Are we ethically ready to establish ourselves in space? – Ars Technica

Promotional image for 2001: A Space Odyssey
Enlarge / Space station in orbit since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Above Ground will amaze you: on nearly every page, you’ll gape in response to mind-blowing revelations and your head will nod vigorously in sudden acknowledgment of some of your own half-realized thoughts (assuming you’re thinking things like s install in space). It will also make you shake your head sadly in resignation at the many immense challenges that author Erika Nesvold describes.

But astonishment will prevail. Off-Earth: Ethical Issues and Dilemmas for Living in Outer Space is really, really good.

The shortcomings of a STEM education

Nesvold is an astrophysicist. She worked at NASA; she can easily run the equations to calculate how much fuel we need to get people, survival gear, and mining equipment to Mars.

But at some point, she realized that was the easy part. Her extensive upbringing hadn’t trained her to do what she was truly interested in: building a just, equitable, sustainable, and sustainable human society in space. So she started interviewing ethicists, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, lawyers, economists and policy experts and collated their insights into the podcast. Make new worlds. This book is an expansion of many of the ideas originally explored here.

The chapter titles, all questions, give a good indication of the issues she highlights in the book. Should we even settle the space? For what? Who can go? How will property rights be distributed and limited resources allocated? Do we need to protect the environment in space? How are we going to do this? What happens when someone breaks the rules or needs medical attention? What if that person is the only one who can fix the water purifier? Underlying all these questions, still unresolved by any public or private institution currently firing rockets into the air: who decides?

Many of these issues have been covered in detail in fiction. But Nesvold does not really mention these works, except to warn against the risk of taking them for prophetic.

The lessons of history don’t bode well

Each chapter begins with three fictional vignettes, set in the past, the relative present and the future – in the year 2100, in a space colony that was only recently established but already operational. All three are about different people leaving their homes; what types of people leave, their motivations and the circumstances surrounding their decisions. Its aim is to remind us that settling in space is not just a business that concerns the human species as a whole. On the contrary, it will involve and have an impact on many individuals composing this whole. It’s a more effective concept than it seems, and her narrative skill at connecting them belies her lack of humanities education, which she bemoans.

The most commonly used metaphors for thinking and talking about settling in space have revolved around Europeans colonizing the New World and the expansion of those colonists, driven by Manifest Destiny, to the frontier of the Wild West. This vision depicts space as a blank, empty canvas just waiting for civilized people to build a utopia within it. One problem with this framing is that the analogy may be more compelling to Americans currently advocating moving into space. For those who weren’t brought up in this mythology, that’s probably much less the case. Another problem is that the result of these precedents is not very encouraging.

Nesvold elucidates many ways in which space colonization can repeat the mistakes of colonialism, labor exploitation being chief among them. The financiers who financed and often profited from colonial enterprises were not usually the laborers who traveled to the new territories to build the colony and its infrastructure (unless they were; this is what happened at Jamestown ). By the 18th and early 19th centuries, indentured servants landing on American shores had already traded their unpaid labor upon arrival for the cost of their passage. These vulnerable workers, far from home in a challenging new environment, were at the mercy of their employers.

In 2020, Elon Musk proposed that people who wanted to go to Mars with SpaceX but couldn’t afford it could take out loans to cover the $200,000 fare and pay it back once there. What happens, Nesvold wonders, if their working conditions are terrible? What would stop their employer – who controls their oxygen supply, remember – from holding them hostage even after they’ve settled their debt? They can’t just walk around and try to fend for themselves; there will be no life off the earth, or off the grid, in space.

But Nesvold is not pessimistic. She notes that if we don’t want to bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion and injustice with us when we finally settle in space, all we have to do is d first to eliminate these things on Earth. And we have to do it now, not after all the technical challenges have been resolved and we’re ready to leave the planet. If we want a civilization worth exporting to this space, we have to create it here.

Leave a Comment