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On Settling Space: Building Utopia or Expanding Dystopia?



At Public Books, design scholar Billy Fleming reviews Space Settlements by Fred Scharmen. In Fleming’s words, the book “tells the story of NASA’s 1975 project to design large-scale habitats for millions of people in space, developed by a team of physicists, engineers, artists, architects, and urban planners.” This early vision of the human settlement of space has gained new relevance in light of the recent emergence of private space programs funded by billionaire egomaniacs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, which lay the groundwork to eventually enable the global elite to escape the planet they have devastated. As Fleming writes, if the early vision of space settlement is any indication, these new projects will be less about building utopia than extending the earth’s existing class system to other planets. Here’s an excerpt:

Scharmen’s greatest intervention is to give us context: about the ways in which utopian imagery is produced, how speculative design and science fiction operate within an ecosystem of ideation that drives futurist thought, and the ways in which the images within Space Settlements represent something more than civilizational objects themselves. The images have come to signify the ambitions of self-identified “great men” throughout history who’ve endeavored to mask their grief and shame about the health of this planet by investing in a future beyond it, endlessly seeking new frontiers for unfettered capitalist exploitation.

Though it went to press before the public release of Bezos’s Blue Origin project, Space Settlements serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of wild speculation and utopianism, and about the continued relevance of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine in the age of climate change. Klein’s book reminds us that “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure.” The spectacular, provocative ideas found in Space Settlements are now in the hands of global elites. Now that they have set this planet ablaze, men like Bezos are turning their gaze toward outer space as a site of both refuge and profit. And the images in Scharmen’s book have already begun to shape their visions for this future.

Image: Jeff Bezos promotes his space-exploration program Blue Origin. Via NY Times.