Stories

Why we need to decolonise the skies

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.

Words by Tana Josephartwork by Maïa Walcottaverage reading time 5 minutes

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Colourful artwork made with paint and ink on textured watercolour paper. The artwork shows two different realities, side by side. In both worlds two young Black children are looking our of a window at the sky. On the left a young boy in a Brazil football shirt gazes up at the night sky and sees a bright constellation of stars. On the right a young girl in a red top and multicoloured skirt gazes out of a window at a brilliant blue sky with small white clouds. She also sees the same constellations of stars but it has changed orientation by 90 degrees.
Why we need to decolonise the skies. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

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.

Fortunately, there are concerted efforts being made now to change this situation. Scientists, educators and indigenous communities are working to rediscover, record and reintroduce indigenous knowledge systems and languages and share them with the world.

Colourful artwork made with paint and ink on textured watercolour paper. The artwork shows a white man with a beard in a black suit standing with his hands on his hips look away from us to a scene where a large black and red space shuttle has just taken off. Large plumes of swirling orange smoke billow out from the space craft's rockets, filling the foreground of the scene. The sky behind in a light purple in colour with small elongated clouds.
Why we need to decolonise the skies. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

“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.

At a time when climate change, pollution and mismanagement of natural resources increasingly threaten and destroy habitats and homes, we are also bearing witness to a handful of people who are making plans to take to the skies and set up shop on other astronomical bodies.

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.

The first “space tourist” went to the International Space station in 2001. Indeed, the only African-born person to leave the atmosphere behind and enter space is Mark Shuttleworth, a white tech multimillionaire, in 2002.

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.

Colourful artwork made with paint and ink on textured watercolour paper. The artwork shows planet earth set amongst the stars of the galaxy. The shapes of the continents can be made out, with Africa and India at the fore. A pair of white hands appear either side of the planet, gripping tightly to a flexible tape measure. The hand on the right wears a signet ring and clutches green monetary notes. Golden coins fall from this hand and the one on the left.
Why we need to decolonise the skies. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

“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.”

While this might seem like a noble cause, there’s a snag. Africans were never consulted about whether they even wanted this project. Instead, we’re seeing Starlink and other satellites causing chaos with astronomical observations and disrupting our recreational viewing of the stars at night.

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.

By recognising, listening to and learning from indigenous people and their deep knowledge of the natural world, we can better protect our biosphere and start to restore it to its former healthier state.

About the contributors

Tana Joseph

(she/her)
Author

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.

Black and white head and shoulders photograph of Maïa Walcott.

Maïa Walcott

Artist

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’.