Rat's Nest
Bloggage, rants, and occasional notes of despair

Does human nature allow space colonization?

I’ve had an interest in space exploration and exploitation for many years, and am also involved at the moment in a debate as to the significance of the Fermi Paradox (an article on that later, IY"H). So the question of whether human nature makes unsuited to space colonization is of interest to me. And therefore you, Gentle Reader, will hear about it will you or nihil you. (Well, you could stop reading, although I hope that you won’t).

I know nothing of Sylvia Engdahl, so I may be completely misunderstanding her position; she is invited to correct any misinterpretations that I make. It seems to me, though, that she is arguing that a tangible economic return must be expected for colonization to be seen as feasible. People (especially politicians and the state-level resources that they control) are not naturally altruistic; the only non-altruistic motive is economic profit; therefore, a profit must be anticipated (not necessarily correctly) for colonization to occur. As there is no place in this solar system, at least, where colonists could realistically "live off the land" (i.e., lead a low-tech existence with restricted access to capital), a high capital input is necessary, with concomitantly high ROI being expected. Absent a previously-existing infrastructure, nothing (with the possible exception of SPS; there are separate, purely political problems with that) can promise that kind of ROI; therefore, any colonization scenario of a pre-O’Neill type is impractical.

Now, readers of my blog will know that I agree that the expected ROI is negligible to negative (especially when opportunity costs are factored in). OTOH, I don’t agree that the only non-altruistic motive is economic profit; this smacks too much of anarcho-capitalism to me. It is unnecessary even to admit to the legitimacy of state power to admit that it does exist, has existed in the past, and is overwhelmingly likely to continue to exist in the future (extropian fantasies aside), and that therefore the wielders of that power may well use it in both non-altruistic and unprofitable ways.

It is characteristic of end-stage empires (Spenglerian "final political forms") that they love big projects for the sake of bigness; the ruling class invests the resources of the Ecumen in gigantic statues, buildings that strain contemporary engineering, planned (and useless) cities with sweeping vistas. Neither the economic nor the human costs are counted; Shih Huang Ti’s massive enterprise, the Great Wall, is not called "the longest cemetery in the world" without reason (although it did serve the dual purposes of helping to protect China from the northern barbarians, and being a convenient way of disposing of Confucians). The colonization of space is a likely project for the Empire of the West to undertake; something very like Jerry Pournelle’s BuReloc will periodically sweep up the rabble ("rabble" being gangbangers, intellectuals who make nuisances of themselves, and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in a sweep without the ability to bribe, bully, blackmail, or seduce the guards) and ship them off to Martian penal terraforming camps. Whether ten or ten million die in the attempt – indeed, whether the attempt itself is successful or not – will not matter to the Imperial bureaucracy. If the Deputy Vice Minister for Rites wakes up in a good mood, she might authorize a plaque to be put up extolling the noble sacrifices of the brave colonists – or not. Indeed, if one’s imagination is dark enough (and, after Auschwitz, it need not be darker than reality), one can imagine the warden-cum-administrator of the Martian Terraforming Project musing: "I need organic matter to turn regolith into topsoil...and I’ve got all these otherwise useless laborers...".

Even semi-altruistic motives can be imagined. "The Earth is too fragile a basket to keep all our eggs in" is a meme frequently encountered among space enthusiasts. As with so many other things, one should careful as to what one asks for, lest one get it. End-stage empires have been ruled by cranks: Akhenaten, Nero, and Wang Mang come to mind. Especially coupled with the life-extension technologies that so many extropians and transhumanists fervently express a desire for, it is not beyond the bounds of the imagination that some future Emperor will tell his cabinet: "Take a century or so to develop a practical interstellar ark; then round up a few thousand of the usual suspects and send ‘em to Alpha Centauri". Less explicable things have happened.

Beyond the final fall of Western civilization, of course, there may well be new cultures. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom took generations to build pyramids, and the medieval Westerners cathedrals, not as a mere expression of grandeur or to attract tourist dollars, but out of a genuine expression of religious fervor that is alien to us on the cusp of late modernity and genuine postmodernism. It may well be that the Grelbish culture of the fifth millennium CE will see interstellar travel in the same way.

Many now proclaim their willingness to participate in a diaspora; it ought not to be surprising if, from whatever motive, they someday encounter those willing to send them.

John "Akatsukami" Braue Saturday, January 24, 2004