Return to Space is a remarkably well-done Netflix documentary. For anyone remotely interested in SpaceX, getting up to date on space exploration, or just getting a thrill of a human adventure, I would highly recommend it.
After watching it, I had mixed feelings:
On the one hand, I was deeply inspired, and although I am not a big tech person, I did have respect for all the work that has been done to achieve this technological prowess of sending humans into space after almost a decade without any manned space flights leaving the U.S. I also felt a deep resonance: I would love humans to be an interplanetary species, although, given the present state of humanity, I would not want to propagate our collective stupidity and immaturity. As a species, we are still infants.
On the other hand, I had many critical voices raising in my mind, which I have heard over the years:
Voices that said that these people, Elon Musk, just like many leaders in the military are just frustrated men who try to overcompensate their powerlessness by unconsciously playing with big toys and big guns (psychological and very psychoanalytical voice).
Voices that said that Elon Musk and others should care about planet earth first, instead of trying to escape it or creating a plan B (“There is no Planet B”). Indeed, by doing their activities they are creating more destruction on and outside earth: extracting precious fossil fuels that they burn in ridiculous quantities to push through earth’s gravitational field (this article shows that a Space X launch emits as much CO² as a transatlantic 777 flight, which is surprisingly small in my view), not to mention all the pollution that they bring in space, which ironically threatens future space missions (more than 150 million space debris currently need surveillance to avoid collisions. More information here).
Contextualizing can help here, so here is what Elon Musk said in his conversation with Ross Anderson (source):
‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”’
‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’
Interestingly, despite Elon Musk’s following statements about Tesla:
“People think of Tesla as an eclectic car company but the whole purpose of Tesla was to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy.” — Elon Musk
“Our goal here is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy, at an extreme scale.” — Elon Musk
I found no trace of Environmental and Social Governance at Space X (there is no mention on their website, and no articles or comments on the topic).
After watching the documentary, I had these two contradicting ideas in my mind:
On the one hand, the idea that humanity can expand its deployment across the solar system;
And on the other, the idea that this is a privilege for a select few, while the vast majority (8 to 9 billion people) is “stuck” on planet earth, suffering in miserable conditions.
This polarization of humanity did not seem like a desirable future for humanity in my view.
And then I thought:
What if uplifting the most underprivileged part of humanity helped Space X accomplish their goal?
How could that be?
On a pragmatic level, uplifting 2.8 billion people out of poverty (less than $2/day) will probably have direct economic effects: the middle class will shift upwards, which will probably make more money and resources available through private funding and collected taxes to invest in space expansion, travel, and colonization.
This expansion correlates with Elon Musk’s thought that “it is a good thing that there are more humans on earth because we will need people to colonize Mars.” I guess that the first colons will be mostly wealthy people (given the ticket will be roughly half a million dollars [source], so a solid basis of people on earth is necessary to sustain the finances and the prosperity of this endeavor.
On a more metaphysical/speculative level, I would argue that the uplifting of 2.8 billion people out of a poverty/scarcity mindset towards a more safe and prosperous mindset can be a tipping point for a global shift of consciousness for humanity. This widening of human consciousness could lead to breakthroughs in aerospace engineering that were impossible before. In other words, “take care of the downside [the struggling part of humanity] and the upside takes care of itself [reaching further into space exploration and colonization].”
I have made the case for the need to care about humans and humanity for companies such as Space X. Indeed, I am taking them as an example, but I believe the argument is valid for any high-tech oriented organization.
But I also think these companies need to care about the environment, and planet earth. I am not going to deploy a moral argument here, but more of a more unconventional one:
Which of these two scenarios would make a better (hi)story:
Scenario 1: Humanity messed up completely, and transformed planet earth into Hell. Fortunately, a few very smart humans built spaceships and could send a few of them to colonize another planet (Mars?). They restarted the human race.
[This scenario is all too common in science fiction, and probably very much alive in the minds of some of these creators at Space X and elsewhere.]
Scenario 2: Humanity was on the brink of meltdown, and planet Earth was threatened on all fronts: Climate Change, Social Injustice, among other wicked problems (see a top 10 list of problems by the Borgen Project, and another interesting approach by 80000 hours).
Yet, very smart people made many breakthroughs: scientifically, they developed technologies that allowed them to mitigate many of the issues they had on earth. Humanly, they developed as well, and facilitated collaboration on earth, noticing how everybody was a piece of the puzzle, and they tapped into the wisdom of the crowds to create innovative and inclusive solutions, not only to restore planet Earth to its natural blueprint but also to expand to further planets, to bring human consciousness and wisdom in other parts of space. Humanity explored and settled [notice I didn’t use the term “colonized.” Indeed, when was the last time colonizing a place worked out well in the long term in the history of humanity on planet earth?] in other places in space because they wanted to and had the wisdom to do this responsibly, not because they had to (coming from a place of fear: “if we don’t do this, we risk extinction on earth.”).
[Notice how in this scenario, Space X could apply their philosophy of sustainability: reusing their rockets by making sure they can land back on earth after the return, versus rebuilding a new rocket each time, to their home planet: creating sustainability on earth first, before trying to go to the next planet. How many planets will humanity burn up before they move on to the next?]
In other terms, what if Space Exploration shifted from:
What are your thoughts on this?
What other seemingly contradicting ideas/vision can you see?
What if both were possible and desirable if combined together?
Interesting articles for further thought: