Writing a memoir of any kind is hard. When you set yourself the challenge of using your experience as one of the few humans who have “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to teach us about ecological awareness, the bar rises further. Back to Earth has a certain kind of charm to its optimistic idea that orbiting the planet helps you feel like we’re all in this together. Maybe I’m just getting pessimistic at the ripe old age of 32, but this book didn’t quite work for me. Then again, it’s entirely possible I’m just not Nicole Stott’s target audience.
Thanks to NetGalley and Perseus Books for the eARC in exchange for a review.
I don’t mind Stott’s premise—it’s neat! I agree that seeing our planet from space should make us feel more connected. We should think more about ecosystems, about the water cycle, about the importance of bug species. So for Stott to spend some time devoted to these issues, while also talking about what life is like in space, is a good things. I think there is an audience for this book who will love it, so don’t read this review as a critique of the book’s very existence.
With that being said, there was something that rankled me as I read this book. It took me a while to realize what it is: Stott has a very white, very American, very individualist idea of progressiveness. She happily acknowledges injustices in the world like millions of people who don’t have access to clean drinking water. But she spends a lot of time praising the activities of people like Scott Harrison, who founded charity: water, rather than engaging with the underlying reasons why people don’t have clean drinking water (for example, here in Canada it’s because of ongoing colonialism and a federal government that is entirely performative in its reconciliation with Indigenous peoples). Similarly, Stott explores the mechanisms behind climate change and goes so far as to acknowledge that companies and countries both need to cut emissions—we are all in this together, she exhorts—yet she always returns to what we as individuals should be doing.
(The whiteness continues with a bizarre editorial decision to name one of the chapters “Respect the Thin Blue Line.” It’s referring to the Earth’s atmosphere, but the resonance with the slogan for the pro-police, anti-Black Blue Lives Matter movement did not escape me. Read the room, editors.)
I get it. The book is meant to inspire readers (who are probably far younger than myself) to take action. And the best way to do that is to talk about what concrete actions you can take as an individual. However, this can flatten the complexity of these problems and perpetuate a narrative of individualism that is counter-productive to real change.
In recent months, multiple billionaires have gone to space (or not quite, depending on the definition of “space” that you use). It hasn’t inspired any miraculous transformations of conscience on the part of these people. They still have their billions, and our system is still capitalist and corrupt. Going to space does not automatically change people for the better or create feelings of unity and solidarity.
Back to Earth attempts valiantly to draw parallels between issues of environmental justice. Yet it’s clumsy and misses the mark because its focus is too myopic. Stott wants us to care about the planet, and by extension, all the people and creatures on it. This format is fine on the surface, and I believe it is possible to read this book in a surface-level way. There is a lot of good information you could learn from this; I enjoyed reading about the successful attempts to ban chlorofluorocarbons. Alas, I am also somewhat tired of books that come close to getting to the root of these problems yet ultimately don’t engage with them. I’m sure Stott has her reasons. Maybe she feels like it isn’t her place, like her role as an ex-astronaut is to inspire rather than share an opinion she might view as uninformed. Maybe she just wanted to write something conscious yet also light. I can get behind that. But it isn’t what I wanted to read.