SpaceX building and rocket launch pad at Cape Canaveral February 2019

Book review: ‘Astrotopia’ by Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Image credit: Khairil Junos/Dreamstime

A philosopher of science and religion tears into American oligarchs’ claims to be exploiting space for the benefit of humanity, explains the imperial Christian mythology they share with the Europeans who colonised the New World, and proposes an alternative vision of our future in space.

For all that space bros tend to profess their lack of religiosity, there is something about their fervour for space that could justifiably be interpreted as religious. In ‘Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race’ (The University of Chicago Press, $24, ISBN 9780226821122), Mary-Jane Rubenstein picks apart the parallel religious mythologies behind the colonisation of Earth and of space.

The main characters are SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (the hare) and Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos (the self-described tortoise), with Robert Zubrin a major influence. Although distinct in their visions of Utopia, Musk and Bezos propose exploiting space for the benefit – nay, the salvation – of humanity. ‘Astrotopia’ argues that these characters are now peddling the same strain of Christian mythology used to justify the European colonisation of ‘empty’ land: a mythology asserting that men – or certain men – have been granted dominion over everything on Earth by God, and that it is their destiny to go forth: to Canaan, to the New World, to the Moon.

Rubenstein writes with (well-directed, well-expressed) fury about the spectre of the very people who have caused such destruction on Earth positioning themselves as messiahs delivering humanity from that very destruction: “Earth is becoming uninhabitable, so a wealthy fraction of humanity hitches a ride off world to live in a shopping mall under the dominion of the corporation that wrecked the planet in the first place.” She recounts how US lawmakers have, over the decades, pushed for space to be a military and commercial sphere, such as with their recent rejection of the Moon Treaty (which asserts that acquired lunar resources should be shared between nations).

So, what is the alternative to exploiting space? Rubenstein makes the case for considering space exploration through different mythologies. For instance, from an animist perspective, one must consider the rights – or at least, the respectful use – of things most of us consider mere objects, such as rocks. Terraforming Mars could be considered abhorrent.

In exploring alternatives, Rubenstein occasionally veers into the realm of the odd, for instance, suggesting that respiratory complications caused by lunar dust could imply the Moon has desires of its own. Is this more far fetched than the suggestion that God gave man dominion over all things? I would say no, but neither does it come across as part of an encouraging basis for an alternative mythology. Must we reject an imperial Christian mythology only to replace it with another kind of religious mythology? Do we really need a religious mythology to get space exploration right anyway? The answer to these questions might be yes (“since the problem is fundamentally religious, the solution will have to be too,” Rubenstein says) but I remain unconvinced of it.

Despite failing to lay out a feasible and compelling path to a better kind of space exploration – and, in fairness, that is a lot to expect of a short book – ‘Astrotopia’ makes a powerful argument that we are approaching space exploration with the same old imperial Christian mythology, making space merely a thing to be exploited.

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