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Should We Colonize Other Planets?



Should We Colonize Other Planets?


Nathaniel Bates


When I was young I grew up watching Star Trek.  On Star Trek, goodness prevailed over evil, and intelligence over ignorance.  Humankind overcame war and managed to colonize planets.  Very soon, aliens and humans put aside their differences in order to form the United Federation of Planets, an experiment in cosmic humanism that could only mean continual progress.  The handsome Captain Kirk always stood up for the “American Way” gone galactic, the idea that commerce would overcome borders and cultural differences.  The Enterprise was there to defend democracy, not to practice it.  Captain Kirk had to be obeyed, but only because he was first among equals and not because of any royal birth.  The message of Star Trek was that planetary colonization would only lead to a world of expanding horizons and continuing exploration.  It was a message that resonated with the imagination of youth.

What ends the naivety of childhood is not the realization that light is the cosmic speed limit, a fact probably prohibiting easy transport to the stars.  I knew that then, and such a trifle did not end the imaginative cocoon of childhood. Nor was it the fact that aliens probably don’t look like humans.  This was pretty obvious to me at that time given my basic familiarity with Darwin and natural selection.  What ends the naivety of childhood is not scientific fact since that is often more the handmaiden of imagination than anything stifling a young mind.  What ended childhood was the realization of complexity.  Eventually I knew that the real Captain Kirk would not be the heroic Captain that we saw on television.  The fictional Captain Kirk valued life and dignity over Federation orders.  This was Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy in action, the belief that the Prime Directive was made for life and not life for the Prime Directive.  However, the adult mind knows that the real Captain Kirk would follow orders, even if those orders meant the destruction of a planet.  And, as the movie “Avatar” points out, it is possible that any real encounter with aliens less advanced than ourselves might lead to a repeat of the worse abuses of colonialism on our own planet.  I cannot but wonder if “Avatar” is a more realistic portrayal of what the encounter with less advanced beings would be than the idealistic “Star Trek” could ever be.  From the core of my being I hope and pray otherwise.

Should we colonize space?  The question has often been asked as a scientific question.  Rarely have I seen it asked as a moral question.  More often than not humans believe that what we can do we should do.  This is a common assumption among technologically advanced societies.  It is an assumption that is only questioned on the margins.  At the same time, the decision to focus on colonizing Mars has already been made by the Executive Branch of the American Government (is not Congress supposed to make such decisions?).   Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have been committed to Mars exploration, while the focus of democratic public debate has been focused on other issues, often of less importance.  Mars is the most obvious planet to target for colonization, since the Moon has no atmosphere, Venus is beyond boiling hot, and the idea of terraforming an asteroid would probably be laughed out of consideration by scientists.  Some estimates place Mars in the “Goldilocks” zone of possible planets that could support life.  Of course, as it is Mars has a very thin atmosphere of over 95% carbon dioxide, too thin to support liquid water.  Still, an atmosphere of carbon dioxide could support plants.  Introducing plants could support animal life over time.  The only drawback is the lack of any cohesive magnetic field on Mars, unlike on Earth, to shield the planet from cosmic radiation and prevent atmosphereic loss due to solar winds.  That is no small problem.

If we were to colonize Mars, we would have two choices given the lack of any real magnetic field.  The first would probably be impractical, while the second would be a stark choice.  The first choice would be to find some way to generate a magnetic field.  This task would be a challenge.  It might be possible, given some technical advance that would allow humans to pass some kind of electric current through the iron and nickel core of Mars—-well, I’ll leave the technical advances to those more qualified to make them than I.  Let me just say that such a coordinated effort to create a Martian magnetic field would be highly unlikely given the early Mars colonists would have to contend with the Americans, Russians and Chinese battling over turf.  We can only hope that such battles would only be political and not military, but a coordinated effort on a monumental task would be highly unlikely either way.  That leaves us with a second possible choice, some kind of alteration of the human form that would allow us to withstand cosmic radiation.  It is a stark choice because once we make it there is no undoing it.

The philosophy of Transhumanism is promoted by technological optimists who promote the alteration of the human form to advance what they consider the next step in evolution.  Often they hope that the fusing of humans and machines, or the alteration of the human genome, would help with the colonization of other planets.  They assume very naturally that what can be done should be done.  As I said before, technological optimism is challenged from the margins.  Let me bring in the margins in order to give a sense of perspective.  One voice challenging the whole idea of merging humans and computers is “primitivist” philosopher John Zerzan.  He makes the point that once we advance down that road we might well be ending old fashioned ideas like freedom and independence.  We can laugh if we so choose, since John Zerzan holds what can admittedly be called extreme beliefs such as his belief that humans should return to the hunter-gatherer age.  However, we have to admit that he has a point.  Merging ourselves with machines might possibly lead to an end to freedom and independence.  If that is the price we have to pay for planetary colonization, it is a price that many if not most of us would feel is too heavy to pay.

Now, I stated before that an actual meeting with less advanced life forms might lead to a scenario that would resemble “Avatar” more than “Star Trek.”  Such a meeting would be highly unlikely on Mars, since Mars has no intelligent humanoid life, or any life that has been documented.  It is possible that some form of bacteria exists on Mars, but probably nothing more advanced at this point in Martian history.  As it is, the moral question around taking a planet already belonging to an intelligent form of life would probably be avoided by spreading to any of our nearby planets simply given that they lack such life.  As it is, if we can maneuver to take over Mars in such a way that we would not need to merge with machines, then there might be a very good case for going there given that they are uninhabited at the moment.  Indeed, long term human survival might very well imply that we straddle two planets instead of one.  The dinosaurs were feeling pretty confident until an asteroid came and not only ruined their whole day, but also their entire geological Age.  The same could happen to us.  With due respect to John Zerzan’s hope of returning to the days of Rousseau’s “Natural Man,” I doubt that such a return is possible, and it might mean that we would have to accept any number of extinction scenario’s for our species since such scenario’s are, after all, the course of Nature.  The colonization of Mars is definitely not a solution to over-population since; after all, the growth of the population would be too much even for a little extra surface area.  At the same time, there is a strong case that a species that just remains on one planet is waiting for doom over the long run.  Colonization may not solve our population problem but it could give two planets a fighting chance and not just one.

This leaves one last question that we must grapple with, possibly the most important question that we could ask about Mars colonization given that we might avoid such science fiction scenario’s as “Star Trek,” “Avatar,” or merging with machines.  That would be the more subtle question, perhaps a more realistic question, of what a divorce from Earth would actually mean.  Leaving for Mars could impact our view of our fellow humanity and of our natural environment in a way that few people consider.  For one thing, “Nature” would cease to exist as a concept for Martian colonists.  Everything natural would be human introduced.  An important part of the human experience, our interactions with plants and animals, would be heavily controlled and under the hegemony of technical experts.  These technical experts have the power to mediate our experience with Nature, something that we on Earth are only beginning to experience with the loss of wild places.  Such a shift would also have potentially dangerous consequences for democracy itself.   The transfer of power to NASA experts, or even possibly military commanders under some scenario’s, would alter democratic norms in a way that accelerates even further the current trend of ceding ever more power to corporations and unaccountable agencies.

What would the consequences of colonization be for democracy itself?  There is no question but that the transfer of power to technical experts, NASA experts, and possibly even private parties would have an irrevocable effect on civil society.  It would be very hard for Martian colonists to secede and form new colonies should the original colony become repressive given that new colonies are hard to form.  Just as with the original colonists in America, thoughts of secession from Earth authorities would be constantly on the minds of Martian colonists.  As Mars becomes more “natural” and less dependent on planned biospheres, a process that would probably take hundreds of years at the low estimate, thoughts of freedom and independence would become more pressing.  Such calls would create a conflict with the powerful nations on Earth who invested so much in forming the Martian colonies.  We might support Mars colonization as the next logical step in human development, a notion that some intellectuals would consider a “teleological fallacy” but an idea that might still be necessary for our very survival as a species in the long run.  We have to remember, however, that we are supporting a complex future unfolding that would imply a lot of twists and turns.  In particular, we might have to grapple with the possibility that Martian colonists might struggle for freedom and liberty and yet lose that struggle.  We might have to further grapple with the possibility that our freedom and dignity is tied to the freedom and mobility that Nature offers us on our planet, as Thoreau and John Muir pointed out.  Colonization is a discussion that should be entertained at the popular level and not confined to the Executive Branch of Government.

I can no longer look at Star Trek with the same eyes that I saw it as a child.  I now view it through a long lens.  In particular, I no longer view the idea of moving humans into space as a panacea for the world’s problems.  To be clear, I think that we should explore space, with robots at the very least.  We should explore far and wide because that is our nature as a species.  Remember, however, that our urge to explore arose not in outer space but in the fields and swamps, mountains and seas, of our own home planet.  It is the urge that moves us into space but one that, paradoxically, might not survive the move to space.  I must say that the biggest change from childhood to adulthood is a divorce between head and heart with deference given to the head.  My head has now told me that the human colonization of space might be necessary, but with potential costs that should be analyzed and discussed.  My head tells me that scientific exploration might be better served with robots and space telescopes that open our eyes to this vast and beautiful Universe.  However, my heart still watches Star Trek and hopes, or perhaps more accurately it yearns.  My heart still wants the optimistic illusions of childhood, when victory of the Good Guys over evil was assured.  My heart still roots for the Space Cowboys of the Star Ship Enterprise.  I admit it.  I still love Star Trek, a love made more poignant by the sad realization that the future probably will not have a Technicolor glow.  It is my great hope that if we do spread into space, and if we do have battles between good and evil, that it is good that prevails every time.  It is the nature of the human species to be optimistic and explore.  If a given future is inevitable then we must discuss how to make it the best future possible and in a way that is as open as possible.  Whatever side of the Colonization debate we fall on we should not allow such decisions to be made behind closed doors.



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