According to one ethicist, nothing all that wonderful unless we’re incredibly dedicated to overcoming our very human tendencies.
“We’ve done it. Congratulations. We’re off-planet now and heading off out into the stars. Now the question really becomes – what happens next?” This is ethics analyst Gordon Young, of Ethilogical Consulting, speaking.
Young says the future hangs in the balance: “Will the problems of humanity simply fade away? Or have we just given them room?” Clearly, the potential of being an interplanetary species is enormous.
“Surely, space travel is going to go a long way towards addressing our problems … abundance of resources takes away the competition, right?” Young asked a Space Association of Australia gathering earlier this week.
The application, however, is the issue: “As soon as you get down to the nuts and bolts, things get a little bit ugly.”
Human nature won’t suddenly go away, Young says. It will still be a problem. And a solution. But he adds that humanity’s venture into orbit and beyond is almost inevitable.
“I’m a big supporter of getting off this planet and building up a bit of redundancy. I’ve got a lot of work around climate change. I’m pretty keen for an alternative right now.”
But how we get there will determine what we get, Young warns.
Resources. Living room. Space to be who we are. They’re the same goals that have motivated humanity since it came down from the trees.
“We as a species and as individuals always seek purpose in what we do,” Young adds. “And it really cannot be underestimated how significant a driver this is.”
Take Elon Musk and his Mars shot. He wants to set up a colony – one unfettered from the dead weight of Earth.
“He says if something is important enough, you should try it – even if its probable outcome is a failure,” says Young. “Great sentiment. Love it. Awesome.
“Two questions: Who will suffer the consequences of that failure? And define ‘important enough’ please.”
Such questions aren’t criticisms, but they’re not unreasonable. “They’re in good faith,” Young says. “It’s looking past the PR and the glitz and saying, ‘Okay, cool. Could you flesh that out with some detail, please?’”
Only then can we figure out if getting off the planet is a benefit – or a hazard.
What could possibly go wrong?
Colonialism isn’t anything new. The quest for golden soil and wealth for toil has always been a big – and difficult – part of human history. Especially when things get a bit crowded and tight at home.
Now, Young says, being stuck on a single pale-blue dot is exacerbating many of humanity’s long-established problems.
“But it’s done a couple of other things as well,” he says. “It’s kept them contained. And it’s also meant that we are forced to face the consequences of our actions.”
As a species, we live in a state of de-facto accountability. It’s forced action such as repairing the hole in the ozone layer, and an international rules-based order. It’s exposed the existential threat of climate change. And it’s what the world is pinning its hopes on as Russian president Vladimir Putin raises the spectre of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare once again.
But being an interplanetary species may unravel such hard-learnt lessons.
“For the moment, letting these things happen would be incredibly stupid,” Young says. “You’re stuck here along with everyone else. But when you’re off-planet, well, you always have a backup, don’t you? Trouble being, you can’t put the genie back in if it gets out of control.”
Colonising space comes with a multitude of advantages – not least distance from your neighbours.
“The confined and shared space of Earth has certainly accelerated many of our problems or made them significantly worse because we are – whether we like it or not – kind of stuck in each other’s pocket,” he says.
But access to space means people can boldly go: “Ultimate freedom of movement means, well if you don’t like people, you can just get away from them, right? If you don’t like it on this planet, go to the other one.”
It’s an enticing idea, but it’s not real, Young says. “Even if we do move off-planet, human population growth is exponential. We certainly don’t have exponential access to new planets.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same, says Young – who has a wonderfully colourful way of illustrating his point.
“The Nazis are back,” he says. “Just because they moved the hell over there doesn’t mean they won’t come back. In fact, we may very well see history repeat itself on a number of levels. If you have your fundamentalist Christian planet, they’ll still have gay kids. What are they going to do with them?”
So here’s the reality: whether in this corner of the universe or some other, we’re still destined to live with ourselves.
“At the end of the day, your brain is your brain,” Young says. “It’s not just a matter of the software, so to speak. It’s also the hardware. We can’t upgrade. It has limited storage. It has limited function.”
And that, he says, means the future will still be subject to all the same irrationalities, ideologies, biases and fallacies as the present: “Everything we are at the point we expand into space will be massively amplified on every conceivable level.”
Tragedy of the commons
Deep space is the ultimate unregulated resource, and the rush to secure its riches is already underway.
“If it’s all accessible all at once, this is unlikely ever to become a problem,” says Young. “But that’s not likely to happen.”
Our future space colonists only have a limited number of destinations to choose from, at least for the foreseeable future. Already prime orbits are in high demand for low-Earth observation and communications. Soon this race may extend to prime north and south pole craters on the Moon – that’s where water is most likely to be found.
“It’s going to be the Moon first,” young says. “Then a few asteroids. Maybe following that Mars, and so forth. There will always be limitations on what we can access.”
And that tends to bring out the worst in us. “Competition and tension between groups – yeah, we have a bit of a competitive drive. It’s one of these evolutionary holdovers.”
Millennia of having to live with each other have resulted in laws and civilisation on Earth designed to contain these tendencies. Can such regulation extend into space?
“When we move off-planet, who’s in charge?” Young asks. “No one. In terms of space colonisation, I’m guessing that means piracy and corporate raiders. It’s going to be a bit of a free for all.”
It’s a dark truth of human nature to exploit an opportunity, and Young’s view is that these sorts of problems – “while incredibly predictable and very obviously self-destructive” – are all but guaranteed unless they’re carefully and proactively managed.
It’s also human nature to protect one’s patch, a tendency Young thinks will self-regulate “because it’s necessary for anyone to have any degree of security”.
How painful that process will be is yet to be determined.
A star to navigate by…
“So what are we going to do about it?” Young asks. “Are we going to create a galactic utopia or launch an interstellar plague – or both?
“Ethical outcomes require fully informed decisions, and the public is not fully informed. The public is not even close to fully informed.”
We don’t know enough even to determine whether the progress we’re making is going in the right direction. And privatisation of space travel has made this even more difficult.
“I mean, the Cold War was a lot worse,” Young adds. “But the technology in development now is a matter of intellectual property. So details maybe not be forthcoming.”
Add to that the tricky business of considering human nature. “Private investment means private agendas,” Young notes. “We can’t know intention. So we must risk manage. And that means asking the question: how could this go wrong?”
Then there’s whether or not the means justify the ends, which Young says means determining the nature of the ends: “You can’t achieve world peace by punching everyone in the face because you just set a standard for everyone punching each other in the face.”
So it’s a matter of ethics, with a leavening of accountability.
“Regardless of which method of ethics you use – and there are dozens – they require two things to work: complete data and accurate data,” Young says. Accountability, he adds, isn’t transparency. “It’s often conflated. Transparency is access to information. Accountability is making people change their behaviour if that information reveals a problem.”
Space travel is part of our future, concludes Young. “That’s not just an aspirational thing. That will be a necessity for the species.
“The decisions made today will establish the foundations of future decisions and the quality of that future.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.