Billionaires burning inordinate amounts of fossil fuels to undertake their own personal joyrides into space have occupied international headlines this month, in what has sickeningly been dubbed the “billionaire space race”.
Meanwhile, rolling news of floods, fires, and droughts continues, as the UK Prime Minister’s COP26 spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, called for the masses to mitigate climate chaos by ceasing to rinse their dishes before putting them in the dishwasher!
And yet, there are currently no regulations around rocket emissions, with one rocket launch producing up to 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere – where it can remain for years.
In a year in which the sea itself has set on fire, Richard Branson, boyish and grinning, became the first man to ‘penetrate virgin space’ in his own private spacecraft – Virgin Galactic’s euphemistically termed “Unity 22”.
As he told observers, “For all you kids down there: I was once a child with a dream, now I’m an adult in a spaceship!” He continued “to the next generation”, “if we can do this, just imagine what you can do!” He’s doing it for the children!… as he allegedly inspires ‘unity’ in an earth-shattering performance of the worst excesses of capitalism.
Days later, Jeff Bezos burst forth – unfettered as ever – into the ‘brave new world’ of space colonisation in an enormous fossil-fuelled penis, also termed ‘New Shepard’ – Blue Origin’s first “rocket for space tourism”.
Upon landing, decked in a blue space suit and a cowboy hat – lest we forget the settler colonial overtones of his mission – he thanked each and every Amazon employee, to scattered laughter from the audience, “because you guys paid for this”. Yes, they did pay for this, through the now well-documented exploitative practices that have further enabled Bezos to amass unprecedented wealth, alongside his “aggressive” tax avoidance and strategy of total market domination.
Other than massaging already over-inflated egos, other than ‘inspiring’ the children of this increasingly plundered earth, what is the ultimate goal of this ‘space race’?
At this point, this is a massively destructive billionaires’ game, that one day promises to be highly profitable for those same billionaires as ‘space tourism’ gains traction.
Yet, as journalist George Monbiot observes, it is also “being sold to us as some kind of desirable future, as something we should aspire to”.
Indeed, it is bizarrely being peddled as an antidote to the climate destruction that capitalism has wreaked. In his terrifying post-flight triumph, Bezos informed listeners, “we are building a road to space, so that future generations can build the future.”
He continued even more ominously: “We live on this beautiful planet […] and we have to keep it safe and protect it, and the way to do that over decades is to move all heavy industry, all polluting industry out into space.”
According to Bezos, therefore, burning exorbitant fossil fuels to enable his quest for space colonisation is a mere move to “keep this planet the gem that it is”.
The vision, then? Seemingly, to burn this planet, to plunder another, under the ultimate control of white, male billionaires – such as Bezos, Branson and, also, Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX also seeks to reduce space transportation costs to enable colonisation of Mars.
Indeed, aiming to get a million people to Mars in the next 50 to 100 years, Musk’s published vision outlines the nightmare of space colonies, created by billionaire potentates – also animatedly outlined by Bezos.
What has this got to do with backlash?
First of all, let’s look at what this has got to do with gender as it intersects with race, capitalism and coloniality.
Obviously – indeed, too obviously – there is the phallic symbolism of Bezos’ rocket. And then there is the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of those now privately undertaking space colonisation (all of them).
The colonial imaginary and its destructive realities have long been predicated on white male pioneers conquering ‘virgin lands’ and plundering resources for capital gain. In the ‘billionaire space race’, this symbolism and extractive plan is all too clear.
Normatively, however, these ‘pioneers’ then variably eliminate, assimilate or debilitate the indigenous peoples of that land. In this case, let’s hope – for their sake – there are not sentient beings on Mars. And so, rather than the indigenous peoples of the colonised space, it is those most marginalised on the increasingly scorched earth that will be dispossessed by the intergalactic colonial endeavours of these billionaire white men.
The climate crisis, in its advancement and in its effects, is highly gendered and racialised. If billionaires can launch themselves into space at will, it is those most subjugated by intersecting oppressions of coloniality, race, class, disability, age and gender who will be disproportionately debilitated under the heightened ravages of climate destruction.
Moreover, as Bezos himself pointed out in thanking Amazon employees, it is their labour that will pay for it.
So, now, what has this got to do with backlash?
Backlash is not only the explicit act of rolling back policy and legislation that relates to gender or social justice more broadly.
Backlash is also the continued hegemony of white, capitalist-enriched heteropatriarchy, despite moves to topple its power. It is the continued impunity bestowed upon some – at the expense of many – to destroy and degrade the earth and its diverse inhabitants. Moreover, backlash can be the packaging of these realities as desirable, possibly equitable and even liberating, in the deployment of notions of rights, freedom and ‘protection’.
As billionaires joyride in their phallus-shaped fuel guzzlers, they talk of colonising space as the final frontier. As they do, they reassert the power of a white, heteropatriarchal manhood, empowered by having “mined rare earths, fabricated massive technologies and invested in capital’s projection to send him and his white brethren” into outer space, to use the words of Scott Morgensen.
In spite of the knowledge of steps required for greater social and ecological justice, the ‘billionaire space race’ powerfully symbolises the continued power of those white men endowed with the spoils of capitalist destruction and energised by colonial aspiration to do as they wish – and tell us it will be good for us.
Let’s hope that COP26 will focus less on rinsing dishes and freezing bread, and more on regulating the behaviour of these billionaire overlords. Indeed, suppressing their power is the only hope we have.