Don’t get me wrong– I think space exploration is exciting. I think that when it’s at its best, it is intrinsically optimistic. But there’s also something desperate about it. Here I shall attempt to explain.
This past Samhain, an asteroid flew very near the earth, prompting (as often happens) a hand-wringing discussion about the likelihood that some day another asteroid will strike the earth and destroy human civilization, just as an asteroid once destroyed the dinosaurs. As I write these words, NASA is tracking 1591 “potentially hazardous objects”, meaning an asteroid with “potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth.”
With that context, space exploration seems prompted or demanded by a kind of survivalist thinking. We’re exploring space so that we can build colonies on other planets. The idea is that if Earth is struck by an asteroid large enough to destroy the ecosystem, then human life would continue on the colonies. For example, in a discussion about a large asteroid that came perilously close to Earth in early 2014, physics professor Brian Cox said “There is an asteroid with our name on it and it will hit us.” (sorry for quoting a tabloid as the source here, but I haven’t found a better source yet.) Similarly, Stephen Hawking, the well known physicist, said that space exploration is “life insurance” for the human race: “it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonizing other planets.” And here’s a third example: Elon Musk, founder of the private and for-profit space exploration company SpaceX, has said many times that the reason why it’s important to build permanent colonies on other planets is to become an “interplanetary species”.
“It’s the first time in four and a half billion years that we are at a level of technology where we have the ability to reach Mars… The sun is gradually expanding. In 500,000 million years—a billion at the outside—the oceans will boil and there will be no meaningful life on Earth. Maybe some very high temperature bacteria, but nothing that can build rockets.”
Elon Musk, quoted in Elien Blue Becque, “Elon Musk Wants To Die On Mars” Vanity Fair, 10 March 2013
This argument for space exploration worries me for several reasons. One worry is practical: it has to do with what is almost certainly a deeply disproportionate alarm directed at a very remote threat. The expansion of the sun will not be a problem for us for many millions of years. Regarding the threat of asteroid impacts, NASA itself agrees the threat is negligible. “No one should be overly concerned about an Earth impact of an asteroid or comet. The threat to any one person from auto accidents, disease, other natural disasters and a variety of other problems is much higher than the threat from NEOs.” The threat from near earth objects becomes significant only “over long periods of time.”
My other worry is philosophical: it has to do with the nature of the logic of survivalism. There’s a striking similarity between the views of the high-tech space colonizers and the views of the low-tech “dropouts” (I do not intend this term disparagingly); that is, people who have decided that civilization is not for them anymore. So they gather friends and family with whom they can build sustainable eco-communities or religious communes or the like, and move as far as possible “away from the things of Man”. Both groups imagine that they possess the essence of humanity: one group regards that essence as having to do with simple, honest, back-to-the-land or back-to-God living; the other regards it as nothing more grand than the ongoing persistence of humanity’s population. Both groups often imagine they are on a mission to save that essence of humanity, either from corruption, or from destruction. My philosophical worry stems from my wish that the purpose, the goal, the objective, of human life, and indeed human civilization, should be something rather more ambitious than mere survival. Survivalism seems to me to denote a disturbing lack of imagination on the part of those who can conceive no higher and no more worthy a goal than the mere perpetuation of the physical existence of our species, or the mere perpetuation of a certain very specific or very narrow way of life. The good thing about living in a dynamic and progressive civilization, is that it is an attempt, even if a stumbling or a suspicious one, to do something more than merely survive.
Just a thought.
“Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.”
~Savas Dimopoulos, scientist at CERN. From the film “Particle Fever”.