a journal of personal fieldwork experiences and impressions
Living and Dying Well in the Chthulucene – What are the Existential Implications for Humans in Space? (Asking for a friend.)
Near the end of last month I attended a talk Donna Haraway gave at the San Francisco Art Institute, exploring key ideas in her new book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. The talk’s central problem was that of living and dying well on this earth, in this epoch.
Being a rube from a city with a CBD measuring a staggering 1 km squared, I severely miscalculated the amount of time it would take to ‘just cut across North Beach’, and so I arrived at the talk harried, out of breath, sweaty, and with biological, temporal, existential limitations already at the forefront of my mind – what a primer! But what a beautiful scene to get to walk in on – the small auditorium was absolutely packed, and everyone there to hear and think and talk about something so important. I did my best to soak all the wonderful feels up as I used my backpack as a chair.
What I want to write about here is not so much the talk, as some of the questions and ideas it’s thrown up for me. I've been sitting on them for a while and think I should just get them out, as they are. I will mention a few things, for those who weren’t able to make it. Firstly, Haraway, I think, really situated her talk and topic, these issues, within the broader socio-political context of the moment with such deftness – I was really struck by this. The talk sat midweek, in between the huge March for Science just past, and the climate march set for the following weekend. Considering the very real, very critical nature of the threats these marches sought to address, the tensions between the politics or lack thereof of organising and participating factions, and the complexity of straddling all these interests and fronts in ways that might still allow us to act, strongly, it really was a perfect time to talk about staying with the trouble. (My personal favourite quote: “I’m speaking to you in a time of many marches. Or should I say, parades?”)
The take home message, at least as far as I understood it, was that we need to stay with the trouble we face, in the here and now. We face immense and nearly incomprehensible things (environmental, planetary, systemic crises) that inspire both hope and despair, but “neither… [of these states] teaches us to play string figures with companion species.” What we need, according to Haraway, is a presence and relation, a making of odd-kin with our fellow critters, a profound shift to the attitude that “we become together, or not at all.”
I think, in practical terms, this is targeting our words and concepts and frames – that the ways that we have to think through and with things is central to any doing. These matter, these are a vital first step, and these need changing.
Since the talk, I’ve been trying to think through some of the existential and moral questions raised by this account, particularly because of all the interesting and uneasy fits with key elements in my own field of work. Many of my participants work primarily on large-scale technical and technological projects, building, designing, engineering big, material things, or imagining, proposing, and advocating for them. And as other space anthropologists have well-noted, the kinds of foundational values and assumptions underlying NewSpace imaginaries and endeavours tend to lean a very particular way – namely, assuming that the expansion of human systems, presence, and activities (like exploration, conquest, propagation, consumption, resource exploitation) outwards into space is good, because life is good, humanity is good, progress, continuity, and immortality are good, consciousness is good, and capitalism is good. Clearly the values, assumptions, goals and means of such projects do not map neatly onto Haraway’s account, or onto many others concerned with the Earth and environmental justice. I wonder, if our core metaphysics and ethics are so different, are we left at cross-purposes across some of the biggest and most important human projects? Are there any places at which these projects meet?
So here are my questions. If we (as a species?) are already leaving Earth, and trying to establish or carve out a foothold for life (most particularly human, along with a limited subset of other species for explicit human use) off-Earth, is this incompatible with an approach that stays-with-the-trouble? If so, is the extension of human activities outwards morally defensible on such an account? Many critics of human space exploration and settlement argue against approaches that posit human ejection and migration from the Earth as an ideal, sustainable, or realistic solution to our many pressing and complex existential crises. Of course, I agree with this argument. However, humans are already directly living and working in orbit in many forms (physically and virtually), and have been for longer than many high school students today have been alive. There is human and other earth-terrestrial life in orbit. People are (with some degree of theoretical seriousness) talking about terraforming Mars for potential human settlement, or (more seriously) about mining it and other near earth objects for resource extraction and exploitation. There are concerns about contaminating other locations in our solar system with Earth-terrestrial life, and vice versa, and processes for minimising that risk. We have found and are continuing to search (in part through huge citizen science searches mobilising public enthusiasm and effort) for exoplanets that could support life, though the recently discovered and seemingly promising TRAPPIST-1 system is much less likely to support life than originally thought.
What I mean to say, with all of this, is that our point of reference has profoundly extended and shifted. And it is worth mentioning that for many proponents of human space settlement and exploration, the goal is not wholesale Earth-abandonment. When we think about space and human activities within it, we’re not necessarily talking about a mutually exclusive Earth-or-not-Earth situation. For all that human activities have damaged and destabilised Earth’s environmental systems, in ways making it less habitable and hospitable for us, it remains the most perfectly suited home and habitat that we know of (the model for utopian Mars is, after all, still Earth) so the shift in reference that I mean is not necessarily one grounded in overcoming, escaping, and abandoning Earth. What happens (theoretically speaking), when spheres of human social activity extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere and orbit? What does it mean if Earth-based life forms live in closed ecosystems or biospheres not on Earth? If we find evidence of life that is not Earth-terrestrial in origin, elsewhere in the cosmos? What is the trouble that we are staying with, then, and where is it? Are our existential and moral considerations grounded in the inherent goodness of life, of Earth, of autopoietic systems? If any of these things can be found, extended, or located off of Earth, does the moral sphere (borrowing from Murdoch here) expand? And what do our obligations then become?
Maybe these questions aren’t really answerable now, and they probably depend hugely on where your account of goodness bottoms out – Is it life that is inherently good? Consciousness? Autopoietic systems? Earth? But I wonder. And I do feel like people leading and working on these technical projects (imagining, designing, building, implementing, actualising human futures in/with outer space) aren’t necessarily having these kinds of conversations with people working on Earth-based projects in the now (environmental justice projects, for example, or slow-living and anti-consumption movements), and vice versa of course. We don’t often hold up our most base assumptions about how reality works and how it should, don’t often share them in dialogue with others whose own assumptions differ, but perhaps we should be trying to do so more explicitly. Are there ways to find middle grounds such that large scale human technical and existential projects could collaborate and coalesce? What could happen at those spaces of meeting? What would they look like? Or, if they don’t meet, would it be better at least for those differences in direction to be intentional? What do different points of reference, or shifting points of reference, mean for our practical foci and action?
TL;DR: Is the trouble earthbound? Must it be? What does it mean if it’s not?