Who Gets to Decide What Our Space Settlements Look Like?

We need a forum to let average people weigh in on our most imminent space activities.

Two people in space suits look out at a rover on a planet.
gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus

On July 10, Future Tense and the JustSpace Alliance will hold an event titled, “How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space?” in Washington. For more information, to RSVP, and to watch the livestream, visit the New America website.

In a 2018 interview, Jeff Bezos made a bold prediction: “[W]e will move all heavy industry off of Earth and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry.” In this view, space could enable a future where growth and sustainability are not in conflict with one another. The dirty stuff could happen off-Earth, leaving our home planet with clean air, fresh water, healthy ecosystems, and biodiversity. But coming from a tycoon whose wealth derives from this unbridled growth, critics understandably question his motives. Who is he to decide that? And, in truth, how should we decide that?

Comments like Bezos’ betray the same paternalistic attitudes and hero narratives that led to centuries of political and economic subjugation of those with less power. That’s alarming to those of us who want to decolonize visions of the future. Going into space isn’t just about where we’re going but how we get there. As physics professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein puts it, we need to ask whether we can “avoid reproducing deeply entrenched colonial behaviors as we seek to better understand our solar system.” Although colonization created access to new resources, markets, adventures, and science, it also outsourced polluting industries and created economic castes and grossly unequal social structures.

But, you might say, humans don’t yet live on the moon, Mars, or in orbiting colonies around the Earth, so what does decolonization mean in this context? How can we decolonize somewhere that hasn’t been colonized?

Decolonization means having a say. Although people aren’t living or even working on other planets yet, the perspectives, values, and cultural histories represented in the design phase will shape those first missions to other worlds, and those missions will in turn be the basis for our long-term futures. The call to decolonize is an invitation to all of us to get involved in asking important questions and listening to divergent viewpoints about these futures. Bezos has shared a vision we can respond to, but the rest of us have to be vulnerable enough to throw our own visions into the mix.

One important way that we reproduce colonization is through the stories we tell. The HMS Beagle is thought of as one of the premiere exploration expeditions in Western history. But its purpose was preparation for commercial trade and British expansion. Charles Darwin originally came along as a gentleman companion to Capt. Robert FitzRoy: The captain of the previous voyage had killed himself, and the job was a notoriously lonely and stressful one.

The story we all know is a retrospective rewrite. The courageous, innovative genius, Darwin, is a hero of science, and the voyage is known almost exclusively for his discoveries and theories. The first peoples of Tierra del Fuego who were kidnapped are broadly forgotten; so is the opening of commerce enabled by the ship’s work. We are left with a clean hero story of discovery. Exploration today is similarly cast into the hero model: Astronauts and trailblazing entrepreneurs are treated as heroes, while the rest of us can stand back in awe.

But these hero narratives erase complex histories and conspire to convince us that the future can be simple. They colonize the future by colonizing our stories about the past. We need to move away from hero narratives. Instead, we must recognize that the stories of our past—and future—are complex and subjective.

If you don’t have the resources of Bezos, it may feel like you don’t have power to tell stories about the future. But early lunar actors are not the only stakeholders in our space future. We need to create forums for broad participation, especially in borderless policy topics, so that others can be involved with these crucial decisions. We are facing a new generation of governance questions, from extraterrestrial and artificial intelligence to data jurisdictions, biological engineering, and space settlement. These questions are characterized by rapid capability change, irreversibility, broad societal implications, deep ethical questions, and lagging institutional governance. Organizations such as the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and the Global Observatory for Gene Editing have worked to make discussion and deliberation accessible to new types of stakeholders.

Now we need a forum focused on our most imminent space activities, like creating a permanent base on the moon, or Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars. State actors are not the only ones who should have a say in these decisions. We envision a process that invites private and commercial actors to the table as peers with states, and leveraging our best theories on the commons and resource management, creates a safe space to share aspirational visions, explore the unknown, and engage in direct coordination. Much like on questions of genetic engineering and nuclear weapons, we need opportunities for broad societal participation that are both deliberative and generative. This is relevant not just for activity on the moon but also for our increasingly connected future on Earth.

This process would seek to constitute an ongoing, civic discourse that uses critique to lift up and inform pioneering engineering activity. It would be characterized by a commitment to exploring concrete instruments for our common future, as well as shared agreements around inclusivity, transparency, and making room for difference.

To prevent our fears of blind colonization from becoming reality, it’s time to abandon the hero model for exploration and see ourselves as part of a team. With all voices and disciplines at the table, our collective ideas of a better society can get translated into action and reality. This is an opportunity to create a human society that is inclusive and effective, a better vision of both where we’re going and how we get there.

If we want an affirmative future in space, we need to roll up our sleeves and get involved. Let’s create a new narrative of exploration. Let’s all be Darwin, let’s all help plan the voyage, and let’s take the pressure off our FitzRoys by building a team.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.