With its rich tapestry of political intrigue and scientific speculation, its vast scope and its large cast of characters, The Expanse, written by James S.A. Corey, is generally recognized as one of the most popular and thought-provoking works of science-fiction published in the 21st century. The TV series based on the books proved equally successful and equally nuanced. Taking a sweeping look at the future of humanity in space, both book and TV series focus on conflict, and present us with personal, social and political conflicts. Set in the 23rd century, the series takes place deep into the geological epoch called the “Anthropocene” – and is shaped by it. In the following pages, I’ll take a very quick look at how the Anthropocene setting defines the politics and the conflicts of The Expanse.
Anthropocene and Simphorocene
The evolution of a set of previously proposed terms, the Anthropocene is:
a term widely used since its coining by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present geological time interval, in which many conditions and processes on Earth are profoundly altered by human impact. This impact has intensified significantly since the onset of industrialization, taking us out of the Earth System state typical of the Holocene Epoch that post-dates the last glaciation.100
While still not officially accepted as part of the geological time scale, the concept of the Anthropocene is quite useful in describing a present and a future in which humans have become the major factor of geological and ecological change on the planet, shaping the direction in which the natural systems at work in our environment.
It must be also noted that some authors have proposed ‘Capitalocene’101 as an alternative to ‘Anthropocene’ to emphasise how the major responsibility for the dramatic environmental impact of human activities since roughly the 15th century lies with only a portion of humanity, i.e. those responsible for a capitalist system. The argument is solid, but I’ll use Anthropocene here simply because it has been generally accepted, if informally, in scientific circles, while Capitalocene does not have the same level of recognition. Similarly, I will make very limited reference to another highly informal term for the catastrophic effects of human activities on the environment: the Simphorocene – defined by Italian researcher Rodolfo Coccioni in 2016 as an epoch in which the fallout of human activities causes ‘an intensifying extreme and calamitous weather phenomena.’102
The idea of humans shaping their environment (possibly with catastrophic results) is certainly present in The Expanse – both the series of novels and novellas by James S.A. Corey, and the TV series based on such books; yet environmental and ecological concerns are rarely presented at the forefront of the narrative, remaining in the background instead. Yet environmental themes underlay the whole Expanse universe and, as we will see, shape not only the worlds on which the action takes place, but deeply influence the political and social structures portrayed in the narrative. The Anthropocene is a time interval in which humans shape their environment, and in The Expanse, shaping (and being shaped) by the environment is one of the few experiences shared by all the inhabitants of the solar system.
The general plot of the novels and TV series is known, as are the main political entities in the setting: Earth, led by the United Nations Security Council; Mars, a state capitalist parliamentary republic with a strong militaristic element; and the Outer Planets, a loose assemblage of anarchist and libertarian organisations and free operators. Each of these political entities inhabits its own environment, and its social structures are internally determined in large part by the population’s relationship with their environment (while external factors include these states’ relationship with each other).
Earth is shown, from the earliest images in the series, as a world marked by the climatic crisis of the late 20th and early 21st century – during the title sequence of the first season we see ice caps melt and the sea levels rise. The show underscores that concept by presenting us with an altered New York skyline, a city walled against the sea.
Earth’s compromised environment features as a strong item in the popular views expounded by the Martians - members of a nation single-mindedly focused on terraforming the planet Mars, to build an environment just as idyllic as the one the Earthers squandered. The terraforming effort (i.e., replacing the existing natural environment with one completely man-made) is central in informing Martian culture, and the criticism at the Earthers’ handling of their own natural environment is part of the terraformers’ mindset.
Both the Inner Worlds are therefore clearly ‘Anthropocenic’ worlds – on Earth, human activities have damaged the environment, while on Mars, human activities are building a new environment (incidentally, erasing the original one). Both are instances of humans being a major factor of geological and ecological change on the planet. Furthermore, the relationship between population and environment shapes the political landscape of each planet-nation. Both governments are essentially engaged in ecological management.
The United Nations Security Council needs to keep a resource-poor, overpopulated world from collapsing. The Earth UN system has been described as a form of ‘welfare capitalism’: a form of capitalism ‘characterized by a concern for the welfare of various social groupings (as workers) expressed usually through social-security programs, collective-bargaining agreements, state industrial codes, and other guarantees against insecurity.’103 Much of the political discourse focuses on the preservation of the status quo by providing free assistance to the population. There are hints at activities aimed at mitigating the ecological damage – such as the rewilding of certain regions, hinted at by social structures such as James Holden’s family and their fight to keep control of a large wild area of Montana. In the second novel of the series, a project to rebuild the wilds in the Andes is mentioned passingly. Both projects, interestingly, seem to have a low priority for the UN Security Council, and at least in one case (Holden’s freehold) are managed by private citizens, apparently following a Passive Intervention Model.104
The UN has a much more urgent problem to tackle than the wilderness – the increased social unrest that the failure of ecosystem services could unleash on an overpopulated planet.
As per the 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), ecosystem services are ‘the benefits people obtain from ecosystems.’ The MA also delineated the four categories of ecosystem services – supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural. All of the four categories mentioned by the MA appear to be compromised on planet Earth, and the government appears to supply for the lack of these natural services by providing state-sponsored alternatives – as Lopez summarises in S1E4: ‘Free food, free water, free drugs so that you can forget the aimless lives you lead.’ In other words, provisioning (food, drugs), regulating (water) and cultural (recreational drugs) ecological services.
Ironically, the ecological services artificially provided to the Earthers by their government, that the Martians point out as a sign of the Earthers’ environmental and moral bankruptcy, are the same services the Martian government is working to install and bootstrap (again, artificially, this being, after all, the Anthropocene) on Mars. The Martians are promised by their parliament a future that is the mirror of the Earth’s past – a green world with a functioning, self-sustaining ecology. The whole rhetoric of the Martian government hinges on what the Earthers squandered, and on what the hard work and sacrifice of the Martians will create. Underneath this rhetoric the Martian government acknowledges the fact that humans act as a geological and ecological force, and the government is trying to harness and pilot such planetary scale effects to its advantage. Ideally this would be the opposite of what happened on Old Earth, where ‘short-sighted and selfish’ (to quote Lopez again) individuals, faced with an environmental laissez-faire attitude, squandered the riches of their ecology. The Martian Republic is built on a hierarchic, military-based structure – a social ecology, if you will – because this structure is the particularly suited to harnessing the energies of a whole civilization, and can be enforced and supported by a simple “them vs. us” narrative that requires a clear enemy, and a clear, if as yet out-of-reach destination, to be attained by following a clear, simple path.
The irony is further underscored by the fact that both the restoration of the ecological services on Earth and the building of ecological services on Mars depend on resources provided by the Outer Planets and the Belt - communities in which those same ecological services are used as a form of social control in the most brutal and basic form.
As we learn from the opening speech of the Gaunt Belter in S1E1: ‘Every time we demand to be heard, they hold back our water, owkwa beltalowda, ration our air, ereluf beltalowda, until we crawl back into our holes, imbobo beltalowda, and do as we are told!’ Once again, primary provisioning, regulating and cultural services, artificially supplied, and no longer used as tools for benign (?) social control as on Earth, but as tools of outright oppression.
A parallel could be drawn between the Belt in The Expanse universe, and ‘global south’ countries in the 20th and early 21st centuries, whose natural resources are being extracted and exported, while they themselves suffer from a lack of resources and a compromised environment. And it is fitting that the Belters – de-facto the proletariat class of The Expanse solar system – are not allowed the control of the means of production (of air, water, food, raw materials), while at the same time being actively engaged in that same production (by mining asteroids, capturing cometary ice and farming food crops on Ganymede). They are an almost textbook example of ‘a propertyless industrial working class’ that ‘participate in a global system of production and exchange.’105 It is unsurprising, at this point, that revolution is brewing in the belt. That Earth and Mars control and exploit the Belt and the Belters via a network of private companies competing in a neoliberal market only adds to the irony. The virtually infinite resources of the Belt have not created a post-scarcity society, but have become a resource for a capitalist system of scarcity, and one that uses that scarcity to control and oppress.
Even the fractious nature of Belter organisations seems to reflect a “divide et impera” policy, in which the oppressed are set one against the other by a distant oppressor. A case in point is the commonplace presence of Belter pirates that basically prey on their fellow Belters, but are perceived as a threat to Inner interests, and are therefore actively pursued by the navies of Mars and Earth. The Belt is exploited by the Inners, but many Belters have come to accept exploitation as the only way in which they can relate to their environment. The loot of the pirates is the stuff of ecological services: food, water, oxygen, and medical supplies.
The system is so pervasive that not even those that suffer in it can imagine an alternative, or a way to escape it. This concept becomes one of the engines of the fourth season of the show, in which the action is as motivated by the necessity to control Ilus’ lithium reserves as it is by the sudden activation of the alien geo-engineering machines.
Having summarily described the state of the solar system at the start of The Expanse, we can now observe how the system is perturbed by two ‘revolutions’ – both ‘environmental’ in their expression, although originating from very different sources.
The first of these revolutions is the appearance of the protomolecule, a form of alien technology that is, at heart, a machine for the ecological hijacking of planetary resources. The protomolecule is an artificial ecology capable of infecting any other system and replacing it: ‘a set of free-floating instructions designed to adapt to and guide other replicating systems’,106 for its own purposes.
The protomolecule is, in other words, almost a distillation of the essence of the Anthropocene: the ability of a civilization to artificially reshape a world on a geological scale. And it is in a much more efficient way than human activities ever could, as shown in the novel Nemesis Games, and in the fourth season of the show: Ilus is a planet whose whole system, on a geological scale, has been shaped by the protomolecule and then frozen when the alien terraforming machines stopped. It can be argued that whoever the creators of the protomolecule were, they were a lot higher than humanity on the Kardashev scale: the protomolecule is much more energy-efficient than anything humanity is capable of deploying in the series.107
On the other hand, when first discovered by the humans in the solar system, the protomolecule is considered simply a new, as yet untapped resource. As such, it is immediately the object of an attempt to establish a monopoly by a private organisation, Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile, an Earther-owned company operating in the Belt. In seizing control of the protomolecule, the Earth oligarch Jules-Pierre Mao seeks an economical advantage, possibly to be ‘flipped’ into a political one.
Once the nature of the alien substance becomes apparent, Mao sets himself up as a would-be saviour of humanity.The research activities sponsored by his company seem instead aimed at setting Mao up as a ‘disaster capitalist’: ‘in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure – whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or […] a terrorist attack.’108 Whatever the motivations of the scientists in his service, Mao has his own interests as his main concern, and they are only formally humanitarian.
The protomolecule is also, indirectly, responsible for the failure of the Mars terraforming push and, as a consequence, the collapse of the Martian state, with the mutiny of a significant part of the Martian military force. The appearance of the ring gate, with its promise of easily-accessible, habitable planets, provides a much closer destination for a large part of the Martian population, and one that is accessible by the present generation, and not a promise for a future the current Martians will never see. Having built their whole culture on the future destination of a terraformed Mars, the Martians experience a loss of direction and motivation the moment a similar, and much more easily attainable goal appears, courtesy of the ring gate.
Mao’s tinkering with the protomolecule and the subsequent failure of the Martian terraforming effort – two events that could only occur during the Anthropocene – are also related to the second equally world-shattering (literally) menace to human civilization: the rise of Marco Inaros and the Free Navy, which take centre stage once the protomolecule, and the first environmental and existential threat faced by the solar system in The Expanse is contained and defused. This is a literal revolution, in which ecology-altering tools are used as weapons of mass destruction and, once again, of social and political control.
The depiction of Inaros in the books and the series has been pointed out as a sign of the work’s underlying conservative politics,109 as an instance of the “White Genocide” trope; yet what we want to observe and analyze here is not whether the character conforms to a recurring (and outdated, if dramatically effective) cliché or not, but the attitude of the characters, and their politics, toward the environmental factors at play in the universe.
Marco Inaros is one of the possible expressions of the extremism nurtured by years of oppression on the Belt by the Inner Worlds. His ideal foils are Anderson Dawes, whose aim is to show how the Belters’ way is different from the Inners’, but has equal dignity; and Fred Johnson, whose plan is to acquire the means to play as an equal at the table of the Inners, playing by their own rules. His specular double – in the TV series – is Klaes Ashford, a pirate (i.e., a Belter that also preys on other Belters) who underwent a political ‘awakening’, coming to promote a strong but moderate position for the Belt. Compared with these other political figures, Marco Inaros is presented not as a revolutionary shaped by a political vision, but rather as a populist leader, dressing his own hunger for power in the rhetoric of freedom from oppression. His agenda is a “combination of rage, racism and revolution,”110 but ultimately a platform to promote his narcissism.
The main leaders of the Belter society show their different approach to their role, and the essentials of their agenda, through their relationship with the environment. To Fred Johnson, an Earther who joined the cause of the Belt, the environment of the Belt, with its lack of resources and services, is just another issue on a long shopping list of problems to be solved. His main focus is economics, and as the product of a capitalist society, he reasons in terms of capital and work as a solution to their problems. To Anderson Dawes, the Belters must overcome the conviction that their environment is a resource to be sold, without any real connections to them (‘Earthers have a home. It’s time Belters had one, too’ - S1E5). Ashford reasons in terms of political relevance, and to him the environment is incidental. To Marco Inaros, the environment is a tool. He therefore falls into the same pattern of those who caused, abetted or ignored the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem in the series’ past, and those that are currently (in the series timeline) exploiting the environment.
The Free Navy works in the background through the first three seasons of the show, and the early part of the book series, and when it comes to the fore, it does so by hitting the Earth with a series of meteor strikes – an environmental attack – that causes the death of millions of the Earth’s population. However, more importantly (at least for this article), this triggers a dramatic planet altering event. This is the Anthropocene in action, a weaponized Simphorocene. Earth’s overtaxed ecological services – both natural and state-sponsored – are undercut. Paradoxically, it is likely that the Inaros strike does not cause a mass-extinction – simply because the Earth of The Expanse already went through the Holocene extinction event – also known as the Anthropocene Extinction.111 But with its corollary of extreme weather conditions, tsunamis and the drastic undercutting of the food chain, certainly the Free Navy’s attack pushes the planet deeper into a Simphorocene spiral.
What the Inaros meteorites do is ultimately to make the target planetary ecosystem incapable of supporting human life – and the life of Earthers in particular. A similar attack on Mars, in fact, would be meaningless: Mars does not have an environment in place such that it could be killed by these means. For all his revolutionary rhetoric, Inaros is not as much a revolutionary as a warlord. Having established his position by his attack on the Earth, Inaros effectively does to the Belt what the Inners did – the Free Navy takes control of the primary ecological services, using the scarcity of the resources the Belters created to control and oppress the Belters themselves. The Free Navy does not seize and redistribute the means of production, but simply seizes and stockpiles food and drugs (i.e., takes control of the ecological services), blackmailing the people of the Belt while at the same time offering them a populist narrative of strength, courage and self-sacrifice.
Taming the Leviathan
In conclusion, what The Expanse tells us is that the human control of nature is, as yet, beyond our capabilities. Implicitly echoing John McPhee’s The Control of Nature,112 James S.A. Corey comes to the conclusion we can change our environment, but any control of such change is subject to such a huge number of variables that our hold on change is temporary at best. Our temporary control can be challenged by random events, or by human action, and when human action is involved, it is often the result of a feedback loop that is fueled by the same environment we are trying to control.
Use ecological services as a tool for control, and you will generate resentment, and rebellion. Fail to consider the impact that the environment has on your social and political structures, and you will be taken by surprise by unexpected, unforeseen crises. Even the creators of the protomolecule, with their complete (?) control over the reshaping of whole planets according to their desires, met their demise at the hands of an enemy they were unable to counter – a fact that seems to signal that no matter the scale of our control over nature, such control will never be complete and absolute. We can harness the power of the Leviathan, but we will never tame it, never truly be its master.
100. Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, “Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’, Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, 2019, http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/working-groups/anthropocene.
101. Benjamin Kunkel, “The Capitalocene,” London Review of Books, 2017, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n05/benjamin-kunkel/the-capitalocene.
102. Paolo Ferrario, “Terremoti, frane e alluvioni: è l'era del Sinforocene,” L’Avvenire, 2016, https://www.avvenire.it/agora/pagine/terremoti-frane-e-alluvioni-e-lera-del-sinforocene.
103. See Merriam Webster, “Welfare Capitalism”, Merriam Webster, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/welfare%20capitalism.
104. Steve Carver, “Rewilding... conservation and conflict,” ECOS, 37(2), 2016, https://www.ecos.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/ECOS-37-2-2-Rewilding.-conservation-and-conflict.pdf.
105. Robin Blackburn, “Marxism: Theory of Proletarian Revolution,” NLR, I.97, 1976, https://newleftreview.org/issues/i97/articles/robin-blackburn-marxism-theory-of-proletarian-revolution.
106. James S A Corey, Leviathan Wakes (New York: Orbit, 2011), 344.
107. Nikolai Kardashev, “Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations,” 1964, https://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/pdf/1964SvA.....8..217K..
108. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2006).
109. Alex Mell-Taylor, “The Weirdly Conservative Politics of ‘The Expanse’,” Medium, 2022, https://medium.com/fan-fare/the-weirdly-conservative-politics-of-the-expanse-8f151a2750f.
110. Klein, The Shock Doctrine.
111. Ron Wagler, “The Anthropocene Mass Extinction: An Emerging Curriculum Theme for Science Educators,” The American Biology Teacher, 73(2), 2011, https://online.ucpress.edu/abt/article/73/2/78/18301/The-Anthropocene-Mass-Extinction-An-Emerging.
112. John McPhee, The Control of Nature (New York: Farrar, Satraus, and Giroux, 1989).