JEFF BEZOS wants humans to live in space. On May 9th the founder and boss of Amazon, who also runs Blue Origin, a private rocketry firm, unveiled plans for a lunar lander. “Blue Moon”, as it is called, is just one phase of a bold plan to establish large off-world settlements. It is a vision ripped directly from 20th-century science fiction. Having persuaded people to take other leaps of faith, from shopping online to placing his firm’s always-on listening posts in their homes, he could be just the person to convince millions to leave Earth. But it will take a unique economic pitch.
Unless Mr Bezos obtains the state-like power to order masses of people around, his plans will require emigré Earthlings to leave voluntarily. Their motives need not be entirely economic. The Puritans left Britain for America in search of freedom from religious persecution. Mr Bezos might well find recruits among unhappy minorities—or deeply devoted believers in his vision for humanity. He is not an entirely implausible cult figure.
Per his presentation, however, Mr Bezos imagines that his cities will be home to millions, which would require a cost-benefit proposition with mass appeal. People might line up if the costs or risks of staying on Earth were to rise—because of a deteriorating environment, say, or a looming threat of extinction. But there are two problems with the conception of space settlements as doomsday arks. Even an Earth dramatically less habitable than it is now would still be substantially more so than anywhere else in the solar system. Any technology that could conceivably be used to create massive, human-friendly environments in space or on other planets could presumably be used at less expense on Earth. The logistics would be challenging, too. Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla, who also operates a private space firm, aims to settle Mars to ensure humanity’s continuation as a species against an extinction-level event, such as an asteroid strike. But relocating a substantial number of people to a desolate planet millions of miles away is fantastically hard. He wants to build an interplanetary ship with a capacity of 100. Even one departing every minute would not keep pace with Earth’s population growth.
Space cities might lure settlers by offering to make them rich. But if extraterrestrial settlements remained dependent on imports from Earth, then their cost of living would be astronomical, and the income paid by space work would need to be correspondingly high to provide residents with a generous level of welfare. That, in turn, would require export industries selling things to Earthlings that could not be made on Earth far more cheaply.
Might such space niches exist? Mining extraterrestrial objects could be economical, but would provide a weak reason for colonisation, since it could be done most easily and cheaply by robots. Service industries offer more potential. If life in space were to prove therapeutic in some way, then off-world sanitariums could turn a profit. Space tourism would create a steady demand for off-world labour. The space economy might also thrive as a hub for activities banned on Earth, such as human cloning. Once a viable source of exports was found, agglomeration could drive further growth as Earthlings sought their fortunes off-world, plying goods and services to workers in the export industries. There would be obstacles, not all related to survival. Which laws might govern private enterprise in space remains an open question; an Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 prohibits governments from asserting claims over extraterrestrial land and resources (though an American law passed in 2015 gives companies the right to own whatever useful material they can harvest in space). For tech bros who prefer asking forgiveness to begging permission, such hurdles are unlikely to delay progress for long.
Mr Bezos appears to have in mind something other than a trade-based interplanetary economy, however. His plans take for granted speedy technological progress of the sort that would allow for large-scale mining and materials processing by autonomous robots, and construction of vast off-world habitats. The works of science fiction from which his vision borrows often assume the emergence of “fully automated luxury communism”, in which clever machines enable the emergence of a post-scarcity world.
Such advances might not just enable the settlement of space, but might be realisable only in space. The resource demands of a world where everyone can have everything they want would probably outstrip Earth’s material capacity. Space, however, holds a virtually unlimited supply of the raw materials needed for universal abundance. But intensive use of extra-terrestrial resources on Earth could pose environmental hazards or nuisance costs that humans would lobby to prevent. And even nearly free resources would not enable 9bn people to live where and how they want. Not everyone can have an estate on the Californian coast.
Space, on the other hand, has plenty. In addition to its countless resource-rich rocks, it offers more than enough room to build whatever habitats, with whichever climates and vistas, are needed to satisfy humanity’s demands. In the context of the finitude of Earth, insatiable resource consumption seems wasteful, even obscene. But off-world, why be stingy? Given a choice between a cheek-by-jowl existence down here and indecent luxury up there, many might accept the risks of starting a new life in the heavens.
In the 19th century Europeans streamed into America because wages were higher. They were high because of the continent’s extraordinary abundance—an abundance resulting from the mass deaths and displacement of indigenous people, but abundance nonetheless. The living that could be made on the near-inexhaustible supply of resource-rich land forced urban firms to pay high wages, lest workers left for the frontier. Space is a forbidding place for frail humans. But the final frontier may be the only one capable of providing humankind with endless material wealth.