As Below, so Above? Space Debris and the Anthropocene
It is useful to analyse space debris, like the current state of the orbital technosphere and affairs on Earth, in relation to its entire life cycle. Throughout its production and launch phases, space technology contributes to unequal exchanges, social segregation and environmental damage on Earth. In its functional phase, it enables an ecopanoptic epistemology and, potentially, an expansion of colonial and capitalist world-making. It also inspires religious awe and a techno-optimism that fuels narratives of a good Anthropocene. When it becomes space debris, either in orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, it threatens its own sustainability, epistemologies and techno-optimist ideologies. The story of space debris exemplifies how Anthropocenic, or planetary, environmental change is produced by a social minority with specific ideologies; it challenges nationalistic geopolitics; it is likely to amplify as a symptom of outer space capitalism, but may also become a symbol of its fragility; it has, after bringing into being some people’s dreams of ascension and technological mastery over Earth, subverted them with violent chaos, the outcomes of which are uncertain and ambivalent. Through the orbital space of Earth to the imagined graveyard orbits around other planets (Aggarwal, 2020), space debris extends the material and imaginary geographies of capitalism not only beyond the biosphere, but also to other centres of gravity.
In a final note, although it may be appealing to compare space debris to global warming (Brearley, 2005) and outer space to a metaphorical new ocean to fare (MacDonald, 2007), neither totally yields to established concepts in Anthropocene and general historical, political and cultural geographical discourse. …