Why don't people understand the urgency of colonizing other planets?

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The human race could be wiped off the Earth's surface at any moment — so why don't people understand the urgency of colonizing space? In this excerpt from his book Reopening the Space Frontier, Professor John Hickman explains our foot-dragging.


Whatever justification or combination of justifications is ultimately adopted for establishing an extraterrestrial human presence, there will be objections. Cost will be a factor in most of them. Reopening the space frontier will be expensive. Establishing a human presence on the Moon in the form of a base crewed by a handful of astronauts would cost tens of billions of dollars. Establishing the first permanent human settlement on the Moon or Mars is likely to be much more expensive. The opponents of investing large sums to reopen the space frontier will have important advantages over advocates. Biology may be the most important. The harsh truth about human nature is that the majority of people are uninterested in the welfare of their distant descendants and assess risks imperfectly, or even irrationally. Both have important implications for our collective willingness to make sacrifices to enhance the long term survival of our species.

Anthropologists know that humans are generally better at recognizing and responding to immediate risks to themselves and to their small social groups than at recognizing and responding to future risks to larger social groups or the entire species. Evident in the differences between the subjective assessments of risk made by laymen and the objective assessments of risk made by experts trained in the natural and social sciences, this behavior reflects special purpose perception mechanisms inherited from ancestors who survived specific risks. Subjective grasp of future, large scale threats is missing because the environments in which humans evolved did not select for it. Rather than evolve a general perception of risk and a rational calculation of relative risk, our 150 millennia living as hunter-gatherers and the most recent 2 millennia living as farmers prepared us to deal with only some kinds of risk. We respond strongly to those with a high probability of occurring rather than to those with a low or unknown probability of occurring. Warfare, subsistence failure and cooperation failure have produced an animal that is equipped with "specific cognitive adaptations for perceiving cues regarding the likelihood and magnitude of adverse events" and for making rapid decisions based on "risk-risk" trade-off calculations.

Together with an instinctive language ability, an intuitive understanding of psychology, logic, numbers and probability are probably part of basic human hardwiring. So calculating the chances that another individual human will attack, make good eating or share their food comes easily. Calculating the chances that an asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth or that a nanotech plague will turn everything organic into "grey goo" does not.

The problem is not one of scientific ignorance. Instead the problem is one of failing to appreciate the severity of risk as reflecting both the probability of the event and the scale of possible harm. In any particular year the probability of a cholera epidemic erupting because drinking water is polluted by sewage is greater than the probability of a kilometer long asteroid striking a major urban area. Although an epidemic would cause fewer deaths than the impact, humans are genetically predisposed to focus attention on probability and to discount relative scale. That asteroids struck the Earth in the past is almost universally accepted, and the possibility that they might do so again is also widely believed. Recognition of the possibility of devastating consequences from such an event has even resulted in public spending in the United States sufficient to detect most of the threatening cosmic debris. Unfortunately, that same recognition has not resulted in the higher levels of public spending to develop the means for preventing such an impact.

The United States and Russian Federation possess ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the other side of the planet that were developed during the Cold War and yet neither has a dedicated missile system capable of delivering nuclear explosives to deflect asteroids or comets on a collision course with Earth. Their missiles are designed to execute a ballistic arc rather than intercept objects hurtling through the solar system. Detection of a large asteroid on a collision course with Earth would no doubt precipitate a frantic scramble to retrofit existing missiles to deliver a nuclear explosive to deflect it toward a less terrifying trajectory. Part of the problem with taking existential threats to our species seriously is that there has been so little experience with them. Archaeological excavations offer evidence of prehistoric extinctions or abandonment under extreme conditions on more than a dozen small islands in the South Pacific.

Modern history offers only three examples of human extinction or abandonment under extreme conditions: Sable Island, the Sadlermiut Inuit, and Clipperton Island. The tragedy on Sable Island involved mutiny and starvation in a poorly planned French penal colony on the north Atlantic island after provisioning ships stopped arriving in 1602. Only 11 of the 70 people left there in 1599 survived to be evacuated in 1603. The Sadlermiut Inuit tragedy involved the death by infectious disease of the remaining 58 Sadlermiut Inuit, believed to have been the last surviving Dorset culture people, following the arrival of the Scottish whaling ship Active to Southampton and Coats islands in northern Hudson Bay. The most recent tragedy occurred on Clipperton Island, an atoll in the eastern Pacific garrisoned by the Mexican Army. Starvation and anarchy ensued there when provisioning ships stopped arriving during the Mexican Revolution. Of the approximately 100 people on the island in the decade before the Revolution, only six survived to be evacuated by an American gunboat in July 1917. Notwithstanding these rare cases, there is no evidence that modern humans have ever gone extinct on a continent or a large island. The problem with having so little experience of small scale local extinction or abandonment under extreme conditions is that it offers no purchase for the sort of story-telling that sustains belief in the possibility that we fail as a species.


Our experience of catastrophe is only slightly more helpful. War, genocide and deliberately induced famine caused the deaths of more than 100 million people in the twentieth century, and they yet never posed an existential threat. That would have required a strategic nuclear exchange between the superpowers. Popular anxiety about nuclear war peaked in the 1960s and again in the 1980s but then faded following with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. If the film Dr. Strangelove held the attention of the public, other films about nuclear war or biological warfare failed to achieve comparable success. Natural catastrophes and failure to respond effectively to them are common experiences. Out of a global population of more than six billion, every year more than 200 million are directly affected by relocation and property loss caused by natural disasters such storms, earthquakes and floods. Recent events such as the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2008 tropical cyclone in the Irrawaddy River Delta, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which each killed more than 200,000 people provide powerful reminders of the vulnerability of our species to natural disasters. What they have not done is increase awareness of human vulnerability to extinction. Interviews with people who had managed to cheat fate by surviving catastrophes do not incline viewers to consider the possibility of a global catastrophe without human survivors. News audiences around the planet learned about each of these events via television news coverage, which means that the emotional impact of each event was cushioned by the medium's entertaining and anesthetizing unreality. If these tragedies were rendered to that degree unreal then the possibility of human extinction must seem impossible.

People have difficulty believing in the possibility of local catastrophes even when presented with daily reminders. Some three million Italians live around the Bay of Naples in the virtual shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, and tens of thousands in neighborhoods that have gradually crept up its sides. Threatening tremors and ominous emissions regularly remind Neapolitans of the potential for the kind of disaster that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D. Yet there they remain, serving as testament to the capacity of humans to discount the risk of real but infrequent catastrophic events. The frequency with which a threat is thought about and discussed may overcome some of the denial, but it is unlikely to be sufficient if the dangerous event occurs very infrequently. Volcanic eruptions causing large losses of life are rare events. People tend to discount risks associated with important benefits and overestimate risks associated with less important benefits. Neapolitans clearly discount the threat of a volcanic eruption because it would mean leaving the good or at last familiar life in Naples. Given our capacity for denying or discounting the possibility of infrequent events it is unsurprising that people are generally unwilling to think about the possibility of their own extinction as a species. After all, that will happen only once.


Perhaps human extinction is simultaneously too overwhelming and too abstract to imagine in any detail. Without the possibility of a happy ending there may be no way to tell a compelling secular story for general audiences about the possibility. Exploring such terrifying secular themes is the social responsibility of science fiction and yet it reaches an audience that is only a small fraction of the size of the audience for general entertainment and declining. Among the best attempts at such story telling is the horrifically bleak 1997 novel Bloom by Wil McCarthy, in which humanity survives an apparently intelligent nano plague only because small populations of humans have settled some of the moons of the Outer Planets. These threatened colonies survive because distance from the sun weakens the nanotech plague and because constant vigilance is maintained inside the colonies against infection. Dispersal in relative isolation across different environments thus offered protection against extinction, a condition that had obtained in the past on Earth before advances in transportation and communications technology rendered our species materially and culturally richer but also more vulnerable to existential risks.

Populist distrust, which is likely to be expressed as anti-scientism, would also be an advantage to opponents of reopening the space frontier as insurance against extinction. The possibility that fear of existential threats might be exploited by elites may be easier to credit than the existential threats themselves. Suspicion, envy, and inability to cooperate to achieve worthwhile goals may be the most important recurring problem in public policy making. Efforts to reopen the space frontier will inevitably encounter the objection that it would encourage a "devil take the hindmost" arrogance by elites because they might be tempted to flee the effects of their social and environmental irresponsibility on Earth into space. This is the version of the moral hazard argument that is often deployed to insist upon egalitarian burden sharing. For example, advocates of public education may oppose public spending to support private schools lest it encourage middle class families to withdraw their school age children from public schools and thereby discourage them from supporting funding for public schools, which serve the majority of school age children from less affluent families. They fear that unless everyone sails in the same leaking ship, there will be too few hands to do the bailing. If necessary, they are willing to knock holes in the bottom of the lifeboats to compel socially responsible behavior from elites.


The suspicion that elites might decide to abandon life on Earth for life in space is readily understandable. Our species confronts daunting problems because of political, economic and social irresponsibility. Although such behavior is not confined to elites, some elites benefit disproportionately from some forms of environmental irresponsibility. If the wealthy own disproportionately more of the industry responsible for generating externalities like air and water pollution, the poor suffer disproportionately from the negative health effects caused by exposure. The explanation for this social inequality is that the wealthy can afford residences farther from the contamination.

The possibility of irresponsible elites escaping into space can be traced as far back as the reaction to the publication in 1929 of physicist J.D. Bernal's 1929 The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Among other ideas appearing in this fascinating long essay, Bernal deserves the credit for first conceiving of an artificial habitat constructed in space from materials found in space. The prediction that large populations would someday live inside enormous artificial worlds did not excite the imaginations of his readers much when the essay was first published, but it would be revised, updated and popularized five decades later by physicist Gerard K. O'Neill, as will be discussed in a later chapter. Instead, the prediction in Bernal's essay that touched a nerve was what he termed "permanent human dimorphism," and today would be described simply as "speciation." He speculated that scientists, engineers and technicians might develop first into a separate aristocratic caste and then eventually into a distinct species of humanity. The idea that scientists would wield absolute power over the rest of humanity because of their arcane understanding of the forces of nature was the stuff of mid-twentieth century popular nightmares. Aldous Huxley's 1932 classic dystopian novel Brave New World and the derivative novels like Ira Levin's 1970 This Perfect Day, and Walter Tevis' 1980 Mockingbird almost seethe with hostility toward scientific elites. Bernal was clearly out of step with many of his contemporaries, who were in full rebellion against the sort of scientific optimism that had been promoted by H.G. Wells in the decades before the First World War.


Wells struck back at his anti-scientific detractors in the humanities with his 1933 utopian saga The Shape of Things to Come, which was adapted as the classic 1936 film Things to Come. In the film, followers of a charismatic sculptor named Theotocopulos attempt to destroy the electronic "Space Gun" that will launch human explorers to the Moon. "We don't want mankind to go out to the Moon and the planets," remonstrates Theotocopulos. "We shall hate you more if you succeed than if you fail. Is there never to be calm and happiness for man?" Similar sentiments would later find expression in the international legal institutions and ideological beliefs that have closed the pace frontier.

Rather than elevate all humans to the same plane of intellectual achievement or exterminate the old humans in competition for the possession of the Earth, which a remorseless natural selection would seem to predict, or rule them as feared by Huxley and his many literary progeny would predict, Bernal predicted that the new humans would simply leave the Earth to their intellectually challenged parent species and colonize space.

From one point of view the scientists would emerge as a new species and leave humanity behind; from another, humanity—the humanity that counts—might seem to change en bloc, leaving behind in a relatively primitive state those too stupid or too stubborn to change. The latter view suggests another biological analogy: there may not be room for both types in the same world and the old mechanism of extinction will come into play. The better organized beings will be obliged in self-defense to reduce the numbers of the others, until they are no longer seriously inconvenienced by them. If, as we may well suppose, the colonization of space will have taken place or be taking place while these changes are occurring, it may offer a very convenient solution. Mankind—the old mankind—would be left in undisputed possession of the Earth, to be regarded by the inhabitants of the celestial spheres with a curious reverence. The world might, in fact, be transformed into a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment. That prospect should please both sides: it should satisfy the scientists in their aspirations towards further knowledge and further experience, and the humanists in their looking for the good life on Earth.


Bernal did not so much anticipate as recognize the struggle between communities of intellectuals working in the sciences and humanities. Alas, what he failed to anticipate is that the humanists might prove more politically powerful than the scientists, which is material for the chapters that follow. The honest if impolitic response to the concern that socially irresponsible elites might escape into space is that the possibility that large numbers of elites of any sort will migrate to the space frontier is small, and that if a small number of elites do escape to the space frontier it would not matter very much. Granted, if the solar system presented a temptingly paradisiacal celestial body perhaps worlds resembling the bucolic Earth-like planets that were periodically visited for rest and relaxation by the crew of the Star Trek's Starship Enterprise, then the irresponsible elite exit option might prove to be a genuine problem. Unfortunately, there are no such worlds in our solar system. The actual celestial bodies in our solar system that might be settled by humans present physical environments that will require protection far more elaborate than the pajama uniforms of Star Trek to survive. Even after solving the problems of the high cost of transporting people to a celestial body and the high cost of protecting them from the physical dangers awaiting them there are eventually solved, most elites will be reluctant to abandon the comforts of life on Earth for the highly disciplined, even Spartan life in a space settlement. For all the current interest that has been expressed by a few of the superrich in space tourism, the first wave of people most likely to take up residence in space will be highly trained professionals. They are likely to be among the most rather than the least socially responsible individuals.

There are other reasons to reject the "irresponsible elites exit option" argument. Establishing a permanent human settlement on the Moon or Mars would enhance our chances of survival as a species, but a human settlement in space is likely to remain closely tied to and dependent in countless ways upon the much larger human population on Earth for a long time. Survival of a small human settlement in space after a major catastrophe that causes human extinction or descent into barbarism on Earth would be tenuous and the lives of its members culturally impoverished. Historically, the tendency for colonies to look to their mother countries for fresh infusions of high culture is marked. That is likely to be evident in the case of human settlements in space. Far from isolating themselves from terrestrial society, they are likely to seek sustained contact because their small populations will otherwise constrain their development. That dependence would give space settlers a strong interest in the continuing welfare of the human population on Earth.


Top image: NASA concept art of an inflatable base on the Moon.

This is an excerpt from the book Reopening the Space Frontier by Professor John Hickman, published by Technology and Society. John Hickman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College in Mt. Berry, Georgia.




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