From Cosmos To C.A.O.S.?
Once the cosmos was thought to be painted on the veil of the firmament, or to be some kind of divine metaphor, a flatness inscribed with thousands of meaningful stories. Since then it’s become outer space, a grotesque emptiness. Space is a site of desecration, an emptiness in which one moves, and moving into space means closing down any chances for Earth. C.A.O.S. is not interested in setting up limits. We want to create a future, not one of tin cans dodging rocks in a void, but a future for human life. To do this we must abolish outer space with all its death and idiocy, and return the cosmos to its proper domain, which is mythology, so that when we look up it will be in fear and wonder, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is not possible. – Sam Kriss, “Manifesto Of The Committee To Abolish Outer Space,” The New Inquiry
I remember so well watching the original Cosmos mini-series. I also read and re-read the coffee table book produced to go along with it (along with Carl Sagan’s other coffee table books, Comet and Pale Blue Dot, and his book Broca’s Brain and The Dragons of Eden). Excited not just at the prospect that there might yet be a future for us, but that future might entail seeing and encountering not only what had yet to bee seen and encountered, but what was beyond our then-current ability to understand or even imagine was heady stuff. Like Star Trek, which posited a United Earth in which peace reigned, poverty abolished, and technology had propelled humanity far beyond the bounds of earth to join with other races and species for the betterment of all, Cosmos had that giddy optimism that comes from considering a future that is nothing more than a projection of the non-existent golden age of the past onto a not-yet-future. Too often, how these futures arose, perhaps from the ashes of terrible wars (Star Trek) or the realization that reigning in technology and capitalist expansion went hand in hand in improving the lives of humanity as a whole, while also allowing us unprecedented access to possibilities for the exploration and perhaps even exploitation (within suitably legislated bounds, of course) of space (Cosmos), the dirty details of how we get from where we are to where these visionaries see us going is left up in the air.
Which, perhaps, is part of their appeal. Who, after all, wants to dwell on the horrors of a nuclear war leaving hundreds of millions dead, the nation-state system in tatters? Who wants to consider how we refashion a global economy rooted in full-employment, the equitable and full distribution of technological goods and human services absent a common currency, for which humanity never more yearns to exploit for personal or political corruption? Those five-year missions were missions of peaceful exploration, after all, right? Sure, we interfered in the development of various societies and cultures, but let’s face it – they needed interfering with, what with wars, mass death carried out with equanimity, the exploitation of one gender over another, slavery, and even Space Nazis.
On the other hand, C.A.O.S. has the virtue of honesty. It is honest that space is, by and large, empty. Space is, by and large, ruled by entropy, which is the eventual collapse of all that is due to energy decay. What we see when we look at images from space are, as Kriss notes, false color images that we would never see. Consider, for example, original photographs of Saturn. It didn’t look much different up close than it did through telescopes from earth: a dull, pus-colored yellow. It took computer scientists to offer a more colorful view, rooted in the chemical compositions of the cloud bands underneath the ubiquitous cloud of yellow that covers it. Those other glorious images – The Pillars Of Creation being perhaps the most famous – will never be seen by the naked eye from space. As we get closer to it, what seems to be details will fade to black, and the light from the birthing stars hidden behind massive clouds of dust will disappear, leaving the viewer with a disorienting sight of endless, directionless black.
The idea that humanity will live outside the planet earth is a dream of writers who had no idea the technology necessary just to get humanity to orbit. Creating livable habitats on Mars, for example, would leave cramped spaces little more than bomb-shelter like single rooms, much of the energy of which would be dedicated to recycling what little air was in containers so that it could remain breathable. While other planets, asteroids, and other places might contain valuable minerals, the cost to return ratio for mining, say, asteroids, just doesn’t exist. And Kriss is right: We haven’t been back to the Moon for the simple reason that there just isn’t much reason to go back; the thought of setting up colonies there is beyond silly.
Finally, the record of human expansion hardly leaves one sanguine about some future golden age in which we explore, investigate, perhaps even contact other species in peaceful, non-exploitative ways. On the contrary, it might well be the exhaustion of terran resources that pushes out to space, to rape planets, asteroids, moons, perhaps those with life, in order to survive. It would be nice to believe we could do a five-year mission of exploration in the name of peace; please remember, however, that the USS Enterprise was armed to the teeth, as was its crew.
Do I believe C.A.O.S. is over-the-top, a parody of Luddite anti-technology and anti-capitalism out to make us laugh? Perhaps. Along the way, however, Kriss offers us, including proponents of the robotic exploration of space – if not the human exploration and exploitation of those rare things like planets and asteroids and moons – much food for thought. Human expansion has always been the result of pressure: either pressure from invaders kicking people out or exterminating them (the Huns and Vandals had lived in Central Asia until the Mongols pushed them out for good; one need only mention American treatment of the native populations of our continent to make the point clear enough). While we might have the best intentions in exploring and even visiting places like the Moon, Mars, Europa, or some other space rock, remember that there is also a private company developing the capability to capture asteroids and return them to earth for mineral exploitation (regardless of what might piggyback on such a journey, or even if a single trip would be cost-effective). Director James Cameron is one of its principle stock-holders; his films The Abyss and Avatar have certainly been cautionary tales about the exploitation of resources in hard-to-reach places (other planets, the bottom of the ocean). That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see dollar signs in the possibility of mining asteroids for profit.
What I like best about C.A.O.S.’s manifesto is its humaneness. It isn’t turning from space due to any limitation we humans would face in the exploration of space (even though we face numerous obstacles, such as losing 5% of bone and muscle mass per week of weightlessness that no amount of exercise seems able to cure; we are not creatures designed for weightlessness, an environment as hostile as the high pressure deep sea). Instead, it is a plea that we return the mostly emptiness of space to its proper place – a realm of mythology and the imposition of human desires, while building a more humane, survivable earth for we humans and others who live upon it. I’m not convinced the robotic exploration of outerspace, in particular when limited to orbital photographic scans, is much of a threat. For places as lifeless as a comet, the planet Mars, or other such environs, even sending landers presents very little of a potential threat to a dead landscape.
All the same, I think C.A.O.S. should be considered with at least a modivum of seriousness. Earth is the only home we have. Evolving here, any other place would be irredeemably hostile, no matter how much it might seem otherwise. The distances between stars leaves actual human travel to them out of the question, at least according to all we know about physics and astrophysics. It might well be a good idea to remember our histories of exploitation and genocide before we get all misty-eyed at the thought of encountering new life and strange civilizations while Vangelis plays in the background.