Far From Utopia: Jeff Bezos and the Space Cowboys

Exiled Consensus
May 24 · 14 min read
AP Images

Going to Space to Benefit Earth

At an event apparently powered by liquified Popular Science magazines, the world’s wealthiest man made his pitch on how to save it. Jeff Bezos opened his Going to Space to Benefit Earth talk in Washington, D.C on May 9th by quoting his high-school self, summarizing his thesis for the evening:

“The earth is finite, and if the world economy and population are to keep expanding, space is the only way to do it.”

Before embarking on this grand odyssey, it is important to contextualize who is narrating it. Jeff Bezos is the CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post. Despite his immense wealth and influence on society, this consummate business professional must conform to some influences himself:

  1. The education that infused in him the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind,” as Adam Smith put it in Wealth of Nations. This maxim encourages the individualistic doctrine of our present-day global capital markets: gain wealth, forgetting all but self.
  2. A privatized media that crafts his thinking and limits his analysis to what is acceptable by economic and political concentrations of power, so as to not disturb the incessant growth of the world economy, also learned by high school Bezos.
  3. Finally, he must conform to the institutional role that he plays as CEO by deploying massive amounts of capital on behalf of investors who demand relentless and outsized returns for their patronage.

Now, such a man has tasked himself with saving the world. The ‘world’ is first reduced to an abstract place with a homogenous mass of faceless automatons called ‘people.’ These ‘people’ have no history, personal and communal desires, and ideas of their own.

Conflicting Values

Bezos began by stressing the Earth’s irreplaceability— a recurrent theme during the talk. As summarized magnificently by him, “Earth is the best planet, it is really good.” Quite insightful. To emphasize this point, he also distilled Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot soliloquy. The summary, describing the Earth as “a very small stage in a great cosmic arena,” somehow ignored Sagan’s subtle but elaborate critique of human greed, petty tyranny and despotism.

That version of Sagan would be quite inconvenient, and so did not grace the projector screen at the posh D.C space gala. Indeed, Sagan would likely vomit at the sight of an economically extorting, wage-labor abusing, ecology destroying and feudalistic aristocrat professing to rescue humanity from its shackles and setting it free in outer space.

Lest focusing on Sagan reveal these realities, Bezos returned to the script and adhered to it. A reminder that the man speaking is an institutional cypher, beholden only to the strings that control him. Given this obvious dissonance between world-saving rhetoric, and brutal and greedy deeds, he employed specialized language to mask the contradictions.

Finite Resources On a Finite Planet

His sophistry hitting stride, Bezos reminded, “Earth is not big, humanity is big. It seems big to us, but it’s finite, and there is something we have to do.” Dividing the grave threats humanity faces into two parts, he said, “there are immediate problems — poverty, hunger, pollution, overfishing in the oceans — these are the here and now problems.” Furthermore, “there are long-range problems — we will reach the end of Earth’s energy; this is just arithmetic, it’s going to happen. We can’t wait till the last minute lest they become immediate problems.”

You haven’t lived till you have been lectured by the Golden Child of capitalism to think about goals such as protecting humanity and the environment.

“Poverty and hunger.” Now, where do these come from? Perhaps grotesque global inequality, accelerated by wealth-extracting capitalists, resulting in just 26 people owning as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet may have something to do with it?

“Pollution.” Perhaps mentioning climate breakdown would provide a more complete description of the problem? Presumably, the issue was roundly ignored during the talk because it is actually an immediate and immense problem; not a convenient, far off, “long-range problem.” However, these are trivial details. The dazzling, expensive and resource-hungry stage sets were not set up so an evaluation of breathtaking existential threats at our doorstep could break out.

Bezos explained that with finite resources on Earth, and an insatiable energy appetite, humans must venture out to space in search of more resources. With our current global energy demand, we would require solar panels to blanket an area as large as Nevada to meet it. At a 3% compounding annual growth rate, we would need to cover all of the Earth’s surface in 200 years.

He then made his most robust point of the evening. Simply focusing on efficiency is insufficient, as “much of the efficiency gains are already factored in the annual growth rate.” His examples of efficiency gains included:

  1. In 1800, one had to work 84 hours for 1 hour of light. In 2019, one only has to work 1.5 seconds for 1 hour of light. A dubious statistic, as different wages per hour and pricing in both time periods would certainly affect the comparison, not just efficiency improvements. (Trivia time: Bezos vehemently opposed minimum wages per hour at Amazon, till popular activism and the Stop BEZOS Act of 2018 pressured him to pay fairly. In his annual shareholder letter, Bezos cast the achievements of activists as his benevolence. “We decided it was time to lead — to offer wages that went beyond competitive. We did it because it seemed like the right thing to do.” Apparently, the right thing to do also included doing away with employee incentive pay including monthly bonuses and stock option awards.)
  2. In half a century of commercial aviation, planes have gone from consuming 109 gallons of fuel compared to 24 gallons today to fly one person across the country.
  3. We have seen a trillion times increase in computation efficiency. The Univac could do 15 operations per one kW-second. A modern processor can do 17 trillion operations per kW-second.

The robustness of his argument ended here.

Ostensibly, if we are to continue to recklessly consume planetary resources, waste $160 billion in food annually and waste about two-thirds of the energy generated in the U.S, we must continue as is and forage for resources in outer space. There is simply no other way.

Building Space Colonies

When confronted with this problem, the rubric of corporate profiteering and global capital markets limits the solution space significantly. The engines of thoughtless resource exploitation for unbounded profits simply cannot be slowed or repurposed for development, instead of growth for the sake of growth. So we arrived at the big idea of the night, the moment when Bezos unveiled his grand concept for post-Earth human salvation.

And it’s an idea from the 1970s.

Bezos resurrected the concept of O’Neill colonies, named after Gerard O’Neill, Bezos’ college professor. O’Neill colonies, or cylinders, are conceptualized as astronomical artificial space habitats. According to Bezos, each manufactured ‘world’ would house around a million people. The sheer scale of one of these structures is mind-boggling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=916&v=GQ98hGUe6FM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=916&v=GQ98hGUe6FM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=916&v=GQ98hGUe6FM

Incidentally, the International Space Station (ISS), the most expensive thing ever built, shown for scale during the event, costs as much as Bezos’ net worth; approximately $150B USD.

Bezos’ recycled idea is that Earth’s space backyard would be populated by many of these cylinders, such that return trips would be feasible with reasonable durations and distances. Under this system, Earth would be “a beautiful place to live, a beautiful place to visit, a beautiful place to go to college, and to do some light industry.” All the heavy industry would be moved off-Earth so as to jettison all manufacturing externalities such as toxic waste and pollution. Moon bases will be built to begin resource extraction there, limited to hydrogen and oxygen from water electrolysis in his description.

Colonial Attitudes

On July 25, 2018, the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness held a hearing called “Destination Mars — Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet.” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Chairman of the Subcommittee, expressed his excitement at the possibility of the first trillionaire minted by space exploration, “I don’t know who it will be, and I don’t know what they will discover, or what they will accomplish,” Cruz said. “But I think it is every bit as vast and promising a frontier as the New World was some centuries ago.”

By explicitly associating genocidal and resource-plundering imperial exploits with space exploration, Cruz inadvertently made the connection between colonial hunts for materials and Bezos’ underlying ask — to uphold a ravenous empire, algorithmically compelled to perpetuate consumption of raw materials and finished consumer goods and services into oblivion. Indeed, beginning in the late 1400s, Great Britain and other European nations sponsored ventures reliant on murder and slavery to extract more resources from the American continent, India and other parts of the world for their economies. Rivers of blood and canyons of destruction blanketed the “New World” as a result.

Those space habitats? Also called colonies.

Space Entrepreneur Ecosystem

To build this grand system of man-made colonies, Bezos proposed the only answer Silicon Valley knows: unleash an ecosystem of entrepreneurs running thousands of companies. Private efforts for profits and monopolizing key technologies will spontaneously combust to produce the most efficient and just route to solving a public problem. Indeed, according to Bezos, we shall use the same algorithm — capitalism — to solve a problem that produced it in the first place. Disruptive.

However, as Bezos clarifies, “But these companies cannot exist today. Because the price of admission for doing things in space right now is just too high.” There does not exist the infrastructure upon which pioneering entrepreneurs can begin building their companies for space. As an analogy, Bezos explained that Amazon was only made possible by the USPS, home computers, global telecommunication companies like At&t, and so on. These were existing components upon which his efforts were built.

It is refreshing to see even a cursory acknowledgment that it indeed took a village to build his wealth for personal enjoyment. However, the portrayal of technology development is glaringly incomplete, and the silence around the realities of technology investments is deafening. As I have covered in the Free Market Fraud: Tech Innovation and Alternatives,

The science and engineering of new inventions and discoveries are not so trivial that they can be spearheaded by a few capital cowboys in a Wild Wild West of technical orgy. The basis for our high-tech economy lies in the state, with very long timeframes and large costs no venture capitalist with a requirement for a quick return can tolerate. These are R&D programs funded by various state agencies and its branches, including the Pentagon, NASA, EPA and so on.

Examples are too numerous to state. Some include space technologies, GPS, self-driving cars, cameras, indeed the internet itself. A closer look reveals that the military and war is intrinsic to high-tech research. While a large section of the US Defense (doublespeak for Offense, or Invasion) budget includes Operations and Maintenance, contained within it lies a tiny slice ear-marked for research and development (~84B for 2018, out of ~700B with the recent increase under Trump).

https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2018/fy2018_Press_Release.pdf

After the long and expensive road to discoveries and inventions is paved by public funds, corporations and other private entities are invited to waltz down the road to productize and monetize. Intellectual property, belonging to the public and built off of years of research, engineering and test work, is pushed to private markets to be developed into products, often with little differentiation.

Huge profits are reaped and transferred to a few hands from the commodification and sale of many scientific and engineering breakthroughs. For instance, nearly every component in the iPhone, including wireless services such as GPS, and various manufacturing processes can be traced back to publicly funded research and development largely for the purposes of technological warfare, and wartime manufacturing.

There are exceptions to this rule. One such instance was AT&T Bell Labs, a corporate-funded research laboratory with origins in the late 19th century. It was responsible for breakthroughs such as the transistor (and hence, indirectly computers), lasers and the development of information theory. However, AT&T was only able to sustain long and expensive technical projects, which often do not have a positive IRR, because it had a government guaranteed monopoly on the telephone market — a form of state intervention.

In this case, the exception proves the aforementioned rule: private capital, despite its grandiose claims of pushing the human frontier forward and working hard to invent utopia, is too impatient and intellectually bankrupt to push fifteen or twenty-year research and engineering projects. After the hard, long and dirty work has been done, it swoops in to commodify, package and brand various products and services for a singular purpose — profit.

It should be noted that for the first time in the post-WWII era, as of 2013, the federal government no longer funds a majority of the basic research carried out in the United States. However, it still has the largest slice of the pie, further comprised of corporate, university and private foundations.

The federal share, which topped 70% throughout the 1960s and 1970s, stood at 61% as recently as 2004 before falling to 44% in 2013. U.S businesses contributed 31%, largely driven by a surge in pharmaceutical spending. Where US corporations concentrate their spending is on applications; namely, the conversion of basic research to meet a commercial objective. This can include productization and mass manufacture of iPhones, or packaging bandwidth available on publicly owned networks to enable access through monthly plans.

This is what Bezos meant by “infrastructure.” It is the public spending that must precede the private feast. It is the hard, expensive and rewarding scientific and engineering work that must be executed for the space profiteers to eventually own and control. Delivered in Washington, D.C, the talk was an obvious signal to public agencies like NASA, the Pentagon and so on to shower contracts, intellectual property and other gifts on his private companies. To take the edge off the cynical grab, the tools of choice to warm hearts — children — were also used during the event, portrayed as the next generation of pioneers who will see this through.

Putting Civilized Back In Civilization

Efficiency is a necessary but insufficient condition for a sustainable civilization, as Bezos also pointed out. There is the efficiency of energy and resource production, and consumption. Bezos only superficially discussed the former, and spared no thought for the latter — even providing cover for the wasteful consumption of resources by branding it as “dynamism and growth.”

As I have covered in Anthropogenic Climate Change: The Size of Our Solutions Does Not Match the Size of Our Problems,

Thoughtless hyper-industrialization, renegade waste of energy and resources for profits combined with an oligarchic political system have yielded the perfect storm, wherein the systems responsible for creating the problems are never challenged. The private media is virtually silent on the emergency. Schools continue to thump the theology of markets and indefinite ‘growth,’ while industry continues to propel corporate expansion for higher profits, producing greater waste and pollution.

Predictably, such truths that challenge our political and economic systems that have precipitated these horrific outcomes cause quite a stir in the minds of the architects and disciples of said systems. These minds include business and corporate leaders, technocratic policy planners at think-tanks, and economists forced to confront the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet, among others. They put on spectacular displays of mental gymnastics to defend their worldview, which effortlessly adjusts to the realities of a changing climate.

As covered by Truthout in The Limits of Green Energy Under Capitalism,

The world’s energy-related carbon emissions rose by 1.7 percent in 2017 and energy consumption grew by 2.2 percent, the fastest rate since 2013. For the past decade, primary energy consumption increased worldwide at an average rate of 1.7 percent per year. Power generation rose last year by 2.8 percent with renewable energy providing 49 percent of that increase and most of the rest (44 percent) coming from coal. Globally, oil consumption grew by 1.8 percent, natural gas by 3 percent and coal consumption increased by 1 percent.

Further,

People often get confused when fossil fuels and renewable energy are discussed together, but the climate only cares about the former. The latter has no effect. Solar panels, wind turbines and the like neither help nor harm the climate. The only thing that matters, in terms of climate disruption, is greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not enough for the percentage of green energy to increase each year — unless it reaches 100 percent of global energy production very quickly. Even if the rate of greenhouse gas emissions decreases, but doesn’t decrease fast enough, we face disaster. What is required is that global greenhouse gas emissions decrease rapidly to zero by mid-century in order for the biosphere to stand a chance of survival. Unfortunately, even a rapidly increasing percentage of green energy production is unlikely to achieve that under capitalist market forces.

Participatory economics, worker cooperatives, tactical use of natural resources, and community ownership of local economies are all tools that can wrestle power away from concentrated capital, which in its unchecked state, has resulted in just 100 companies being responsible for 71% of global emissions.

These measures have a democratizing effect on society — an unacceptable outcome for the space cowboys. Further, it provides a framework for environmental and resource stewardship. Space technologies, when controlled by the primary funder and rightful owner — the public — would be deployed for the goals of the global community. It is a matter of not only equitable economic development and political decisions, but of expanding our moral spheres to construct an egalitarian human society shooting for the stars.

Short of this, the human race is consigned to authoritarian zealots, who prefer a conflict-ravaged, grotesquely unequal and undemocratic society to a scientifically advanced space civilization. As Silicon Valley billionaire and investor Peter Theil explicitly expressed, he prefers the capitalism of Star Wars compared to the “communism” of Star Trek.

A post-Earth human civilization may only be feasible if humanity first threads the needle of extinction that threatens to pierce us lethally. It may only be feasible and ethical if we develop a global political democracy by expanding the limits of our reason and morals beyond the self and our immediate environments. It may only be feasible, ethical and wonderful if private tyrannies headed by the likes of Bezos do not syphon the genius of our global community to control this adventure for profit and power.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot remarks included the following passages, left out of Bezos’ talk:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Certainly not from Amazon.com.

Pale Blue Dot — NASA

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Exiled Consensus

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Writing about politics, philosophy, technology and current affairs. Questioning ideologies of power and discussing alternatives. Twitter: @ConsensusExiled

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