Julio Trujillo
Director General
Bureau Soluciones Socioambientales S.A.
Expert Contributor

Don’t Look Up

By Julio Trujillo | Tue, 03/29/2022 - 13:00

The headline on this article is Don’t Look Up. Although I am referring to the film that made critics spill so much ink, I'm not going to expand on that film. I took the title of the most-viewed movie during the holidays with treachery in mind, as lawyers would say.

The feature film was widely praised for mixing critical satire, or crude reality, the ineptitude and impudence of rulers, the eccentric billionaires of Silicon Valley, the difficulty of scientists in communicating and convincing, and finally the apathy of public opinion that lacks indignation and awareness even in the face of extraordinary cataclysms that put their modus vivendi at risk.

It is clear that the metaphor of the film is a parody of humanity's attitude toward the global phenomenon of climate change, therefore, that powerful title, prompting you to look at what is happening in our atmosphere, the thin layer of gases and molecules that allow us to live on the third planet from the sun in our solar system.

I cannot help but remember the phrase from French President Jacques Chirac at the 2002 COP in Johannesburg: “notre maison brule et nous regardons ailleurs” (our house is burning and we look the other way).

In addition to the premiere of that film, there were other events in the year of pandemic on the other side of our north border that led me to this reflection. The film invites us to look at what is happening above; the current reality forces us to affirm the opposite, that is, to not look up.

In 2021, events were happening at a speed never seen before. First, let’s highlight the good news: there was a very significant reduction in CO2 emissions. Living beings had a moment of truce and various species of fauna and flora recovered.

But there were other less encouraging facts, such as the increase in the gap between the hyper-rich and the poorest. Never has humanity lived with such inequality in its history, both among individuals and nations.

In this context, a piece of news that for some went unnoticed and that is actually very significant for the present is the new space race undertaken not by nations but by the richest men on the planet. 2021 will not only go down in the annals as the year in which COVID-19 was defeated but also as the year in which the "astro-capitalists" who want to conquer space appeared.

Just last year, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Ricard Branson undertook a new space conquest worthy of the best era of the Cold War between the Free World and the Soviet Union. First, Branson’s Virgin Galactic took the first space tourists to the edge of the stratosphere, about 86km above sea level; the second feat was Blue Origin from Bezos, the richest man in the world, when he lifted a spaceship to 107km, which is 7km beyond the limit of the planet, taking with him both the youngest astronaut and also the oldest.

It did not stop there. A few days ago, the eccentric Elon Musk, guru of technological innovation, after having achieved several launches of his Space X ship, announced the possibility of making the Texas Valley in the Brownsville-Matamoros area his base of operations for the conquest of space with the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars and founding a new human society. To counteract the civilizational crisis of the Anthropocene Epoch, the magnate believes that the only solution is the conquest of space and sending human colonies to the Red Planet.

I am very struck by his pretension in seeking an extra-planetary way out of the environmental debacle caused by our systemic model rather than solving the root of the problem. Even more so because he is one of the leaders of the EcoTec startups of clean energy and electric cars, and thanks to these items he is one of the richest men today.

There is a contradiction in promoting a new lifestyle that is friendly to the environment while believing that we have no solution other than to bet on astro-flight. Therefore, I would like to tell him and all the other new space explorers or astro-capitalists not to look up but rather to put their feet firmly on the ground and use their entrepreneurial skills and capital for the benefit of humanity and planet Earth.

In fact, do not look up because there will not be a conquest of Mars, at least not in the medium term, and the chances of this are diminished if we consider the catastrophic scenarios that the Interdisciplinary Group of Experts on Climate Change foresee in its latest reports.

At first glance, these astronautical feats are mere financial speculation, with the goals being expansion to a new economic sector, "space tourism," and space conquest by private initiative. The effects and consequences can be totally different.

Although we might only focus on the aspect of the creation of a new economic sector to satisfy the new whims of the hyper-rich, the realization of these technological feats has an unspeakable consequence. Several sociologists, such as Stéphane Foucart, warn that Hollywood science speculation is forging a narrative that is shaping our collective imagination and our unconscious. It increases the denialism of society in the face of the greatest planetary challenge to reverse the socio-environmental crisis: the flight forward of an entire system that due to its original flaws – not including the environmental externalities of the economic equation – is breaking down and is on the verge of collapse.

Talk of salvation in space and the conquest of the planet Mars allows to make more acceptable or assimilable the inconveniences of the system, the destruction of the ecosystem and its non-return with the necessity and possibility of a planetary exodus.

It can be seen, as Greg Sharzer says in his book, Late Escapism and Contemporary Neoliberalism, that both the political and economic elites refuse to accept the failure of the system and that it is better to evade it with the narrative that science and technology is going to save us in the near future thanks to this new space epic. We have to escape from our reality and, therefore, escape from the planet. Although in reality it is well known that such a scenario is not feasible and, unfortunately, the famous phrase from Louis XV, father of the future guillotined king, is more plausible: “After me, the flood.”

Guess what? For now, a conquest of the planet Mars belongs to the sphere of science fiction due to several factors, both material and technological. The astrophysicists Sylvia Ekström and Javier Nombela, in their recent work Nous ne vivrons pas sur Mars ni ailleurs (We Won’t Live on Mars or Anywhere Else), affirm that there is no material, scientific or human possibility and no life-saving planet within our reach. The closest solar system to ours is four light years away. So, there is no planet b, c or d. We cannot live outside the Blue Planet. They argue that we have to shake off the fantasy of human life outside our biosphere.

First, until now, all closed ecological system projects, which are those that do not exchange resources with anyone outside their own system (because they are encapsulated, self-sufficient and isolated), have been an outright failure.

In the mid-1980s, the University of Arizona and later Columbia University launched the Biosphere I and II projects in the Arizona desert. The Soviet Union did the same in Siberia with Bios-3. All of them were a budgetary and technological failure. More than US$200 million was spent on the North American program. Self-sufficiency and self-regeneration of closed systems were never achieved, the experiments led to a precipitous degradation of air quality, food self-sufficiency was not achieved and all the vertebrate animals and pollinators of the system died. In addition, there was major damage to the point of the total loss of the system's hermeticity, which would be fatal in an environment as inhospitable as space or Mars. What could colonies be like on that planet? Where could water, organic and inorganic waste be cultivated, treated and recycled?

The second difficulty in accomplishing this feat is of material order. The natural and transformed resources metals, electronic cards, motors necessary to initiate and maintain a conquest of space are immense. To understand the magnitude of the necessary resources, let us visualize that the energy consumption required to take a spacecraft to the limits of the stratosphere is equivalent to a lifetime of gasoline consumption of an average city dweller when traveling by motorized vehicle. Now, imagine the amount of energy required to move the infrastructure and machines for the installation of colonies of dozens of people in these times of scarcity of natural resources. That possibility is unfeasible.

Third, even if the Red Planet (color due to a chemical oxidation process when it lost its atmosphere and water) had great, exploitable mineral wealth, it would be impossible to bring it to Earth at an economically acceptable and energy-efficient cost. Therefore, there is no room to start this type of adventure, especially if there is a profit incentive, because the math does not add up and we deviate from the essential.

For now, the only place we can live is here, on planet Earth, with all its ecological imbalances. Resilience is possible, as well as its remediation, but we all have to get to work, without exception.

Neither the paradigm shift nor the solutions will come by themselves. It is essential to make many sacrifices and, above all, more just and equitable societies. Change is statistically, materially and humanly inevitable. The question is whether we want to influence this programmed decrease in a harmonious and equitable way or leave the empire to chance and chaos. That's why I insist, don't look up. Let's keep our feet firmly on the ground and let's all achieve the preservation of our home together.

Photo by:   Julio Trujillo