Not Wanted On The Voyage

by Mike O’Brien

Thirteen months of living under the spectre of plague has me looking for some means of escape. Mental escape, of course. Physically, I’m still stuck at home, abiding by various lockdown measures, awaiting with weary disdain my province’s next randomized adjustments to its infection-control scheme. Trapped below decks on a ship piloted by imbeciles, who believe that the sea respects economic imperatives and rewards prior restraint. It could be worse, of course. But that’s cold comfort as I anticipate the months of uncertainty between today and whenever I’m vaccinated.

My usual escape is to dive into curious corners of science and theory, learning odd bits of information about nature, or mechanics, or, if I’m feeling very adventurous, some dumbed-down version of maths. A recent dive led me into the world of astrobiology, a field rife with the kind of barely-tethered speculation that philosophers like myself thrive in. There are all kinds of empirical and technical questions, like what kinds of life used to exist on Earth when its chemistry was wildly different, and what kinds of chemical precursors are required to produce the elements necessary to terrestrial life. There are also more abstract questions about the probability of life’s emergence, and the probability that other advanced species exist given our inability to detect them. Even more removed from concrete facts are the ethical questions of what ought to be done and what does it all mean, and these are the easiest to write about without doing expensive experiments or troublesome equations, so I’m doing that.

Matters of intergalactic diplomacy make for some interesting extensions of existing ethical principles, but we are a long way from being able to negotiate on equal footing with any civilization that might navigate its way here. If we do make contact with an interstellar species anytime soon (i.e. while anyone reading this is still alive), it is their ethical principles, not ours, that will steer the outcome of that meeting. The most pressing ethical questions related to our  possible discovery of extra-terrestrial life is, given our ham-fisted history, what measures we should take to avoid snuffing it out accidentally. This concern is mentioned in the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which obliges members to avoid biological and radiological contamination of Earth’s moon and other bodies.

Like many UN documents with grand scope, the Outer Space Treaty (and its subsequent additions) is an odd thing. First, the arrogance of a handful of rich countries in the 1960’s deigning to regulate outer space makes me chuckle a little. There is also the (vain?) hope that a country powerful enough to throw its weight around in outer space might be chastened and reined in by a treaty, let alone by a treaty signed under the auspices of a body with no military force. Putting questions of enforceability aside, one aspect of the Treaty leapt out at me: its emphasis on upholding the freedom of states to access and exploit the Moon and other bodies, unhindered by claims of sovereignty or exclusivity made by other states. This is a document for the peaceful expansion of extractive capitalism beyond the surly bonds of Earth. “Peaceful” is a word that is repeated often, both to describe the tenor of relations between space-faring states, and the intended applications of off-planet economic and scientific projects. But some might endorse a definition of “peace” that is thicker than mere cordiality between globe-spanning military-industrial complexes (complices?). Something like “the absence of you God-damned apes and your techno-mischief on any planet other than you own poisoned home”.

The principle of self-restraint is a tough sell in a field like space exploration, pushed by so much aspiration (and money and institutional momentum) and pulled by an infinite realm of promise. But it does have its advocates, both among ethicist types and the more enlightened “hard” scientists (i.e. people with both emotional intelligence and an aptitude for mathematics). In 2019, an article entitled “Inevitable Futures” was published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology, arguing that humanity could not avoid the inadvertent contamination of other planets with microbes from Earth. Rather than let contamination happen by accident, the authors argued, the powers that be should develop purpose-built microbes to be sent off to distant planets as life-seeding precursors of human colonization. As you might imagine, people in several related fields of research had some thoughts about this.

Some criticized the fatalism (a favourite handmaiden of licentiousness) of assuming that all prevention was doomed to fail. Others emphasized the importance of avoiding contamination for as long as possible, both to avoid wiping out whatever life may exist on other planets and to avoid confusion about the origin of whatever life might be discovered. Others still pointed out that plans of colonizing far-away planets, first by microbial fore-runners and then by human travellers, were so remotely far in the future as to be barely more than science fiction, whereas Earth-launched robots are already on the surface of Mars. The rush to colonize, whether or not the receiving planets are indeed “terra nullius”, is a bad look for scientists, who are supposed to serve knowledge over mere wanderlust. Look with your eyes, not with your hands. Of course, the material needs of researchers have often been supplied by those with more acquisitive motivations, be they kings or generals or billionaires. Even in the knowledge-seeker’s own heart, the will to understand is often difficult to disentangle from the will to possess.

A few questions beyond feasibility and professional forbearance pop out from this discussion. Perhaps the most fundamental one is “what kinds of lives should there be (and where)?”. The microbe-missile advocates might answer “lives like ours! everywhere! as soon as possible!”. Their more pluralist bio-centric critics might respond “as many kinds as possible! each in their place! for as long as possible!”. A person could subscribe to both views at once, with different weightings determining how a decision might be reached in a given practical case. But the enormity of inter-planetary projects suggests that a tension between two opposed principles might not be maintained for long, unless the enfranchised parties put equal weight behind each principle. Do you imagine that the shot-callers of outer space exploration have no preference between leaving indigenous life alone, and expanding the reach of their habitus?

So far this discussion about dangerous contamination of other worlds has related to biological contamination, and the potential destruction of scientifically valuable matter (for instance, native organisms, or chemical precursors that may be metabolized by our envoys). But I would like to play the futurist game for a bit, and grant that perhaps there will be colonies on, e.g., Mars. Colonies in the sense that people are born, live, procreate, and die there (probably in their 30s from radiation poisoning). Not mere research or mining outposts, work sites whose staff are entirely dependent on outside support for survival, these imagined colonies would truly qualify humans, and whatever organisms they brought with (and on, and in) them as multi-planetary species. If such a future is possible, we can conceive of Mars, and any other terra-formable body, as a habitable planet in waiting. If these planets are truly devoid of life, we can also think of them as the often sought terra nullius, a blank slate where we are free to create whatever future we wish for human civilization.

There’s the rub, though. There isn’t a “human civilization”. There’s this one, and that one, and yours, and mine. And there isn’t a “we” that explores space, or writes treaties, or funds astrobiology departments. When I hear someone say “we are going to Mars”, what I hear is “ten people you’ll never meet are going to Mars, and you and a few billion strangers are helping to pay for it.” That’s not so sinister, mind you. “We” talk is a useful shorthand for all kinds of things that go on in complex societies. I have a tin ear for the grand stuff, though. Especially when “we” is employed to erase clear divisions and disagreements. “We didn’t see this coming” (stock crashes, pandemics, etc which were very clearly seen coming by others). “We’re all in this together” (crises precipitated by a small, clearly identifiable group of decision makers who are largely insulated from the consequences of said crises). “We” is too often used to create the illusion that the audience are part of an exclusive club, or that the speaker is not part of an exclusive club. “We”, when used in the place of “everyone”, is also used to erase the existence of those who would not include themselves in that speaker’s “we”.

Humanity is a long way from being a proper “we”. I think of Star Trek (or as I like to call it, “Liberals in Space”) and how humanity presents a united face to the other (oddly, uniformly human-like) space-faring species it meets beyond Earth. This was not the completion of some planet-wide coming-together started in 1945; it is rather the result of a catastrophic nuclear world war and, later, visitation by a more advanced species. These events served to sharpen humanity’s awareness both of its collective vulnerability, and of its collective identity (whatever differences we may have, at least we’re not Vulcans). I’m not a Trekkie, but I recognize that Star Trek shapes the imaginations of many people who go on to work in fields related to space exploration and research.  It is important to recognize that the series’ relative absence of terrestrial nation-state divisions, and of irreconcilable differences between civilizational blocs, is a reality that discontinuous with our own. The consciousness of those peaceable, globally cooperative humans is separated from our own by the transformative consequences of an extra-terrestrial intervention. Even in this work of science fiction (or technobabble morality play, potato potahto), humanity is not able to bootstrap itself out of its suicidal tendencies.

The Vulcans had the same concern that I do about humans; we are collectively just smart enough to be a danger to others, at least without the supervision of cosmic adults. The tutelage of civilizationally older and wiser species has a vaguely religious note to it, what with redeemers descending from the heavens to deliver a new covenant and all that jazz. It represents a quantum leap (again, precipitated by outside intervention) from a diversity of human peoples, separated by civilizational divisions, to a united people subordinated to a clearly superior civilization (indeed , a whole federation of them). Absent such a quantum leap, the “we” that colonizes Mars will be selected from a multitude of contesting, disputing, irreconcilably disagreeing human collectives, be they identified as nation-states, or cultural blocs, or self-governing peoples (or the Children of Musk, a messianic cult of space privateers and Platinum-Preferred-level Tesla customers).

The pathologies of some cultural inheritances can be seen wreaking havoc on this planet, although they may be fairly cast as modulating innate tendencies rather than introducing new ones entirely. Obvious (to me) examples include Reaganomics, shark-finning, and institutionalized slavery. There are practices that some societies, across geography and history, do or do not adopt, to the benefit or detriment of themselves and their neighbours. Some of these cultural contagions are as deep as religious traditions, or as fleeting as Facebook rumours. (Just a reminder, Facebook is poisoning civil society and you should not use it or ask others to use it). It is particularly touchy to speak of the benefits of removing some cultural elements from existing societies, because (A) it would infringe on the autonomy of people who want to preserve them, and (B) it echoes a rather genocidal history of wiping out cultures and the people who enact them. Asking whether certain cultures, or cultural strains, ought to be reproduced anew on other planets is also fraught with questions of erasure and domination, but there is a sense in which the question is cleaner because it is less enmeshed.

Terrestrial cultures are the product of a tight interplay between humanity and the world; what can be eaten, what weather must be survived, who has been met and where have we been. Mars has no “there” there, for the purposes of habitation. Whereas we can tell a story explaining some currently (supposedly) maladaptive practice or belief in terms of the purpose it served in some bygone circumstance, why choose to perpetuate that practice on a new planet? The environmental circumstances of life on a Mars colony would be as much a matter of deliberate choice as the socks they wear. The beliefs, values and habits of the colonists would play a pivotal role in what they do, and how (and how well) they do it. Minimum expectations of leisure, privacy, property and the like would directly affect the material costs of supporting the colonists’ lives, and their odds of surviving novel problems.

I don’t suppose that the political orders obtaining on Earth will be much like the present ones by the time humans are settling Mars, or any other planet. Speculation about how, for instance, China, the USA, Russia, India and the EU might agree on the “correct” cultural dispositions of space colonists is moot. Even more so because I doubt that humans will ever overcome the technical challenges of making inhospitable planets livable on any self-sustaining basis. I mean, look at how we manage this one. And it was already hospitable when we got here! I do hope that this devilish question, of what cultural contaminants ought to be prevented from hobbling extra-terrestrial societies, is instructive. First, to illustrate that there is no ideologically neutral, internationalist position from which to plan a multi-planet future for humanity. Colonization is about perpetuating a form of life both biologically and culturally, and no state is agnostic about whose culture should prevail. Second, to suggest that we Earthlings are not so different from the Martians colonists in our vulnerability to self-sabotaging practices and precarious habitable zones. To paraphrase an ode to an old Terran metropolis, if we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere.