Sunday, May 03, 2009

Humanity is Too Screwed Up to Inflict on the Rest of the Solar System

The first time I heard this argument, I was working at Disney, and I was utterly at a loss about how to respond. I'm still dumbfounded at the attitude, but then I'm also dumbfounded at people who think the United States was the worst nation in the history of the world, too. "For gosh sakes," I want to say, "If you hate life/America that much, leave it!"

More politely, I would say that I strongly disagree.

The source of this argument takes several forms:

  • We've screwed up the Earth, so we'll only do the same to the Moon/Mars, etc. Have we polluted? Yes. But thanks in part to our own space program, the environmental movement got one of the best PR images ever: Earthrise over the limb of the Moon. Would the movement have gotten that big of a boost if Apollo 8 hadn't photographed that image? I leave that as an exercise for the reader. However, one can hardly argue with the political and environmental progress that the movement has had in the last 40 years. The Cuyahoga River no longer burns. You can fish in Lake Erie. I've even been told you can see Pittsburgh now and Los Angeles occasionally. Lead is gone from paint and gasoline. Cars are improving in efficiency and chemical emissions. We rail on about carbon dioxide as a pollutant, forgetting the sulfur dioxides and other nasty black stuff that used to come out of car tailpipes. We have safer nuclear reactors and smokestack scrubbers on coal-fired power plants. Are we perfect? Hardly. And China and India are not yet rich enough to afford the pollution-control technologies that we now take for granted and continue to improve. I cannot speak to the never-satisfied ethos of the environmental movement, but I cannot deny the improvements they've made in our world.
  • Our culture is too screwed up to be allowed to expand. Take your perspective on this one--religious, intellectual, cultural, behavioral, social--and you can find plenty of reasons why particular activities we wouldn't want to see expand into space. But how much of that is the result of bad choices by individuals and how much of it is "the culture" as a whole? A culture is made up of individuals, with intelligences and abilities ranging up and down the Bell Curve. We have Stephen Hawking and Beverly Sills on one end, and the Octomom and Darwin Award winners on the other. Some of reader Allen's comments frankly disturbed me, but also made me think. Yes, there are people doing stupid things with their lives.

    When Columbus and Magellan sailed from Spain in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was conducting the Inquisition while Isabella and Ferdinand were hounding Jews out of the country. Similar villainy could be found in Elizabethan England, which had its own festering religious quarrels but was also enjoying the plays of William Shakespeare. The difference between then and now is that there are more human beings in the world today and the tools of civilization, both benign and dangerous, are more widespread. So this means we need better education, better laws, better (idjitproof) technologies, or better people. I'd opt for the first three before screwing around with trying to make people "better." There are too many value judgments involved there.
  • Capitalism will destroy other worlds like it's destroyed this one. I could say similar things about communism, and with greater cause. Consider Stalin's purges, Hitler's evil, or the bloodletting of China's Cultural Revolution or Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. All of these societies killed millions of their own people all in the name of some state-sanctioned idea of perfection. Anyone fighting those visions or even questioning them faced show trials, midnight knocks on the door, gulags, or much, much worse. And returning to the first point, environmental regulations and conditions are much worse in the former Soviet Union than the U.S. I'm sure someone will throw some other statistics at me showing all the evil capitalism has done. However, I would like to also offer, in comparison to the evil done by other contemporary social systems, what good capitalism has done. Through mass production and industrial technology, it has brought down the prices of thousands of goods that once belonged only to the very rich or royalty. It has brought about revolutions in communication, including this Internet that allows people to spread messages about the evils of capitalism to all corners of the world. It has brought human beings to the Moon, images of the far reaches of the universe to our TV screens, and economic and other aid to all corners of the planet within hours of nearly any disaster. One might rail against Enron or WorldCom or now AIG and the rest of the big banks, and perhaps with some justification. But it is capitalism that builds high-quality homes, cars, and cell phones, not governments. It will always be so, and if it is no longer so, well, expect poorer-quality products and rationing.
  • Human beings have no business escaping to other planets when their primary duty is to make life better for their fellow men here on Earth. I caught a whiff of this sort of argument from some of my religious friends. Pro-space people are focusing too much on this life and other worlds, and not enough on the afterlife and redeeming themselves in this world. "Well, maybe, says I. But what about building asteroid defenses that protect life on Earth? If there's no life, there's no church to protect, right?"
    "If an asteroid strikes, that's God's will."
    "Yeah, but if we have the ability, we should build the defenses."
    "We could build the defenses, but whether they work or not is God's will."
    "But if we build the defenses, we're at least giving ourselves a fighting chance, right?"
    Get the feeling I've had this discussion before? Anyhow, I have yet to understand why some of my coreligionists have such a negative attitude toward science and technology, though I suspect it goes back to arguments having little to do with space itself. Still, it's an argument I've heard against building space hardware, and it disturbs me.
  • Human beings were not meant to live on other worlds. This is a much harder argument to refute because we haven't done it least not long-term. But it's a simple fact: right now, Earth is the only place in the universe where Homo sapiens can live without need for artificial life support. Everywhere else, we face challenges related to atmosphere (or lack thereof), gravity, dust, and lifelessness. Barring some science fictional scenario where we find an Earthlike planet nearby and simultaneously develop "warp drive," we will only live on other worlds in this solar system, using the machines and life forms we bring with us. We might terraform Mars, cool down Venus, or build structures beneath the grey mountains of the Moon or the ice of Europa. In the meantime, we have those tuna cans and sausages that ensure structural stability and atmospheric integrity. To say we can't survive as unarmored, naked human beings is correct but also missing the point: we can do it, the question is, will we do it?

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