Space exploration could be cool. It should be cool. Dreaming of the stars, discovering new worlds, unknown planets, deciphering the mysteries of the universe would be noble goals if only…
… if only literal billions weren’t starving, here on Earth,
… if 20000 (yes twenty thousand) children didn’t die of hunger and preventable diseases EVERY DAY! Yes, every single day again, here on Earth, right now,
… if only Earth’s oceans, rainforests and other natural habitats weren’t being destroyed by human greed and pollution,
… if a new wave of extinction weren’t wiping out more species on our planet every day,
… if only the false hero worship of giga-entrepreneurs wasn’t blinding us to the fact that their corporations are responsible for much of the damage we do to our own planet,
… if humanity as a whole were not in deep denial.
But they are. And we are. And it is.
A meme recently popped up on my social feed. It was an image of Mars, with a long caption. This one:
It’s one of those rare memes that I really like, since it got me thinking, and this means I’ll now try to force you to do the same. And while I do not believe the planet itself needs “saving” (that’s verging on hero complex, the planet will shrug us off like flies and continue thriving in case we exterminate ourselves at last), we as a species might do with some care.
Brace yourselves, unpopular opinions and even less popular facts are coming.
We, as a species, spend billions of dollars and immeasurable brain power to explore other worlds, while a fragment of that money and effort could be used to improve sanitation, healthcare and food distribution for the poorest. (Even though those numbers seem to often be inflated, since making it look impossibly expensive makes it easier to justify not even trying. And, of course, the endless "war on everything and everybody" is an even bigger issue, but that’s for a separate post for later.)
We dream of space travel, while millions of children dream of eating enough not to go to sleep hungry.
We explore space mostly for exploitation, and to be able to continue supporting our wasteful ways when Earth’s resources eventually begin to fall short. Do not, for a moment, believe that there is no corporate interest in mining moons and planets. Of course, that would eventually make the already rich even richer, creating even more worship material for the masses.
But, of course, you’re only an individual, not responsible for any of these things. What can the average person do, eh? We can achieve but little, while the big players decide it all above our heads, isn’t it just so?
No, it isn’t. And yet, that is the lie we tell ourselves when we want to shrug off responsibility. And that is the core of the well-documented psychological process called denial.
A quick reality check
From the hundreds of questions, we could ask ourselves, let us focus on only two. Not the two most important, not even the two most significant, but two obvious, immediately accessible and comprehensible questions. If you manage to read through the rest of this rant without being offended or the urge to shout “BUT…!”, you might even be able to find some other questions (and answers) yourself.
Do you own a smartphone and/or laptop or PC?
If your answer is yes, and it must be, since you’re reading this on one of those, you’re indirectly supporting slave labour and child labour. Sounds harsh? Well, the reality is even harsher, and the reality of that reality is that you have probably already heard of all that, they chose to ignore it. What’s worse, a lot of those who managed to read this far without being outraged some way will drop off just about now, or soon enough.
So if you’re still with me, thank you. You’re one of the very few.
A quick recap, if you’re new to the reality of electronics: Microchips and other parts of your computing equipment (which includes smartphones) contain rare-earth minerals, and metals that are mined under abhorrent conditions in the poorest parts of the world, by workers that are not only underpaid but often essentially kept in slavery. Worse yet, the sale of those minerals and metals often funds wars and weapons trade.
Yes, most of those minerals and metals come from these mines. All your smartphones and computing equipment is made from these minerals, even (or especially) the largest manufacturers are known to use resources of questionable origin. In fact, there is only one smartphone manufacturer I can immediately think of that can and is willing to certify the origin of its materials.
Not only that, their manufacturing process often utilises child labour, elsewhere.
The reason? The only reason? Profit.
See the above-mentioned smartphone might seem somewhat pricey for what it offers, not because the technology is so advanced, but because their materials and manufacturing costs more. And yet, their price is far below those of the “flagship” phones, and probably so is their profit margin. Their product is built to last and to be repairable. Your phone is built to break and you are conditioned to crave a new one, even before it breaks.
The manufacturers will gladly oblige and furnish you with the latest and greatest and trendiest and shiniest, offering specifications that you will never need and never use. (Be honest, what was the last time you’ve printed a billboard from one of the pictures you took with your smartphone? Because those camera specs are really meant for very large scale prints.)
You have probably even watched the documentary, “Blood in the Mobile”. And yet trends, ads, hype and social pressure compelled you to buy that new phone anyway, and the next one after that. And the next one after that. And you can’t wait for the upgrade. And it has not been five years since that film came out.
Just remember the next time you see an ad for for the next fruit-flavoured smartphone you never really will need, those people, those children suffer in the mines for your very short-lived gratification. And innocent people die in wars funded by the very same.
So why do you think the Moon and Mars and other planets and moons are suddenly so very interesting? Yes, more exploitative mining, and flooding you with even more unnecessary crap. Rest assured, people will suffer in the process, even if those mines in the Congo close down. In the process of making even more extra profit, no corporation will ever consider the welfare of the exploited. Never mind the fact that it is as unnecessary as it is expensive.
Of course, if you were not hell-bent on buying new junk periodically, there was no need. Better recycling would cater for a lot of the necessary materials, mining conditions could be improved, and if all that money and brainpower was not siphoned away to send probes millions of miles away to find new resources, maybe we could finally get smart about using the resources we do have right now. But that is not really going to happen, is it?
Still with me? Great. Read on, it only gets worse, I promise.
Do you subscribe to the new dogma that the way electric cars are now manufactured, marketed and sold is the right way to save the environment?
Then you have fallen for the auto industry’s great PR campaign to save themselves from dwindling profits. With the electric push and associated lobbying worldwide, they have essentially created a brand new market, slowly replacing the old, saturated one.
New car sales have been on the decline for some years now. Because, honestly, who needs a new car every two years? Exactly! Nobody! So what will those “poor” manufacturers sell to make profits in quantities the average person cannot even imagine? Overpriced spare parts can only go so far, even if failure is built into everything they sell, so you’re forced to periodically replace bits of your car, contributing up for the manufacturer’s profits in a big way.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but here’s a space exploration relevance: We can build semi-autonomous machines that travel millions of miles over many years in conditions harsher than you can imagine (you know, space travel, Mars exploration, etc.), but somehow car manufacturers are unable to put together a machine that will reliably function over a few years here on Earth. Think about it. Take all the time you need.
But now, the ultimate solution is here in the form of electric vehicles, lovingly called EVs. And what a marvellous invention these are. They are green, they don‘t pollute, there is absolutely zero emission. The environment is saved and the car manufacturers are the new heroes, or so we are told by ads, the media, and by lobbyists (indirectly, via governments). Anyone smells PR yet?
What they usually forget to mention, however, is that those electric cars run on enormous batteries, made from lithium, cobalt and other rare minerals. Where do you think those minerals comes from? (Hint: Not always where they are being sold, so you’ll never really see the impact of mining. ). Who do you think mines it? (Hint: People, under conditions that would be classified as torture in any “developed” country, often children. Often quasi-slaves.) What do you think the environmental impact of that mining activity is? (Hint: Far greater than you would have thought, and worse than many other kinds of mining activities.)
Never mind the environmental cost of simply manufacturing those batteries, with lots of CO2 and other pollutants being released, so a certaibn carbon footprint is essentially built into those cars. It might be significantly less that the lifetime emisison of a traditional car, but do not forget that all the built in in emission happens right now, when manufacturing these vehicles happens, all at once, not over the course of 20 years! How green does that sounds?
Then, when we replace the old cars we already have, as we will soon be forced to, those cars and all their parts become waste. Millions of tons of waste. And what happens to those huge batteries, when they inevitably become useless? No, they don’t get quite as recycled as you would have liked. (Only 5% of lithium batteries are currently recycled in the EU and even if it gets better, it will never reach 100%.) So we’ll have even more pollution coming form the battery waste, which is, again, built right into those EVs. But, of course, these inconvenient details rarely factor into the PR effort telling us how very very green they are. (Which they are, but only while driving them.)
Never even mind those areas where electricity is still produced in an environmentally unsustainable manner. In light of all the above, this seems to be the smallest issue, to be sure.
These all add up as the environmental cost of the current push for electric vehicles. And all this could have been avoided if the main reason for the electric push wasn’t only greed. If we really cared about our environment, we could have planed this out in a sustainable way. Could have recycled/replaced old cars. Could have planned ahead for lithium recycling, after having made sure it’s been mined as sustainably as possible. Could even have researched greener technologies for manufacturing said batteries before starting to push them out in large quantities. Could have made sure green energy is the de facto source of electricity worldwide, for which we do already have the technology.
We could have. But all we care about is that the fancy, shiny, new EV car we bought, because it was so very hyped, does not produce CO2 right here, right now. So, of course, we do all we can for the environment, or that is what we tell ourselves. And that is what they tell us. And that is the deepest level of ignorance fuelled by denial.
So what can you do?
These were only two examples. Just two. But smartphones and electric cars are as ubiquitous as they are trendy; and they will remain trendy, and affect all of us in one way or another.
And there is much you can do about this, there is really a lot you can do, starting with an act as simple as it is rare: Think. And not only about yourself, your own comfort, or the (usually fake) image you want to present on social media, but really think, and inform yourself before making a decision.
The next step? Accept responsibility. We are all responsible. You are. I am. Everybody is. Each individual who, without thinking about the consequences, falls for the latest marketing scam, the latest hype, the latest trend, the coolest ad, or just the peer pressure to be as cool as the next guy. Everybody who assures themselves that they do everything they can, because they believe the false advertisements, is equally responsible.
There are and always will be enough of those who not only refuse to think but are unable to comprehend the complexity of any issue. You are not one of them. I know this, since you are still reading, and there were some long sentences and multi-syllable words to read, plus what you’ve just read did not yet put you off. So congratulations, you are part of a very-very thin elite, who is willing to at least think. That makes you special, in a real way, so please use this rare superpower and continue using it. Please just think and act responsibly, even (or especially) against the instinct and pressure that tells you otherwise.
Lastly, you must realise, the true responsibility is not yours, not ours, it’s theirs. Those people, the big names out there; they who own the corporations and pose as saviours, pose as humanitarians, pose as philanthropists (the pinnacle of cynicism), who are worshipped like rock stars, those are the people most responsible. There is so much ;wealth and power accumulating in so few hands that their personal responsibility becomes more than real. Our responsibility here is not to fall for their shiny, false halos.
But that, again, is another topic.
And how does this all relate to space exploration? It doesn’t! That’s exactly the point, our problems are here and now, these things happen right here on Earth, these people die here on Earth, these other people destroy us right here on Earth, our responsibility is right here, on Earth. Dreaming of space travel, cheering on space exploration is an escapism. It belongs in an age when we sorted ourselves out and did everything we can for ourselves and each other, our home, our environment. Until then, all that effort, all that money, all that brainpower only gets wasted. Especially because it will only result in reinforcing the behaviours, and ways that are destroying us now.
The bottom line is, your attitude about the problem is key to the solution. If you’re too enamoured with your own dreams about space travel to consider how not focusing on the right solutions for existing problems might hurt others, well, you know how it goes about being part of the problem. So don’t be part of the problem. And yes, your interests, your very personal interests are as important as anything in justifying corporate PR, so that you can focus on your fantasies, and ignore the harshness of relity while a few people continue to get richer, and many-many people continue becoming even poorer than they were yesterday. It’s all about collectively pulling our heads out of our own arses, really. If only enough people were able to do just that…
We should let space excploration belong to the realm of science fiction until it becomes sustainable to become a reality. And that’s only up to us. I have no illusions that it would ever happen, but what do I know… Anyway, this gives me a reason to continue writing, besides the hope that some of you will even read it. And I’m sure you’ve realised, if you did read this far, that this post was not abut space-exploration, not really. So thanks for reading, if you did.
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