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.