exist.  That being the case, it’s unlikely that hydrogen will be viable for space travel.

Emissions from commercial space travel are only one part of the problem.  Scientists warn that because of the height these flights reach, they will be more damaging to the ozone layer than conventional air travel.  Simulations of flights using solid fuel carried out by the Aerospace Corporation, showed that the tonnes of soot from incompletely burned fuel in the higher atmosphere will have a grave impact on global temperatures.

That, however, might be the price our intrepid billionaires are willing to let the rest of us pay.  According to Branson and Bezos, their pioneering space travel promises untold benefits for humanity and the planet—just in case you thought it was no more than exotic joy-riding for the rich.  Branson talked up the fact that in those few short minutes they were floating on high, important zero-gravity research was conducted during his 11 July flight.  And because of the humbling view of the Earth from so many miles above, its brilliant blue set against the endless blackness of space, all those who travel up there will come back to the ground with a greater appreciation of the planet.  In other words, it’s only once a person’s made the journey into space and spewed tonnes of poison into our fragile ecosystem that they’ll truly understand the need to protect what we’ve got.  And space tourism isn’t all Branson’s doing for the environment.  He co-founded the Carbon War Room in 2009, a think tank researching market-based solutions to climate change.

Bezos goes further.  Not only will his shuttles allow new kinds of scientific research, but travel into space is a solution to climate change and space exploration is necessary for our survival.  Well, sure it is.  Bezos talks of building the road to space so that in the future, humans can shift all heavy industry onto other planets and keep Earth a perfect, clean, beautiful residential zone.  Humans can also start to live on other planets which will allow us to increase our numbers to the trillions.  If the human race doesn’t go multi-planetary, Bezos believes it will stagnate, and he would be “demoralised” by stagnation.  None of us would want to see a demoralised Jeff Bezos.  He does admit that “Earth is by far the best planet out of all others in the solar system” which was nice of him to say.  Naturally, reusability is at the top of his priorities because we can’t have “space vehicles that you use only once and then throw away.”  No, we definitely can’t fall into that “using once and throwing away” habit.

It’s worth a quick mention that Elon Musk is also a space enthusiast and his company SpaceX focuses on travel to the moon and Mars no less.  In fact, he has the NASA contract to build a lunar lander.  Musk doesn’t say whether travelling to space has been his burning ambition since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, but SpaceX has built the Dragon and the plan is to ferry commercial passengers to the International Space Station for an eight-day visit and then back home again.  The cost of this package tour to the Space Station—a space lab orbiting 248 miles above Earth—will set you back $55 million.  On the SpaceX website, Musk says that “you want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a space faring civilization is all about.  It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.  And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”  Ummm…

Others too in the aerospace industry talk of the need to expand our reach into space.  Some of these arguments seem compelling, reasonable even.  And it can’t be denied that humanity has benefited from travel into space.  It has transformed our lives, often in more ways than we realise.  Wireless telecommunications such as television, Internet, mobile phones, and voice, data, and video transmission, have all been made possible because of orbiting satellites.  Satellites are responsible for navigation systems used in air traffic control and for electronic payments systems and ATMs.  Satellites are used for scientific reasons such as meteorological and climate information, map making, earth and marine science research, and monitoring and observing our environment and the atmosphere.

Without doubt, space exploration and research have been vastly important to human development.  Whether commercial space travel is the next evolutionary step is another question.  And ultimately, who cares if Branson and Bezos want their names carved into the tablets of history—or at the top of a wiki page on space tourism—for future generations to know who it was that travelled into space on the first commercial flights?  What’s it to the rest of us anyway how they spend their time or their money?

Well, how they spend their time is their own business and if they want to spend the entire remainder of their lives in the black beyond of space, they’re perfectly entitled to do so.  But what they do with their vast sums of money should be of great importance to all of us.

We’re well aware of the gross distortions and inequalities built into our current system that have allowed a small proportion of the population like Branson and Bezos to become obscenely wealthy at the expense of the rest of society and the planet.  These injustices have been well rehearsed by many other writers in many other places, and they need little more than a fleeting mention here.

Branson’s fortune of $6bn is a mere drop in the ocean of the Jeff Bezos fortune.  At $201bn, he’s the richest man in the world and is set to become the first ever trillionaire by 2026.  Branson and Bezos are not alone on the rich list.  Bill Gates, Mukesh Ambani, Xu Jiayin, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault, Michael Dell, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Warren Buffet, to name a few, are all up there too.

Wealth accrued by the richest people on the planet, through their business interests and corporations, does not stay in the real economy where it might do some good for the wider human population.  Instead of returning to the real economy in the form of investments and taxes, the vast proportion of it is sucked into the nebulous finance sector where it’s used to generate even greater wealth for its owners before being stored in offshore accounts.  In 2018, Credit Suisse estimated that the global finance market was worth $317 trillion and the Tax Justice Network estimates that at any given time, at least $21 trillion of unrecorded offshore wealth globally is safely tucked away in tax havens.

Exploitation of workers both in the Global South and the Global North is routinely practiced in many of the biggest corporations, with zero-hours contracts, precarious work, ‘legal’ wage theft mechanisms, abysmally low pay, oppressive and dangerous working conditions, and denial of basic workers’ rights, all helping the business owners squeeze out more profits.  During the pandemic, Amazon was among the many corporations who saw their profits soar, with revenues growing by 38%, according to Forbes.  Despite that, the exploitation of workers continued and Amazon warehouses were criticised for forcing staff to put themselves at risk in unprotected environments.  Virgin Atlantic suggested that staff take eight weeks’ unpaid leave and at the same time sought financial help from the British government—although staff remained loyal to Virgin, believing unpaid leave to be better than job losses.

What’s notable about the dubious activities mentioned above is that, for the most part, they’re not illegal.  They’re perfectly within the boundaries of the legislative system, and where they do stray over the line, for example with workers’ rights, the burden of proof on those being exploited is so onerous as to deter most from taking action, and simultaneously, the punishments meted out for infractions so negligible as to be no deterrent at all for the wealthy.  Undeniably, the system is rigged to allow wealthy elites to amass obscene wealth and then is further rigged to ensure they hold onto that wealth.  There is no justice in such a system.

The peoples of the world have endured the unfairness of the current system for centuries.  And we might endure it for centuries to come except for the one thing that’s changed everything: the climate crisis.  This is a threat like no other before it.  This same system that has enabled some people to pursue the most decadent of vanity projects while others struggle or starve is set to destroy us all, rich and poor alike.  That we are in a climate crisis and yet have people set on launching an age of commercial space travel is call for concern.  For all of us who live in the real world, the place where we have to pay taxes and be responsible to wider society, we should be alarmed—no, we should be outraged—that this is happening.

So, it should matter deeply to every one of us what they do with their money.  If there are those among us who see nothing at all wrong with one individual possessing a vast fortune and spending it on dreams of life on Mars; or if others among us have felt powerless to bring balance and justice to this rotten system; then we should at least object when those realities threaten our very existence on the planet.

Maybe this argument is completely misguided.  Maybe it’s behind the curve ball.  Maybe Bezos and Branson are the visionaries and space is the future.  They have created multi-billion dollar empires after all and…well…this author hasn’t.  But, it seems preferable to focus on life on Earth and to put our resources into protecting what we have here, at least until we’re out of crisis mode.

The starting point has to be a programme of decarbonisation.  And given what happened in the last eighteen months, we also need a programme to help us recover from the pandemic.  But crucially, these transitions to net-zero carbon and recovery must be fair and cannot take us into a new world order that is even more authoritarian, even more economically unequal and even more plutocratic than the one we now live in.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) has written an excellent report entitled “Paying for the pandemic and a just transition”.  It gathers data and research from progressive thinking around the globe into a single balance sheet of spending versus revenue-raising polices for a just transition and recovery.  Crucially, it places the circumstances and needs of the Global South front and centre.  The price tag for spending over the next 10 years is an annual $9.410 trillion.  But according to TNI, raising this money is not beyond our reach because the revenue-raising policies amount to $9.457 trillion per year.

Included under the spending column of the balance sheet is: repaying the fiscal measures announced to combat the pandemic; paying the cost for the Global South to combat the pandemic and the economic fallout; de-carbonising the global economy and fighting climate change; achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals; making reparations for slavery; making climate reparations to the Global South for loss and damages due to climate change.

The report’s revenue-raising polices are largely focused on transforming national and international tax systems such as introducing a global wealth tax and a financial transaction tax; taxing the capital income from offshore private wealth; placing an excess profits tax on the top most profitable global companies; taxing offshore corporate profits; and implementing a tax on the cost of pollution.  They also suggest eliminating public subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; redirecting global military spending; issuing a debt jubilee for the Global South; issuing Special Drawing Rights for the Global South (i.e. safe assets issued by the IMF that countries can exchange for currency without acquiring debt); and developing a new Marshall Plan for the Global South (i.e. redistributing resources from the Global North to the Global South through grants that are funded, for example, by central banks and development banks).

The Global Green New Deal (GND) too offers a programme for a just transition.  In recent years, it has grown in popularity, particularly with the Chomsky and Pollin publication “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal” and the work of the Green New Deal Group in Britain.  GND has been around for close on 20 years and while the title might not be the most appealing given its association with the Roosevelt New Deal programme of the 1930s and its inherent limitations and biases, GND has a lot to offer us.  It considers a range of solutions including ending dependence on fossil fuels; building low-carbon energy systems; creating millions of secure ‘green’ jobs; improving energy efficiency and reducing energy demand; transforming the economy into one that serves the needs of people and planet; restoring the environment; and promoting global justice.

Like the TNI report, GND talks of the means by which all of this can be funded, mostly through a transformation of the current financial system.  They propose tightening controls on lending and the generation of credit; reigning in the international finance sector; breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks; regulating capital controls; returning control of policy-making to government; clamping down on tax havens; and reducing the inflated size of the financial sector.

Not included in the TNI or GND proposals but worth mentioning is the democratisation of workplaces through worker-owned co-operatives and worker takeovers of corporate enterprises.  These could work hand-in-glove with the proposals to deliver ‘green’ jobs and a just transition.  For instance, renewable energy generation creates opportunities for decentralising the energy system and for distributed generation of energy by prosumers—people who both consume and produce energy.  Decentralisation of energy generation means community-owned and worker-owned energy projects can abound, bringing with them purpose-driven enterprises that put social and environmental value over corporate pure profit, including the needs of worker-owners over the needs of shareholders.  Similar, opportunities exist for sustainable food production, zero waste management, energy efficiency retrofitting, and so on.

What’s most encouraging about the TNI report and GND is that, while we face monstrous, life-threatening problems, they give us certainty that we’re not doomed, that instead, we have the know-how and capacity to move beyond these problems.  The TNI report and GND are not futuristic flights of fancy; they’re real, tangible and implementable right now.

The biggest obstacle is the political will—or lack of it—among global decision-makers to begin implementing these and other solutions.  Grassroots activists and movements have a part to play and they’re already achieving a lot from their bottom-up activism.  But climate change is too big for the grassroots only.  It needs to be driven from the top-down as well.  And if our political leaders won’t act, or won’t act fast enough, then it’s up to all of us at the grassroots to force them into doing the right thing.  This isn’t about speaking truth to power; it’s about demanding they do the right thing and shaming them into action.

Much of what the TNI report and GND propose can be classified as non-reformist reforms: the immediately attainable systemic changes that will quickly move us beyond the worst effects of the current system and the climate crisis.  Non-reformist reforms are unlike mere reforms which simply tweak the current system here and there to ease the pain it inflicts but which have no ambition to replace the system.  Non-reformist reforms pave the way for the longer-term work of replacing the system.  Therefore, it’s important that we treat these non-reformist reforms as a means to an end and not the end, in and of themselves.  It’s not enough to simply recover or transition because there will be no guarantee that what we end up with on the other side will be socially or environmentally just.  Nor is there any guarantee that once on the other side, if we haven’t radically changed our system, that we won’t end up back in the same mess.

Too many times in the past, courageous social movements—anti-war, civil rights, workers’ rights, national liberation, over-throw of dictatorships and sectarian regimes—have achieved tremendous social change, only to stop short of dismantling the system.  Instead, they have more often been content with achieving their immediate goals rather than using the momentum achieved to go further.  Even the New Deal, the namesake of the Green New Deal, was more about placating the restless masses to ensure the hegemony of the ruling classes than about any real desire to create a more egalitarian world—not to mention the inherent racism in the policy.

We shouldn’t follow that pattern this time.  As we recover from the pandemic and plan our way out of the climate crisis, we should be determined that this time, we won’t stop short and let the old ways of the existing system creep back and with them, the old problems.  Chomsky and Pollin warn of this too.  On the other side of the recovery and transition, we cannot have an economic model that does not live within our ecological limits, we cannot have free markets and unfettered competition, we cannot have corrupt politics and oligarchies, we cannot have inequitable workplaces and corporate domination, we cannot have profit-maximisation and subjugated labour and ecology, we cannot have racial, gender or sexual oppression, we cannot have wars and imperialism.  All of these, and more, must be dismantled piece by piece and replaced with alternatives piece by piece.

That means that along with the non-reformist reforms, we must also plan the radical change we want, we must consider the alternatives we want for our economy, for our society in general.  For this too, we have solutions.

One of the most all-encompassing and well-considered visions for creating systemic change is Participatory Society or Parsoc.  Parsoc is an alternative way of organising an inclusive society free from racism, sexism, classism and authoritarianism, and where the power and wealth is controlled by all and not the few.  It sets out strategies for a classless economic system called Parecon which offers a genuine alternative to the current broken and toxic economic system that has brought us to the brink of societal and environmental collapse.  Parecon proposes a model for a new kind of workplace, with not a boss in sight, going far beyond what today’s co-operatives offer their worker-owners.  It puts forward a framework that, if applied, has the potential to create a truly equal and just workplace and economy: non-ownership rather than ownership; self-management in decision-making rather than authoritarianism; pay based on effort and sacrifice rather than reward for property or power; solidarity rather than cut-throat competition; diversity rather than uniformity and conformity; ecological sustainability rather than extraction and exploitation; balanced jobs which have a fair mix of the rote and empowering work rather than the typical division of labour we’ve come to accept.  And when it comes to allocation, a central component of any economy, Parecon provides us with a radical alternative to the free market: participatory planning, a hands-on approach which requires negotiation between councils of consumers and workers.  This is fresh thinking that’s worth serious consideration, especially in the face of climate and ecological crises.

Parsoc is even more than an economic model.  It also sets out a self-governing political system called Participatory Politics; an inter-communal cultural system called Participatory Community; and a feminist kinship system called Participatory Kinship; all of which promote international peace and a sustainable relationship with the natural environment.  The Parsoc vision has been developed and refined over the past four decades by a group of left thinkers and activists that include Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Lydia Sargent, Cynthia Peters, and Steve Shalom.  Albert’s latest book, No Bosses: A New Economy for a New World does a sterling job of articulating the vision for a participatory society.

But we have a long way to go before we reach a participatory society.  We have first to ask ourselves some questions, starting with: will we embark on a just transition and recovery?  And if we do, will we follow it with a vision for an alternative to the status quo?  Or will we allow the corporate powers and ruling elites to dictate our future, our survival?

That space travel is an impressive feat of human ingenuity isn’t the issue.  The issue is whether we believe it is good enough to live in a world where commercial space travel and space tourism are allowed to happen when we have an existential crisis hanging over us; or in a world that makes it possible for billionaires to spend their money on these pursuits; or even a world where the very concept of a billionaire exists at all.  The planet and every creature living on it deserves better.

Bridget Meehan is an Irish writer and activist.