Breaking the Karman Line: Inner & Outer Boundary Building in Environmentalism

“Humans, we like boundaries, don’t we?”

Beyond the Anthropocene Un-Earthing an Epoch, Lisa Messeri, Original quote by Phil Gibbard

This is the first installment in a 6 part series investigating the counter-narratives of space exploration from an environmentalist standpoint and proposing methods for coalition building between the movement and the space industry.

On December 7th, 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 turned their camera away from the moon as they orbited, and took the now famous Blue Marble photograph. This was the first color photo taken of the Earth in its entirety and was the spark for the rise of mainstream environmentalism. People, from the suburbanite mother to the urban college student, could unite under a banner of a fragile Earth, an environment contained in a spheroid marble, that they were all responsible for. (Olson, Valerie, and Lisa Messeri, 2015) The greatest achievement of the Apollo program was not necessarily the extension of the human race beyond the Earth, but a new focus inward on the human-nature relationship and stewardship for the environment. (Bryant, William, 1995)

The Blue Marble, one of the first color photos taken of the Earth in its entirety from space

Today, the topological landscape of the mainstream environmentalist movement is a series of nested boundaries encircling the Earth. (Henry, Holly and Amanda Taylor, 2004. Olsen, Valerie and Lisa Messeri, 2015) One method of understanding complex environmental issues is to understand the anthropogenic effects humans have on earth systems, such as ocean acidification, fracking & groundwater pollution, pcb contamination in communities, air pollution, and ozone holes. The invocation of the Anthropocene to describe human impact creates a spherical boundary around earth. There is inner space, which relates to human activity, and outer space, which is cold, alien, and unnatural (Olsen, Valerie and Lisa Messeri, 2015. Ruth Rand, Lisa, 2016). Our perception of what constitutes the environment and environmentalism is thus spatially bounded to the Karman Line, which is the empirical edge of space. With our feet firmly planted on the ground, our gaze is 100 km above, peering down into our planetary home.

Outside of the small field of astro-environmentalism, space is not regarded as nature. The average person, should they take the time to consider space, might describe it as unnatural. From millions of pieces of space trash in near Earth orbit, to radio waves, and a lone Voyager that has traveled beyond our solar system, the human impact in space is evident (Olsen, Valerie, 2018. Ruth Rand, Lisa, 2016). Furthermore, Earth is a part of the universe, yet there is an ‘othering’ that occurs in our narratives about space that creates the inner vs outer space perspectives. By not considering space a part of the environment, and not a place for a human-nature relationship, we run the risk of treating it as a dumping ground, landscape for cheap-natural resources, and doomsday bunker for the wealthy.

Space exploration has been couched in narratives of uniting humanity, promoting equality, and being the greatest challenge humanity will undertake. Yet, the exploration directive receives strong opposition, even from environmentalists. Most of this opposition stems from the framework of inner versus outer viewpoints on human impact, as if we can only focus on fixing the human-caused problems of Earth or exploring space, not both in tandem. In this paper, several of these viewpoints will be explored to better understand the nuance on this boundary divide that spatially occurs at the Karman line, and metaphysically with the direction of our gaze. By better understanding these boundary creating narratives, I will propose a framework for coalition building within the context of this next phase of human space exploration, with the return of astronauts to the Moon in the next five years and Mars by 2032.

On a high level, the narratives around resisting human-space exploration efforts can be grouped into five categories, which I will thematically base on intense emotions. I have thus named them Fear, Anxiety, Shame, Distrust, and Worthlessness. All of these narratives are interrelated , but by teasing them apart, we can begin to understand why a person’s views on space travel are strongly dependent on their emotional relationship with Earth, and if they feel worthy of representation on a cosmic scale through the actors we send forth known as astronauts.

Coalition building between the human space exploration directorate & industry and environmentalists is important because space is the environment. The human-nature relationship is not actually bounded into a sphere. As we venture further afield, many of the frameworks environmentalists have proposed for the human-nature relationship will be applicable to how we settle and interact upon other planets, and potentially with other lifeforms.


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