The Future I Was Promised [long] (reprint)

[Note: this essay was first published at European Tribune in 2006. It is pretty much the Long Version of “Mend Our Threadbare Fate — Or Mars?” so I guess I have been consistent on this issue for the last 12 years.]

Now I find myself facing the possibility that my lifetime occurred during an astonishing period of Good Old Days, an efflorescence of cheap energy and technoculture that may never recur — a one-shot deal. It seems hard to believe that anyone will be looking back on us with anything other than sullen rage, envy, blame, and hatred;, or perhaps in the best case an obscure and muddled religious awe. We — my parents’ generation and my own — will be the ones who “did it,” who screwed everything up, who were so stupid that knowing what we know we refused to change our ways and sentenced our grandchildren to some very dysfunctional situation… at least that’s what I fear.

I don’t look forward to the future any more. I was promised a bright Star Trek future, all shiny and clean. Now I look at hungry Chinese ex-peasants sifting recyclable materials out of multi-acre, mountainous waste dumps with their bare hands and I think, This is the future we have made for ourselves, nice innit. But the funny thing is, the more I look at where we actually are today… the less thrilled I am, on sober reflection, about that shiny Star Trek future I was originally offered.

Futurism, the art or rhetoric of envisioning the future, is at the heart of all our politics. What we believe about the future and the past fuels [ahem] our strategies and allegiances in the present. The narratives with which we make sense of the world, our lives, and history are cautionary tales; we direct our efforts to seeking certain outcomes and avoiding others, heading for “the happy ending” or as close as we can get to it, trying to “learn from the past” (or from the narrative our imaginations and prejudices have imposed on the past).

One of the most powerful narratives of Western industrialism has been Progress — the storyline being that “in the bad old days” everyone was poor, sick, hungry, unhappy, stupid, bullied and short-lived, and by the continuous improvement of technology these conditions have been more and more ameliorated; this trend will continue until we reach a Happy Ever After of abundance, freedom, health (maybe even immortality), luxury, high intelligence, universal leisure etc. The Good Days are yet to come! Nothing in the past is of the least value, because we have outgrown it and exceeded it in every way.

So here I want to talk about this narrative in the context of the Space Dream and the Jetsons Future, the Gernsback Continuum, the World’s Fair and Tomorrowland: the idea that our confinement to this ball of rock is the Bad Old Days, and we will look back on it from a future of abundance, when we mine the entire solar system for minerals and energy and colonise distant solar systems, finally transcending the limits of Earth.

Ironically one of the things we do (and spend a lot of money on) while pursuing the Space Dream, is intensive research into how to survive in a closed ecology. Some years ago I commented that the failure of Biosphere was hardly a good advertisement for our progress in this area. One futurist of my acquaintance, on hearing this cynical comment, protested:

To which, at the time, I retorted:

Many Futurists of the Progress Narrative present a grim choice for humanity: civilisation will burn out and fail here on Earth unless we make the jump into space. This is the only path for our survival as a species. Humanity can Colonise Space or Die. We can invest the hugest effort and the most enormous resource-consuming binge of our collective lifetime on the effort to get into space (to the stars, even), or face a Malthusian disaster.

I don’t believe in this either/or dilemma — any more than I believe that travelling by bike and/or train or bus means “losing one’s freedom” or living a “penitential” life, or that if we don’t have Twinkies and Big Macs and a Starbucks on every corner Western Civilisation will crumble overnight <grin>

Neither am I opposed on principle to orbital missions. As my Futurist buddy expostulated indignantly:

To which I almost-as-indignantly spluttered right back:

Such as?

Well, such as this prospectus for space settlements. I am not sure whether this is really an official NASA page :-) but some of its proposed benefits of space colonisation include [these are direct quotes]:

  • Great views. Many astronauts have returned singing the praises of their view of Earth from orbit. Low earth orbit settlements, and eventually settlements near Jupiter and Saturn, will have some of the most spectacular views in the solar system. Of course, all orbital settlements will have unmatched views of the stars, unhindered by clouds, air pollution, or (with some care) bright city lights.
  • Low-g recreation. Sports and dance at low or zero-g will be fantastic. Consider circular swimming pools around and near the axis of rotation. You should be able to dive up into the water! For dancers, note that in sufficiently low gravity, always available near the axis of rotation, anyone can jump ten times higher than Barishnikov ever dreamed.
  • Environmental independence. On Earth we all share a single biosphere. We breath the same air, drink the same water, and the misdeeds of some are visited on the bodies of all. Each space settlement is completely sealed and does not share atmosphere or water with other settlements or with Earth. Thus, if one settlement generates air pollution, no one else must breath it.
  • The ultimate gated community. On Earth, it is essential that diverse groups learn to live in close proximity. It’s hard to live with five or six billion homo sapiens, and some people can’t seem to do it gracefully. Space settlements offer an alternative to changing human nature or endless conflict — the ability to live in fairly homogeneous groups, as has been the norm throughout hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. Those who can’t get along can be separated by millions of miles of hard vacuum, which in some cases seems necessary. All entry into a space settlement must be through an airlock, so controlling immigration should be trivial.
  • Custom living. Since the entire environment is man-made, you can really get what you want. Like lake front property? Make lots of lakes. Like sunsets? Program sunset simulations into the weather system every hour. Like to go barefoot? Make the entire environment foot-friendly.

Now, call me cynical (I am) but listen to that list of desiderata: the ultimate gated community? never having to deal with pesky POEs (People of Other Ethnicities) again? fantastic views? fully customisable environment? complete environmental isolation? controlling immigration? great recreational oppos?

This is the prospectus for an orbital Club Med or ultimate ‘burban enclave :-) and it is the fantasy (imho) of people who have given up on seriously addressing (or have never had the slightest intention of seriously addressing) urgent issues on their home planet. This is White Flight taken to its final extreme. I don’t find it inspiring — I find it depressing. I cannot think of too many places I’d like less to live than a totally human-made, totally controlled environment populated by the kind of people who would actually enjoy living there. <shudder> Like being on an exclusive cruise ship… forever.

In other words, space colonisation is the “solution” to our lack of reproductive discipline or foresightedness, and our moral failings as well (land-grabbing). It’s the only solution. Never mind that increasing literacy levels and work opportunities for women lead very quickly to reduced family sizes, never mind that increased personal income and family security lead quickly to another step reduction in family size… food and work security, improving the lot of women around the world, or the promotion of peace/diplomacy/negotiation as an alternative to war, are not on the radar of the kind of “dreamers” who write this kind of literature about space colonisation. [And I’m not even dealing with the puerile assumption that “land” — that is, terrain that can sustain human life — is something we can “build”, rather than a bogglingly complex biotic community and accumulation of biotic wealth that we don’t even understand, let alone know how to manage or re-create.]

Alas, for better or worse this is the vision that a very large percentage of the fans of NASA and the US Space Program (reinforced by such cultural artifacts as the Star Trek TV series, Deep Space 9, Babylon 5 (etc) and decades of “hard” sci fi) tend to share, and it’s a vision promoted and endorsed by corporate sponsors, by “space tourism,” etc.

Another slogan popular among some of the space groupies I’ve met (online and in person) is “Mother Earth is not sick, she’s just pregnant!”. This slogan is also mentioned at the URL above. (I think I’ve seen it on a T shirt as well, but I could be remembering wrong.) The author I’m quoting here with the machine inside NASA, says

OK, there are several assumptions here which I think anyone can pick up on. the most glaring (to my ear) is an obviously dismissive, misogynist attitude to women, pregnancy, and birth: it’s OK for us to poison the planet, exterminate species, eradicate forests, impoverish topsoil, salinate aquifers — “her” only purpose is to give birth to us, and it doesn’t matter what happens to “her” after that. Way to go, guys: the Deadbeat Dad school of Futurism.

It’s also a way to remain cheery, perky, and in deep denial about the state of the biosphere: hey, it’s just morning sickness, no problemo! Again this can easily defuse any sense of urgency about changing our lifestyle, revamping our technology, weaning ourselves off the petroleum teat, etc. The only thing we need to feel urgent about is Getting Into Space — not giving up our cars or consuming less. If we can just get into space, everyone (finally) can live the suburban dream. [Just how different is life on the Enterprise (as envisioned in ST:TNG) from life in an upscale shopping/condo complex or Disney’s prefabricated township? Doesn’t the Zocolo on Bab 5 remind you of the central atrium of a standard-issue US strip mall? Why are there never bicycles in the future? As usual, what science fiction imagines is not the future, but the idealised present, a fantasy of “how we are” projected forward, magnified, rendered heroic: the carburb, the shopping mall, the Jetsons, the WASP burbclave. They say that generals are always fighting yesterday’s wars; are not futurists usually repackaging yesterday’s dreams?]

Anyway, if you read the web page cited above [and from the headers I am beginning to think that it really does reflect some kind of official NASA POV, though perhaps that of only one working group], you’ll find that space colonisation is also great because we can build prisons no one can escape from (oh good, gulags in space); because we can locate our filthiest industries there (instead of having to learn how to produce useful Stuff without generating filth, or even <gasp> how to live with less Stuff or cleaner Stuff); that religious extremists can construct separatist colonies without interference from world governments (oh good, Taliban in space, I can hardly wait)… etc.

Not everyone sticks to such pragmatic benefits — Freeman Dyson used to say that our mission was to spread “life” to other worlds, (i.e. terraform other worlds and introduce earth-like life there) to “beautify” the universe. He believed that all or most planets were “dead” and that humanity should “seed” them with life. [hmm, rabbits in Australia anyone? would we recognize non-terrestrial, alien forms of life when we saw them? one has to wonder…] imho a species that could invent the Edsel, Barbie dolls, glow-in-the-dark rabbits, and action figure advertising stickers to put on bananas, needs to think twice before it apppoints itself to “beautify” the Universe.

Hawking and some others have suggested that humans need colonies in space to protect our species from a potential supervirus that could kill us all off or at least topple our civilisations almost overnight. But bioweaponry experts and epidemiologists tend to be less alarmist about the prospect of such global killer diseases, and at least one (Croddy from MIIS, perhaps? I can’t remember the exact quote or venue) has publicly criticized Hawking for using such religious/apocalyptic imagery to scare people into space.

Thanks to the US govt’s need to justify militarising space, some kind of “atoms for peace” plan had to be found for space based superweapons; so now everyone is supposed to be terrified of asteroids that might hit the Earth and seriously mess up our future. Personally, I’m a lot more worried about nuclear proliferation, or about the US successfully militarising space — but then, everyone has their pet fear.

I think it’s MacKenzie of the NSS (National Space Society) who says it best (i.e. sums up what I don’t like about the popularised version of the Space Cause) — someone quoted him in an email to me a while
ago:

And there we have it, that wonderful word “unlimited” and the core of my objection to the “materialist utopian” vision that underlies much of the manned space program and the Star-Trek-based dreams of the 70's.

Relax folks, we will never have to have that difficult discussion about the American Way of Life, resource consumption, just allocation, environmental justice, sustainable technologies and lifestyles, etc. — because we can just hop into space where there are Unlimited Resources… meaning industrial resources such as minerals, metals, etc — again I note that we sure aren’t likely to find good topsoil or potable water on any nearby asteroids, and these are two resources in which crisis seems to be looming, if not imminent.

Ironically, sat-based pictures have been very effective in showing us not only the beauty (and evident isolation and closed-ness) of the Earth seen from orbit, but also the rapidity and extent of deforestation and desertification, the presence and severity of algal blooms due to coastal pollution, extent and direction of spread of oil spills and forest fires, the extraordinary wastefulness of urban night time lighting, etc. High industrial technology has enabled us to see, as never before, the real cost of high industrial technogy.

And in the end, I have to wonder how space colonies — even supposing that we have the resources to create them and that they can be made viable/habitable for any length of time — can ever solve the problem of unrestrained human fecundity combined with material desires.

Supposing our population (unchecked by any mitigation of circumstances that encourage overbreeding, see below) would double in, say, 100 years — and supposing a perfect duplicate Earth were to magically appear in our solar system, within easy reach no less (a best-case scenario) [without disturbing the Keplerian dynamic either, now that’s a real magic trick] and suppose we were to transfer half of us (say, 6 billion people by then) very quickly, before they could have any more kids :-) … we would still only buy another hundred years of run-time because both pops would then double again.

Whether we manage to put a Kmart on Mars or not, we still have to deal with the population issue and the resource consumption issue — I don’t see how running away from it into space is going to work. It sounds nice in theory, but do we even have enough energy resources left to transfer several billion people into space? [and what if they didn’t all want to go? who would make such decisions? how would such a “mass transfer” be organised?]

My futurist friend said grimly:

But I considered my own view to be the less sentimental of the two, in that I think we have to face realities here on the ground instead of dreaming that an escape from all our human problems is right around the corner (or overhead, as the case may be). I couldn’t agree more that we are already into overshoot, though I would maintain it is at present more our consumption patterns than our gross numbers that pose the problem. Within a century, if nothing changes current trends, gross numbers seem likely to become a problem even with more rational, less self-indulgent consumption.

And here’s the fundamental disagreement in the open at last. The “Space or Die” stance seems to me a counsel of despair. I am not that despairing yet of our ability to govern ourselves. I don’t believe that rational reproductive behaviour is beyond human capability; in fact, in more than one of the European nations population has actually been in decline over the last decade or so. It appears that, when certain basic needs are met and there is very little uncertainty about the survival of families, people have fewer kids — more people remain single and never reproduce — etc. Breeding spikes when people are afraid and insecure, when child mortality is high or random, when women are de facto slaves, and/or when dictators are trying to breed lots of cannon fodder for projected wars. Also when people are prevented from using birth control by arbitrary laws or fatwas or papal bulls or whatever.

But I think humans are — given a chance — smarter than cancer cells. I think we have alternatives other than exponential growth, if we can clear away some of the artificial incentives to exponential growth… such as poverty, insecurity, warfare, economic theories which rely on infinite growth to look like they’re working.

There’s that word unlimited again :-) the cargo-cult promise of No Limits to which I have the strongest objections (both moral and practical).

How on Earth do we convince people (e.g.) that SUVs are a bad use of resources, if they all believe firmly that “we’ll just go into space and mine the asteroids for unlimited resources, so it doesn’t really matter and everyone on Earth can have a SUV”? [Parenthetically: right now the only reason many minerals and chemicals are “affordable” is because of the glut of cheap petroleum we use to haul them around and process them. How expensive would minerals and chemicals be that had to be hauled around the solar system, or trucked up and down the gravity well? After the cheap petroleum party is over, that is?]

I don’t think this (don’t worry, be happy, SUVs are fine) is the intention of the NASA dreamers — I think they have far loftier ideals than that. but it is (unfortunately) the message that gets through to the average Joe. I’ve heard a lot of fairly well-educated people say that they have no real, urgent feeling of concern over the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems, depletion of resources, pollution, etc — because they “know” that “pretty soon we’ll colonise the solar system and mine the asteroids and move all our industry into space stations, so it won’t be an issue, these are just temporary problems.” Earth is just a phase we’re growing out of. We don’t have to clean our room, ‘cos we’re going off to college soon.

I worry about technological promises that engender such complacency in people who are living on the edge of some rather serious infrastructure “issues”.

Epilogue/Prologue

Many years ago (a decade or more) I was at a mini-banquet after a successful CDR (critical design review) for a major new spectrograph. I was lucky enough to be seated next to the PI (principal investigator), a person of considerable renown and a delightful conversationalist too. We got to chatting about the world in general and the space program, and at some point I said something about [what I then believed in] the bright prospects for mining the asteroid belt, a good reason for backing the space station and related efforts. This distinguished senior astronomer/physicist looked at me pityingly and said, “You don’t really believe all that, do you?”

I was shocked, because if anything I expected a “Big Science Superstar” to endorse my ideas and even expand on them. I thought I’d said something intelligent and likely to please, and instead I got this pitying stare and a rather crushing remark. Ouch.

The followup remark from the Distinguished One was, “If you want to see civilisation survive longer than the next hundred years or so, throw your efforts into literacy and employment for women — I think it’s the only avenue left to us, to avert disaster.”

This was a profoundly mind-altering (and unsettling) experience for me. Here was someone from within the Citadel, from the highest echelons of the Big Science world — the equivalent of a four-star general in military jargon — one of the brightest and sharpest minds I’ve ever worked with, and the response I got to my space-groupie optimism was “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

I started thinking a lot more deeply about my assumptions and beliefs around that time — partly because of this conversation, but also because of a synergy of many other conversations, readings, and experiences — and the end result was… well among other things, I became carfree :-) One small pedal for humankind, I guess… Sometimes I sure do miss those bright, shiny Star Trek dreams. At other times I feel that there’s more to interest me, more alien life, more complexity and more sophisticated recycling systems, in one cubic foot of healthy topsoil than in any space station the most ingenious SF author could invent.

What do you think the future looks like?

Originally published at www.eurotrib.com.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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