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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.

 

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The Space-Fyrd: Crowd-Funding Civilian Space Travel

Yesterday, I read an article in which Elon Musk proposed a plan to build a sustainable colony on Mars. The initial goal is to transport 80,000 colonists, each paying $500,000, who would establish a sustainable population and fund the estimated $40 billion price tag for the project.

I am very supportive of civilian space efforts. The real will to be innovative and adventurous in thinking about the future of humans in space seems to have faded from the government institutions who have been the dominant force in this area. I too believe that the next substantial leap will come from civilian efforts.

What concerns me is that, in these early efforts where the funding is more crucial than finding willing colonists (which wouldn’t be difficult at all), off-world travel and settlement will run the risk of becoming the domain of the wealthy rather than of the suitable. There are many individuals who possess skills and aptitudes that would be invaluable on a Martian colony, but who could never hope to scrape together the half-million-dollar fee to put them to use.

How do we make sure that those with the ‘right stuff’ make it up there rather than just those who can afford it?

The Anglo-Saxons, odd as it may seem, may have something to contribute to this question. At the heart of Anglo-Saxon military organisation was the fyrd, the citizen militia raised from the populace to serve as the bulk of the infantry. To supply troops for the fyrd, the kingdom was divided up in to districts, each of which provided a certain number of suitably-equipped, able-bodied men. The best military equipment, as it is still today, was prohibitively expensive. Thus, those sent to the fyrd were frequently those wealthy enough to afford the kit.

However, allowances were made for when those individuals either could not serve, or did not wish to. The district could pool resources to equip others for service, which gave people the option of sending the capable fighters as opposed to just those who could afford to purchase the equipment.

Imagine if we did the same for our astronauts.

Crowd-funding the cost of transport into space would not only allow those with the necessary skills of a future Martian to achieve their potential despite a hefty price tag, but would also allow for astronauts and colonists to come from diverse origins, preventing the human population in space from becoming dangerously homogeneous in any number of ways.

This could be done now, with the structures we already have in place. Someone could make a good case on Kickstarter for their place on that first vessel to Mars and raise the 500k. But, if aspirations towards greater civilian-government collaboration towards these ends are achieved, this system could be formalised on a national or global scale. We could ensure, as the human presence in space grows, that our off-world brethren display the same wondrous variety as those of us on Earth.

 

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Can the British Empire teach us about space colonies?

There seems to be a lack of discussion on practical governance in space. When a sustained human presence is finally established on a moon, planet, asteroid, or far-flung space station, what infrastructure will be necessary to see that it is both well administered domestically and well provided for from home? Although many innovations will be necessary to get this in place, the core problem, when you distil it to its essence, is actually not new at all.

An outpost in space will communicate with Earth in near real-time. However, when issues arise which cannot be handled with the resources currently at hand, there is a potentially lengthy wait for help from Earth to physically arrive. With our current technology, flight time to the ISS, orbiting the Earth at an altitude of around 400km, is about 2 days. The moon, at a distance of just over 384,000km, can be reached in a little over three days. Even its closest proximity to Earth, the 58 million kilometer journey to Mars will take around 214 days.

The British faced a similar challenge in the late 19th century. By 1877, a telegram from New Zealand could reach London almost instantaneously. However, even a steam-powered ship would take up to 120 days to cover the same distance. By examining the ways in which they dealt with this difficulty, we might be able to gain some insights that could help to address our present dilemma.

Firstly, they saw to it that the outposts themselves were as well equipped for any eventuality as possible. This included food, medical supplies, equipment for building and agriculture, trained specialists, and either a military garrison or a supply of arms for the settlers themselves. Secondly, far-flung outposts were reinforced and supported by a network of other such places nearby, or other points of contact closer than Britain itself. New Zealand, to continue our example, could seek urgent aid from Australia, India, or even some of the smaller South Pacific islands under British control. At the same time, Royal Navy vessels were constantly patrolling that part of the world and could be called upon for assistance if necessary.

A colony in space will not share all of the same challenges as one in 19th century New Zealand. However, the approaches that the Victorians took to mitigate these risks are worth considering. They give us some basic pointers as to how these things worked then and, therefore, how they may be able to work now.

The people living on these outposts will have to have the resources and training to go it alone 99.9% of the time. This basic rule effects not only who goes, but perhaps also where they go. Unless a planet/moon is capable of being worked to somehow generate sustenance, we shouldn’t send people there unless they can produce sustenance there by other means (artificially in a lab such as with Quorn, or some version of the Replicator from Star Trek, perhaps). This method of artificial production would also be necessary in order to maintain far-flung space stations where agriculture is limited or impossible. At these times and distances, reliance on supply vessels would simply be too risky; the settlers might be one blip in the supply chain away from starvation.

For the 0.1% of instances where external help is needed, it cannot be too far away. This means a network of outposts and support systems where help can either be found from the nearest colony, the vessels that regularly patrol the area, or via a ‘stepping stone’ style ferrying of resources from a spot farther afield, but closer than Earth.

This will require much deeper consideration than what is found here. But insights like these will help make challenges like this far easier to undertake. We need not re-invent the wheel. Why should we not take advice from one of the most well-administered colonial empires in modern human history?

No matter where, or when, you are, the frontier is still the frontier.

 

 

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