Avoiding Colonialism in Space

From the late 16th century until the first half of the 20th, European powers gradually expanded their rule and influence to include portions of every continent on the planet save Antarctica. Fuelled by the wealth from these colonial holdings, Europe experienced an unprecedented period of prosperity out of which its modern fabric and culture was constructed.

Along with this, however, also came a period of great injustice and brutality. Once-proud and prosperous peoples were reduced to poverty and servitude as their wealth and resources were drained away to profit others living half-way around the world. Imported slaves endured inhumane conditions on far-off plantations. Even European colonists found their interests overlooked in favour of those of the mother country, even in matters concerning the governance and priorities of their own colony. Any attempt at rebellion was met with an overwhelmingly-violent response to ensure not only that colonists or natives were beaten into submission, but that a repeat performance would be difficult, if not impossible.

This system came apart slowly. Some instances were violent, such as the slave rebellions in the Caribbean or the American War of Independence. Others were more peaceful, such as the granting of self-rule to nations like Canada, and Gandhi helping to end the British Raj after a long campaign of non-violent resistance. By the middle of the 20th century, after two world wars and witnessing some of the worst aspects of human potential arrayed before them, general opinion had turned away from Colonialism. Although there is still a lot of clean-up to do around the world from the lingering after-effects of this period, it is hard to imagine a resurgence of the colonial empires of two centuries ago.

This is exactly why we must be careful in how we think about establishing settlements in space.

I stand with many of the leading thinkers and doers in the Spacer community in my belief that, to ensure our long-term survival and resilience, humanity must become a multi-planet species. Such a move will help to alleviate the strain that our growing population is inflicting on the planet. Furthermore, as with the diaspora of disenfranchised peoples to the New World, off-world migrations may serve to ease tensions between rival groups and ideologies. The potential benefits of such endeavours more than justify the tremendous efforts that will be necessary to accomplish them. But there is a real danger that we could end up repeating some of the same mistakes that our ancestors made as they branched out from Europe.

There are, of course, differences in circumstance that must be taken into account. Chief amongst  these is that, so far as we know, at least in our own Solar System, there are no other planets or planetary satellites that are inhabited, or at least inhabited by ‘intelligent’ beings. Thus, at least for now, we need only concern ourselves with our own colonists and their relationship to those back on Earth. At the same time, as I have discussed in a previous piece, there are aspects of our colonial past that are quite relevant to how we will need to think about these potential far-flung outposts, such as considerations for provisioning and security.

Here, then, are three general points that should be considered:

1. Leave your inter-state squabbles in-atmo

For as long as Europe has had colonies, European wars have spilled over into them. France and Britain have clashed in regions as far-flung as Canada and Egypt. During both World Wars, opposing sides faced off in Africa and India, far-removed from the location where the actual injuries that sparked the conflict were dealt. All too often peoples and places have been subject to others’ wars, and their horrid consequences, for no other reason than the flag they fly and the face that adorns their coinage.

The absurdity of this practice would be all the more highlighted if it extended to extra-terrestrial settlements. What reasons would colonies on Mars, with ties to rival Earth states, have to take up arms against one another? The idea would likely be made even more unworkable if, as current trends in collaboration on space projects suggest, such outposts were truly international in their make-up and thus could not be seen to show loyalty to one particular state. Such outposts should be well beyond the range of terrestrial conflicts, only to be troubled with those that directly impact the continuation of their own existence.

2. No wealth-pumps

Empires grow by expanding their dominance into foreign territories, and exploiting the wealth and resources of those territories for the benefit of the core imperial group. Often this arrangement does not favour those living in the exploited areas, be they natives or even colonists from the core group. The ‘wealth pump’ tended to flow one way, and that was to Rome, Delhi, London, or Beijing.

Those that profit from the resources and industry of these settlements should be the inhabitants themselves. The rapacious deeds of the East India Company or the conquistadors, profiting from those doing the work, but sharing little or any of the bounty, is unconscionable and must not be repeated. The mineral and resource wealth from outposts in space promises to be considerable. But the industry should benefit those living there and doing the work, which will secure for them a means of sustenance and prosperity by their own labours in the same way that Gandhi envisioned swadeshi to do so for India.

3. Build States, not Colonial Dependencies

The initial leap into setting up an off-world colony will require immense resources. Thus, it is only logical that these outposts will rely heavily on support from Earth (whether from national, international, or private bodies) until they are capable of standing on their own two feet. This will take time; years, perhaps even generations. But we can avoid a great deal of trouble if, from the start, we understand that there will come a time where those on Earth will have to let go.

In the film adaptation of 1776, Benjamin Franklin refers to the mismanagement of the Colonies by Britain, and of America’s need and right for independence, he remarked:

‘Our industry discouraged, our resources pillaged… first of all our very character stifled. We’ve spawned a new race here… Rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined. We’re a new nationality. We require a new nation.’

Eventually, the inhabitants of colonies on other planets, moons, or space stations will in all meaningful ways cease to be identifiably Americans, Chinese, Britons, or even Terrans; they will be Martians, Europans, or Lunarians. Their cultures will be different, as will their interests and priorities politically and ideologically. To expect such people to be governed by those on Earth would, in time, only cause trouble.

What will the citizenship of an Earth state mean to someone born on Mars, perhaps with parents of different Earth nationalities? What then when the parents are themselves first or second-generation Martians? Furthermore, can we call people citizens who must be screened and quarantined before entering ‘their own’ country, lest Europa’s strain of flu wreak havoc on Earth where there is no immunity? There must come a time when they are given a choice.

True, some may choose to maintain direct ties and allegiances to Earthly nation-states. In other circumstances, as when Britain gradually turned its empire into a Commonwealth of Nations, some may desire self-rule, but also wish to maintain some connection with their mother country. Others still may feel prepared and willing to go it alone; giving thanks for the help of all who contributed to their efforts, but feeling ready to govern their own affairs completely removed from all influence by Earth. If we are to avoid the tumult that came from the two centuries of gradual and sometimes painful unravelling of the colonial model, to all of these choices, or any similar ones, we on Earth must assent.

To ignore the lessons of our colonial past when we are on the verge of migrating to a new frontier would be to taint the very spirit and inspiration that set us on that course in the first place. The enrichment of humanity by spreading ourselves out amongst the stars must be an end in and of itself, not simply a by-product of a profitable venture or an expansion of politics. We’ve travelled this road before, so there are many things we can recall, both in terms of what to cultivate and what to avoid, that will make this journey easier the second time around.

 

17 Comments

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17 Responses to Avoiding Colonialism in Space

  1. I’m sure that there will be parallels between space colonisation and historic colonisation efforts, but I suspect they’re not the colonisation parallels that immediately jump to mind — eg., the recent European colonial age. There are at least three factors which promise tom make space colonies quite profoundly different.

    1.) No natives. This is quite important. The pandemic violence that accompanied (most) European colonialism was primarily about the colonial states against the natives, rather than the colonial states staking competing claims against each other. In the absence of natives, I think that it’s quite reasonable to expect a different outcome. Relevant historical parallels, in this case, would be to the colonisation of the Azores and Iceland, or the original colonisation of Hawai’i, Polynesia, etc.

    2.) No need for large amounts of crude human labour. One of the chief problems with extration-oriented colonial endeavours is that they required very large amounts of low-skill human labour to work the mines, sugar plantations, rubber plantations, etc. This labour was typically provided by bonded colonialists, or natives, or slaves, with each grou being treated worse than the last. The reason they could be treated as though they were expendable is because they were expendable, in the strictest economic sense. It’s trivially easy to teach somebody to wield a scythe or carry a bucket, and as long as somebody else who can be easily kidnapped and/or press-ganged into scythe-wielding or bucket-carrying duty, there’s no economic reason (in the crassest sense) to treat the existing labourers well. If a scythe-wielder or bucket-carrier gets out of line, just bump ’em off, as a lesson to the rest, and go get another one. This was the plantation dynamic.

    What’s certain, however, is that space colonies will overwhelmingly rely on highly specialised forms of labour, and will have little (if any) requirement for unskilled brute labour. This means that almost every individual in the colony will have a lot of bargaining power. If the guy who maintains your closed ecological life-support system is unhappy, then you can’t simply rub him out and get another one. On the contrary, you’ll bend over backwards to keep him happy. Same goes for the gal who debugs your HE3 concentrators, they guy who maintains the polymer synthesis equipment, etc., etc., etc. People who aren’t expendable have clout and the highly technological nature of space colonies almost guarantees that there will be little, if any, economic need for people who are expendable.

    I believe that the above two factors guarantee a considerably more genteel internal dynamic, within space colonies, than one might surmise by looking at the wrong historical parallels. This doesn’t speak to the potentially fraught relationship with the homeworld, however. The third difference does:

    3.) Space colonies will have some substantial tactical advantages vs. Earth, driven by the one-way economics of the gravity well. When terrestrial colonies got out of line, they could count on a massive punitive force being sent from the home country, the likes of which they could only counter with the greatest of difficulties.

    Barring a staggering breakthrough in launch costs (the likes of which is not on the horizon), space-based colonies will be in a very different position with regards to Earth. No country on earth would be able to afford to send troops or drones to re-capture a colony intact (especially since they’d be visible, incoming, for days or months in advance). They’d probably be able to afford to send nukes to wipe out the colony (as well as all their investment in it, which they’d be extremely reluctant to do) — but if Earth decided to play that game, they’d quickly discover that it’s harder for them to send a megaton-class nuke up than it is for the colony to send a gigaton-class rock down. So one would hope that they have some serious second thoughts about playing that game in the first place.

    For these second and especially third factors, it’s hard for me to find meaningful historical parallels. Perhaps you’ll be able to do so.

    The bottom line is that the inherent dynamics of space colonies should ensure that individuals within the colony have considerable bargaining power versus the colony administrators, and that the colony as a whole has considerable bargaining power versus the homeworld. These factors, combined with the absence of natives making an existing claim to the territory, should make for a very different dynamic than what we saw in the last colonial age.

    • JHester

      Nathan,
      Many thanks for this brilliant comment. This is exactly the sort of conversation I was hoping to get going by posting this.
      I generally agree with your three points. I fully acknowledge that the differences I myself listed were just a few, so I’m grateful to get more and more detailed ones from one who has done much more research into these matters than I.
      Let me address them individually:

      1) No Natives
      This will indeed be one of the major differences in how colonial efforts will play out off-world (at least until we stumble across inhabitants at some point in our wanderings). I am, however, reminded of Sagan’s comment that Mars belongs to the Martians, ‘even if the Martians are only microbes.’ Although this, in most minds, would fall under wild-life conservation rather than inter-species treaties (we’ll learn eventually), the presence of life even in its most basic form means that we’ll have to deal with ‘the natives’.
      I’m not sure how we might handle this, especially since our record suggests that we’re not very good at adequately seeing to the fair treatment and defence of other organisms on our own planet. Microbes on Mars or aquatic invertebrates in the oceans of Europa strikes me as being something very different indeed; if discovered, they may be our only evidence up to that point of life elsewhere in the Universe, which would make seeing to it that we don’t disrupt things to their peril a major imperative. ‘Dealing with the natives’ in space may mean taking measures relating to microbes that we would not dream of taking here on Earth.

      2) Little unskilled labour. Highly-skilled workers up there will have a lot of bargaining power.
      This too will certainly be a game-changer. The rise of unions, and even the gradual dissolution of serfdom and the greater value of individual labourers in the wake of the Black Death, do not quite serve as strong parallels. I can’t call to mind a particular instance in the past where similar circumstances were present. I do not, however, contain in my mind an encyclopedic knowledge of all of human history (but hey, I’m working on it 🙂 ), so there could be a parallel of which I’m simply not aware.
      My cynical side, however, wonders what measures could be taken by the governing institutions of these outposts, who would likely have realized the same thing, to prevent these specialists from getting out of line. ‘Scabs’ would be rather impractical, since the ‘picket line’ to be crossed in these cases could comprise several million miles of vacuum and, as you pointed out in Point 3, the colonists have the upper hand in giving those arriving against their will a very hard time of it. With the stakes being so high, there could be some very unsettling union-busting/enforcement activities to make sure people up there don’t get too big for their britches. This would, I fear, put us into all-too-familiar territory even if the circumstances were different.

      3) Colonists’ tactical advantage
      This is where my military historian/strategist ears are pricking up. I shudder to think about how messy a fight like this could get, and again I can think of no sufficient historical parallel off the top of my head. It’s one thing if such capabilities were used for the legitimate defence of the people and the outpost. Imagine, though, if such abilities were used as an extension of terrestrial conflicts. If the implications of a US-friendly Mars outpost being able to nudge rocks onto a collision course with Tehran doesn’t make your blood run cold, it wasn’t running in the first place.
      This point is, I think, a major argument in favour of the first points in my initial post: no extension of earth conflicts off-world. It could also be a good reason for sovereignty of these outposts if they so wish. If the colonists decide they want to be on their own, it’d probably be too costly in all respects for any force from Earth to go up there and tell them ‘no’. However, again, I wonder what measures might be attempted by institutions and states that, realizing this, would try to nip it in the bud.

      I fully admit to being a generalist in these matters. And, again, I thank you for bringing a more detailed and experienced perspective to this discussion. I agree that there are many circumstances of our colonial aspirations off-world that will make the outcomes differ greatly from how things played out on Earth. I hope, however, that we can agree upon the need for some of the cautions I raised to be included in the conversations that will eventually lead to these outposts being established: that they should not become pawns of terrestrial squabbles that do not directly concern them, that they should not become imperial wealth pumps that only serve to enlarge terrestrial purses, and that they should not be denied sovereign status, if they wish it, after they have long ceased to have any meaningful ties to terrestrial institutions or states. The earlier these basic understandings make it into the conversation, the less likely we’ll be to have to fight for them later.

  2. James asked me to “unpack” this statement from a tweet I wrote in response to the piece: “markets can be much more powerful than values.”

    First, like Nahan, I don’t think the one to one comparison of space colonialism with European colonialism is the right one. The only thing they have in common is the word “colonialism.” Both James and Nahan focus mostly on the encounter aspect of colonialism until his last point about launch costs – and launch, or the economic origination of or motivation for colonialism, was the point of my tweet. And to be fair, it’s the core of his first two points. But the factors which will likely motivate space colonialism will not be the same as those which motivated European colonialism.

    Launch costs are an important indicator because they are dictated either by the projected ROI or if not ROI positive, whether the outcome (first to market) is worth the cost of financing. That’s what’s going to motivate whoever undertakes space colonization, and it’s going to the guiding factor weighed the space colonists themselves. Which means, one version of my tweet would read: markets can be much more powerful than values because markets will determine whether whether an undertaking like space colonization will proceed in the first place, and will dictate later decisions made by both its funders and those executing the colonization.

    But my tweet had a broader implication: markets can be much more powerful than values, because they compete. The origin of this logic comes from a book about regulating the Internet by Larry Lessig called Code 2.0.

    There’s a diagram on page 123 which shows the four regulatory constraints around a dot. Lessig writes

    …four constraints regulate this pathetic dot—the law, social norms, the market, and architecture—and the “regulation” of this dot is the sum of these four constraints. Changes in any one will affect the regulation of the whole. Some constraints will support others; some may undermine others. Thus, “changes in technology [may] usher in changes in . . . norms,” and the other way around. A complete view, therefore, must consider these four modalities together.

    The point is, values and markets engage with each other in all forms of regulation and can do at the expense of each other. So, first, I happen to think James’ argument focuses too much on values, and too little on the interplay between values and markets. It also discounts the interplay of geography and markets – for instance, France and Britain went to war over territory, and those wars were funded and motivated by markets and shaped by geography. Space colonialism will be motivated by markets, and will be molded by the physics and geography, which are the architecture, of space. Given the open questions about the architecture and geography of space, and more importantly, the architecture of how earth-based societies will control their space colonies, it’s unlikely the architecture of space, and how it will shape colonization, is something we can understand right now. But we do know it’s certainly not the same architecture that the earth’s geography provides. We can also assume there is no law in space (NOTE: international law is more a system of values than law).

    Which means we need to focus on the potential values in space, and how they interact with markets. The first of two relevant sources for comparing this potential interplay of markets and values is the current Law of the Sea – international law which governs how states interact with each other, with the ocean, and with the finite resources of the ocean.

    I think the establishment of the Law of the Sea reflects a time when nations “let go” in the name of a common system of values. We rarely if ever hear of naval battles much anymore, and territorial disputes over borders are more likely to be heard in arbitration courts. But we do hear of overfishing and pollution problems – both driven by markets. So it’s notable first because it’s a comparative system of values intended to be law; second, because it’s taken 200 years to evolve; and third, it’s still overwhelmed by the power of markets.

    The second of two sources of comparison is the Web: Lessig notes that the code of the Web and the technology behind it have overwhelmed the law because they’re more effective at regulating the web than government. Values seem to be nonexistent on the Web. So the Web is precedent because

    This is the general framework through which the dynamics of space colonialism will be dictated markets, and to a lesser or equal extent, the geography and physics of space colonialism. Both will overwhelm whatever values we may aspire to have out there based on the European precedent, and likely dictate new ones. These values will likely originate from the interplay of a few different variables. And sadly, this is where the European precedent may be the right precedent: it took countless conflicts between colonial in new geography and funded by the markets of those powers to come up with the value system that governs international law today.

    I think there are a few holes in this thinking, but the structure is there. Curious to hear your thouhts.

    • Whoops didn’t finish a thought in third to last paragraph: “So the Web is precedent because it is a medium where values are nonexistent, and architecture and markets regulate its participants.”

      • JHester

        Andrew,
        Thank you for accepting my invitation to continue this discussion on here. I’ve been overjoyed that this piece has resulted in such detailed and insightful discussions from all comers.

        Having looked over your comment several times, it seems to me that we are in agreement in more ways than we are at opposing opinions. I could not agree more that any potential ventures in space will be largely driven by the market and its interests. Indeed, the same was true for our period of terrestrial colonialism centuries ago. Far more people set out for the Americas, for example, because of the potential wealth and the promise of industry than did because they thought it would be a nice place to live, or even because they aspired to founding a sovereign state. I see space being no different.

        Even though the particulars will certainly be different, as both Nathan and I have pointed out, generally we’re talking about the same phenomenon: expansion beyond our current boundaries to unleash new potentials. Thus, I do not think it a fruitless exercise to revisit previous attempts and see if there’s anything we can learn; what worked, and what we should avoid. These will be generalizations of course. But generalizations frequently remain important. Just ask a General why he was required to study Caesar at West Point. There will always be differences in the details, but they usually don’t invalidate the importance of certain fundamentals.

        This is what I’m trying to do here. I’m advocating that, at the stage when discussions about outposts in space are very much in their infancy, certain considerations (yes, many motivated by values) be brought to the table so that they might hopefully be taken on from the start and prevent us potentially playing out again some of the messes of a few centuries ago.

        1. Don’t extend irrelevant terrestrial conflicts to off-world outposts.
        2. Don’t let these outposts exists solely to enrich those on Earth.
        3. Sovereignty will be offered if they cease to be dependent on Earth.

        Do you have objections to these resolutions beyond the fact that they will inevitably be fought against because they may be contrary to market interests? Many international resolutions are. And despite unscrupulous attempts to subvert them (such as the over-fishing and maritime pollution that you pointed out), I do not know anyone who would deny the importance of them being there, or of the continued efforts to uphold them.

        As someone who works with such general perspectives (especially in this particular arena), I frequently give advice that is not always ‘practical’ or ‘pragmatic’, and leave it to others to explain why they choose to do otherwise. Because make no mistake, these are choices that we ourselves, as a species, will make. The Market is not an independent, sentient being (though it often is treated as such). It is made up of people who make choices. With space, we have an opportunity to avoid some of the failings of our past expansionistic ventures. It’s up to us as a species, and to those individuals who will make the big calls on these matters, whether or not we do.

  3. Nathan – thanks for keeping this going. I’m enjoying it.

    If I may, I’d like to propose there are two sets of moving pieces to our argument.
    1. Markets vs. Values Dynamic
    2. Envisioning the role of Present values (and historical lessons) in Future scenarios presented by space colonialism

    On #1, I think we are in general agreement. Markets will drive space colonialism, and present values will either shape or fail shape how space colonialism evolves. This is a particularly interesting framework because, as you wrote, “expansion beyond our current boundaries to unleash new potentials.”

    Which leads us to #2, where the question is whether the lessons of the past, which have shaped (and failed to shape) current values of the present can play a role in space colonialism, where new potentials could learn from the values of the present, and the lessons of the past.

    You believe they can. I’m probably more skeptical simply because of there are new variations on old variables, and new variables presented by these new variations of old variables. So let’s play with your three lessons of the past, which I would categorize as values:
    1. Don’t extend irrelevant terrestrial conflicts to off-world outposts.
    2. Don’t let these outposts exists solely to enrich those on Earth.
    3. Sovereignty will be offered if they cease to be dependent on Earth.

    I was a history major, but I have a law degree and I work in digital media. So I’m comfortable with the generalities here, but I also use a framework to think these through, and that framework is what I laid out in my first response above. I find myself stumbling when I try to envision what you lay out above as applicable lessons.

    I think an easier place to start is a purely-market based lens on space colonialism, because in this new territory, whoever is acting in their self-interest out there is going to be acting in the interests dictated by the person who funded them.

    1. Don’t extend irrelevant terrestrial conflicts to off-world outposts.
    In this light, your first point probably is a nice idea, but unlikely to be a reality. A terrestrial conflict can, and likely will, be based on the interests of those who funded the space colonialism. The parties who are out in space are out there because they’re representing their funders’ interests. The dynamics of a territorial conflict on Earth can very easily extend to space when the two or more parties are involved in conflicts, or have a history of conflicts, on earth. Past, Present, and future all matter when it comes to new territory.

    All foreseeable outcomes in space where two or more parties are involved are more than likely to involve conflicts because markets will be driving the exploration.

    2. Don’t let these outposts exists solely to enrich those on Earth.
    Again, outposts will exist most likely to enrich those who funded the space voyage. So this is a noble idea that seems impossible to execute given the incentives that will drive space colonialism in the first place.

    3. Sovereignty will be offered if they cease to be dependent on Earth.
    This is the most interesting point because it reflects market dynamics more than aspirational values. I like what Nathan wrote here:

    What’s certain, however, is that space colonies will overwhelmingly rely on highly specialised forms of labour, and will have little (if any) requirement for unskilled brute labour. This means that almost every individual in the colony will have a lot of bargaining power. If the guy who maintains your closed ecological life-support system is unhappy, then you can’t simply rub him out and get another one. On the contrary, you’ll bend over backwards to keep him happy.

    That’s an interesting point. I think this reflects the more likely dynamic to play out: funders will have to defer power and discretion to their colonists with the hope that they don’t turn into versions of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. But odds are, even if the colonists do turn into Kurtz, there won’t be much the funders will be able to do given the economics of launch costs and the distance they will need to travel to “remedy” the situation.

    If anything, thinking through your three guidelines, I’m actually scared of what space colonialism will bring. Not because I necessarily doubt human nature, but rather, I doubt human nature in new territories with simple, clear, and limited incentives and objectives. Colonists will be making choices on behalf of the markets they serve.

    Having said all this, the big X factor in all this is the role of government in space colonialism. If government funds space colonialism, then yes, there is a good chance that a system of values could govern the behavior of actors in space. Of course, that would require governments to agree to be regulated in space by other governments. If the current UN attempt to take over the Internet is any precedent, odds are governments will likely act in their own interests instead of deferring to or waiting for other nations to impose their interests in the name of collective values.

    But there’s one other problem for your set of values: trends in space travel are heading towards to private space flight. So the means of imposing values into the future of space colonialism is more likely to come via the companies who are sending colonists out there. The question is whether they act like a Google (Don’t Be Evil), or like an Apple (act in fear). Although a better comparison would be whether they act like an oil company building territories in a Latin American or African country.

    My guess, if past is precedent, they speak like the former but act like an oil company. And oil companies have private armies.

    • Btw apologies. Just caught that I addressed this to Nathan. It should be to James #longday

      • JHester

        Andrew

        (No worries about the name mix-up. I’m in the midst of planning a move into Boston, so I can sympathize with hectic times).

        I want to thank you again for keeping this discussion going. It has done what I hoped it would, namely compelled me to think about these issues in ways I would perhaps not have if not prompted. Refining an argument in the crucible of debate is a dying art, and I’m glad to find those who still know how to practice it.

        If I had a dollar/quid for every time one of my arguments was met with something to the effect of ‘but circumstances are different this time’, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be fussing over getting a Donate button put up on this site. 🙂 Nonetheless, I could cite numerous cases where, despite updated particulars in terms of execution and perhaps motivation, when you pan back far enough, it’s the same plan over and over again, often with the same end results. Afghanistan is my poster child for this point. We’ve been playing the same scenario out over there, with minimal variations, for about 2,500 years give or take, and (quelle surprise) it tends to end more or less the same way each time. I have seen enough old plans revived, only to fall right next to their ancestors with ‘but it’s different this time’ on their lips, to take such an argument with anything more than a pinch of salt.

        Right, rant over. Now let me respond to your particulars.

        I do take your point that these aspiring resolutions are rather idealistic, and unlikely to see widespread acceptance without a grandmother of a long-term advocacy campaign. I admit that, despite keeping the likes of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli within easy reach on my bookshelf, I am, at heart, a bit of an idealist. God shield me from the day that I am not. But even you seem to acknowledge that, should they be implemented, they would be beneficial and save us from a lot of potential trouble. Perhaps we can agree that they are at least worth trying for, but that we won’t hold our breath and allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised should we pull it off.

        As for terrestrial conflicts spilling into space, I wonder if those very same market interest that put the outposts up there in the first place might, in some cases, discourage squabbles on Earth from disrupting things. Perhaps some space industries (H3 mining, for example, if we come to utilise it as a major fuel source) might be deemed to important to risk it being knocked over, even temporarily, by something kicking off down here. ‘The Spice must flow’, whatever ‘the Spice’ happens to be.

        Furthermore, conflict-bleed would be a more likely problem if we’re dealing with nationally-backed initiatives rather than private/corporate ones. History shows that private enterprise dislikes war if it gets in the way of commerce. Capital flees from war zones lest it get caught in the crossfire. Would not the private enterprises seek to insulate their projects from such disruptions?

        When I say that outposts in space should not exist solely to enrich those on Earth, I of course acknowledge that this will be the motivation which sees to it that they are even established to begin with. What I am suggesting is that we have to make sure that there’s another layer to it: making sure that the ones up there doing the work are getting their fair share of the profits from their own labours.

        This is why I used Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement as an example. India’s cotton industry under The Raj was quite lucrative; it made the East India Company and many other entrepreneurs very wealthy indeed. However, it also impoverished craftspeople in India, who saw nothing of the enormous profits made by those who sold on textiles manufactured from Indian cotton in Britain.

        For the people conducting the mining operations or other industries on some distant planet or moon, that bit of rock will likely be home, all they have. It will be a harsh life, so they are entitled to the means of making that life as comfortable as possible by being well-compensated for their efforts. If their products are not at least ‘fairtrade’, they run the risk of finding themselves in a vulnerable position if their bosses back on Earth try to keep the lion’s share of the profits (and there’s every reason to suspect that some will try). Nathan’s point about bargaining power would likely prevent a scenario like this from going too far, but a general set of fairtrade-style commercial ethics might not be a bad thing to push for from the start.

        You propose that Nathan’s Bargaining Point (I’m making this a proper noun for the rest of this discussion, because I think it deserves to be so. Well done, Nathan) will be the more likely way in which greater agency by colonists would be attained, especially given the generally agreed-upon fact that it will be very difficult for the Powers That Be back on Earth to come up there quick enough and with sufficient force to prevent them. I do not dispute this. Rather, my question is: what stops them from taking it one step further? If nations and corporations would be at great pains to prevent demands like higher pay and a less-strenuous work schedule, would they be capable of any swifter action in response to declarations such as ‘We have decided that it is not in our interest to maintain client-status to [X], so we have resolved amongst ourselves to declare our colony a sovereign state. We will be fixing the prices our own prices for our exports, and will be conducting the trade and reaping the profits ourselves. Our newly-formed government will be in touch with the UN to establish diplomatic relations, and are open to continue commerce with all comers under this new arrangement.’?

        Given the nature of these outposts, self-sustainability will be a requirement (or an aspiration that will be worked on from the start) if they are intended to be long-term or permanent. So a ‘safety measure’ like maintaining dependence on Earth for certain necessities to prevent mutinies, would be impractical, since even a temporary blip in the supply chain could imperil your perfectly-cooperative outpost.

        As for maintaining a military/security presence there, well, the troops will always be outnumbered by the workers. They don’t even necessarily have to be taken out or subdued, merely won over. They’re on the same remote rock as those their trying to ‘police’, and likely they’d see that going with the crowd would be equally in their interest as it is for their charges (they might not even have to be coerced).

        In short, if the fledgling US felt confident enough to declare independence knowing full well that hell would rain down upon them from Canada and from across the Atlantic, what would prevent Martian or Europan colonists from doing the same when the odds of successful defence would be much more in their favour?

        I agree that international efforts in space will be plagued with constant attempts by individual nations to have their particular interests come out on top rather than willingly adopt consensuses that are not in their best interest. However, it will be interesting to see, should outposts in space be composed of international groups rather than just representatives of single nations (ISS is a good example), if those squabbles end up extending beyond the Earth. If you’re up there with your team trying to survive in adverse conditions, and you rely on each other to do that, I strongly suspect pragmatism will trump nationalism before too long. ‘I thought China and the US were currently at war.’ ‘Well, we are. But Mr. Zhang is in charge of our life support systems so, as far as I’m concerned, we’re cool.’ If teams are formed long before conflicts arise, a conflict later on probably isn’t going to put a dent in a necessary, already well-established group dynamic.

        It is also true that private enterprise seems to be taking the lead in space exploration and eventual settlement. I share your belief that this is likely to mean that the outposts they establish will be governed by the philosophy of the institutions that put them there. If those institutions have the same ethos as the oil giants in the Middle East, diamond miners in Africa, or the cola cartels in Central America, things could be messy indeed.

        However, so far as I’ve noticed, the people and companies that have come to the fore in space-related ventures seem rather benign so far. I have not heard anything particularly vile about, say, Elon Musk or Bob Richards (I suppose Branson is the worst I can think of, and even he’s not so bad comparatively). Those with the vision to be looking seriously at space at this point seem to be fairly Sagan-esque and relaxed-and-groovy in their outlooks and aspirations. So far. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough that the pioneers who get up there first and set a lot of the ground rule will be the ones with their heads screwed on straight.

        There is one particular statement you made that I want to address, and I think it’s a good point for me to (finally) close on. That is your statement that ‘Colonists will be making choices on behalf of the markets they serve.’ I think this will be true for a while, and I’m sure that those behind the markets will try their utmost to see that it continues to be so. However, I think that this will cease to be the case when those interests no longer coincide with those of the people that will be living and working up there.

        I think that looking at these chiefly through the lens of the markets runs the risk of overlooking just how unpredictable and stubborn people can be. The history of protests and revolutions throughout all peoples and times shows us that, even if it’s to our disadvantage, we can, and will, toe the line. But only up to a certain point. If things become intolerable enough, we will put our foot down even when faced with very poor prospects of a favourable resolution. I think human settlements far-removed from quick and easy access by the Earth will reveal this principle in new and unexpected ways.

        Even if the catalyst is not anger or violence, but rather simply a realisation by colonists that, after generations developing and thriving on their own, they have become a distinct and independent people and culture who no longer need or desire formal ties of obligation with the Earth, if they want their own show, I suspect they will take it, by force if necessary, and there will be little we on Earth can really do about it. We can either try to come to terms with this from the start, and perhaps pave the way for making it a less-painful process for all parties, or we can try to prevent it, probably fail, and likely cause a lot of damage in the process.

        • James,

          Nothing wrong with a creative exercises in idealism – I’m all for them, and in fact, I’m an entrepreneur in digital media, so call me the pot calling your kettle black . However, I’m still having difficulty with your perspective simply because we’re talking about outer space, and you’re applying Ghandi and Afghanistan, precedent on earth, to potential space colonies in outer space.

          In space we’re talking about different and new physics, different and new means of transportation, new and different forms of life, new and different and new means of communication between, or basically: just different and new everything.

          I’ve mentioned architecture, and I actually think it’s more important than we’ve given mention, and I imagine that’s partially because neither of us are physicists, much less of the armchair variety. So I do think there’s precedent, but – and this just hit me today – it’s not anything we’ve discussed.

          There’s actually an environment on earth which offers different and new physics, different and new means of transportation, new and different forms of life, new and different and new means of communication between, or basically: just different and new everything: the ocean.

          And the precedent lies in submarines. If you think about it, there are a lot of similarities in what we’ve discussed:
          * driven by markets (government military spending)
          driven by territorial conquest
          making choices on behalf of their
          high launch costs ($2.5B per submarine) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_class_submarine
          harsh life
          self-sustainability (to an extent)
          new constraints on human body generated by vehicle technology and physics of environment
          territorial conflicts extended to a new medium
          requirements for innovative, wireless communication

          The interesting differences are around compensation (there are no millionaire submarine employees, last time I checked), the role of the submarines (patrol and not mineral extraction) and Nathan’s Bargaining Point (NBP) doesn’t apply (submarine commanders don’t have much bargaining power over their navies).

          But two things I’d like to focus on here, because I believe they make your Ghandi, Afghanistan, Caribbean and American War of Independence analogies irrelevant.

          First, there are not a lot submarines in the ocean. And they’re likely won’t be. It’s a brutal existence. So any talk of colonies, colonization, and human expansion has to apply the submarine precedent before the colonial precedent. That precedent, and past is precedent, means we won’t be sending humans into space and colonizing en masse anytime soon. If that opportunity presented itself, we would have to find another earth-like destination.

          One key reason is that there’s no market motive for having submarines in the ocean beyond military needs. In other words, there aren’t submarines mining the ocean floor for minerals (as far as I know).

          Second, a relevant scenario to the one we’ve described above occurs not in classic literature or philosophy, but in the novel/movie The Hunt for Red October. A rogue Soviet submarine commander and his crew attempt to defect to the US. He doesn’t prove NBP, BUT he does prove that conflicts can spill into a new environment, and appointed commanders for a country can act in their self-interest against the interests of that country.

          So to sum up, I think the current dynamics of submarines in the ocean offer better precedent than colonialism. And I don’t see commanders starting their own utopias, nor applying Gandhi to life beneath the ocean blue.

          I’d like to hear how thinking through the submarine example changes your vision. Because it offers constraints on human decisionmaking and on a country’s control over its hired workers.

          • JHester

            Andrew,

            There’s an important point that I should make, for I don’t think I explicitly stated this earlier: I fully realise that it may be years, even generations, before we ever reach a place where what we are discussing becomes practical and relevant. Given the passion and success to date of powerhouses like Elon Musk, however, I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised should we make it to long-term settlements and industries in space much earlier than that. Perhaps, I can only hope, even in my lifetime.

            That said, regardless of how long it takes us to get there, the conversations that will lay the groundwork for these ventures, the first step in the journey of a thousand miles if you will, are happening now. Musk has already announced his goal to settle Mars in the next two decades, and Mars Oneaspires to a similar goal by 2023. NASA is even working on the foundational tech for a warp drive. Although ambitious, they appear to have done the necessary homework to demonstrate that they are well aware of the risks and necessities of their undertakings. Even if it takes longer than they initially planned, I suspect that, barring dramatic unforeseen circumstances, they’ll make it there eventually. So, with R&D well under way, discussions like this are still relevant, even if they don’t come into play for a while yet, because it helps to establish the foundational SOP and ethos by which these undertakings are guided.

            Your concern that precedents from Earth’s past may not necessarily apply to the radical new conditions of life in space is familiar to me. It has been raised by others often when I have used a similar approach to look at the various areas in which I have taken interest. My reason for taking this approach stems from a core thesis that I have arrived at from my years studying the history: if you strip away the particular trappings of a time period or culture, people fundamentally have not changed in any meaningful way in all this time. Circumstances will often be different, be they culture or available technology, but people are people, and our most basic motivations for many of our actions have not changed much since we first evolved. This viewpoint could, and doubtless will, be disputed by some. But so far I have found treating history as a 10,000 year-plus set of data on how we have navigated existence, where certain useful trends and tendencies can be spotted if you stand back far enough and look at it as a whole, has yet to fail me in my endeavours. To each their own.

            I agree that the deep ocean can serve as a useful equivalent to space in many ways. They share many of the same restrictions: market/military drives and interests, cost restrictions on activity, and conditions less-than hospitable to humans.

            The major difference that is crucial, however, is that the ocean is still on Earth. The pressures that this simple fact relieve compared to life off-world are substantial. Food is a good example. A submarine need not be near as self-sufficient as a space outpost will probably have to be. They can, and do, return to the surface to re-supply regularly. Likewise, it might be said, would space colonies be re-supplied by regular cargo runs from Earth. However, the launch cost restrictions you and Nathan have brought up will likely inspire efforts to get the colonists providing as much of their own food and resources as possible, as early in the game as possible. Furthermore, with the distances that we might be dealing with, even a brief disruption in any supply chain could be catastrophic for the colony, so I should think that reducing dependence on such supply runs would be a priority. If colonies can chug along just fine on their own with little or no resources needed to be shipped up from Earth, most investors and colonists would probably consider that a win.

            Submarines still being earth-bound is likely also the reason that Nathan’s Bargaining Principle or grabs for sovereignty have not been seen frequently amongst the worlds sub fleets. Frankly, if they had a strop, they’d be found and disciplined sooner or later. One sub, even a nuclear one, cannot hold out long against an entire military, or several militaries depending on how bad things got. Nathan’s points about the tactical advantages of space outposts (it’s very expensive for you to send you army up here, we can see you coming a long way off and can take effective defensive measures, and if you really screw with us we’ll nudge a state-sized piece of space debris onto a crash course with [insert Earth-location here]) do not apply to our hypothetical rebellious sub crew.

            With regard to your point about ocean mining, after doing a bit of digging, I found that this type of venture is being explored, and has been for some time. It’s certainly not easy, but the promise of the mineral wealth down there is enough to inspire innovation to get to it. The same is true for similar ventures in space, but to a greater degree. There are many minerals and other resources that are exceedingly rare on earth that are positively abundant elsewhere in space. If it’s possible to get to them, you can be sure that entrepreneurs will find a way. And this is just the purely commercial justification, not factoring in the benefits that, say, further scientific exploration of the galaxy and the Universe could have for our species.

            Lastly, I disagree with your suggestion that large-scale space settlement would require an Earth-like planet, as do for that matter many of the people who have been thinking about space colonisation for decades now. Certainly, a ‘second Earth’ would make things a whole lot easier, and we have identified many potential candidates for such a place orbiting stars elsewhere in our galaxy. But there are currently realistic efforts to settle Mars which, though not as hostile as, say, Venus with her 420C days, is still not a place that’s lovingly opening its arms to us. Musk wants to set up an 80,000 person colony there; no small undertaking. There have also been suggestions to set up outposts under the ice on Europa, which would put people down where the liquid water (and thus warmer temperatures) would be and away from the high surface radiation. Whatever their motivations, people are looking for ways, and sometimes finding them. I do not underestimate the ability of technology to overcome inhospitality; our species has a long record that supports this view.

            Call me an idealist if you will. I prefer to think of it as being too stubborn to quickly accept what is expedient over what could or should be.

  4. To start off your last point, my issue with your stance is that word “should” because it assumes “values” established here on earth, on land and not underwater, should apply anywhere else we go.
    So it’s not that you’re being idealistic, it’s that you’re assuming that universal values reflected in Ghandi or the Declaration of Independence are the right values for the environment of space, the marketplaces of space, and the law of space.
    And my point is, those values were produced by the land-based violent and non-violent encounters of humans within the environment of earth, the marketplaces of earth, and the legal systems of earth. And they aren’t the only values to have been produced.
    So yes, I believe you are being idealistic because you’re ignoring the mechanics of how something was produced through near infinite permutations of encounters between humans on earth’s geography. I agree with your statement that “people fundamentally have not changed in any meaningful way in all this time.” It’s our environment, what we’ve created within that environment, and the impact those creations in our environment that have changed us more (e.g., obese midwestern Americans).
    Understanding the mechanics of how those values you envision as meriting permanence came to be, and then thinking through how they may not apply in a different environment, whether it’s Mars or an earth-like planet, is a much more interesting exercise and discussion.
    Which brings me back to the submarine: universal values clearly apply to the intra-human relations between crew members and a captain on the submarine. The hierarchy is informed and governed by structures and values of various and many military hierarchies and values throughout history. So submarines are a sign of hope for you: the commander and his crew have precedent, and they work well in a different environment.
    They happen not to be a society. And if they were to found a society underwater, the values most likely would be (drum roll please)…. the same military values that guided the order of their submarine vessel.
    If Gandhi’s autobiography was in the vessel, could it inform their decisions as a society? Absolutely. But being locked within a vessel underwater with a set number of people following military order would also create societal pressures that might require a new version of Gandhi.
    In other words, the constraints are real but the possibilities are endless.
    I happen to think gravity and physics will deeply impact the values shaped in space societies because both will shape how humans physically interact with each other.
    And universal values like non-violence is founded on how we as humans physically interact with each other.
    So Gandhi may influence in the short term, but gravity and physics of human interaction, and the markets and legal systems that are generated out of those interactions, will likely make Gandhi irrelevant. The question is whether that may be a bad thing.

  5. Btw noticing that I said you are and aren’t being idealistic.
    To clarify, when you use the word “should” you aren’t.
    To assume, the outcome you’re seeking can happen irrespective of other values, you are.

    • JHester

      Gandhi’s teachings and principles included opposition to caste-based discrimination, promotion of general tolerance, a preference for non-violence as a means of resolving disputes, and even a call for universal education. The one aspect of his teachings that I cited in my post, namely swadeshi, encourages local-level self-sufficiency as a way of making a people more resilient and less prone to manipulation from without. I can imagine a notion like that being very appealing to colonists and those setting up colonies alike, as it mitigates risk on several levels politically, societally, and militarily.

      I shall quote the Declaration of Independence directly:
      ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.’

      Although some of the details of both Gandhi and the above document (just using them as examples since you brought them up) may not necessarily apply to the circumstances that those settling space in the future may live with, I maintain that the core principles, which I have highlighted above, are universal and are not affected by time, location, or circumstance.

      Zero gravity does not alter a person’s inalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

      Furthermore, I stated earlier my reasons for rejecting your proposed submarine model as being a useful parallel to circumstances in space. A sub, being confined to Earth (albeit some rather remote locations thereon), is far more reliant on resources from the Earth than a potential colony would likely be. Also, the comparative ease with which a terrestrial sub could be located and ‘disciplined’ should they try to invoke Nathan’s Bargaining Point or make a push for some form of sovereignty, demonstrates why we have not seen this happen yet on a sub (nor will we likely), but does not invalidate the possibility of such a thing happening on an outpost millions of miles away in space. Thus, I do not feel that the model is satisfactory for our purposes.

      Although I agree that the conditions of life in space will affect the way in which people live, I suspect that those changes will affect surface matters like organisation and governance, but will not radically impact humans being humans. We are social apes who, over a couple hundred thousand years, have come to a handful of basic conclusions as to what we think is worthy of striving to attain in ourselves and in our societies. The aesthetics are certainly different from place to place, but that core principle of ‘Be excellent to each other’ (to quote the eminent sages Bill and Ted) can be found in most of them. This idea, and that which is derived from it, I do not see being profoundly impacted by life in space.

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