On the fifth day of protests and the 80th day since the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, they sent two men to space. The men who went to space — Americans, both of them — were going up in a rocket launched from American soil for the first time in almost a decade; a rocket built by a private American company, SpaceX.
For some future — yours, maybe — this is an important moment not because of the protests or the pandemic but because it lays the foundation for a new era of human space travel, which begets an era of human space exploration and human space societies.
The day they sent two men to space, I watched videos filmed less than a mile from my house of burning cop cars and tried (and failed) to work on this essay, which I still question the purpose of writing even as it goes through another round of edits.
This probably isn’t important for understanding what happened. It’s not going to come up when this era is the subject of a history test. I mention it for that far-future reader — yes, you, again I am breaking the fourth wall here, I speak across centuries and void to a future I hope never occurs — I mention it because one of the hardest things to convey about a history as it’s happening is that many of the people trying to document it are very tired and somehow expected to show up for the parts of the world that insist on operating “as usual.”
I have been reassured by the people in charge of the event who commissioned this essay that the show must go on, that there is a need for continued discourse because, after all, during these past two weeks when America changed carbon emissions did not magically stop. Supply chain capitalism did not abruptly transform for the better. Long-term thinking remains relevant.
Except, it doesn’t. Not exactly. Not in the same way. What the summer of 2020 has made undeniable is that any long-term anything that doesn’t explicitly incorporate the work of dismantling white supremacy is, in fact, still short-term thinking. Or at least, it’s deeply cynical and decidedly not reading the fucking room. It’s why your far-future history of the space colonies doesn’t note the protests when it notes the momentous crewed rocket launch. It’s why you probably don’t know that the launch was supposed to happen on day two of the protests, but it was postponed because of weather.
The space-industrial complex can wait for weather, but doesn’t exactly wait for peace on earth. Its origins, after all, lie in the opposite — fear of nuclear annihilation. The American space program’s greatest moment of triumph, the 1969 moon landing, took place against a backdrop of terrestrial unrest. How is it possible, people marveled, that we can put a man on the moon but we cannot quell race riots?
The answer, of course, lies in the presumptive "we" of the question, and what exactly "our" priorities really are. The capacity to engage in human space exploration is largely a matter of amassing technical resources. The capacity to reckon with centuries of racist oppression is largely a matter of redistributing resources. Those two ideas don't have to be in opposition to each other, but they tend to be.
The persistence with which space projects continue through a pandemic and protest is not new, though the outsized role of private companies with their own agendas in those space projects is. They make it harder to ignore one of the subtexts of space-as-usual amidst crisis: maintaining an exit strategy for the rich. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been waxing rhapsodic about humanity's future in space for years, and they've got decades of pop-culture to back up their visions. Leave the chaos of earth behind. A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. That it may not ever happen, or that living in space actually sounds pretty awful (are you even, right now as you read this, casually shitting yourself in low-g?), isn't really the point.
Let's say it happens. Elon and Jeff get what they want. Let's say you're in space—a descendent of the people who believed that leaving the planet would produce a return to stability and prosperity. You're looking back, trying to understand this planet that you probably don't even have the bone density to safely visit. Maybe you’re only just starting to understand that you come from a long line of extremely capable cowards. Breathing recycled air, you want to know about what happened before the Great Departure. How shall I explain this era?
Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experienced them. (William Gibson)
The crisis I write from — a present that someday will be a historical moment with a convenient name — we could say the crisis is a respiratory condition. Conditions. A crisis of breath. A cascade of crises of breath.
Some of this is obvious: a virus that robs its victims of breath continues to kill thousands daily worldwide. At its peaks, doctors struggle to obtain equipment to keep patients breathing and to keep themselves safe.
For the second time in less than ten years, the world watches a Black man plead, “I can't breathe,” as he dies on camera. In response to protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder, police deploy chemical weapons that choke protestors — yes, even as those same protestors risk contacting the aforementioned respiratory virus.
The rationales offered for the chemical weapons and other brutal tactics come in the form of gasps from the rich, comfortable, and powerful, horrified by the uncouth behaviors taken in the name of rage and grief. Oxygen that might have fed breath instead feeds fires, set by protestors or provocateurs or in all likelihood both and maybe it doesn't matter.
Meanwhile, older and slower-burn crises collide with these new ones. The so-called lungs of the planet continue to asphyxiate, carbon dioxide overwhelms oceans, and regulations on polluting technologies are relaxed more and more in the name of a free market. Capitalism’s invisible hand has terraformed the planet to better serve corporate personhood than actual life. There's anxiety over not just access to fossil fuels, but access to the minerals needed for technologies that might help the world transition away from fossil fuels. We trade oil fields for lithium fields, for fantasies of moon mining. People fight even over the name and date of this era of crisis (Anthropocene or Capitalocene or Chthulucene), trying to turn planetary trauma into a fixed point in rock.
Of course, all of the immediate crises are intertwined and part of the older, deeper crises. Even responding to the pandemic grimly enables the climate crisis by producing mountains upon mountains of unrecyclable hydrocarbon-derived biomedical waste (a curiously discarded detail of the feel-good history of meltblown polypropylene face masks currently protecting doctors from the virus is that they exist, in part, thanks to the R&D work of the Esso Corporation). The pandemic might not have been so devastating to generations of Black and brown populations had decades of environmental racism not polluted the air, creating asthmatic and immunocompromised neighborhoods. Those conditions might have been easier to mitigate if people didn't have to pay so much money for healthcare. It might have been easier to coordinate a response to the pandemic in some places had the atmosphere not been overwhelmed with carbon dioxide, producing weather patterns of increasingly intense disasters in already vulnerable areas. (Hurricane season has barely begun as I write this, you may know how that plays out better than I do.)
Maybe if the come-to-climate moment of the early twenty-first century had centered the people actually most directly harmed by environmental destruction instead of an aw-shucksing former Vice President, if mainstream actions proposed for responding to climate change had emphasized undoing settler-colonial violence as much as buying the right kind of lightbulbs, if modern environmental movements had not been so deeply bound up in racism and xenophobia to begin with maybe I would not have to emphasize here that the crisis that affords cops impunity for murdering Black people comes from the same lineage of crisis that affords oil companies impunity for also murdering Black people. Without slave labor to toil in colonial mines and plantation farms, the Industrial Revolution would have had no raw material to turn into mass-produced commodities at such a rapid clip. Extraction would have still happened, surely, but not with the urgency and speed that comes with the convenience of dehumanization. (Oddly, few of the names offered up for this geologic era or the theory surrounding it accommodates this reality. Perhaps that will change.)
So the crises of right now are the crises of then, and maybe there's a name for my present in whichever future you are in but for now I suppose I could call the crisis "white supremacy" or "capitalism" or "imperialism" or "America." Really, it's all of them at once because they are not discrete states but interdependent conditions. We could say that capitalism is a respiratory condition that punishes people for catching their breath. We could say America is a respiratory condition in which white people cannot breathe easy unless they are standing on someone else's neck (and further, a psychosomatic one in which white people insist that not only are they not standing on someone's neck, they are in fact helping the person they're standing on, somehow).
This is not to suggest some kind of original-sin theory of crisis — such an approach suggests simplistic solutionism, fixes over ongoing process. Thinking of a crisis as something that ends or that can be fixed is itself part of the problem. Framing it even as a problem might be part of the problem. The word "crisis" has largely come to be synonymous with chaos, but its etymological roots trace back to something far more pointed: choice. Typically the choice was implicitly a decisive or significant one, a turning point of sorts. Still, a choice.
This is not an unusual linguistic drift from a root to a new shorthand. It's similarly casually ignored that an apocalypse reveals the world as it is rather than merely obliterates it, that the "absence of kings" implied by anarchy could be a gift rather than a disaster. Much like those etymological foreclosures of possibility, the denial of crisis as verb — crisis as choice — undermines how crisis both affords and demands agency and responsibility. It obscures how crisis is the state of oppressive systems working exactly as intended rather than an aberration to be repaired.
Ignoring crisis-as-choice also allows for the temporal trickery that turns an ongoing condition into an urgent present-tense, one that affords little space for long-term analysis or imagining. A crisis must be solved now because damn it, lives are at stake. No time to propose redesigning the systems that made that free-fall, that global shortage, those needless deaths happen. No time to demand time.
But to cynically reduce the choice of crisis to mere disaster capitalism also erases how those systems can be brought down by the choices of people who are sick and tired of living within oppression, complicity, and someone else's choices about their futures. Crisis as choice is another way of understanding where and how power works, because power usually determines whether and for whom a choice (collective or individual) constitutes a crisis.
The crisis of the climate, for instance (the one that we already established is also the crisis of white supremacy and imperialism, that crisis). For years, politicians and corporations have framed it as a problem to be solved via individual choices, primarily. Choices around reducing consumption or limiting travel or buying the right products or investing in offsets. In this individual-choices frame, the choices to do things like drill for oil in the first place or design cities exclusively around automobile travel are taken as an unavoidable given, absent of agency. (Conveniently, this also takes as given the colonizing and invasion of oil-rich Arab countries as well as interstate and freeway planning's role in reinforcing segregation.)
As the crisis of the pandemic forced a slowing of travel and the perpetual motion machine of global commerce, some pointed to reduced pollution and projected carbon emissions as good news. Instead, the drop in the bucket those reductions offered demonstrated the absurdity of trying to address climate change solely through consumer choice. The choices made by corporations — such as the choice of a corporation to exist at all — are much more significant here because they actually perpetuate the climate crisis. But look, they say. We are beholden to the shareholders. We had to do it. We had no choice. (Reader, if history has not made this abundantly clear to you yet: they had a choice.)
Breathing, of course, is not actually a choice. It's something that lifeforms simply do, simply have to do, can't simply stop doing. This is where the crisis-of-breath metaphor breaks, or at least reveals itself as slightly more complicated. These of-then and of-now cascading crises of breath insist that there is only one way to breathe and it is helplessly, desperately, viciously gulping for scarce air at the expense of anyone (though it's easier to rationalize by saying anything) in your way. People do have the choice to breathe otherwise, but learning new ways of breathing — and doing so in the long term, not as exercises to recuperate from exhaustion — can be terrifying and exhausting in its own way. It takes work, and we–you–I don’t know what exists or who I am on the other side. Anyone who has recovered from an addiction or left a toxic relationship knows that being open and vulnerable enough to walk away from and unlearn a miserable existence doesn’t always sound better than a familiar form of suffocation and exhaustion. So the crises are both atmospheric and symptomatic. The fault lies not in our stars, etc.
Which brings us back to space, at last. The absence of atmosphere. The reassurance of the void, of believing that you can create an atmosphere — a world — entirely anew, entirely to your liking, dissipating generational trauma like cleaning dust off a surface, somatics be damned. This is the real promise of space colonies–that you can jettison guilt and harm out the airlock, that you can reconstruct that normalcy that you swear existed once. Has it happened? Did it work? Do you breathe easy in the void?
I doubt it, if only because if you did, you wouldn't have gone looking for this (now-overdue, but what is time anymore) essay. You would not have these questions. You might even still be on Earth. People might still be dreaming of and pouring money into going to space. It might be 2020 and you might be frustrated because why am I wasting my breath on an extended framing device about space colonialism when I’m really just talking to white people who want things to go back to normal, am I actually just talking to myself here to reckon with my own desire to dissociate and relapse into the void some days, am I going to give you something concrete to do to solve the thing I just said is not about solving?
Well: because that future is as hollow and miserable as the present condition it’s standing in for. And probably, because I’m just as flawed and fucked-up and working on it as the rest of them so why not hold myself accountable (though really, ask the editors why they published it). And: look, don't hold your breath for easy answers. Don't stay suspended in the possibility of choices, in the suffocation of a crisis atmosphere. Pay attention to how you’re breathing. Pay attention to what you think is innate and consider what's actually a construct. Talk about this with others. Consider how you might all live otherwise. Live otherwise. Or don't. Make a choice.
There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be. (Octavia Butler)
Senior Fellow, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab