South African astronomer Tana Joseph is passionate about making it possible for more people to look to the stars. Here she explains the harms of colonial views of space, and how indigenous perspectives are important not only for the wellbeing of scientists from diverse backgrounds but for our entire biosphere.
Colonisation, the act of taking control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and sending people from your own country to live there, is far too often spoken of as something that happened in the past. And something that happened on the ground. But it is not the past; there are still ongoing decolonisation efforts across the world.
While these battles are being fought on the ground, a similar decolonisation fight is being waged in the skies. And at the same time, colonisation is starting to open a new front, but this time in space.
How colonisation extends to the skies
A big part of colonial projects was to stop native peoples from speaking their own languages. And since many indigenous cultures across the world relied heavily on oral communication to keep their histories, stories and ideas alive, this forced language deprivation caused an unimaginable loss of indigenous knowledge, culture and identity.
Instead of learning about /Xam starlore in South Africa or Aboriginal Australian cosmology or Mesoamerican astronomical calendars, students, pupils and even amateur astronomers learn the constellations, star names and mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. This homogenised version of the skies is in textbooks, planetarium shows, stargazing apps and university courses all over the world.
The problem is, these depictions of the sky do not reflect the lived reality for billions of people on our planet. When we look at the sky at night, the stars are arranged in different shapes depending on our latitude. In Cape Town, where I am from, Orion is pretty much upside down. In Brazil, at the equator, he would be lying down on his side.
It is very difficult to inspire an interest in the stars and the heavens when we divorce what we see in our local context from what we see in our textbooks in schools.
“The new billionaires’ space race is the latest iteration of the colonial project, whereby only the ultra-wealthy have access to space outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.”
The billionaires' space race
Indigenous perspectives on our relationship with space are needed more now than ever. The new billionaires’ space race is the latest iteration of the colonial project, whereby only the ultra-wealthy have access to space outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Ideas like “terra nullis” have been used to justify some of humanity’s most appalling violence.
To make matters more alarming, they’re employing the same rhetoric from centuries ago that was used to justify taking over lands that don’t belong to them. Calls to “colonise Mars” and build “lunar colonies” are being heard from these unimaginably rich people and their supporters.
Ideas like “terra nullis” – the concept that a place is perceived to be empty and devoid of life and so it’s quite alright to take it over – have been used to justify some of humanity’s most appalling violence. And the same thinking is being rolled out to justify building human settlements on other planets and our only natural satellite.
The skies and space around our planet are becoming a plaything for the rich and it stands in stark contrast to the material conditions of far too many people here on Earth. And it has been happening for a while now.
Then there are projects like Starlink: a constellation of artificial satellites, with the ostensible purpose of providing internet connections to places where ground-based infrastructure is difficult to afford or build, like parts of Africa.
“The skies and space around our planet are becoming a plaything for the rich and it stands in stark contrast to the material conditions of far too many people here on Earth.”
This situation is an example of an offshoot of colonialism: “white saviour complex”, a pattern in which marginalised peoples are passive recipients of white benevolence, often resulting in more harm than good.
Rethinking our relationship with space
These attitudes, projects and the economic frameworks that support them are a breeding ground for resentment in a time when we all must stand together to protect our planet and address the glaring, rapidly increasing gaps in resources, environmental conditions and wealth distribution. They are the result of the uncritical acceptance of colonial structures put in place centuries ago and perpetuated by those who benefit from them.
If we are to avoid doing to the rest of the Solar System what we are unfortunately doing to our only viable planet, we must be willing to interrogate and learn from our past mistakes. This will require input from and meaningful engagement with affected communities from all over the world, especially indigenous people, and not just those of us who benefit from the current status quo.
A meaningful decolonisation effort will require us to rethink how we educate ourselves and how we interact with our environment and with each other. It will require us to really assess our value systems, our place in this world and the space beyond our atmosphere.
Despite what wealthy tech bros might want us to believe, we do not have a backup planet. The time to change things is running out, but I believe we can still pull it off. To do so, we need action at all levels and from all members of society. At the highest levels, we must support politicians who have sound decolonial and climate justice policies. We must dismantle the current colonial, capitalist hegemony that is driving climate change and ecological destruction.
About the contributors
Dr Tana Joseph is a South African astronomer, entrepreneur, public speaker, and social justice advocate for the sciences. She obtained her PhD in physics in 2013 and has been awarded both Fulbright and Royal Society fellowships in recognition of her research excellence. Dr Joseph is passionate about science communication and firmly believes that science is for everyone. In 2018, she founded her own science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) communications and consulting company, AstroComms. Dr Joseph is an advocate and consultant for EDI and decolonisation efforts in astronomy and science. In this capacity, she has recently been appointed the Equity and Inclusion coordinator for astronomy in the Netherlands.
Maïa is a Social Anthropology undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and a multidisciplinary artist working with sculpture, painting, illustration and photography. Her work has been widely published and exhibited, appearing in the anthology ‘The Colour of Madness’ and as part of ‘Project Myopia’. Maïa was also the in-house illustrator for the literary magazine The Selkie, and photographer for photo exhibitions such as ‘The I'm Tired Project’ and ‘Celestial Bodies’.