When Christopher Columbus arrived in San Salvador on October 12, 1492, he probably thought something along the lines of ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for the Spanish Empire’. When Vasco da Gama saw the coastline of Calicut from his boat, the São Gabriel, global imperialism, spearheaded by the Portuguese Empire, was beginning to take shape right in front of his eyes. And when Jeff Bezos flew his rocket ship to space for 11 minutes, he saw an infinite blank canvas of capitalistic opportunities, waiting to be embraced, claimed and conquered, all in the name of the Amazon Empire.
Looking back, we ache at the notion that white colonialists saw themselves as the solution to uncivilized societies and unclaimed land. Natives were in their eyes unknowingly begging for structural urbanization and religion as a means of comfort and reason, the latter in turn a handy way of instilling obedience. All those conquerers were seemingly on missions to expand the global footprint, introduce new ways of commerce and redraw the world as we knew it. They have wealth, education and the backing of an empire in common and had nothing to lose, only to go where (almost) no one went before them. Not because no one dared to but because no one had the time, the means or an empire to back them.
So they went, saw and conquered, and by that, manifested themselves in our history books as pioneers beyond their time. And while colonialism, imperialism and globalization only peaked well after Columbus’s or da Gama’s time on earth, they knew they were shaping the future of generations to come. And that was history book worthy.
What our generation struggles to prioritize is the empowerment of future generations by investing in tomorrow. The kind of tomorrow so far in the future that we‘re not the ones reaping its benefits. We are so committed to investing in today, in instant returns, in our immediate selves. We see Germany drown in floods and Oregon go up in flames, but still, climate change seems like a distant problem that won’t dramatically affect most of us. So why invest in it now? Why invest in it yesterday? Why make concessions when we know we’ll be long gone when the real repercussions of global warming are paramount and inevitable. Our conscience does occasionally haunt us but we know how to silence it with little gestures we tell ourselves make a difference. These gestures conveniently agree with our present-day lifestyle. We buy that sustainably raised farm egg, we stop flushing baby wipes down the toilet and we drive down the street to the nearest Blue Bottle in our Tesla Model 3.
It is that same delusion we lend an ear to when it comes to space. In fact, space is even more removed from us than climate change so our conscience doesn’t even seem to be attuned to it yet. It is so hard to fathom its relevance. We know so little about it that between our childhood and our teen years Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a so-called dwarf planet. So why would we pay attention now? We don’t even get the fundamentals of our immediate solar system right. It’s unrelatable.
I’m sure all of us have wondered what the purpose of the universe/s is. Pragmatically speaking, we can all agree that it is space that has not been claimed in the way we claim land on earth. Any space on earth that was unclaimed, as conveniently defined by the conquerer, was conquered and claimed mainly by monarchs and their extended associates. Columbus was allegedly looking for a pathway to East India for trade purposes, yet ended up initiating the colonization of Native American land and its people. Da Gama was looking to link Europe and Asia by ocean route and introduced an epoch of imperialism that led to centuries of global inequality still felt in most parts of the world today.
Like monarchs and their associates in the 15th and 16th century, internet billionaires today are embarking on a colonial space mission disguised as voyages to introduce space travel. They, too, benefit from that first-mover advantage that allowed the British, the Spanish and the Portuguese Empire to claim land and rid it of uncivilized and rudimentary societies. Just like Bezos, Musk and Branson early on saw the power in technology, they see the power of the universe. Comparable to when they embarked on their internet voyages, they are comfortable with the fact that our knowledge on the matter is very very very limited. What motivates them is what I would argue motivated Columbus, da Gama and Magellan. Making history. Creating a legacy. How do you make history? By changing the world. It’s not necessarily the change in the world that is the motivator but the history making in the process. Regardless of the motivation behind these space missions, however, the results are the same. History is being made.
Organizations need to focus now on the importance of equity, sustainability and longevity when it comes to the universe. It cannot be an after thought. Yes, history repeats itself more often than we want but with the rise of technology we should no longer fall prey to such preconceived notion.
The governing body of the universe is money. We need to change that before we end up witnessing the colonization of space. Not tomorrow. Not once Elon made it to space. We can’t wait for it to be mainstream to demand changes. This time we need to be there from the start.