On Space Flight and Feeding the Hungry

“…Great achievement has no road map. The X-Ray is pretty good, and so is penicillin, and neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean, when the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless. And now we have an entire world run by electronics. Hayden and Mozart never studied the classics. They couldn’t. They invented them.”
– Dr. Dalton Millgate, The West Wing (episode: Dead Irish Writers)

There has been a lot of hatred going around the Internet lately… Hm. I say that like it’s a new thing. It’s not; sometimes I think the major product of the Internet actually is hatred. We could tap Twitter for an endless supply, if only we could find a market…

…but I digress. The curious thing about this current hate is that it’s directed toward Branson, Bezos, and Elon Musk for their rocket trips. Apparently, the idea is that they, being billionaires, should do something about world hunger and climate change before even considering their vanity trips to orbit. It’s another offshoot of the concept that being a billionaire is an intrinsically evil thing.

To be fair, Bezos and his ilk do in fact routinely engage in tax-dodging, worker exploitation, asset juggling, monopolism, and a thousand other methods of (probably) legally defrauding the government and therefore the populace. They create false charities called foundations, which they use to conceal assets and evade taxes. And they do all this merely to accumulate wealth in amounts that stagger the imagination, which translates to a near-sovereign power over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is difficult to call that “virtuous”.

On the other hand, the type of wealth they accumulate isn’t starving people. They aren’t hoarding the global supply of corn or wheat or bananas; they aren’t using milk and cheese as fuel to launch their rockets. They’re accumulating business assets, centralizing control of the means of industrial production in a way that doesn’t impact agriculture in the slightest. Nobody starved because Richard Branson went into space, and it didn’t have any measurable impact on the world’s temperature.

People are upset because they’re poor, which is reasonable. The price of healthcare is obscene, rent keeps going up and up, wages never move, the temperature across half the continent is at record highs this summer, and amid all this some guy flew a private rocket high enough to achieve orbit. It seems like the ultimate in conspicuous consumption, and demonstrates a seeming disregard for human suffering almost beyond belief.

The logical flaw, however, is that nothing these people are doing is contrary to the public interest. Branson’s stratospheric flights will eventually be faster and more fuel efficient than most long-range passenger aircraft, and Bezos is pursuing a similar goal. Elon Musk has created an economically profitable model for fulfilling tasks that the Space Shuttle program sunk billions into, with record losses every year. And each of these three, along their pathway to space, have created massive numbers of jobs, boosting the economy by a tremendous factor.

Which is not to say this qualifies them to be humanitarians, or that they’re achieving these things to improve the public welfare. They’re businessmen first and dreamers second (Elon Musk might reverse the order); they’re out to make a profit — and they will.

But what it does do is monetize the act of discovery. This is vital to humanity’s survival.

Famines have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Today, famine conditions exist in dozens of places around the world, usually as a deliberate consequence of war. Both sides destroyed crops and farms in the Tigray region; seven or more different factions did so in Syria. Houthi separatists are blocking food shipments into their own territories because it would decrease their hold on their own population. The only way to stop these horrible events is to invade, conquer, and hand out food. This is not within the purview of Elon Musk or Richard Branson.

Hundreds of corporations collaborate with government mismanagement to continue to pollute the world, particularly the atmosphere, in such a manner that the climate has shifted measurably. They do this not because Jeff Bezos wants to send a rocket to the moon but rather because the consumer populations of the industrialized world pay them to. You, reading this on your cell phone right now, are contributing to climate change by so doing.

(Think of it as an investment.)

If you want these corporations and governments to stop destroying the world, you shouldn’t buy so much extra clothing, the newest gadgets and gizmos, plane tickets to Aruba, fast food, new cars, and air conditioning. Use public transportation to get to work. And so on.

Do all that, and get a couple hundred million of your closest friends to do it too, and it still won’t be enough. Which is exactly why discovery is so important: In the process of colonizing Mars, mining the asteroids, and traveling to the next solar system, we’ll discover technologies that can help us back here on Earth. There’s no “maybe” about it; it’s not a “perhaps”. We’ll need tremendous advances in hydroponics and closed-system waste processing; we’ll need to learn to raise crops on other worlds. And that’s just the beginning.

So stop complaining about Branson, Musk, and Bezos going into space. That’s not a problem, and it’s not a bad thing. If you feel strongly about the evils of billionaires, you might avoid shopping at Amazon; that, I leave entirely up to you.

(Permit me to recommend Bookshop.org instead.)

Yes, I know I’m on vacation. This is important, dammit! PS: Vacations are actually more expensive than normal time, so feel free to make a PayPal donation, or click the button below to Buy Us A Coffee Mojito!

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