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Rising Inequality, Global Warming, and Virgin Galactic

Research & Commentary
August 14, 2012

by Salvatore Babones

If two words can capture the extraordinary redistribution of wealth from workers to the wealthy over the past forty years, the flagrant shamelessness of contemporary conspicuous consumption, the privatization of what used to be public privileges and the wanton destruction of our atmosphere that is rapidly leading toward the extinction of nearly all non-human life on earth, all covered in a hypocritical pretense of pious environmental virtue … those two words are Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, is charging $200,000 a seat for a few minutes of weightlessness and a view from outer space. The firm has so far taken in $70 million in deposits from 536 passengers, according to an August 1 report from Reuters.

Call me old-fashioned, but I personally find it morally offensive that some people can afford to spend $200,000 on a three-minute experience when others can’t afford food. Food first, luxury yachts second and $200,000 suborbital flights last. That’s my motto.

The explosion in private wealth, however, means that more than a few people can afford those $200,000 flights. A study paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration(that is, by you and me) concluded that more than 1,000 people a year would likely purchase suborbital space tours. The study projects that 80 percent of demand for suborbital flights would come from wealthy individuals interested in space tourism, while business, research and government together would account for just 20 percent.

Across the world there are now 11 million high-net-worth individuals each with over $1 million in liquid assets, according to consulting firm Capgemini. There are also about 2.8 billion people living on less than $2 a day, according to the most recent United Nations Millennium Development Goals report.

With the help of Virgin Galactic and other space tourism providers, the 11 million at the top can literally look down on the 2.8 billion at the bottom. As one “future astronaut” is actually quoted as saying in Virgin Galactic’s online brochure:

“There are over 6 billion people on Earth. To be 1 of 6 astronauts in space looking down on them will be a very special thing.”

I’m sure it will be.

At least it will be a very green special experience – or so claims Virgin Galactic. In various publications, they compare the carbon footprint of a space voyage roughly to that of a business-class flight from New York to London. Their best estimate is that each flight will generate roughly 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger.

Of course, Virgin’s New Mexico spaceport will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certified by the US Green Building Council. That is to say, the desert lair that millionaires fly to in their personal jets in order to catch their personal space flights will have remarkably efficient heating and cooling systems. Three cheers for the environment.

[pullquote]Low carbon footprints and fancy environmental certifications are the latest vogue in environmental legerdemain. A tar sands oil refinery could get LEED certification if it had good insulation and waterless urinals.[/pullquote]

Low carbon footprints and fancy environmental certifications are the latest vogue in environmental legerdemain. A tar sands oil refinery could get LEED certification if it had good insulation and waterless urinals.

It’s true that the solid fuel rockets used by Virgin Galactic produce relatively little carbon dioxide. Instead of carbon dioxide, they produce black soot.

In the lower atmosphere, soot is washed to the ground when it rains. In the stratosphere, it accumulates.

The stratospheric soot associated with space tourism would have a global warming effect 140,000 times that of the associated carbon dioxide emissions, according to a simulation study published in Geophysical Review Letters.

A space tourism industry of 1000 flights per year “could increase polar surface temperatures by 1° Celsius and reduce polar sea ice by 5-15 percent,” according to a summary of the study published in Nature.

Space used to be a shared endeavor. When Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, he took one giant leap for mankind. We might question the wisdom of accelerating global warming in order to explore the moon, but at least in some symbolic sense we did it together.

Now we can do it alone. In its online brochure, Virgin Galactic invites you to “see your world turn upside down.”
“One of Virgin Galactic’s primary objectives is to end the exclusivity that has been attached to manned space travel, by designing a vehicle which can fly almost anyone to space and back safely” for $200,000.

I think I’ve just seen my world turn upside down.

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