The Elysium Delusion

Matt Damon in Elysium

If the futurist projections of my childhood had come true, by 2013 we should have all been living in a spinning subdivision in earth orbit by now. But space colonization is a concept that’s always bugged me. It strikes me an irresponsible escape: rather than fix things on earth, let’s all get the hell out–it’s the ultimate form of suburban flight.

NASA's 1970s era version of Elysium

NASA’s 1970s era version of Elysium

The heyday of space colonization futurism was the 1970s. But space station fantasies have reappeared in popular culture recently. At the end of the recently released movie Elysium [spoiler alert] the evil French speaking space colonists (who look like Armani clad Santa Barbarans) have their computer reset by Matt Damon who, with a few keystrokes,  gives the miserable residents of Earth (represented as a third world, distopian Los Angeles!) both universal health care and citizenship.

But, the movie Elysium, while on the surface a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, still takes it as gospel that our salvation comes in the form of an orbiting space colony. The final scene shows the teaming masses of Angelinos saved from above by the miraculous intervention of nurse robots from the space colony Elysium (which, incidentally, looks both like a rotating Mercedes logo, and the cross within a the circle symbol which Carl Jung associated with wholeness).

1970s space farming.

1970s space farming.

Coincidentally, physicist Stephen Hawking, descended from his own Euro-Elysium recently to speak to a group of nurses and doctors here in Los Angeles. In his speech, according to Associated Press, he argued for getting off earth, “The 71-year-old Hawking said he did not think humans would survive another 1,000 years “without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” The same article noted his previous advice to “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

A scene from Elysium

A scene from Elysium

These fantasies permeate our culture. Take also the new reality show offering participants a one way trip to Mars, as well as the ongoing efforts of Richard Branson to hurtle rich people into low earth orbit.

In answer to Hawking, Hollywood’s imaginings, Richard Branson and those unfortunate Mars reality show participants, I say we haven’t been spending enough time looking down at our feet. The fact is that earth is a paradise, space is a vacuum and Mars is a hell.

We have to work with what we have. In my cranky opinion, the future is in down-to-earth appropriate technology, not space stations.We need to plant gardens here on earth not in the vacuum of space. I’ll note that the farms in these space colonies look an awful lot like the dystopian factory farms we have down on earth.

And we should recognize the space station fantasy for what it is: a materialistic version of a heavenly afterlife, with scientists such as Hawking acting as the priests of what John Michael Greer calls the “religion of progress,” the unspoken faith that our salvation lies in an ever greater progression of shiny technological objects.

I get that we need myths. Jung recognized rockets and UFOs as sort of a machine age manifestation of archetypes of heaven and transcendence. But it’s well past time to switch out our outdated, mechanistic symbols. Perhaps we can look to the fevered imaginings of permaculture for a healthier alternative to space station futurism. Or maybe we just need to get our hands dirty, planting gardens, building swales, working to improve what we have–in other words, look at our feet not the stars and work towards a hands-on integration of the physical and the transcendent.

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  1. I dare say that space exploration (and maybe even settlement) actually works hand in hand with our understanding of Earth, and our ability to understand our own ecosystem. Not only are we capable of looking to the stars while still caring for the Earth beneath us, but doing one gives us insight to the other.

    When the first pictures of earth where sent back from the moon, the effect was amazing. Here, for the first time, we could see ourselves from a perspective that made us realize that we are small, fragile, and inter-connected. This is where the idea of “Spaceship Earth” comes from.

    And while we certainly need to take the best care of Earth as possible (since its uniqueness as a habitable planet has yet only been confirmed by our explorations), there is always the possibility that something will happen that we can not prevent or control, as our universe is a harsh place. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson put it best: “Asteroids are nature’s way of asking: ‘How’s that space program coming along?'”

    • EXACTLY what James said.

      The two (space living and Earth living) are not mutually exclusive. As James noted, the first images of Earth spurred the first widespread environmental movement. SETI has led to us being able to understand our own climate and the changes in it.

      I highly recommend “Physics of the Future” by Michio Kaku, I think you’d really like it. Even in the next hundred years of space exploration, by the end of the century very, very few people will be living in space. Yet the more we explore, the more we develop technology, the more that we go toward a Type I civilization, the less we think about nations and the more we think about humans as one species. This is crucial to our survival. Also, in thinking about moving toward a Type I civilization (in which we perfectly harness the energy of the Earth), we have to think of entropy and not overheating the Earth in the process. This leads to a push for the cleanest, most efficient ways of powering our planet. That can only be a good thing.

    • Just to be clear I’m all in favor of unmanned space probes, satellite technology, etc. I just don’t think that sending people into space is practical. The distances are simply too great.

  2. “materialistic version of a heavenly afterlife”

    It is unfortunate that people always think that something better lies beyond them, that technology will provide. Of course, technology has provided so much that makes our life and health so much better that people think pushing for more is the answer. People just don’t want to get their hands dirty.

    For a moment, I thought you were going to push for colonization of other planets. When man landed on the moon, there was talk of moon colonies. It has been 50 years and that has not come to fruition.

    Fantasy is nice, but I agree that we should look down at our feet. However, if I lived as my grandchildren have on concrete in NYC, there would not be much motivation to look down. Maybe for people with no grass under their feet, the stars look better. But, they can learn to love the earth more easily than an inhospitable planet.

    I like your perspective.

  3. When it comes to escaping responsibility, space colonization has always mystified me.

    People don’t seem to get that THEY will be going nowhere. They will be right here, getting killed by asteroids or plagues or droughts or wars or whatever.

    Space colonization (if it were possible, which it is realistically and economically not) is about preserving the future of the human RACE, not the billions of individual humans that are killing this planet.

    And so, a few hundred of us could voyage among the stars. The other ten billion of us will die along with Mother Earth. If this is what “hope” looks like…

    • I think you misread my response.

      “materialistic version of heavenly afterlife”

      What has that got to do with CA? Aren’t you glad that not everyone left the east coast and the world to try to find gold in California? My ancestors came from the Ukraine, Scotland, France, and Ireland to come here. Yes, some of them are in California and Oregon and Washington. They all had their feet firmly on the earth, but a few died thinking there is a world beyond.

  4. As I’m sure has been pointed out already, this isn’t an either/or proposition. We can and should develop and protect our world; we can and should also develop means to live elsewhere.

    As to your not being able to grasp the idea that we should long for someplace better somewhere else, I’d suggest your ancestors are rolling their eyes as they roll in their graves. I doubt your branch on the tree of humanity sprung from California. Or, should we want to look back even further, the western hemisphere. Or Europe. It’s our nature to travel, migrate, colonize and look for new horizons. This hasn’t changed just because of Google Earth.

    • My point was that people (including your own progenitors) left where they *were* to go someplace *new* (and hopefully better). Or planet may have run out of new places, but that simply means people will start looking and eventually traveling to places that aren’t here. We may build these places, transform barren worlds or reach whole new earths – but we’ll be going. Just like your ancestors did.

      And for ourselves, our children and everyone else in the future, taking care of where we are is just as vital.

  5. A common misconception is that colonizing another planet other than Earth would save the human race. However, if we colonized and lived on Mars, for example, for millennia, then we would become Martians with different physiology due to the differences in gravity, environment, etc. We would essentially become different than any surviving race on Earth. Likewise, who knows what the human race could evolve into just on Earth.

  6. Maybe the polluters and damagers of the planet earth will leave to inhabit and rot another planet and leave us earth lovers in peace we can get on with living in harmony with earth and begin the healing process with whats left.

    Id be ok with that future projection that the human race dont just inhabit earth but a group of planets so the petrol guzzling rev heads and their plastic loving processed food munching mates will be happily going about their business of depleting another planet far away from us earthly lot while we sit by waterfalls in rainforests platting a basket to put the nuts and seeds in we found on the forest floor before riding our bicycles back to our cob homes to the music of the song birds flying overhead…….ahhhh I like that picture thats forming in my head.


  7. I feel so much the same way! I have always avoided any science fiction/futuristic movie or novel, as inevitably, our lovely ecosystem, from which I derive so much pleasure, is destroyed. I tend to make people roll their eyes as I relentlessly reduce, reuse, recycle, and urge them to do the same. I find it especially disturbing when young people have no inclination to reduce their negative impacts on the enviroment.

    I dream of a time when we consider the environmental impact of our routine actions as a matter of course. And when we all are of one mindset about the importance of limiting the negative impact of our lifestyles on the earth. Corporations, politicians, even James Inhofe, one of the most disturbing climate change deniers I have ever encountered.

    • what? I bet that as far as fiscal matters are concerned I am more conservative than any conservative politician

  8. my kid has been super in to space over the past 2 years. Growing up, I always felt like space should seem cool–you know, like a laser light show at the science center, and couldn’t figure out why I ultimately felt so alienated (har har) by the proposition.

    this post totally gets to the core of it. space sucks (aw man, cracking myself up)–our solar system is a big disappointment. we really need to work with what we have.

    Thanks for this one!

  9. I am firmly in favor of space and planetary colonization, and I am also a homesteader. I would much rather see our earth preserved with its open, undeveloped spaces by moving its ever-increasing population out into the solar system than see our earth over-built and ruined forever. Population control? Yes, a great idea, but good luck enforcing it without creating a totalitarian state. The only way to ensure the earth stays healthy and with a reasonable population is to keep the human race pioneering (something we clearly like to do as a species) and moving themselves out and beyond. And I’d rather see them heading out to terraform Mars or a space station than into the last uninhabited and wild areas of our beautiful blue world.

    • prediction is as follows, huge mistake at DNA splicing center leads to massive loss of life. Earth gets a chance to catch its breath, from a over abundance of human life. just saying.

  10. I always liked Greer’s idea of discensus when it comes to big ideas like these. Let us have Hawking develop theories on space travel and colonization (even though the thought of colonization makes me cringe), and let us have you theorize on homesteading and sustainability. Maybe there is room in the future for both, and maybe there is not, but either way- we benefit from a multitude of ideas.

    • Another thing that Greer is big on, is the notion of reality. And the reality of our economics and our science and our political will is that there is a vanishingly small chance of colonization ever happening.

      His favourite whipping boy is nuclear fusion. It has been just fifty years away, every year for the past fifty years. At some point it would be nice to admit it is just not going to happen.

  11. My husband and I, who generally agree on everything, are extremely divided on this subject. He, being the geek that he is, is all for space exploration.

    After learning two irrefutable truths about space travel with which we as humans have to deal and for which we have no current solutions – those being the problems of solar radiation (our atmosphere protects us a lot more than you think it does) and the lack of gravity turning our bones to jelly, it seems fairly obvious that we won’t get as far as Mars anytime soon, much less outside our solar system, and we would have been a hell of a lot better off if we’d spent all the money we’ve spent on NASA and space since the fifties on saving our planet instead. We probably wouldn’t be in anywhere near the planetary pickle we are in.

    What is also fairly obvious is that regardless of how much more money we spend in this foolish pursuit, we won’t be able to further our technology fast enough to get us off the planet before it completely crashes and burns.

    • NASA’s budget is *less than one half of one penny* per tax dollar.

      The “incidental” discoveries that have been made by NASA that benefit our every day lives number in the hundreds, not to mention the overall, uniting goal and inspiration that space travel (manned or unmanned, though manned will always get more press and thusly more attention) gives us as one species, one planet, one people. If it weren’t for NASA, we wouldn’t have images of our planet without country lines dividing continents, we wouldn’t have an understanding of greenhouse gases, we wouldn’t have photos of topsoil flooding into our oceans, etc.

      Take down a fraction of the military budget over the last sixty years and consider what could have been done with that before you attack NASA. It’s not just about the 60 second countdown to a manned mission launch aired on CNN. Publicly funded scientific endeavors benefit humanity, period.

  12. I saw you and your wife on Kirsten Dirksen’s Youtube channel and found my way to your blog.I really love that you and your wife promote Natural self reliance by example as opposed to eco-fascist social engineering that seems to be the agenda of corperatocracy (sorry if it is misspelled. spell check would touch it .LOL) our world is ran by .
    You demonstrate perfectly how Natural Human Beings are encoded with instincts to be self reliant farmers/Gardeners with millions of years of evolution dedicated to getting it right !While I think technology has allowed us to make human connections in a way we never could before with so much valuable information at our finger tips ,Humanity could easily lose its way….Through common sense and just keeping it simple by using the natural instincts we already have within us we have a good chance !Thank you for leading by example… your story life and philosophy is inspiring!

    • I cringe every single time I go back and read something I have written as I am severely dyslexic and quite often spell /grammar checks filters fail me .I actual have a high IQ and even bigger pride …so please forgive me for reposting my comment with corrections
      I saw you and your wife on Kirsten Dirksen’s Youtube channel and found my way to your blog.I really love that you and your wife promote Natural self reliance by example as opposed to eco-fascist social engineering that seems to be the agenda of corperatocracy (sorry if it is misspelled. spell check wouldn’t touch it .LOL) our world is ran by .
      You demonstrate perfectly how Natural Human Beings are encoded with instincts to be self reliant farmers/Gardeners with millions of years of evolution dedicated to getting it right !While I think technology has allowed us to make human connections in a way we never could before and with so much valuable information at our finger tips it is ironic Humanity could so easily lose its way….Through common sense and just keeping it simple by using the natural instincts we already have within us we have a good chance !Thank you for leading by example… your life story and philosophy is inspiring!

  13. “I walked alone in that desert of unremitting purpose; feeling the despair of one who could no longer remember another valley where all the land had not yet had been consumed by intention. Or the people by their understanding, where still there was forgiveness in time, so that whatever had been destroyed might yet return. Around me as I walk, were dogs barking with resentment against the coming of the unforeseen.” (from “the unforeseen”)
    If manunkind can screw over a whole planet, just think of the possibilities for people to destroy the entire universe. We can run but we can’t hide.
    As Wendell Berry says “What I stand for,is what I stand on” Amen

    • Those pesky humans are an arrogant bunch !Human beings have only been living on the earth for such a small period of time which is but one grain of sand out of all the beaches on earth when you compare how long the Earth has been here and met much worse resistance than any human being could throw at it super volcanos ,ice ages ,global flooding ,global mega storms ,pole shifts, sun flares, dinosaurs and atmospheric changes and that’s the stuff we know about..If there were a battle to death between humans and earth I bet my money on the Earth and feel certain the earth would purge us before it let us destroy it! the universe is a big place that beholds more power and great mystery than we could ever even conceive ..just making it to the moon was a huge undertaking !But who knows you could be right

  14. espaceism? aalllmost works. not quite.

    anyway, as long as we have blockbusters about escape, we won’t ever care about actually escaping enough to make it happen.

  15. The western tradition is the worship of human logic over nature. It’s been that way ever since the Greeks turned their gods into men. What can be a more pure expression of that line of thought, than the emancipation of the the race from the system that gave it birth? It reminds me of a kid trying to run away from home.

    It’s sad that we think this way. Imagine what could be accomplished if we reconciled our intelligence and creativity, with a sensitivity towards nature.

  16. I don’t think the author of this article takes human nature into account. Yes, Earth is lovely, but the long-term survival of the human race is statistically much slimmer if we’re confined to one ecosystem. A nuclear war WILL eventually happen, one merely needs to understand the law of numbers and fundamental human nature; it’s much more of an example of utopian idealistic excess to imagine we’ll conquer humanity’s brutal primate nature than to imagine a future where we can minimize the risk of extinction by way of off-world colonization.

  17. This South African director’s plot device was just a way to make a point about colonialism. You’re supposed to suspend disbelief

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