Why will people colonize space?

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Noah Smith over at Noahpinion does a rundown on why Firefly doesn’t really resonate with him. I agree with his take:

But in Firefly, why do we – meaning the crew of Serenity – go to space? It’s not for a higher purpose. There’s no science being done, no galaxy being saved. The show’s theme song may be about freedom, but unlike many of the people around them, Mal and his crew aren’t colonists. They aren’t going to found a new, more liberal republic on the virgin soil of a distant world. They aren’t going to build a city on a hill. They have no quest, they seek no knowledge, they fight for no cause, they meet no aliens. Their existence is simply a big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.

And for the same reason, it doesn’t resonate with me much, either.

But neither Noah and I are space colonists. I can’t speak for Noah, but I am above all else a science fiction fan, wedded to romantic notions of human expansion into the wider universe as a higher calling. A secular religion, if you will. Being human feels good, mostly (and I say that as someone who has experienced plenty of strife and difficulty, as well as physical disabilty and mental illness). And being human in the technologically augmented universe of fifty  or five hundred years from now — boosted by 3-D printers, artificial intelligence, robots, smart drugs, transhuman implants — will probably be significantly better, just as the present is vastly better (less poverty, less child mortality, less starvation and hunger, greater variety of tools and products, etc) for the vast majority than fifty or five hundred years ago.

So, if being human feels good, why not go forth and make more of the universe human? After all, if we earthly humans — and our vast chain of simpler and simpler evolutionary ancestors — are little more than awakened chemical elements, why not go forth, spread out, and wake more of the universe up? Let more of the universe experience love, emotion, mathematics, music, logic, technology, and all of the other things that make us human. Could there be a more manifest destiny?

In reality, though, I suspect that the motivations for space colonization will be far baser and more mundane. America’s early European colonists were not exactly motivated by the romantic ideals of free speech and free religion. They were much more motivated by lebensraum, and freedom from rulers they did not like.

First, resources. Resources are limited on earth Asteroid, moon and interplanetary mining offering up the potential to vastly expand the human resource base. This, of course, is basic economics. Humans are often greedy and avaricious. On earth, resources are guarded by the international military order and mutually assured destruction. Invading a country to take its resources is, to say the least, increasingly difficult. And I predict it will get more so as more and more technology (e.g. drones) up the stakes in terms of mutually assured destruction.

In space, no such thing. The universe is — to the best of human knowledge — effectively limitless. If the U.S. — or Microsoft, or China, or SpaceX —  seizes one asteroid, there are plenty more to seize. Once we’re done with near-Earth asteroids, beyond that there’s the asteroid built, and Venus, Mars, Jupiter and their moons, and so on. Then there’s the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud and onward and outward to the nearest stars. Beyond the nearest stars are billions more in our galaxy. And beyond that, lie billions more galaxies. If we are alone in the universe, there’s a whole universe for us to bring to exploit (or, in my romantic vision, bring to life). If not, then we may well have to fight other species for that right.

Hunger for resources and for lebensraum, I expect, will be a very major factor in bringing humanity to the stars, then.

But so too will also be the need to stick a “big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.” In absolutely no way are we humans ideologically homogeneous. Watching the rise and fall and rise of Donald Trump and American nationalism is reinforcing this point.

I am a universalist humanist, and that view stems directly from my view of humanity as a planetary species with the potential to go interplanetary. The vast majority of humanity are substantially more tribal than I am. And very many different tribes of people alienated by the earthly mainstream are likely to want to go. Racial and religious and ideological and tribal supremacists will go to space seeking out their own pure paradises, where rules are set by them, and not by the mainstream. And let them go, these Nazis, and radical Islamists, and cultish sects, and neo-Confederates. Let them fly off to some distant planet or asteroid or space station off in the black infinities to pursue their authoritarian dreams, rather than have them subjugate a corner of the Earth.

The point is that these ideological minorities have far more concrete reason to travel away than anyone from the mainstream. Our species is not homogeneous. That is one of our strengths. Our decentralization allows us to experiment with different modes of government and ideology. Our species over the aeons of history has undoubtedly been carried forward to each new generation by many men and women that we today would deem to be insufferably awful — genocidalists, bigots, rapists, murderers, alongside a few who, I assume, we would see as good people.

It doesn’t matter if we are carried to the stars by the dull and the bad. The point is that we are going. And we — the species — are as a whole species neither dull nor bad. Our children all possess the capacity to deviate from us. Such is the long and winding road of genetic and cultural evolution. Maybe that doesn’t make for great science fiction. But often reality is unspeakably dull, and unspeakably bad.

7 thoughts on “Why will people colonize space?

  1. If you don’t understand the crew of the Serenity, you may also not understand why the Roman Empire had to keep expanding or why we have such a problem with veterans returning from whatever hell-hole they had been sent.

    Some of us humans actually enjoy blowing up stuff (and other people). Since it’s hard to maintain a peaceful society with those people in our neighborhoods, the Romans kept them away from home. We, thinking ourselves more civilized, believe we can use such people to fight unnecessary wars and then invite them to play nice when they come home.

    Sending them into space to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do would be better than starting more senseless wars on Earth, so let ’em go where no man has gone before.

    Meanwhile, here on terra firma… make sense, not war.

  2. Great, I get it: To the stars we go!

    However, what you outline here is scientifically impossible. Space is a big and hostile place, and it took some incrediable feats of engineering for Earth to so perfectly support life — and so far we have not found any other Earths. Even if we did find a earth like planet orbiting perfectly around it’s star, the nearest star is 18,000 years away from us at 150,000mph.

    Take your body for a vacation away from Earth and things crumble pretty fast.

    Why don’t you sign up for a trip to Mars to experience the joys of space travel? Just remember that it’s going to be a one way trip.

    We all just better get along because nobody is going to voyage anywhere beyond our solor system — ever. If they do, there is no place to go — it’s all just darkness. To go sit in a space ship until death is not the kind of party most will desire.

    • It is short-sighted to declare that which is scientifically impossible now will always be impossible. Probably not in my lifetime, but space exploration may be viable someday. Most of us didn’t think it possible to go to the moon until we did.

      When it becomes possible, it will be done by people seeking another frontier to overcome. Humans have been gazing upwards to the stars for as long as there have been humans.

      • My point is probably beyond greed and hatred. It’s just math, guys.

        Venturing out to “find a place to live beyond our solar system” is 18,000 years away. When encapsulated in a space ship for your entire life on a mission, it’s just hell. I don’t see greed or hatred in the equation. Motivate yourself all you want but leaving earth is not going to be fun.

        Going to the moon and the nearest star are two different animals.

        I love the Star Trek fantasy as much as anyone but the harsh reality is that you have one impossibly perfect home here on Earth in which to house you in an amazing way — and it’s going to be misery on any attempt on your way out of here.

        But maybe warp drive will come on line and who knows?

        • Perhaps you might venture a guess as what 500 years of genetics research will bring and incorporate that in your thinking about how to travel through space to another solar system.

  3. Why should we care what you are? let us deal with facts about our society not ourselves. This is the difference between micro- and macro- economics.

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