That Stephen Hawking guy is saying that we need to get colonies out there in space to preserve the human race. I’m a space opera fan, I think space exploration is a worthy endeavor, but I have to admit that watching Chris Clarke whomp on Hawking is very entertaining, and I agree. Hawking has it all wrong.
When fans of technology start preaching about escaping disaster on earth by setting up space stations and moon colonies and terraforming Mars, an image comes to mind: a dying hanged man, kicking and squirming, ejaculating reflexively and dribbling a few pitiful drops of semen into the dirt. Emigrating to some other world doesn’t save us; under the best of circumstances, only a miniscule elite few would escape, and as Chris points out, the technological problems are so great (Guess what? We have no idea how to build a home on another planet that won’t require continual resupply and that will last more than a few years) that even that would only be a temporary reprieve. Flicking a few gametes into the sky isn’t any kind of salvation—it’s desperate and sad and futile.
I’m both less and more pessimistic than Chris about the possibilities, though. I think there is a path to accomplishing expansion to other worlds, but it is indirect. The first priority is to put our own house in order: we need stable, sustainable human cultures that know how to maintain a healthy environment (if we can’t prevent ourselves from trashing a whole planet, how are we going to ever maintain a viable home in the more limited and hostile confines of a habitat elsewhere?). Given that opium dream, I could see a pattern of evolving technology and careful exploration leading to the gradual establishment of some kind of humanity elsewhere. Not as an ‘escape’, of course, but because life, like cockroaches, expands to the limit of its ability.
Another twist, though: if we have a stable terrestrial society, we might not want to send people offworld, because of the certainty of unforeseen consequences. Organisms are sensitive to their world; look at human evolution, and what you see are changes in response to climate and environment. One circumstance under which I can imagine a human speciation event would be colonization of a radically different world and limited exchange of genetic material…exactly what we’d see with an expansion into space. Making it even more complicated will be biotechnology. We have a problem with bone loss under low gravity conditions, so hey, let’s tweak calcium physiology a little bit. And as long as we’ve got the hood on this baby open, let’s toss in a few more improvements. In the long run, I don’t think that any of our progeny that we spin off into space will be human for long, and I don’t think we can predict what a post-human race would want, or how it would interact with us.
It’s a mistake to try and predict how post-humanity would evolve, because any guess will almost certainly be wrong, but I don’t see big-skulled humanoids with attenuated limbs buzzing about in flying discs. I think the priorities in an environment as hostile as, for instance, the surface of Mars would be conformity, control, and specialization—social concerns to maintain safety and stability in a very nasty place. Individualism would be discouraged, since loners don’t survive in a situation requiring communal dedication. Humans in a space colony could be more like naked mole rats, with reproduction regulated tightly and in the hands of a few, caste-like arrangements of workers, and social mechanisms to make sure no one individual could put the community at hazard.
Sure, our many times great grandchildren could get a foothold off of planet Earth. But do we really want to create a competing race of naked mole apes?
Chris Clarke says
But do we really want to create a competing race of naked mole apes?
That train’s left the station.
But do we really want to create a competing race of naked mole apes?
Are you spouting blasphemy against The Great Blarg? The theory that The Naked Mole Apes from Planet Kansas 4 evolved from Earth humanoids is just that – a THEORY. Naked Mole Ape children should decide for themselves if they evolved from nearsighted, chubby-digited Homo Cyberians. You earth people with your silly ideas.
Your argument about speciation is a really interesting one.
Clarke’s criticism of Hawking is really silly, though. I don’t have time to go over it point by point, but his underline problems are that he’s thinking far too short-term and he’s thinking from a “save the Earth” rather than “save humanity” perspective.
Here’s one especially silly piece:
Well, my first reaction would be to send them out to the great beyond in a Tupperware Arc. Why? Because I’m one of the roaches. And so is Chris. He seems to have forgotten his perspective…
Chris Clarke says
he’s thinking from a “save the Earth” rather than “save humanity” perspective.
Guilty as charged, and damn proud to say so. A difference between me and a cockroach, I like to think, is that I can adopt a broader perspective. Which it’s interesting to be accused of lacking for lack of sufficient self-centeredness.
PZ Myers says
I guess I’m not one to happily sing along with Roaches über Alles. If we’re roachlike, I think the proper thing to do is improve our qualities before flinging roach eggs everywhere.
The other thing is that those roaches aren’t us. They’re our descendants. We have a responsibility to see that our children are civil and better behaved, rather than handing them whole planets to wipe their butts with.
Interesting article, but I have to disagree with this. Humanity’s curiosity and drive for adventure and profit will certainly far weigh any long term nagging concerns about unforseen consequences. Evolutionary changes, even with technology nudging us on the way, will be far too slow to raise any red flags that might hint at future dangers or strife.
Make space travel cheap enough, fast enough, and safe enough, there will be no stopping us.
The thing that really gets me about this sort of nonsense is that we have massive, urgent problems right here and now. We absolutely need to address those before we start thinking about the really long-term issues that space migration attempts to address. It’s like worrying about getting cancer whilst in the middle of a car crash.
The SF novelist Corwainer Smith addressed that very issue — post human races arising from offworld colonies. The new races were referred to as ‘Hominids’ or ‘The Changed Men.’ Some of the races were terrifying, like the olfactory manipulators from Amazonas Trieste. Some were beautiful but incomprehensible, like the Diamoni.
Smith also addressed the idea of unpredictable results of bringing Earth animals to new planets with awful (and sometimes good) results. The immortality drug in his stories, ‘Stroon,’ is a product secreted from sick mutant sheep on the the colony planet Old North Australia…
Oh well. I am a nerd.
I gotta disagree with you on this one PZ, unless you’re limiting your vision to the next one or two hundred years. If that’s what you’re doing, then you’re absolutely correct when you say:
If we’re thinking meaningful evolutionary timescales though, and the future of humanity, then it’s absolutely feasible that we might oneday establish off-world colonies a la Star Trek or (better yet) the Dune Chronicles. And it would be the natural progression of the species: acquiring new technologies that open up new geographies to explore, just as with the recent anthropological discoveries that the bow and arrow facilitated expansion out of central Africa some 60K years ago.
But yeah, the guys who think it’s a reasonable thing to do in our lifetimes are a little unrealistic, and your points on humanity’s priorities are well said.
Tweaking a few genes isn’t going to markedly change human nature. Concerns about “post-humans” strike me as silly. There’s really no reason to expect that off-worlders wouldn’t remain within the rather huge range of variation that already exists on earth. Masai warrior, New York urbanite, Inuit, asteroid dweller. Meh.
And while it’s hard not to feel like we’re in panic mode given the U.S.’s current obstinance concerning global warming, there’s really no reason to be a completely fatalistic environmental doom and gloomer in the long term is there? We’re doing better than we were 20 years ago on many fronts. I don’t see why it’s a foregone conclusion that everything is going to get worse.
The switch off of fossil fuel is going to be the big hurdle, and I just can’t imagine that someone’s not going to be in line to handle that given the cash bonanza that awaits whoever gets there first.
We have a responsibility to see that our children are civil and better behaved, rather than handing them whole planets to wipe their butts with.
Man, I have to remember that quote!
I share this perspective. It seems to me that the roach analogy could lead to something vaguely resembling various sci-fi species:
I’m sure there are better examples in sci-fi, but my background in sci-fi literature isn’t as robust as it should be, and the above examples are the ones I’m most familiar with. And yes, I know those races have a lot of conceptual flaws (nevermind the fundamental flaws of 40K as a game). I’m just pointing out the problem of seeking new worlds for the preservation of humanity if we bring the threat to that preservation with us.
And yeah, what Daniel said.
I think people are implicitly assuming different timescales here and perhaps talking past each other a bit.
Um.. I meant ‘Cordwainer.’
I just read Clarke’s ‘critique.’ He argues that 1) It’ll never work, and he knows based on an experiment near Tucson, and 2) We’re bad for the ecosystem, so we should just die, nad we’d be bad for other planets too, so we should die there as well.
So… does the Argument from Incredulity apply here? Things are impossible because you think it’s impossible? So were airplanes dismissed at first, because early attempts were unsuccessful.
To Clarke’s other point, that we humans muck up ecosystems, so what? Clarke is missing Hawking’s point. He values human existence. We ought to care for our ecosystem because it sustains human existence. But Hawking pointed out that we have our eggs in one basket, and are thus vulnerable to many catastrophes — not all ecological, since asteroid strikes would not be the result of fouling our own ecosystem.
PZ — What I would see before speciation occurring, is Solar System colonies that become less dependent on Earth would become politically independent, and likely hostile to Earth.
Well this has got me out of lurker mode, even if, by now, it’s a bit of a me-too post.
Something of humanity has to make it off this beautiful but fragile rock at some point. I don’t disagree that getting our bacterial style population growth and biosphere wrecking ways aren’t important. Shifting excess people off world is never going to be a viable solution to overpopulation and environmental degradation.
However, we can’t be content to stay on Earth ad infinitum. Eventually, a great big dirty rock is going to slam into this planet of ours, and all the knowledge that generation upon generation have struggled so damned hard accumulate will be lost in an instant.
That humanity will speciate once it hits space is almost certain to my mind. As you point out, PZ, human biology will need some serious tweaks before we’re even properly spaceworthy. (I wonder how well adapted a cephalopod body would be to zero or low g?)
But here’s the thing – who’s to say that biological life, as well adapted as it is to the relatively benign conditions of a planet, is going to be the fittest form of life to expand beyond Earth and beyond the Solar System? Some of our descendants may be intelligent machines and it might be they who are best adapted to carry our legacy to the stars (we just have to ensure that they’re not religious fanatics like the cylons!).
TorbjÃ¶rn Larsson says
I don’t especially agree with either Hawking, Chris or PZ. Having colonies would be great for many things, one having the precious seeds of life scattered elsewhere. Not all risks we meet are human made. Life is robust enough to survive several mass extinction events, but the next could be the killer. It would be sad and selfish to restrict life unneccessarily, or to have it die because of endless speculations about an optimal strategy.
The difficulties in space are surely less than the difficulties to achieve stable human cultures. We have been to space, but have we seen a stable culture? Do we expect to, especially since we know neither evolution nor technology never stops? Depending on the definition of “stable” of course, I generally don’t (except greater population stability perhaps), so I believe waiting for this is futile. The point of the game is to adapt.
BTW, since the first colonies are going to be strictly limited, they could teach us a lot of how to manage resources here on Earth. Nothing teaches as good as hard facts.
Oh and one other thing…if it means that Earth-derived sentience survives the eventual destruction of the planet – then by all means naked mole-ape people from Mars (or where ever).
I imagine your average Homo erectus weren’t too impressed by those egg-head babbling smart-ass Homo sapiens either. :)
Damn good point. Especially if we could transfer our minds to computers.
…imagine if our understanding of the human brain progressed to the point where we can fabricate a sturdier (silicon-based?) replica, or if cryo-preservation advanced enough, so that we might be more hardy for interstellar travel or habitation!
Of course if it was A.I. that expanded beyond our Solar System, it should replicate and be able to generate variation for natural selection to act on, right?
Very cool concept.
I don’t expect imminent expansion away from earth, and I agree with many of PZ’s individual points. But his overall conclusion suggests an oddly circumscribed view of what’s possible.
It’s true that the energy requirements would make it infeasible (assuming no big surprises in our understanding of physics) to send many adult humans away from earth.
It’s also true that the construction of reasonably hospitable habitats for humans away from earth is a daunting prospect. In this case, I would call the problem technological rather than a fundamental infeasibility, but I don’t expect the technology to be coming any time soon.
As for adapting human genetics to new habitats… eh, maybe. That’s one possible route, but besides the point to me.
What I disagree with, is the overall tone, summarized as:
It depends on what you mean by gametes and by flicking. I can imagine the futility of shooting off a few explorers in an unsustainable attempt to set up a base elsewhere. However, that’s not what I envision as an expansion from earth. It’s primarily going to involve machines, not humans.
The machines are going to have to be a lot better than what we have now. They will have to be self-assembling and self-repairing, capable of managing waste and recycling resources just as living things are now. We might apply a lot of what we learn from biology or we might even incorporate biological components. It would be arrogant to imagine that we’re going to come up with anything as robust as living things in the foreseeable future. But I don’t really understand how PZ’s pessimism can extend indefinitely.
Does it extend to 100 years from now? 1000? 10000? I mean, it is easy to scoff at the notion of a singularity as the “apocalypse for geeks” but it strikes me as absurd to imagine that a person in the 21st century has a reasonable ability to foresee the limits on what will be doable 1000 years from now.
I also expect AI to emerge at some point. I don’t know if we’ll ever understand how it works, but I think that intelligence will be almost the inevitable result of a certain scale of computing power applied to building models of the environment and self. I cannot prove it, but that’s where I would put my money. I will not set a timeline. I’m skeptical, but open to the idea of AI exceeding human cognition in my lifetime. I would be shocked if were not possible 1000 years from now and would expect at least some sense of what the stumbling block is, because it would have to be something pretty severe.
I would expect that that first application of off-world machines and intelligence would be to bring resources back to earth to support the population here. That could continue for a long time, but once established, I see no reason that these same machines would not be able to expand outward. The pace of expansion would ultimately be limited by the speed of light, but would probably be substantially less given energy requirements at relativistic speeds. Energy and raw material are abundant and will not be limiting factors.
Whether you see any urgency in all this sort of depends on what you mean by human survival, and why you care. I think it would be a terrible shame if we were all to die or be thrown into a new dark age just as things are getting pretty interesting. I’m not claiming any kind of imperative, just a strong preference.
Any planetary disaster would also involve a great deal of suffering, but maybe I can agree with PZ in part by stating that expansion into space doesn’t help us at all when it comes to this. Even if we had space colonies far flung enough to avoid total species death, the destruction of a single planet would be just as grave a humanitarian disaster as the destruction of earth today.
But in terms of whether human life on earth could be a seed that will eventually expand into space and influence the universe outside our solar system, the answer seems to me to be obviously yes, although the influence may not take the form of biological humans. It strikes me as almost inevitable in the long term provided we don’t squander our current resources (an all too likely alternative). You can argue over whether it should be such a seed. I believe that we should simply because it strikes me as a lot more interesting than the alternative of trying to establish some kind of steady-state utopia.
Ronald Brak says
We don’t have the technology to build self sustaining offworld colonies at the moment. Anyone who wants them better work towards making sure humans remain safe and comfortable on earth for quite a while longer.
As for whether or not humans will colonize space, I will point out that Bill Gates is probably rich enough right now to pay for a trip to mars if he wanted to go. As wealth increases and technology improves there will no doubt be people with the resources and desire to colonise space.
It might be interesting to join them, but I don’t know if I’d want to leave my holodeck behind.
Chris Clarke says
He argues that 1) It’ll never work, and he knows based on an experiment near Tucson, and 2) We’re bad for the ecosystem, so we should just die, nad we’d be bad for other planets too, so we should die there as well.
Well, I see I’ve been outdone in the hyperbole department.
As a counterpoint to what I wrote above, I would like to add something about the lack of urgency. Whatever grand visions I have about the expansion of intelligent self-replicating machines away from the solar system, I am pretty sure it’s all been done already somewhere, and done a lot better. So if I had to pin down why I care, it boils down to saying “Because it’d be cool, wouldn’t it?” There is no moral imperative. (My only moral imperatives are those connected to my own actions and how they affect others around me.) I guess if somebody would honestly prefer what I call a steady-state utopia (earth-bound and sustainable) I don’t have an argument to say that they’re wrong. It’s more like I just don’t understand how they think.
I grant that we shouldn’t be teaching our kids to wipe their butts on entire new planets, but the fact they don’t shouldn’t be because they don’t know how but because they don’t want to.
I’d also add that if we manage to wreck this planet and ourselves in the process, nobody’s going to mourn us. In the unlikely event of an outside observer finding our remnants, we’d be lucky if we came out looking as good as Easter Islanders. In that case, the assessment would be we that showed some plucky resourcefulness with rather limited technology, but in the final analysis we didn’t do anything that anyone else has any need for. It may be more likely that the universe is littered with dead societies that got too smart to survive their own stupidity and our demise will be a neglible contribution to some overall statistic.
Clarke talks about the biosphere experiment, where a number of researchers lived in a confined area, gradually suffered a lack of oxygen, which led to a possibility of brain damage.
And Pauly Shore movies.
This gets me out of lurker mode as well. This is something that is going on in my mind for years now. I did not read the articles by Hawking and Clarke yet, but I will (need to get some work done).
I think colonization of other worlds is absolutely necessary for humankind to survive. The reason is not so much the rock from space, but preserving diversity. In the last few thousand years, humanity developed in different cultural islands on the world; it developed almost independently in Europe, Near East, India, China, America, Africa etc. Some of these cultures were successful, some not. But now we are growing together into a single culture, and and it is well possible that we are heading the wrong way. We are not there yet, but we see tendencies, and this growing together involves hazards on its own. We may suffer from global conflicts, or the establishment of a theocracy, or other ideologies. I see more danger there than in environmental catastrophies, although these should not be neglected, and these may well trigger global conflicts, from which we do not recover. During the Cold War, we were close.
Spreading to other worlds is difficult, and travel is not easy. Actually, I see this as an advantage. It makes it possible for different cultures to evolve on their own, with little connections among them. Some will be succesful, some not. Maybe it also involves biological changes, evolutionary or artificial, but so be it. If some evolve into mole rats, so what? They certainly will find each other attractive, otherwise they would not evolve that way…
I think the technological problems can be solved, one way or the other, and that we can transform (terraform) other worlds to be more earth-like – we are changing earth’s climate right now, so why shouldn’t it be possible to do that deliberately. My worry is that we do not get there soon enough, and that we miss the opportunity before we get into the next Dark Ages.
One of the features of “life” here on earth is that it spreads. Always changing and the sucessfull ones find empty niches. That’s one way to read it. Why should we be different? We hold the power to leave the planet to find an empty niche. Why not use that power? Do we really have to clean our room first?
James Killus says
“Just because something has never been done is no reason to expect that it will be easy.”
Given that we know of no places beyond the Earth that contain even an approximation of a habitable environment, it always seemed to me that the first requirement for actual extra-terrestrial colonization would be the ability to create an artificial, self-sufficient, habitable environment. (Any colony that wasn’t self-sufficient would be at the mercy of whatever fate befalls the Earth, so big deal).
No one has ever accomplished this. For some reason, SF fans and other naive futurists think this is the easy part. Or they wave magic words at the problem, like “terraforming,” as if we would find it easier to make Mars livable than to accomplish those things that help the Earth continue to be liveable.
Oddly enough, if someone managed to make a self-sufficient habitat, it would be more useful here on Earth (where it would be cheaper, because _everything_ is cheaper on Earth than in space), and would, in fact, probably solve the problems that going into space is supposed to solve.
All of which points to the conclusion that space colonization fantasies are the SF equivalent of writing to the character in the soap opera to warn her than her husband is cheating on her.
Chris Clarke says
Clarke talks about the biosphere experiment, where a number of researchers lived in a confined area, gradually suffered a lack of oxygen, which led to a possibility of brain damage.
And Pauly Shore movies.
Correlation is not causation, but sometimes it’s awfully tempting to think otherwise.
Chris Clarke says
Incidentally, as I mentioned in comments to my thread just now, I have no objection to man walking on the moon. Or Mars. Or Charon. I’d kind of like to summit Olympus Mons, myself. It’s just that I’m unmoved by the Extropian bukkake fantasy that seems manifested so often in this sort of discussion.
Incidentally, as I mentioned in comments to my thread just now, I have no objection to man walking on the moon.
That’s very big of you.
Respectful Dissent says
Why does it have to be so binary?
I, for one, am looking forward to giant space stations at the La Grange points, so we can develop Mobile Suits.
But seriously, no one elected Stephen Hawkins President of All Humanity, so it’s not like he gets to dictate that we will devote our funding only to Giant Space Arks, and we have to burn down the Amazon to build them.
We can simultaneously work towards both goals, right? Yes, not if the total science budget is miniscule and you have to make bad choices at NASA, but moving some stuff to space is going to be part of solving our problems, right? Not huge swaths of humanity, but why not some space-based industries or mining the solar system or space-based solar energy collection and microwave transfer to ground stations?
Instead of expending your energy denouncing Hawkins, why don’t you guide the discussion towards 1.) the need to increase science and technical education; 2.) the need for more scientists and engineers; and 3.) the need for more basic research and scientific investment?
The more science-smart the population is, the more we’ll do things like accept scientific consensus and act on problems like global warming. Crazy romantic notions about space and science fiction are often young people’s gateway to science, and isn’t that a good thing? PJ and Chris, would you rather kids spend their summers at Space Camp or Bible Camp?
Instead of blasting Hawkins for what you’re reading into him, why not emphasize commonalities while pointing out that we need to solve the larger problems of continuing to live here on earth?
Do we need to put our own house in order? I think that’s an obvious yes. Do we need to improve upon our roach-like nature before we climb into the tupperware? I think so, yes.
If we do, in fact, un-roach ourselves, and become a happy, sustainable life is nice kinda species, we’ll still be atomized when the Sun goes nova if we don’t get the Hell out of the solar system. And that would make our long struggle to become a nice, happy, live and let live, sustain our world type of species completely, utterly pointless.
Nonsense. Solar energy is cheaper in space. Synthesizing large, perfect crystals, is cheaper in space. Maintenance is a lot cheaper in space. An occasional micrometeorite is easier to protect against than fungus, rust, spiderwebs, etc. I suspect that total automation of mining operations will be easier in the asteroid belt than on earth because it will be easier to control the conditions.
It’s kind of silly to imagine moving things off the earth that are much cheaper here, but there are plentiful resources in space that can be exploited once the technology is developed.
G. Tingey says
Completely wrong – both PZ and Chris Clark.
“Earth is the cradle of minkind, but one cannot live in the crdle for ever” – Arthur C. CLarke.
And it doesn’t just have to be the rich.
Remember, in terms of energy, it’s raining soup up there, and the supply of hydrocarbons represented by Titan, never mind the Jovian atmosphere is just mindboggling.
We need just ONE vital invetion, or group of mutually-supporting developments – a (much) cheaper and less energy-ineficient way to orbit.
After that, it’s easy.
Chris Clarke says
I see Nature Selected Me is as clueful as ever.
PZ: “Humans in a space colony could be more like naked mole rats, with reproduction regulated tightly and in the hands of a few, caste-like arrangements of workers, and social mechanisms to make sure no one individual could put the community at hazard.”
Bah. Only until the handsome astronaut (USA Corps, of course) from Earth gets there, seduces a couple of their females, punches out a couple of problem-causing warriors, and then makes a speech to the colony.
Don’t you *ever* watch the movies?
That’s not an invention; it’s a fantasy, or at best wishful thinking. Obviously if we had the “spindizzy” from Blish’s Cities in Flight, we’d be out of here in a jiffy (Scranton, PA even!).
I don’t assume any fundamentally different form of propulsion will be found, though a space elevator, if materially possible, would make a big difference. The payloads that can be sent from earth are going to be limited by energy requirements and propellant mass. Fortunately, we can keep those payloads small as long as we’re sending what counts: self-replicating, self-repairing assembly systems. These will have to be developed first on earth, which is why I don’t see any big need to push for space exploration right at the point (particularly sending humans). But there is no fundamental physical barrier to establishing an extraterrestrial industry that dwarfs the productive capacity of the earth. It is just a matter of technology.
In the long run, I don’t think that any of our progeny that we spin off into space will be human for long, and I don’t think we can predict what a post-human race would want, or how it would interact with us.
This seems odd coming from you, PZ. Why are the spacefarers the only ‘post-humans’ in this picture? Both lineages will continue to evolve, right? Certainly there may be more selection pressure on the small population in a less hospitable environment. But, unless you are defining human as not only evolved from human stock but specifically adapted to the Earth habitat, both creatures will either be be ‘post-human’ or just human.
On another note, I have not yet read either Hawkings or Clarke’s articles, so perhaps they touch on this, but wouldn’t any group leaving the earth to colonize some other place take as diverse a genetic pool from the Earth as possible? Not just human diversity, but the two of everything kind of diversity. If you are talking about terraforming or even just living in biodomes, wouldn’t you want to have as much of a functioning ecosystem as possible? So though humans might flick their gametes into the sky for purely humancentric reasons, they would help preserve populations of other earth life along the way.
I see the concept that humans could ever create, maintain, and inhabit artificial ecosystems on non-Earth planets as being not unlike the concept that humans can talk to ghosts. It feels like something that SHOULD happen, until you actually try to work through it and acknowledge the impossibility.
If mankind’s minute-to-minute survival on Earth were dependent on every single individual person always doing his or her job perfectly, our species would have long since gone extinct.
We should not take for granted the ecosystem that we have. Earth is already here for us, it is perfect for us, and it is free of charge. None of our technological solutions have such a roster of pluses, so we should come to use them only after other approaches have failed–because they tend to be both inferior to and more expensive than the natural processes we erode through short-sightedness.
natural cynic says
We have a responsibility to see that our children are civil and better behaved, rather than handing them whole planets to wipe their butts with.
In the process of civilizing ourselves in order to clean our house, we might also lose the wanderlust and drive that seems to push us towards the stars.
And any society that is capable of developing extra-earth colonies would also be capable of protecting itself from bolides.
TTT: I don’t quite see the ghost analogy. If ghosts actually existed, you could speculate on the technology that might be found to talk to them. Since there is no reason to think they do, it’s pure fantasy.
By contrast, the idea of establishing a presence on other planets is full of holes, but it’s a reasonable extrapolation based on what we know exists. Whether we’ll build “artificial ecosystems” is anybody’s guess, but there is no reason to rule out self-replicating, self-repairing machines, particularly since we see it in life. Given that, I can think of no good reason not to suppose that if we can build such machines, we can build ones suitable for exploiting outer space resources. Whether biological humans want to hop on for the ride is kind of besides the point to me.
No. It’s very expensive, but the costs have just been externalized so far. It won’t be long till it’s clear that we have to pay for the pollution we’ve created. Other costs, such as the risk of a “dinosaur killer” asteroid collision are statistical but very real. Earth is more like an all-expense-paid vacation than a everlasting annuity.
TikiHead: Mad props for the Cordwainer Smith reference.
G. Tingey: It was actually Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who said that first.
I tend to think it’s worth trying to set up space stations and colonies, and not so much for any utilitarian purpose, or even the notion of “preserving the human race”. Even though I do think there are benifits to be had, and even though I do think preserving humanity as flawed as we are is a good idea.
The reason I think it’s a good idea is exactly the same as the reason Prof. Meyers thinks it’s a bad idea, because it will lead to divergence in culture and possibly even human speciation. I believe monocultures are inherently unhealthy. And while we’re a very long way from a human monoculture on earth, we do seem to be trending that way.
If there’s competition, well then there’s competition. There will also be collaboration, and commensalism.
Finally and this is, for me, where the argument ends we should have space colonies for one very simple reason.
Because it would be AWESOME.
PaulC said: “Fortunately, we can keep those payloads small as long as we’re sending what counts: self-replicating, self-repairing assembly systems. These will have to be developed first on earth, which is why I don’t see any big need to push for space exploration right at the point (particularly sending humans).”
Humans *are* self-replicating, self-repairing assembly systems. Read Dawkins – what are we, if not giant robots built for our selfish genes? Having said that, I like the idea of von Neumann machines, built of large blocks of smelted metals and etched silicates. The much-feared “grey goo” scenario already happened – they’re called “bacteria”.
I’m going to fall into the soft compromise zone in the middle of this split: sooner or later, humanity (and associated commensals) with either colonise another cosmic entity successfully, or go extinct. Neither scenario has much to say about the other species on Earth, but I’m expecting most of those to go extinct in short order before either scenario really gets going. I’m personally betting on the extra-Earth colonisation scenario, simply because it seems easier to establish a colony somewhere than it is to completely annihilate the most successful (in terms of varied environments inhabited) species ever encountered on Earth.
Speculations on the physical nature of the humans (or post-humans, or transhumans) who actually accomplish the establishment of self-sufficient colonies Somewhere Else seem rather pointless – we have no data to base extrapolations on, so no idea can be excluded.
Grimgrin said: “Finally and this is, for me, where the argument ends we should have space colonies for one very simple reason.
Because it would be AWESOME.”
Yes, but we’re not very well suited to mining the asteroid belt. My point was that we need to have sufficient control over the self-replication technology to make a version of it that can exist in space. That’s the main hurdle I see to enabling some form of expansion into the solar system.
The construction of artificial human habitats is kind of a red-herring for me. It would require the marshalling of enormous resources. We may have those resources once we have space-based industry, but the space-based industry itself is not going to require any humans to run it, so if we build these off world colonies it will be because people want to go there, not because there is a good economic reason.
if we can’t prevent ourselves from trashing a whole planet, how are we going to ever maintain a viable home in the more limited and hostile confines of a habitat elsewhere?
Good question. To be fair, things are improving in our homeland. Infectious disease is still rampant and our government is corrupt, but Tanzania isn’t as bad as it used to be. We should soon be ready to move out of Olduvai and start exploring the Nile delta, any millenium now.
TTT: It feels like something that SHOULD happen, until you actually try to work through it and acknowledge the impossibility.
So we’ve had ONE failed artificial habitat experiment and we should give up on the whole thing? Failed experiments are good. They sometimes teach us more than a successful one.
huh ? How many humans survived the last population bottleneck around 70.000BC ? ten thousand ? twenty thousand ? A town sized colony somewhere where our nukes can’t strike is surely not a way to save anyone, but as a means for survival of our species and source for repopulation of earth it should be more than enough…
roystgnr – Perfect.
If PZ wants to wait until his prgeny learn to make no environmental footprint, he can.
The rest of us Energizer Bunnies will just keep going and going and going.
If you want to know what the population of offworlders is going to look like, I suggest you visit Beijing or other parts of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese have sent their manned missions into space, certainly as much for political as scientific gain, and are likely to follow up with a moon mission as soon as they can afford it. Afterwards, they are very unlikely to be bound by any worries about old 1960’s treaties saying “space is for everyone” or humanity’s current attitudes towards the environment.
With 1.6 billion people, they have plenty of experimental subjects to send out there, and with an economy that will surpass ours in the next 10 years or so, they will have plenty of money to throw around. On top of that, the Three Gorges Dam shows that the Chinese government is not too worried about the effects of massive terraforming projects.
James Killus says
PaulC: “Nonsense. Solar energy is cheaper in space. Synthesizing large, perfect crystals, is cheaper in space. Maintenance is a lot cheaper in space. An occasional micrometeorite is easier to protect against than fungus, rust, spiderwebs, etc. I suspect that total automation of mining operations will be easier in the asteroid belt than on earth because it will be easier to control the conditions.”
I’m afraid that the appropriate reply here is “in your dreams.” No one is making “large perfect crystals” in space, because it’s too expensive. There is plenty of solar energy being used here on Earth; none of it comes from space (except in the sense that space is where the Sun is). The only people who believe in solar energy from space are space advocates; no power company is looking seriously at the matter, because it’s too expensive.
Plenty of people _imagine_ that there are things that are cheaper in space, but the only things that are actually cheaper are telecommunications satellites and remote sensing. Those have industries making money, because they can afford the $1000 a kg (or whatever it’s running; it’s hard to get a real accounting for so subsidized an activity as space launches) startup cost.
It’s _hypothetically_ cheaper to make ice in the Antarctic, but I’m still running my freezer, how about you?
Bill Dauphin says
“One of the features of ‘life’ here on earth is that it spreads. Always changing and the sucessfull ones find empty niches. That’s one way to read it. Why should we be different? We hold the power to leave the planet to find an empty niche. Why not use that power? Do we really have to clean our room first?”
Many things have been said in this thread that I agree with, but this comment resonates particularly. The faintly scolding tone that last sentence alludes to — You can’t go out and play until you clean up that room, young man! — is an all-too familiar aspect of many more-or-less-“deep” ecology arguments. To a greater or lesser degree, these arguments treat humanity as a disease attacking the “natural” environment, rather than as an organic part of that environment. I even once stumbled across a website for the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement,” which advocates (apparently with a straight face) that we humans should voluntarily cleanse the Earth of ourselves by declining to procreate. I don’t say Chris’ argument is that extreme, but it strikes me as at least a step or two down that path… and it also strikes me as having a faint whiff of species-level self-loathing. Admittedly we have, by dint of our evolutionary success, arrived at a point where we can (and do, despite all the climate-change deniers) cause large changes in our environment. For rational, pragmatic reasons, we need to be careful that those changes are not harmful to us, but we should not think of “nature” as separate from us, and we certainly shouldn’t think of ourselves as the enemy (Pogo notwithstanding).
Soooo… space settlement:
* Yes, we should go, because “life spreads.”
* No, we can’t move off Earth soon enough, or in great enough numbers to save us from near-term disasters like nuclear war or overpopulation. So what? I don’t think that’s why we should go in the first place (see above).
* No, we don’t currently have the technology to build self-sustaining colonies within the Solar System, nor to travel to other stars that might harbor Earthlike planets. Again, so what? We do what we can do and we go where we can go, and bit by bit we get better at it. If we don’t start, we’ll never figure it out.
* No, we don’t have to “clean our room” before we can go out and play. If we wait to perfect our current state before we start creating our future state, we’re doomed. Besides, what if it turns out that the room is uncleanable? What if the truth is that any growing technology-using species will just naturally outpace the carrying capability of a single-planet ecosystem, no matter how conscientious it is? In that case, should we just resolve to die? Or shouldn’t we start looking for the next planets before we’ve used this one up?
As for the old arguments about human spaceflight being less scientifically efficient than robotic exploration, it may be true in some purely pragmatic terms, but I think it misses the point. Space science, like all science, is about understanding the world around us. If we make the a priori decision that we’re not going to go to the rest of the Solar System, then it isn’t really part of the “world around us” anymore. Astrophysics stays relevant, because it teaches us about physics and physics happens everywhere… but what difference does it make how efficiently a robot can gather data about the geography and climate of Mars if nobody’s going to go there. This is what the old argument usually misses: It’s the potential, however distant, of human space travel and settlement that gives most space science its context, and makes it worth doing in the first place.
Or so it seems to me; YMMV, of course.
But nobody’s doing it on earth either because it’s impossible. Expensive is still cheaper than impossible.
The marginal cost is demonstrably lower because you have continual availability of sunlight and no atmospheric absorption. Thus, a smaller solar panel will give you more energy per day. I didn’t say that bringing the energy back to earth was cheap, just that it is clearly more reliably exploited in space than on earth if you happen to be there already (and in practice it is used on some space hardware).
I also think that given sufficient technology, solar will be the main source of power for extraterrestrial industry. It could be centuries or more before this happens and assumes self-replicating machines capable of exploiting extraterrestrial resources. You can call it “in my dreams.” I would say that it’s pretty reasonable speculation. There are no showstoppers. Things just have to be a lot better and more reliable than they are now.
Your original claim was that “_everything_ is cheaper on Earth than in space.” Where I come from, a single counterexample refutes a universal quantifier. I agree that many things are cheaper on Earth, not least of which is providing human life support. I just thought it was strange that you uttered a generality with such confidence and find it even stranger that you could do so in full awareness of facts that contradict it.
Earth is already here for us, it is perfect for us, and it is free of charge.
Is this a joke? Most parts of Earth require lots of work just to survive on them. In fact, *most* parts of Earth we haven’t even figured out how to survive on yet. Earth is *habitable* for us – partly – but it’s far from perfect.
I don’t find it at all hard to believe that an orbital-habitat dweller would look at all the hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, blizzards, mudslides and wildfires, not to mention the hideous gravity well, and wonder why anyone bothered living on one of those things. Massive-scale disasters (that it’s very hard to engineer a structure to resist) are common as dirt on planets.
Dirt, of course, is also as common as dirt on planets, and not on orbital (or lunar, or martian) habitats. But I don’t think the problems involved in bringing your own dirt and dirt-producing organisms/systems with you are *necessarily* intractable over the long term, or worse than the frequent disasters of living on a volcanically active planet with an uncontrolled atmosphere.
None of Earth is free of charge. We’ve been living off the capital for tens of thousands of years already.
Overall, though, I think they are the same problem. Human habitation on Earth isn’t sustainable precisely because it isn’t a closed system – it uses the rest of Earth as a combination resource mine and waste dump. In space, you have all the waste dumps you want (although it’s probably important to reprocess a lot of your waste into new raw materials, another thing humans have traditionally relied on the rest of Earth for), but it may be difficult to mine anything other than ice and rock. But once we can have a human-inhabitable ecology that *really* isn’t dependent on imports, we can have it on or off Earth.
So, in short, we can’t survive for long off Earth until we’ve learned how to survive without plundering a planet in the process, and once we’ve learned how to survive without plundering the planet, we can do it even when the planet doesn’t have the right stuff to plunder (or when we’re not on a planet at all).
Energy is the main issue – if we can build a reasonable-sized fusion reactor that produces more useful energy than it consumes (plus the cost of harvesting the hydrogen from water or ice, which are both available in gigaton quantities on or off Earth), a lot of things become easier; if not, we have to rely on the fusion reactor we already have (the Sun), which is inconveniently large. Once we have enough energy, we can do the chemistry, or design machines or organisms to do it for us.
I don’t think the “post-human” concerns are reasonable. A sexual species with a generation time this long isn’t going anywhere much in a few hundred thousand years, except by genetic engineering – which isn’t really relevant, since we can do *that* whether we’re on Earth or off it.
Daryl McCullough says
I guess I agree with Amanda, Clarke and PZ that Hawking’s technological dream of escaping the demise of Earth in a rocket is fantasy. Unfortunately, I also believe that the idea of humanity getting its own house in order first is equally much a fantasy. I’m completely in favor of getting our populations down to a sustainable number, practicing sustainable agriculture, eliminating the threat of war in general and nuclear war in particular, eliminating greenhouse gases and other major pollutants, halting the destruction of habitats, etc. But how do you get 6 billion people to work together on those sorts of goals?
Daryl McCullough says
Chris Clarke makes fun of the biodome project, but actually, it was a great scientific success, in the sense that falsifying bad ideas is as important as demonstrating good ones. The biodome project showed that a self-sustaining ecosphere in a small volume is impossible (or at best, really, really, hard to get right.)
From what little I know about Biosphere 2, it just sounds flawed conceptually. There is no precedent for a small closed system recycling enough resources to support humans with modest energy input and no reason to think it possible. I guess there are some closed systems on Earth such as those caves with the blind salamanders, but I think at least the water gets recirculated out and probably the oxygen too.
I wouldn’t expect an artificial human habitat to be closed or efficient. I’d expect a lot of energy input, perhaps solar or some form of nuclear energy. I’d expect oxygen to be extracted from minerals when needed (one reason you want a lot of energy), wastes to be expelled when needed, and new materials to be brought in continually. To support a small human population, you might need an automated industrial infrastructure exceeding it in scale by an order of magnitude or more (for larger ones, the scale might come down, but it would be substantial compared to the livable space).
Biosphere 2 shows that one bad idea doesn’t work, and may even show that current technology won’t do it. But it in no way refutes the ultimate potential to support populations of humans offworld after we have developed self-replicating machinery that can exist in outer space.
BTW, I do think that Hawking’s timeline is totally unrealistic.
Phoenician in a time of Romans says
Let’s see – where to begin…:
When fans of technology start preaching about escaping disaster on earth by setting up space stations and moon colonies and terraforming Mars,
Define “escaping disaster”. If you’re suggesting that the pro-space crowd is saying that the vast majority of us won’t suffer, you’re wrong.
However a self-sustaining collection of people in space would be immune from most of the ecological disasters contemplated; the survival of the human species would certainly be enhanced if we ever got to this point.
a dying hanged man, kicking and squirming, ejaculating reflexively and dribbling a few pitiful drops of semen into the dirt.
Let me change your analogy – a dying hanged man with his children sitting elsewhere. That doesn’t save the hanged man, but it does ensure his family survives.
We have no idea how to build a home on another planet that won’t require continual resupply and that will last more than a few years)
Indeed. And how exactly do you suggest we develop this knowledge sitting down here?
(if we can’t prevent ourselves from trashing a whole planet, how are we going to ever maintain a viable home in the more limited and hostile confines of a habitat elsewhere?).
Oh, I dunno – something about not having to drop pollutants from industry straight into the ecosystem we have to live in springs to mind. Of course, that ecosystem would be the direct and visible responsibility of the polity dependant on it – but I suggest that this is likely to increase concern for its wellbeing.
Another twist, though: if we have a stable terrestrial society, we might not want to send people offworld, because of the certainty of unforeseen consequences.
Indeed – and if humans had gills, they’d be fish. It looks unlikely that a “stable terrestrial society” is going to happen anytime soon, and I suggest that using it as a premise is pointless.
I think the priorities in an environment as hostile as, for instance, the surface of Mars would be conformity, control, and specialization–social concerns to maintain safety and stability in a very nasty place.
It is likely that conformity and control will be more stressed – any society that faces breathing vacuum if the walls are breached is unlikely to supportthe right to bear arms. But specialization is less likely to be stressed than competance and flexibility.
I point out a simple fact – most of us already live in hugely complex technological systems which would be death traps if the systems failed. They’re called cities.
Sorry PZ, but when software programmers and mathematicians start talking about evolution’s flaws and ID’s humongous scientific truths you would shoot them down on the sole basis that neither is qualified to talk about evolution. The same here applies to you in regards to the subject at hand. Granted that the logistics, planning, and consistent attention to detail 24/7 would require something almost above and beyond the call of most modern day experts but to say we can’t and thus shouldn’t seems to give more credit to the supporters of the phoney moon landings conspiracy who said the same thing about going to the moon.
And Clark using the Biosphere project as a gauge is pathetic since the testimony of some of those who planned it out confessed that they shortchanged and did a half assed job of everything involved in it.
When you and Chris Clark get jobs at NASA planning give us a call, otherwise I think that Hawking wasn’t trying to discuss the tech involved but rather to suggest that with the current level of mounting crisis we shouldn’t be placing all our eggs in one basket.
It’s logical and has made sense for last 50 years that people have been suggesting it and trying to plan out various aspects of it. The only thing that has really stopped us from giving it a serious try has been the cost. People aren’t going to start spending money until they know their asses are on the line, and like all reactionaries they won’t feal the heat until it actually starts happening.
As for me, I’d like to think that human ingenuity, unbridled by religion and investment economics could solve the problems. Just giving up and hoping that the fundy wingnuts will let us try to save the planet when most of them are hoping it goes to hell in a handbasket so that Jesus will return is giving in the Ann Coulter ‘ignore her’ rhetoric you claim is bullshit.
John Emerson says
This is a long term project, not a short one. The most productive thing we can do right now is to dedicate ourselves to ruining the earth, so that at some point there will no alternative other than to colonize another planet. At the moment there really are alternatives, and as long as there are progress will not be made.
Ian H Spedding says
That reminds me, I still have a copy of The High Frontier by Jack O’Neill – sorry, Gerard K O’Neill -somewhere around. I must look it out.
As for Chris Clarke doing an Ann Coulter number on Stephen Hawking, I’m surprised at people cackling away here in support. So setting up extraterrestrial colonies is going to be extremely difficult and expensive? I don’t remember anyone outside of Star Trek ever suggesting it was going to be easy.
As I see it, when it comes right down to it, the basic problem is energy. We don’t have enough of it. That’s if we are only relying on what we can get out of the ground on this little planet. But around 93 million miles away is this honking great thermonuclear reactor pumping out all the joules we’re ever likely to need. Coal, oil and maybe methane hydrates have given us a leg up but if we want to get serious, we’ll have to go solar. Dyson sphere anyone?
Put it this way, you guys can hang around here playing chicken with a bunch of comets, asteroids, meteorites and solar flares if you want. Me, I’m hopping the first starship that offers an extended tour of the galaxy. Not that it’s ever likely to happen but you get the idea.
Phoenician in a time of Romans says
This is a long term project, not a short one. The most productive thing we can do right now is to dedicate ourselves to ruining the earth, so that at some point there will no alternative other than to colonize another planet.
Shhh – the people who thought that huge deficits were a great idea because they’d shrink government might actually buy it.
Actually, I think I’ll go with PZ’s analogy – but he’s wrong.
We’re not a dying man. We have a serious medical condition, one of several we have endured in our life, which may or (more likely) may not kill us. But we’ll have other conditions, and, inevitably, one of them will snuff us.
PZ is in the position of saying that spurting little bits of semen around is pointless, and wastes energy we should be using to try and get ourselves healthy again.
I am in the position of saying we’re going to die sometime, we will probably never actually be healthy again in the sense of not suffering from any of a wide range of conditions, and that spurting little bits of semen around with the right sort of effort and luck just might result in what we call “a child”.
And that it is better to die having had children than die childless.
Plus, of course, sex is kinda fun and, who knows, the exercise might help reduce our current health problems.
Yes, humanity will never havve a successful colony until it cleans it’s room. If we try, we will fail to have annything more than a temporary success. It’s that simple.
Because all the BIG problems with having a self-sustained colony in a uninhabitable environment are just that: creating a self-sustaining habitable environment. Food, recycled air and water, clean and constant energy, maintainable technology with scarce resources, living in a small area without going crazy or killing people. If we can’t get that right with a biosphere the size of the earth, how can we possibly expect to do it with something smaller than a shopping mall?
Unless we get it right, Astroid hits the earth, boom. Game over. Mars survives, for a little while. Without factories to build new technology, without resources to maintain existing tech, without vital imports or exports to maintain an colony that is in any way dependant on any other source; and premature colony would share Earth’s fate.
Phoenician in a time of Romans says
Yes, humanity will never havve a successful colony until it cleans it’s room.
As a basic rule, if you defecate in the same water you drink from, you’ll have problems.
With one ecosystem, we’re all defecating in the water we have to drink from.
I think we’d be much better off if as much industry as possible was placed outside that ecosystem – if we seperated the toilet from the kitchen and bedroom. What do you think?
Couple o’ points:
1: Humans going into space in large numbers is probably never going to be viable – not without either (a) the capability to mimic Earthlike conditions (no radiation; approx. 1g etc) in space and/or (b) a lot of cutting and pasting of the human genome.
Humans whizzing about the cosmos in little tin cans is a naive fantasy, I think. At best you’re looking at large artificial biospheres in hollowed out asteroids taking months and years to zoom around the solar system and on the (much, much) longer scale, centuries to get to other star systems.
That said, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Fixing the problems on Earth is going to be equally difficult, but we can’t just throw our hands in the (increasingly polluted) air and say it’s not possible.
2: Learning not to thrash this biosphere and learning to live sustainably in artificial biospheres are the same thing. Earth-based environmentalism and space-based biosphere construction will have a lot of cross-talk and cross fertilisation, since they involve solving the same problems (albeit on different scales). So spending resources on one is not necessarily to the detriment of the other.
3: In a similar vein, space-based technologies have the potential to ease some of the problems on Earth (mining and energy, for starters; getting a handle on population growth, is we’ll have to solve down here though). Equally, solving some of our environmental problems (like switching energy production from fossil fuels to something more reliable n the long term) will help space exploration. You can’t think of setting up orbital industries or going to the Moon on a regular basis without lots of cheap energy and an economy robust enough to sustain the…er…astronomical costs involved.
So in short – this isn’t an either/or thing. What we do here will determine how well we do out there and vice versa.
Just had to share a good quotation from a crap episode of Babylon 5:
Some day, all of the stars will go out.
I guess everything’s for nothing, then.
John Emerson says
O’Brien, you embarrassed yourself with your string of cliche sarcasms.
John Emerson says
It don’t work that way. You have to seem significantly smarter.
We’re all going to die someday too (and waaay before the stars go out).
Doesn’t stop me getting up in the morning though.
I decided years ago not to spend much time worrying about ultimate causes or ultimate effects. The proximal and intermediate are the interesting parts, the one the human brain is best suited to handle, and the one for which I bear some kind of ethical responsibility. The question of what to do (if anything) about the end of the universe isn’t one I have a chance of answering. The questions of what to do about my work, family, etc. are ones that I have to deal with, and do so regularly. This is pretty normal, but thinking doesn’t have to stop at immediate needs either.
The question of what to do about the next 1000 years is close enough that I can make some reasonable extrapolations. They’ll mostly be wrong, but it doesn’t hurt to guess. The solar system is obviously resource rich compared to present human needs, though our size and needs can grow quite fast. I cannot think of any moral argument not to try to tap these resources. I believe that waste is immoral, but only because waste denies resources to other conscious, feeling entities that need it, and perhaps in a more abstract sense when it destroys irreplacable beauty and produces ugliness. You cannot “waste” an asteroid unless it is a very remarkable one, and if Mars is devoid of life, then large-scale conversion to something life-supporting would not be wasteful either.
The main thing to me is just that I find it appealing to envision engineering on the scale of asteroids and planets. I don’t see any argument that it’s ultimately impossible, I don’t believe that it harms anyone, and I believe that it will give satisfaction to whatever kinds of conscious entities–either us or our machine descendents–that engage in it. The idea that there is something “arrogant” about it is ridiculous. What’s arrogant is saying that you can determine where growth is going to stop and tell everybody else to obey it.
The reason, by the way, that I don’t apply such logic to earth-bound projects such as the Three Gorges Dam is that there’s little room for it here. There is too much competition already for the resources. In fact, what somebody said about the earth being “free” has it exactly wrong. The solar system is filled with free stuff except that we’re still too dumb to figure out how to get it. The earth, by contrast, is very expensive because most of it is already spoken for.
I also don’t really want to turn this into liberal-infighting, but I think it’s a relatively new thing for liberals to believe that the greatest good is to leave a very small footprint. I see some hints of that on this discussion board, and wonder how prevalent it is. Certainly, you would not have seen it in the liberalism of FDR with projects such as the Tennesee Valley Authority (the Three Gorges Dam of its day). And obviously JFK for whatever reason was the guy who started that brief fad called the space age. Who do I blame? Was it Rachel Carson publishing Silent Spring? Or maybe it’s a streak going back to Thoreau. It’s an inversion of conservative and progressive that I imagine would look pretty alien to old liberals who mostly wanted to hatch grand schemes to help people.
I’m not denying that earth really is crowded, and species extinctions are accelerating at an alarming rate. In practice, I too believe in leaving a small footprint. The difference is that I think that is a reaction to present conditions, not an intrinsic good. When resources are abundant, there is nothing virtuous about keeping a small footprint. If somebody figures out how to make solar power a lot cheaper, for instance, then turning out unneeded lights out won’t have the significance it now does. If somebody figures out a reliable way to use machines to separate the recyclables from the rest of the trash, then separating them yourself will not make you a good person–it would be a waste of valuable human attention.
I agree with arguments that we are stuck on earth for the forseeable future and ought to take that into account. I don’t agree with the naive extrapolation that suggests we will never, ever have an impact on the rest of the solar system and beyond (though biological humans won’t be moving en masse). And finally, my mind just boggles at the notion that there is something bad about trying. Expansion has a bad history because it usually involves a genocide campaign against indigenous peoples. If you can find a way to expand into places that are actually unsettled, then you can make the unusual claim of being the original indigenous inhabitants.
Methinks you’re focusing too much on the human race. I would like to ensure that some part of Life on Earth(TM) survives earth. I don’t care if it has speciated or not, and I don’t want to save a single species in any case.
I think the timeframe of the objections raised here is way too short. 200-300 years is a long time when it comes to technological advances, and I think it is pretty unlikely we’ll get hit by a planetkiller asteroid or comet (or have a monstrous solar flare or a close supernova or any of the other things that threaten life on earth) in that time frame.
Also, the argument that things are cheaper on earth is silly. Things are always cheaper after the infrastructure is in place and production has scaled up.
Things are also cheaper on earth because the costs of production aren’t properly allocated. Water is nearly free. Fossil fuel energy is incredibly cheap. And act of polluting the environment is mostly free, at least to the polluter. All these things allow something made on earth to be artificially valued below its true cost. Part of the process of putting our house in order is going to drive the cost of earthbound production up dramatically.
There really is no reason not to invest some of our resources into the technology to make human colonies possible. We have sufficient resources to do that and to put our house in order on earth. I do not believe that humans are so bad that we should volunarily quarantine oursevles on earth to avoid soiling the rest of the universe.
There is also the matter that the human race has never not expanded, either in population or in range, usually in both. We can no longer do either on the earth. What happens to us when we turn inwards? Do we stagnate, or should we expand outward into space instead?
“Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”