Capitalism, as David Harvey once remarked, never solves its contradictions, it only moves them around. If it becomes impossible to make profits in Europe, you set up plantations in the New World, where you can work people to death for free. If you’re worried about socialist uprisings in your own country, you can move the production process to south-east Asia, where client states can brutalize their populations without the people that matter ever having to care about it. For centuries the capitalist mode of production has chased itself in tightening circles around a planet that’s starting to wear away under the strain, thinning out the biosphere, removing the conditions necessary for biological life out from under its own frantic legs. It’s run out of room; there are fewer and fewer places in which to lodge the permanent crisis. The only direction left is up and out. And so the idea starts to take hold that human destiny is to conquer the stars, that the darkness beyond our planet isn’t the home of gods or aliens, but infinite lifeless space. An empire waiting to be founded. And if we don’t create it soon, the empire we have now will kill us all.
The unspoken promise is that things will be different on the seven new exoplanets: With all that room, you’ll have the freedom to build something entirely new, live the way you really want to live. It’s the promise of NASA’s poster: You’ll want to see this, it’s not like anything you’ll have seen before.
But things won’t be different on those distant planets. They’ll be exactly the same, just worse, always worse. The logic of this model of space colonization assumes a society that expands constantly, pushing itself into every empty space it can find, because if it stops for even a moment, it’ll die. It’s a society that needs to spread itself infinitely, not for any articulable reason, but simply because that’s what it needs to do. And it’s a society that is always under threat of breaking under the weight of its own contradictions and always at war with the livability of life. In other words, the exact conditions we’re all living and dying under now. It’s capitalism; it could only ever be capitalism, turning itself into all the monsters it could once only imagine. Purified from any residual traces of the soil from which it rose, liberated from its parasitic dependence on Earth and its human labor by a glut of new planets, space capitalism could transform itself into something truly monstrous: a black and segmented carapace, vast beyond thought; nested jaws gnashing through the galaxies in a lifeless, merciless greed.
If you’re worried that reactionary leaders, climate change, and nuclear weapons have the power to destroy everything on this planet, the solution isn’t to conjure up a future in which they could destroy everything on all the other planets too. Our problems have to be solved, not fed, before we risk spreading the blight to rot away the entire sky. As things stand, going to TRAPPIST-1e will not save you from your fear of Donald Trump or anything else. That tourist poster needs updating; already, there should be a big gleaming gold skyscraper jutting out between the untouched hills, because he’s going with you, clinging to the hull of your spaceship as it crosses those 40 light years of black nothing, his hair finally freed from gravity and fanning into a predator’s frill.
“We’re going to colonize these new worlds,” he says. “It’ll be very nice there, believe me, believe me.”