The billionaire space race reflects a colonial mindset that fails to imagine a different world

This article was first published by The Conversation.'s Expert voices: Op-Ed and Insights was contributed by the publication.
Ted McCormick Associate Professor of History, Concordia University

It was a period of political uncertainty, cultural conflict, and social change. Private enterprises exploited technological advancements and natural resources to generate unprecedented wealth while causing havoc in local communities and the environment. Working poor people crowded into cities, prompting property-owners to increase surveillance and incarceration. Rural areas are bare, vacant buildings, and churches are empty of moralistic elegies.

The outbreaks caused epidemics that prompted quarantines at the ports and lockdowns on the streets. Weekly news and commentary focused on mortality data.

Depending on your perspective, mobility chosen/compelled was either the cause of general disorder or the consequence. Uncontrolled mobility was linked to political instability, moral degeneracy, and social breakdown. These problems could be solved by colonization, however.

Europe and its former imperial empires have seen a lot of change since the 17th century. However, the persistance of colonialism as a panacea suggests that we are not far from the early modern period.

(Image credit: Robert Pearlman/

Colonial promise of unlimited growth

Plantations were set up around the Atlantic in colonial schemes of the seventeenth century. These motivations now seem archaic. English writer Richard Hakluyt (Discourse of Western Planting, 1584) was one of the advocates of expansion. He argued that colonization would provide Queen Elizabeth with the opportunity to claim Indigenous souls and prevent Spanish Catholic hegemony.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The economic and social revival of the motherland through new commodities, trades, and territory is a key promise. Planned mobility would alleviate the problems of overpopulation. Hakluyt claims that sending the poor abroad to work in agriculture, gold mining, or timber cutting would transform the "multitudes" of "litterers and idle vagabonds who "swarm(ed") England's streets into productive workers. This would provide raw materials and an opportunity to multiply. Colonization would encourage endless growth.

English plantations began to take shape in Ulster and Virginia, New England, and the Caribbean. "Projectors" were individuals almost always men who claimed to be able to transform society through new knowledge and new technologies. They were as inspired by Francis Bacons' vision of a tech-centered, technologically advanced state in The New Atlantis that was envisioned by the English philosopher Francis Bacon as they were by his advocacy for observation and experiment.

Invention and discovery

Gabriel Plattes, an English agriculturalist, warned in 1639 that "the discovery of new worlds" was not like a permanent trade. Many others saw America's supposedly empty state as an opportunity to transplant people, plants, and machinery.

Cressy Dymock, a Lincolnshire inventor who was concerned about fen-drainage systems turning wetlands dry, sought out support for a permanent motion engine that could plow fields in England, clear forests in Virginia, and drive sugar mills on Barbados. Dymock distinguished between private profit and public benefit by speeding up plantation and replacing expensive draft animals with cheaper, enslaved labor. The empire's projects would create "elbow room," employ the idle, heal "unnatural divisions," and make England "the world's garden."

Extraterrestrial exploration

Projectors have their sights set on Mars and the moon today. The colonization plans of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, billionaires, are very similar to those made four centuries ago.

Bezos stated to an audience at 2018's International Space Development Conference that "we will have to leave the planet", and that it was going to make this planet more beautiful.

Bezos attributes his thinking to Princeton physicist Gerald O'Neill's 1974 article, "The Colonization of Space", and 1977 book, The High Frontier, which presented orbiting settlements to solve nearly all major problems facing the Earth. Bezos agrees with O'Neill's suggestion to remove heavy industry and industrial labor from the planet, rezoning Earth as mostly residential, green spaces. As a garden.

Musk's plans to Mars are both more ambitious and less realistic than his previous ones. They have a longer timeline and require more technical resources, but not the ultimate extent. Musk's plans for Mars are centered on the questionable possibility of "terraforming" Mars with resources and technologies that do not yet exist.

Musk had envisioned sending the first humans to Mars by 2024. By 2030, Musk had envisioned a city that could launch as many as 100,000 missions from Earth to Mars in a century.

The timeline was slightly rearranged as of 2020. This is partly because Terraforming could require the bombardment of Mars with 10,000 nuclear missiles in order to begin. The vision of Mars with thriving crops, pizza joints, and "entrepreneurial possibilities" is still possible. This will preserve life and pay dividends as Earth becomes less habitable. Musk's SpaceX is a colonial-style company-state, but it will create its own laws for its new planet.

The imagination fails

Musk and Bezos' techno-utopian visions are based on the same assumptions that their modern predecessors. Instead of trying to create a better world within our constraints, they offer colonialism as a solution for complex social, economic, and political ills.

Instead of facing the devastating effects of an ideology that encourages endless growth on the planet, they want to export it intact into space. They envision themselves as capable of creating living environments in places that don't exist.

They have not been able to envision a different world despite all their fantasies. They have also ignored the colonialism history on this one. Although Empire did not recreate Eden, it did fuel centuries worth of growth that was based on expropriation and enslavement, defying all limits. These are the consequences we face today.

This article was republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons. You can read the original article.

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