How did we lose the universe? When, last month, NASA announced the discovery of seven new Earth-like exoplanets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star only 40 light years from us, it felt strange: not the beginning of something, but the end. The immediate reaction from thousands of people was not “what’s out there?” but “when can we leave?”
This planet is done for, to be ruled from a marble-plated toilet for its short remainder as a life-bearing world. The oceans are acidifying and filling with plastic, the air is clamming up into a soup of deadly microparticles; we’re slowly narrowing down the list of extant animal species until, finally, the only thing we’ll have left to kill and eat is each other. Get me off this rock.
Outer space was once the domain of myth and metaphors; the sun’s stern circuit around the sky told the stories of living and dying gods, the stars were immortalized heroes. These myths changed, as they always do: In the science-fiction mythology our galaxy would be a great adventure; we’d go out in search of green-skinned alien babes or make war against angry humanoids with weird foreheads. That’s gone now. Human beings look up at the night sky, through all its senseless intricacies, and don’t see anything else looking back. Instead, the entire infinite universe has become nothing more than a life raft.
In promoting its new planets, NASA hasn’t exactly tried to hide this fact. To accompany the announcement, the agency released a mocked-up tourist poster for the star system: Kids and grown-ups stare as gobsmacked silhouettes through the window of their landing shuttle: new worlds dangling vast in a new sky with their buzzing haloes of rocket-trails; beneath them pristine waves, strange hills, sharp crystal fountains, and the slogan “Planet Hop from TRAPPIST-1e, voted best “hab zone” vacation within 12 parsecs of Earth.” It’s a gorgeous image, all brooding purples and pinks and blues, block colors, jaunty fonts. It’s retro; it’s ironic. There’s an art deco vibe, a nod to the pulpy fictions of the 1920s, to Buck Rogers and George Barbiers, to when the whole world was still gleefully racing towards its future without knowing that what lay in wait for it there was the Final Solution and the atomic bomb. Now, we’ve exhausted ourselves of futures, reduced ourselves to scrabbling around in the graveyards of history, suffocating and alone; if we want anything really new to ever happen again, we have to get away from this Earth.
NASA is not alone here. Elon Musk has made clear his belief that humanity will leave itself vulnerable to extinction unless we remove a few eggs from a basket that’s slowly falling apart. His plan is to build a colony on Mars, to send out a few hundred volunteers to live for the rest of their lives in some geodesic hut surrounded by an infinite emptiness, with no way to get home and nothing to do there but hope that they die before the rest of the species does. Just in case. Something similar is proposed by a whole cast of farsighted luminaries: Stephen Hawking, for instance, believes that we have at most another millennium to escape our world before we choke to death; the joyously paranoid right-wing talk show host Alex Jones thinks our great destiny is to escape this globalist hell and set out across the galaxy. This general idea was also the plot of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 propaganda epic Interstellar, in which humanity is about to be killed off by an unexplained crop blight unless the entire species manages to decamp to its new home in a distant galaxy, a tiny rocky slab that—it’s implied—will soon become a verdant new Eden.
What’s not explained is how we’re expected to avoid bringing the crop blight with us, or why agriculture would be more viable on a desert world than one that still has some harried remnants of life. Listen to these narratives for long enough and you start to think that the problem is our Earth itself, that there’s something evil buried deep below the soil, that it’s one giant haunted house to be fled. As if whatever ghosts swarm around this place were here before we created them. All these visions of humanity’s destiny in the stars, whether they’re brought on by curiosity or desperation, imagine that we could turn lifeless planets into gardens. But all that’s happened in living memory is the precise opposite. Wastelands are already growing on this earth, steadily drying out farmlands into scrub or burning forests into lifeless ashy mud. What will happen to an earth that’s wasteland already? Fleeing into outer space isn’t a solution to any of our problems; it’s not even running away from them. Exploring the galaxy just means giving the problem more room in which to expand.
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.”