How Space Can Save the Environment

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A white, middle-class woman tends her space garden.

One of the main factors driving space colonists to advocate for human settlement off Earth was their concern for the environmental degradation that increasingly drove many Americans to call for reform, if not a solution as drastic as the colonizing of space. Space colonists believed that moving a large segment of the Earth’s population to space would not only ease environmental degradation but would also halt and ultimately reverse its concomitant resource depletion, specifically that of energy resources. The Club of Rome’s publication in 1972 of their notorious book, The Limits to Growth, further drove space colonists’ sense of impending doom. They sought refuge in space, a new frontier they believed to be populated with endless resources that would enable human life to flourish, and also permit every human to enjoy an American standard of living. This standard crucially included access to green space, as depicted repeatedly in descriptions and drawings of the proposed space colonies.

Because space colonists harbored such overarching concerns about Earth’s limits, I have been reading histories of the environmental movement in the United States that crested on Earth Day, April 20, 1970, at the same time that Gerard K O’Neill and others began to imagine ways space colonies might solve problems facing the human race on Earth. Like environmentalism, space colonies purported to be a universal solution that would not only preserve middle-class American standards of living but that would also uplift those in the developing world both figuratively and literally into the privileged confines of space.

51RHW3JvnWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Space colonists’ concern with environmentalism runs parallel to the issue of population control and the eugenics movement, which did not die out following the Holocaust of World War II. In The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, Thomas Robertson attempts to link the movement for population control in the 20th century to the burgeoning environmental movement. What he calls Malthusian Environmentalists found both attention and legitimacy for their cause by linking it to growing concerns about Earth’s limited resources as depleted by Earth’s growing population.

Malthusian Environmentalists all believed that population needed to be limited, but they differed on whether or not it should be done with coercive tactics or through programs of incentive and education. Though he spends little time talking about Malthus himself, Robertson makes a compelling argument that his Malthusian Environmentalists often practiced a classist and racist agenda, viewing the developing world (particularly India) as the greatest threat to mankind’s continued prosperity. Therefore, population control experts expressed more willingness to perpetrate or support coercive measures in developing countries. It is important to note that racism and classism also played a role in population control policies at home, as America also carried out a program of forced sterilization that led many African Americans to view any efforts at birth control or family planning as a plot to exercise targeted population control.

Like space colonists, Malthusian Environmentalists believed technology could solve Earth’s population problems, from new technologies like the IUD and the birth control pill to the forced sterilizations that many endured around the world. Though both groups sought to uphold a middle-class, American standard of living, space colonists did not believe coercion to be a necessary tactic (who wouldn’t want to improve their standard of living?) and offered space colonies in opposition to population control, as a way to ameliorate the population problem without interfering with anyone’s perceived natural right to reproduce and form families as they wanted.

Perhaps Robertson’s greatest flaw, which is also a critique that could be applied to histories of space colonists, is that his book focuses exclusively on the writings of elite white men. He pays little more than lip service to the massive role grassroots organizing played in the American environmental movement, though brief sections on the role of feminist and African American activists provide tantalizing glimpses into what non-elite Americans may have thought of these elite population control tactics. Because he focuses so little on the grassroots movement, the story of environmentalism takes a back seat to that of the development of mid-twentieth century population control ideology. Environmental concerns serve as little more than a  justification for the family planning and population control measures recommended and pursued by Malthusian Environmentalists. Robertson’s characters are more concerned with preventing the Earth from surpassing its limits to growth than they are with being custodians of nature.

Crabgrass Crucible coverChristopher C. Sellers’ Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America provides a poignant counterpoint to Robertson’s work and also conveys a much for satisfying history of the environmental movement, focusing on grassroots origins and organizing over the writings of the elite (men).

Sellers’ central argument is that the modern environmental movement emerged in suburbia as new suburban residents sought and then worked to preserve the nature around them. Though this nature did include the more stereotypical “wild” nature, most often a concern of conservationists, Sellers argues that suburban residents found nature in the built environment around them, from their lawns to their trees to the air they breathed and the water they drank. Pollution and development forced suburban residents to transcend the urban/rural dichotomy and see themselves as part of a holistic ecosystem where urban and industrial pollution could invade their property and their homes to despoil even the managed nature around them. This realization galvanized them to form grassroots organizations and pursue class action lawsuits meant to preserve their living space. This movement also raised environmental awareness around the country and eventually culminated in a more holistic environmental movement that agitated for laws meant to protect this newly understood integrated ecosystem.

Relocating environmentalism in the suburbs forces us to acknowledge that not only is the built environment part of nature but, as Sellers points out, our human bodies are as well. Space colonists recognized the importance of nature to the human condition and constantly stressed the verdant composition of the built space that would make up space colonies. In fact, recreating nature was necessary to create an environment in space not alien and inhospitable but familiar and natural. Visions of space colonies did not invite alternate imaginings of the suburban ideal but instead viewed its recreation to be imperative to the success of the venture.

Of course, space colonies made a very general assumption when they presumed that everyone seeking to better themselves, including those emigrating to space colonies, would want to recreate the pastoral suburban American life espoused in their visions of the future. Similarly, Sellers is careful to point out that the environmental movement often worked to preserve a version of suburbia that omitted those found in lower class and ethnic neighborhoods. This left those of different races and classes, often more likely to suffer from pollution and lack of green spaces, on their own to fight for better standards of living. Though space colonists imagined ameliorating these groups’ living conditions, they did not provide for any alternate vision of built space besides middle-class suburban paradise. In this way it is possible to see that space colonists shared an important similarity to the environmental movement they sought to perpetuate in their visions of the future.

Overall, Sellers work is more effective in supporting his argument, through drawn out case studies of individual environmentalists draw questions about representation that similarly plagued Robertson. What both books demonstrate, however, is that the environmental movement struggled to find a cohesive language of protection, even though many parties fetishized middle-class, suburban American life. In these narratives, well-off Americans benefited most from environmental politics, whether concerned with family planning or ensuring the potability of a community’s water supply. The most famous space colonists, almost all white, elite men, perhaps could not help espousing similar views about what to preserve and what to leave behind.

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