Under Capitalism, the Colonization of Space Means the Destruction of Earth

Over 50 years ago, German philosopher Günther Anders warned that space travel was in danger of being used for power and profit. Against the “provincialism” of space capitalism, he wanted the view of outer space to meaningfully expand our horizons on Earth.

Astronaut James McDivitt, Gemini 4, 1965. (NYPL / Unsplash)

In February 2022, the Adam Smith Institute published a report claiming that the moon should be privatized to help wipe out poverty on Earth. According to the report, the moon should be divided into parcels of land and assigned to various countries to rent out to businesses, which would boost space tourism, exploration, and discovery.

For now, thankfully, there is a treaty that stands in the way of such plans. The Outer Space Treaty was drawn up by the United Nations in 1967 with the idea to ban countries and individuals from owning property in space. It also forbids the militarization of outer space and bans weapons testing and military bases there.

The Adam Smith Institute maintains, however, that “with more countries and companies competing in the space race than ever before it’s vital for us to move past the outdated thinking of the 1960s and tackle the question of extraterrestrial property rights sooner than later.”

To some extent, this view is already a reality. In 2020, NASA launched an effort to allow companies to mine resources, announcing it would support private extraction of resources from the moon.

“That is one small step for space resources, but a giant leap for policy and precedent,” said Mike Gold, NASA’s former chief of international relations, summing up the new frontier of capitalism. In the meantime, similar legislation allowing privatization of extraterrestrial resources is being introduced in Luxembourg, India, China, Japan, and Russia.

Also in 2020, NASA changed its policy to allow private astronauts to go on the International Space Station. In April 2022, the first all-private team of astronauts began a weeklong mission hailed as a “milestone in commercial spaceflight.” Similarly, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have been launching their own private flights to space.

In short, the commercialization and privatization of space is accelerating. Space tourism, asteroid mining, and internet from satellites space are no longer science fiction. They have become a potential source for “future growth” and “progress.”

What Use Is the Moon?

If there was one philosopher of the twentieth century who has turned his critical gaze to human space exploration, it is Günther Anders.

Born as Günther Stern in 1902 in Breslau, Poland (now Wrocław), he was a student of Ernst Cassirer, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, and first worked as a journalist (it was during this period that he started to sign his articles “Anders” — meaning “different” in German — instead of “Stern”). With his wife Hannah Arendt he came to realize the coming reality of Hitlerism. In 1931–32, he penned his prophetic dystopian and anti-fascist novel, The Molossian Catacomb (Die molussische Katakombe), which he completed while in exile in Paris in 1933 when Hitler came to power. (Yet it would only be published in 1992, the year of his death). Throughout his career, he wrote extensively on technology, the atomic age, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima — and also the moon.

In 1969, Anders was among the six hundred fifty million people who watched the moon landing — the first truly global TV event of the twentieth century. While most were mesmerized by Neil Armstrong’s famous declaration — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — he took a different view. In his book The View from the Moon: Philosophical Reflections on Space Travel, he commented that it was a giant leap for mankind only in so far as it leapt “away from the road that leads to its better future.”

Although it seems a new Cold War is being born, our future in the stars is today less defined by the race between countries (United States vs. USSR) than by private companies (SpaceX vs. Blue Origin, etc.).

It was Anders who warned us with his “prophylactic catastrophism” about the prospects of the appropriation of space. In the second volume of his The Obsolescence of Man: On the Destruction of Life in the Epoch of the Third Industrial Revolution, he made a claim about the shifting role of science. He argued that the mission of modern science is no longer to “hunt down the secret”— that is, the secret or hidden essence of something — but to discover the secret treasures that can be appropriated.

Anders poses the question, “What use is the moon?” His answer is simple but terrifying: raw material. He goes further still, saying that being raw material is the criterium existendi today. It is a fundamental metaphysical thesis.

Anders argues that the lunar journey “was not the destination, but the starting point.” What was being presented as the human discovery of the moon, was in fact a “self-encounter with the Earth.”

It was the recently invented James Webb telescope’s images of the universe that sparked enthusiasm across the world. For Anders, the more sublime the universe appeared, the more tragic the contemporary destruction of our planet. The more technology advanced, the bigger the chances for destruction and self-destruction.

For Anders, the view from the telescope doesn’t allow us as humans to look bigger. On the contrary, he writes, it is “as if the universe were looking back at us through a tube as a punishment, shrinking us as much as it expanded with our telescopic view.”

Philosophers on Board

If we accept Anders’s formulation about the “self-encounter with the Earth,” what do we see in the mirror today? What does our contemporary “New Space Age” represent?

Fifty years ago, Anders described the phenomenon of “provincialism”: men who fly to space in order to become famous — or powerful — on Earth. It’s hard not to think of a figure like Jeff Bezos sending William Shatner (Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk) in this context.

Through the exploration of space, man has become “more provincial than himself,” wrote Anders, because the space travels that were supposed to “widen our world” had exactly the opposite effect — namely, even more fixation on Earth. In the near future, the occupied planets will most likely first serve as bases for the extraction of valuable resources that will make the richest on Earth even richer. “The future has already begun,“ wrote Anders. “But in the service of the past.”

He claimed that he had considered giving Der Blick vom Mond (The View From the Moon) the alternative title of The Obsolescence of the Earth. He ultimately decided against it, however, because it would have implied that our planet is obsolete and that we would have to leave it and find other habitable planets. This was far from Anders’s intention.

For figures like Musk and Bezos — the new occupiers of space — it is precisely this notion of the Earth’s obsolescence that has become the criterium existendi. In need of new resources for extraction, accumulation, and profit, they seek to colonize space, even if the price is the destruction of Earth.

The Apollo astronauts’ view from the moon was simultaneously watched by millions of television viewers (approximately a fifth of the world population at the time), but Anders saw it as more than just a media spectacle. He recognized it as a globalizing and metaphysical event:

Not only did they encounter it, we experienced it as well. And since we remained back on the earth, and as earthly creatures are the earth, we may say in all fairness: for the first time — and this is a historical event of a completely new kind — the earth, standing before a mirror, became reflective, aroused to self-consciousness for the first time, or at least to self-perception.

After command module pilot Michael Collins returned to Earth after the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, he famously said that future flights “should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher, so we might get a much better idea of what we saw.”

The perfect candidate for the philosopher on board would have been Günther Anders. While most of his work (including The View From the Moon) still remains rather unknown and unpublished in English, it is precisely his work on technology, apocalypses, and space exploration that can guide us today.

Today, with high-resolution imagery of the origins of the universe, his pertinent question, “What use is the moon?” is as important as ever, though it may be extended to ask: “What use is the universe?” What’s the use of discovering the magic of our universe, if we continue destroying planet Earth? What is the use of Mars if you plan to colonize it with the same capitalist logic of extraction and expansion?

Besides discovering the universe, we need to rediscover Earth again and protect it from the fatal logic of the new “space explorers” or self-proclaimed “occupiers.”

Although Günther Anders would have been the perfect candidate for any mission to space, he didn’t have to travel to the moon in order to see Earth better. But he also saw the moon.