Colonies or Settlements?

People sometimes object to the term “space colonies” on political grounds and for this reason NASA, along with some others, prefers the term “space settlements.” The objection, however, strikes me as invalid. To be sure, “colonization” does have some bad associations, since on Earth it always involved taking over the land and/or culture of indigenous inhabitants—but that is precisely what a space colony would not do! Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, advocates colonizing inhabited planets, even if we should ever find any. The idea of expanding into space is to abandon our dependence on zero-sum games. A more accurate precedent for the term “colonize” in the space context is its meaning in biology: the establishment of a species’ presence in a new ecological niche. I’m therefore glad to see “space colonies” prevailing on the Web.

The question of resources raises an even more crucial reason for expansion into space than the danger of Earth’s destruction. It’s obvious that this planet cannot support an expanding population forever. Most people who recognize this fact advocate population control to the extent of “zero population growth.” I do not; I believe it would be fatal not only for the reason explained above, but because if it could be achieved it would result in stagnation. I do not want a world in which there can be no growth; growth leads to intellectual and artistic progress as well as to material survival. Furthermore, I do not believe it could be achieved. The built-in desire for personal descendants is too strong; that is why our species has survived this long, why it has spread throughout the entire world. Moreover, the biological response to threatened survival is to speed up reproduction, as we can see by the number of starving children in the world. If we tried to suppress population growth completely, we would have either immediate violent upheaval or a period of dictatorship followed by bloody revolution. Ultimately, we would reduce the population all right; we would decimate it. That may be “survival” but it’s surely not the future we want.

We do not want even the present restriction on resources. Currently, some nations live well while others are deprived, and it’s asserted that even those with the best access to resources should stop using them up—the underdeveloped nations, under this philosophy, are not given the hope of a standard of living commensurate with the level our species has achieved. Will the Third World tolerate such a situation forever? I surely wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to. And neither do I want the rest of the world reduced to a lower level of technology. Even if I had no other objection to such a trend, the plain fact is that a low level of technology cannot support the same size population as a high level; so if you want to cut back on technology, you have to either kill people outright or let them starve. And you certainly can’t do anything toward extending the length of the human lifespan. This is the inevitable result of planning based on a single-planet environment.

If there is pessimism in Earthbound science fiction (which is its most outstanding characteristic), these truths are the source of it. I have not seen any that denies any of them; pop-culture SF reveals that what people grasp about such a future involves catastrophic war, cut-throat human relationships in overcrowded cities, and a general trend toward dehumanization. The destruction of the world’s ecology is a basic assumption—which is natural, since in a contest between a stable biosphere and personal survival, humans will either prevail or they will die.

Myths showing these things are indeed part of the response to a new perception of our environment: the perception that as far as Earth is concerned, it is limited. But at the rational level, people do not want to face them. They tell themselves that if we do our best to conserve resources and give up a lot of the modern conveniences that enable us to spend time expanding our minds, we can avoid such a fate—as indeed we can, for a while. But not forever. And most significantly, not for long enough to establish space settlements, if we don’t start soon enough. Space humanization is not something that can be achieved overnight.

I have called this stage in our evolution the “Critical Stage.” Paul Levinson [the Director of Connected Education] uses different terminology for the same concept. He says that we have only a narrow window to get into space, a relatively short time during which we have the capability, but have not yet run out of the resources to do it. I agree with him completely about this. Expansion into space demands high technology and full utilization of our world’s material resources (although not destructive utilization). It also demands financial resources that we will not have if we deplete the material resources of Earth. And it demands human resources, which we will lose if we are reduced to global war or widespread starvation. Finally, it demands spiritual resources, which we are not likely to retain under the sort of dictatorship that would be necessary to maintain a “sustainable” global civilization.

Because the window is narrow, then, we not only have to worry about immediate perils. The ultimate, unavoidable danger for our planet, the transformation of our sun, is distant—but if we don’t expand into space now, we can never do it. Even if I’m wrong and we survive stagnation, it will be too late to escape from this solar system, much less to explore for the sake of exploring.

I realize that what I’ve been saying here doesn’t sound like my usual optimism. But the reason it doesn’t, I think, is that most people don’t understand what’s meant by “space humanization.” Some of you are probably thinking that space travel isn’t going to be a big help with these problems, as indeed, the form of it shown in today’s mythology would not. Almost certainly, you’re thinking that it won’t solve the other problems of Earth, and I fear you may be thinking that the other problems should be solved first.

One big reason why they should not is the “narrow window” concept. The other is that they could not. I have explained why I believe the problem of war can’t be solved without expansion. The problem of hunger is, or ultimately will be, the direct result of our planet’s limited resources; though it could be solved for the near-term by political reforms, we are not likely to see such reforms while nations are playing a “zero-sum game” with what resources Earth still has. Widespread poverty, when not politically based, is caused by insufficient access to high technology and by the fact that there aren’t enough resources to go around (if you doubt this, compare the amount of poverty here with the amount in the Third World, and the amount on the Western frontier with the amount in our modern cities). Non-contagious disease, such as cancer, is at least partially the result of stress; and while expansion won’t eliminate stress, overcrowding certainly increases it. The problem of atmospheric pollution is the result of trying to contain the industry necessary to maintain our technology within the biosphere instead of moving it into orbit where it belongs.

In short, all the worldwide problems we want to solve, and feel we should have solved, are related to the fact that we’ve outgrown the ecological niche we presently occupy. I view them not as pathologies, but as natural indicators of our evolutionary stage. I would like to believe that they’ll prove spurs to expansion. If they don’t, we’ll be one of evolution’s failures.

If I have frightened any readers here, I’m not sorry! But cheer up; in Part II I’ll explain how humanizing space can not only save our species, but give all cultures equal access to resources that are virtually unlimited.