Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #15 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.
Which do you feel is more important for the future of humanity: the colonization of Mars or eliminating poverty?
Space colonization–in fact, interstellar travel–is one of those areas where I have to keep my views pretty close to the chest, in case the Nerd Police catch wind and strip me of my license. Unlike most folks I know who grew up on science fiction and love fantasizing about the new worlds, even galaxies, we may eventually reach as our understanding of the universe expands, I remain utterly apathetic to the idea of colonizing space.
Part of that is feasibility. I don’t share my fellow nerds’ optimism that through enough ingenuity and applied science, we can do anything. (This is where my blue side takes a back seat.) I don’t believe that the fundamental laws of physics that make interstellar travel impossible are going to be redefined anytime soon. Interplanetary travel within our solar system is, of course, a rung down on the ladder, but even then, that’s still only one part of colonization. Shipping materials that far out, let alone terraforming–it just doesn’t strike me as realistic. I’d be pleasantly surprised if we accomplished it, but surprised before all else.
But there’s another reason I don’t care about space colonization: it’s colonization. Unless the entity that accomplishes colonization of Mars is an anational, apolitical entity–in other words, the Earth Space Team That Really Isn’t Dominated By Any One Country, No Foolin’–colonization will just be another way for a powerful country or bloc to gain more power. Even if that’s an international bloc of the U.S., EU, China, Japan, and Russia (for instance), it’s still rewarding powerful, resource-rich, developed countries with more power and resources. Call me cynical, but I see this as the inevitable fate of space colonization, should space colonization actually happen, and I’m not excited about the sociopolitical implications of that.
I understand the arguments for colonizing Mars. We’re screwing up this planet’s climate and overpopulating it. Colonizing Mars would let off a ton of that pressure. And, no doubt about it, the scientific race to colonize Mars would result in countless new technologies that improved life on the ground. But when you get right down to it, space colonization as a “solution” is like so many of the other “solutions” for social woes that we’ve embraced–a short-term patch, not a resolution of the underlying issues. If we colonize Mars before developing a new socioeconomic order that eliminates poverty, we’ll just be taking our problems to another planet. Scholars will be able to talk about the Galactic South instead of just the Global South.
That’s not something I aspire to.
No, while I understand the sexy allure of space colonization, I have to break with the optimistic futurist nerds and say that eliminating poverty is far more important. Poverty and the systems that sustain it are, of course, vast and deeply rooted. Eliminating poverty won’t be easy. But by doing so, we will severely reduce global inequality and systematic violence. We’ll make blueprints for a healthy society–blueprints we can take anywhere in the universe.[ref]To be fair, I recognize this is also an incredibly optimistic vision. I don’t think we’ll eliminate poverty anytime soon, if at all. But I think it’s far more important to humanity’s future than space colonization.[/ref]
I can appreciate your position on this, even if I disagree. I give the side-eye to some of my cryonics/transhumanist (also always libertarian) friends when they step out of the realm of science fiction. When they say we should be heavily investing in solving the engineering problem/disease of Death.
Obviously that’d be nice to solve, but it’s at the expense of improving the lives of millions, billions, tangibly, right now. It’s a moon shoot instead of a practical innovation.
What you’re talking about is similarly a Mars shot. But where I think this situation is different is twofold. First is that creating a stable society off of Earth dramatically increases our chances of survival as a species in the super-long-term. Second is that we spend so little and gain so much from our space program already that I don’t find solving poverty and space exploration to be mutually exclusive.
Maybe this is a cop-out, trying to avoid outright preferring one over another. I very much agree that the success of these more adventurous missions will depend on international cooperation and stability. But I feel we could be doing more in both without dismissing either.