And so we have scored another first: a collision between two major human satellites in outer space. I wonder how the future will remember this landmark day. From all acounts an American satellite has collided with a Russian one, spilling hundreds of more fragmentary junk into involuntary orbit in outer space. We have to reach right back into history for another similarly epoch-making first: possibly the day of the first collision between automobiles.
It was always going to happen, considering the standard Waste Management Operating Code of the Space Industry, which is to walk away from stuff – anything from empty cans to disused space stations. Currently there are close to 20,000 such objects out there. It does not take much imagination to picture what space will look like after another 200 years of human prosperity. With our miles-high trash can swirling about up there, acid rain might well take on a new meaning in the future.
A while ago, I spent some time as writer in residence at the Ashmolean. Walking through those museum aisles, it struck me as interesting how tiny bits of waste pottery from 3000 years ago were of such huge interest and significance to us today. It also struck me, wistfully, that our descendants from 3000 years in the future will not have the same fascination for our waste. Today’s prosperous human can, without trying too hard, generate a few hundred tonnes of waste which will outlive him by a factor of a century or four. Our descendants will not have to dig to unearth our waste. It will be in their face all right. That insight inspired my poem, Antiquity in Suburbia.
All of which tells me that we have a skewed idea of pricing in our times. We build nuclear stations, sell their electricity, without factoring in the cost of dealing with the spent fuels and the obsolete station that will remain after a few decades. The electricity is gone in a blink but we are saddled with a radioactive square kilometre of puzzled townplanners for another century. It seems pretty obvious that the full price of enjoying a product should include the cost of returning its waste to an acceptable form. This thinking should apply from the bubble gums gumming up the tarmac right up to space debris.
Any other way, we are merely passing the buck. The bill will be picked up by someone, sometime in the future. Thus far, we had kept our contagion earthside. On this epochal day of our outing, we have taken a giant step for the human stain.