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“Leaving Earth”: A Cultural Anthropologist’s Take on Space Settlement

November 16, 2017

Portrait of David Valentine

Portrait of David Valentine
Photo by Matt Weber, CLAgency student

When you think about cultural anthropology, space settlement is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. However, David Valentine, associate professor and cultural and linguistic anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, has found that the commercial space movement is challenging scientists of all kinds, especially social scientists like himself.

From Transgender Activism to Commercial Space

After completing his undergraduate degree in Cape Town, David found himself in New York City working on his dissertation on transgender activism in the 1990s. As he studied how people began to become more familiar with transgender issues, he began to think about “the future” as a cultural object--how new language allows people to imagine different relationships between themselves and future worlds.

David then came to the University of Minnesota in 2004 and spent six years, from 2009 to 2014, researching how professionals working towards humans living in space interact and go about this futuristic topic. His interest was in looking at how people maintain a commitment to a deep future they will most likely not see in this life; the metaphors and precedents of US American histories of colonialism that underpin the space settlement movement; and the challenges that the space settlement movement poses to social scientists’ analytic frameworks.

The Reality of an Unlikely Future

Through attending over 40 commercial space conferences in six years, he has found that though the topic involves financially, socially, and economically unlikely futures, the people dedicated to human settlement in space are not just science fiction fans: rather, they are people who are professionally committed to this goal and who have technologically well-developed plans for a human future in space.

Using these professional conferences as his primary field sites, supplementing his research with the occasional rocket engine test in Mojave, California, and following space blogs, David has discovered that space settlement has “stopped being a joke and started being a real possibility.” 

Companies like SpaceX are working to reduce the cost of space travel, and people of many kinds--from white, well-educated, libertarian scientists to Iranian, feminist Marxists--are putting terrestrial political differences aside to work on future-related projects. Despite these differences, a common trait that characterizes just about everyone in the field is that they are “united by the conviction that it is essential for the destiny of the human species to leave Earth,” says David. “They think it must happen.”

An Anthropological Outlook 

David himself is “agnostic” on the idea, given the enormous political, social, economic, and environmental barriers. “Space settlement involves taking an entire world with you,” he says, explaining that in order to move the human species to another planet, everything from chemistry to religion, labor laws to gravity, and social differences to the makeup of the atmosphere have to be considered. What we know as “nature” would not be there to hold things in place, nor create the order we know. “Even basic bodily orientations such as what is ‘up and down’ would be the subject of conversation,”  says David. “This research has really made me think about what it means to live on this particular planet, Earth.”

Possible new homes for our species include not only planets like Mars or Jupiter’s moons, but also rotating cylindrical space stations with their own gravitational rules. Our relationship with gravity is just one of many other factors that would need to be worked out. Where would waste go? Would children born on Mars have a new understanding of indigeneity? If the density of our bones adapt to a world outside of Earth, would we be able to return? 

Even small details could become big problems. An example David gives is seemingly small but significant: haircuts. A space settlement has to be self-sustaining and self-contained to avoid dangerous conditions. Not only would settlers need to figure out who is going to give the haircuts and how to pay the stylists, but what to do with the discarded hair. Our hair contains high levels of heavy metals, like nickel, and allowing these poisonous wastes to build up could threaten the entire settlement. 

These ramifications are partly why David professes agnosticism on the subject, though he does believe we will see some developments toward these goals in his lifetime. Companies like Virgin Galactic have been trying for more than a decade to take space tourists to the edge of the atmosphere and back, and David says he will be surprised if something along these lines does not happen in the next 10 years. “When you mention a ‘future world’ in any sort of context, you’re enacting it,” says David. “Just talking about launching rockets or living on Mars is central to the task of making a future happen.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.