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We Should Think Twice About Colonizing Space (nautil.us)
43 points by dnetesn 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments



This seems kind of silly. Yes, there's good chances that there will be balkanization and space wars when we colonize widely. That's no reason not to do it. Should we stay confined to a tiny island on Earth just so that we don't get big enough to form nations that sometimes fight each other? Maybe there would be less war overall, but we'd never progress from being hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, and would always be vulnerable to a whole bunch of things that are inconsequential to our current global society.


Moreover, staying confined here has not prevented us from forming nations and waging wars... With the added drawback that all our eggs are currently in the same planetary basket.

I'm not even sure that "space wars" will be that common. War is expensive, even more so when you have to do it on top of space travel. I think that, without either some extreme commodification of space travel, or some insanely huge reward, space wars won't be a reasonable option in most cases.


> I'm not even sure that "space wars" will be that common. War is expensive, even more so when you have to do it on top of space travel.

Using the example from the article, if Earth considered "Gliese 581 d" Space Commies or something and sent an army NOW at c/4, we would get a message saying "We're here, will engage" in 2118. That's beyond the life expectancy of anything but a small percentage of people being born now.

Using xkcd logic, it was like WW1 Germans deciding "We will invade Russia", send his Pickelhaube corps and when they get to Moscow its 1998 and the Soviet Union has collapse already. They would be using Gewehr 98, they would be slaughtered by a single T-34 out of a museum. News of 1998 Moscow (and pictures of McDonald's on Red Square) would arrive to Angela Merkel.

100 years is a damn long time.


Could be cheaper to wage war from space under certain circumstances. Some earth bound city giving you lip? Put a little ion engine a telephone pole sized rod of tungsten. Bye bye city.

Industrially, building such a weapon for a spacefaring society is quite a bit cheaper than the equivalent terrestrial solution (nukes most of the time).


> How can humanity migrate to another planet without bringing our problems with us?

What ? Our "problems" are inherently human, they won't go away, they've been there from the beginning, they evolve like everything else. This question doesn't make sense. There is no "us" vs "our problems", our problems are us.

> And how can different species that spread throughout the cosmos maintain peace when sufficient mutual trust is unattainable and advanced weaponry could destroy entire civilizations?

Spreading, fighting and destroying civilisations is what makes us human (and what makes up life, for that matter). No matter at what scale you look the universe is creation and destruction.

> Some of these outcomes could have been avoided if only the decision-makers had deliberated a bit more about what could go wrong

Everything is easy to comprehend in hindsight. Chances are people will look at our generation and find everything we fought for as useless and non sensical.

It's nice to think that humanity will one day attain an utopia in which violence, hate and wars don't exists but that's highly unlikely. Life/death, love/hate, peace/violence, are not separate entities, they can only exists with their opposite. Just like you can't have valleys without mountains.


At some point, all of the ‘non-expansionary’ attitudes will be evolutionary dead ends.

See: Luddites, those against exploring the New World, etc.


Those opposed to exploring the new world were basing it on ignorance and rumors. Dragons! Sea monsters! The edge of the earth! None of which was true, you just need to have enough supplies, keep the crew from mutiny, and hope there's decent weather.

In contrast, what we know from facts about space travel: even real sea monsters might leave you alone once in a while, but space is actively trying to kill you at every moment. There are real problems to be solved, like rocket equation, radiation, having enough bandwidth once you get there to stream Netflix. The monsters out there are quite real and quite deadly.

Luddites were just worried about job security.


In contrast, what we know from facts about sea travel: even real land monsters might leave you alone once in a while but the sea is actively trying to kill you at every moment. There are real problems to be solved, like fresh water generation, bad weather and having enough food supplies to last until landfall. The monsters out there are quite real and quite deadly.

Did you know that the sea is still deadly? Not all of these are fatalities, but some are: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_shipwrecks_in_2018


It's worth pointing out that nobody has 'colonized' the sea yet. Not once in the history of the world. Sure there are ships and large platforms but nothing as self-supporting as a colony.

As has been said before by others: I'll believe we're ready to colonize Mars or space after we've colonized the Sahara Desert, Antarctica, and the bottom of the ocean - all of which are vastly easier.


I don't think the difficulty of the entreprise is what matters, but rather the ROI. Not to mention that no one has a claim on space (yes, there are treaties, but should one nation / group of nation leave others in the dust, I doubt they would pay much attention to those treaties).


Perhaps even more than all of these issues was scurvy. It killed absolutely ridiculous numbers of sailors all the way to the 19th century. Funny thing about it too. We now take it for granted that it is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, so it can be prevented by access to fresh citrus fruits. And some had caught onto this, but at the time it was largely considered superstition since it was thought that scurvy was simply a disease, and so trying to prevent it by eating lemons was treated with extreme skepticism.

Even once people began to realize that it somehow really worked, the benefit was attributed to the acid somehow interacting with the disease and not to vitamin deficiency. It's interesting how we, now the benefit of hindsight, can take things that took hundreds of years and literally millions of deaths to discover as being practically self evident.


Sailing across the ocean is not as easy as 'make sure you have supplies and your crew doesn't mutiny.'

Yes, many of the real problems were solved by 1490 AD, but some were not. Longitude, for example, was insanely difficult.

Many, many people have died at sea. Well-trained, prepared and determined people.


Did you buy the two-century-old propaganda that the Luddites were motivated by hatred of technology?

Come to think, it's also odd to pose "not exploring the New World" as an existential threat to human progress, given that there were plenty of humans already there.


,,In other words, natural selection and cyborgization as humanity spreads throughout the cosmos will result in species diversification. At the same time, expanding across space will also result in ideological diversification''

I see the opposite happening already. There was a comparison on instagram made, that concluded that the cafe places all around the world are converging to the same look. There are still tensions between countries, but the number of people killed in wars is exponentially decreasing compared to the number of people living.


True; in many ways, the world has become smaller, thanks to the internet. However, things would diverge rapidly if we go interstellar, unless we somehow break physics or quantum magic can be used for instant communication / travel. The Expanse explores a nearer future where humanity has colonized our solar system, and already there's big tensions there.

One part of mutually assured destruction was that nuking the shit out of one country would cause a global nuclear winter which would / could kill 90% of the population - even without retaliation. That's not as much an issue if there's a healthy self-sustaining colony on e.g. Mars. Nowadays what keeps the world reasonably stable is mutual trade dependency, up to a point anyway.


All of which is happening on the planet earth. Not sure how your argument relates to colonizing space


Where do you draw the line though? Planet Earth used to be a lot bigger than it is now (metaphorically speaking).

"All of which is happening in the Solar System..."

"All of which is happening in the Milky Way..."

"All of which is happening in the Observable Universe..."

It's probably a cycle that will occur as we make advances in communication technology.


The speed of light puts a hard limit on places that can easily exchange ideas and customs. At the very latest when we leave the solar system there will be significant diversification.


I see the opposite happening already.

And a long time before now:

"We want to get as fast as possible from one place to another; to get rid of space and to get rid of time. And the result of this is, of course, that—as we get rid of space and time, as we make all places almost immediately accessible by jet aircraft—all places become the same place. So naturally, the tourist who is beguiled into taking a holiday in Honolulu asks, "Is Honolulu still a ‘somewhere else?’ Is it still a land of girls in hula skirts, and naked breasts, and palm trees, and luaus, and so on?" Well, they’ll make it like it is, vaguely. But, of course, it isn’t. Honolulu is the same place as Coney Island, Atlantic City. Tokyo is just the same, it is simply an extension of Los Angeles; one of our suburbs. Because the faster you can get from place to place, the more you have conquered the limitations of time and space, the more everywhere is the same place. So the differences between different cultures, the differences between people, the things that we want to see when we go to foreign places are increasingly unavailable, except as something provided in a phony way for the entertainment of tourists to deceive them into the idea that they really did get somewhere else."

- Alan Watts, sometime before his death in 1973, in "A True Materialist Society" - https://www.organism.earth/library/document/131 , and other talks.


Silly idea. We could not possibly come up with all the possible outcomes (positive and negative) of space colonization in order to make an "informed" decision. If Phil Torres and his friends decide for us that space colonization should not proceed, how do they enforce that decision?


No, we really shouldn't. Our civilization will be dead if it doesn't distribute across planets and other stars, it's just a matter of time. A concern about political issues between colonies is just putting the cart before the horse.


I mean, we're welcome to give it a second thought, but doing so is unlikely to result in a different conclusion that "the only way to go from here is out"[1].

[1]: https://youtu.be/ab_mH8R0KTM


Apart from the silliness of pretending there won't be future wars, there is an assumption here that space colonists will be even able to communicate with each other. The ones who travel fastest can be constantly outside the spacetime cone of the others, and if they re advanced enough even their lightcones. the universe is vast for everyone to live long and prosper, and sometimes kill each other.


Lots of click-baity material here, and plenty to tear apart.

I think the best way to understand this essay is like this: it's all received wisdom based on what we've experienced so far. That doesn't make it right or wrong. It just makes it highly speculative.

Like to see why? Dial back the calendar a few hundred years. Some bozo named Columbus just got back from a trip. He says there's tons of wealth awaiting us in some far-off, plentiful, perhaps-utopian paradise.

Now that we've rewound the clock, you can read through this essay in the same way, substituting the new world for space. It's all the same.

My fear for our species is that 1) we get exactly what we want, ie, we create AGI that caters to our every whim, thereby making our entire species superfluous, and 2) if we don't do that, we argue our way out of exploration and adventure and into introspection and conflict. Who knows, maybe we do both.

I wish this had been a better essay.


Getting to mars and colonizing there seems like an awful life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqKGREZs6-w


Depends on what you see the point of life as.

I'd agree it would not be a luxurious life. Luxuries and comforts will be scarce, work will be extensive, and there will almost certainly be extremely high mortality rates relative to Earth. And I am willing to pay an extremely large price to be one of the first to go!

Because in exchange for all of this you get to experience things nobody else has ever experienced, or ever will be able to experience in the same way. You get to play a part in creating a society that will likely exist for so long as humanity itself continues to exist. You will also get to challenge yourself in ways - physically, mentally, and psychologically - that you'd never imagined possible. Perhaps the biggest benefit of all is that the selection bias is going to lead to one hell of an interesting group of people in this society. My wife is afflicted of the same apparent insanity as myself, so this sounds like a pretty great life from a different perspective.


The first several waves of offworld colonists will get something that most of humanity hasn’t had in a very long time: the power to make a discernible mark on history and to have a clean cut and indisputable sense of value. For several decades, colonies will welcome every pair of hands they can get because there’s so much work to be done, and each role is critically important in keeping the colony running. Everyone from janitor to head colony manager will feel equally needed.


it is a question whether it is attractive enough after the novelty. People went to the moon once, twice, a few times and then meh, they 've lost interest to even build a habitat there. A colony will have to be actually attractive for people to go there. The bulk of settlers in america for example did not end up there for the thrill of exploration.

I think mars will be similar to Luna: a few exploratory human missions and then silence for many decades, until terraforming technology has become commodity.


"People" didn't go to the moon, the US government went to the moon. And they were primarily driven by the motivation of military development and the growth of soft power. After the landing on the moon there was unprecedented public support for further expansion. Aside from the general public the astronauts themselves, practically all of academia, and even people such as Wernher von Braun, the chief architect of the Apollo program had expressed not only desire by technical capability and ideas of how we could get to Mars.

But the wills of the people and the wills of government often conflict. And government generally wins. As the military and soft power tasks had been effectively achieved, government interest in space rapidly waned. There were also extremely petty reasons. Nixon, in part, also did not want to drive what he felt was JFK's legacy, and instead aimed to create his own; something he certainly achieved. There's a great writeup on his views and decisions regarding space and NASA here [1]. He is one of the biggest reasons that space died, though it must be said that any president following him (with a compatible congress) could have just as easily resuscitated it as he killed it. Trump reportedly was willing to offer NASA an 'unlimited' budget if they could get a human on Mars before the end of his first term. Something that's unfortunately almost certainly technically impossible given the state of our dilapidated space program (relative to where it could be today).

The point of this all is that the 21st century will be the first time the people go to space, let alone to another celestial body. And there's no reason to expect we'll turn back. The nice thing about a capitalist system is that so long as the money is there, things will happen. You can look at society as a venn diagram between money and desires for space. There's far more than enough of an overlap there to sustain space indefinitely even without the incredible wealth of certain players such as Bezos.

[1] - http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/jason-callahan/20...


American colonization, people often living in makeshift cabins of wood and toiling for subsistence, was happening at the same time that the Renaissance Period was in full swing in mainland Europe! People did not come to America because it was comfortable or attractive in normal ways. Far from it, for many centuries there was new disease, hostile natives, and a severe lack of many of the comforts of 'civilized' life. But it offered lots of other things aside from comfort:

- Freedom of expression without governmental control. At the time this was primarily related to religion, but expression was and is valuable in and of itself.

- The ability to potentially create new social and political systems. Many government systems are driven by inertia, not merit. New lands offers opportunity for improvement. This needn't mean colonization level, but even simple individual autonomy which gets into the next point.

- Simply seeking a plot of land for oneself. Throughout Europe feudal governments claimed all land and then nepotistically allocated it. Things such as hunting could face severe consequences if not state approved. Even farming generally required entailed you giving nearly all your production away to the state.

- Many were poor people looking to try to find some mixture of the above and more generally to start a new life. They generally made their way to the new land through contracts of indentured servitude. They'd work for 'x' years in exchange for their passage and eventual freedom.

And so on. The US constitution is a distinct reminders of the motivations of colonization. We were designed to be a country with a weak central government and strong, effectively independent, state governments. Think about the first five amendments of the constitution: You have free speech, you can gather and bear arms, you don't have to let soldiers into your home, the government can't search you without reason, the government can't force you to speak in court if you feel it is not in your interest. This amendments all speak very strongly to the nature and ethos of those that were coming to the new world.

And while the exact details are quite different, I expect we'll see a similar ethos driving people to new planets. Eventually people will come to take Mars' selfies, go on a tour group to Olympus Mons, and of course to have some 0.3g sex. But that time won't be for a very long time to come. The colonies won't be anywhere near ready for that for decades, and even the technology for such stuff is still far off. Planetary alignment means there is a very short window for transiting between the planets. With current and near future tech going to Mars is a 2 year trip minimum. Those seeking novelty will likely need to look elsewhere for quite some time. I think Moon tourism certainly has some potential for these sort of pursuits. Andy Weir already coined it our most latter appeal above -- 'Moon Poon'.


> To put it differently: If conflict were to break out in some region of the universe, could the relevant governing authorities respond soon enough for it to matter, for it to make a difference?

Surely the relevant governing authorities in this case would be local - each planet or station analogous to a country rather than a region? It wouldn't make sense to try to "govern" from light years away.


This is idiotic. It's a rehash of a very old argument that one shouldn't have children because eventually your descendants will fight on opposite sides of a war. He's just replaced "country" with "species".


I don't see how this is idiotic or even a rehash of that argument. The author is simply saying proceed with caution, not that one should not proceed.

The last paragraph summarizes the intention of the article:

> The lesson of this argument is not to uncritically assume that venturing into the heavens will necessarily make us safer or more existentially secure. This is a point that organizations hoping to colonize Mars, such as SpaceX, NASA, and Mars One should seriously contemplate. How can humanity migrate to another planet without bringing our problems with us? And how can different species that spread throughout the cosmos maintain peace when sufficient mutual trust is unattainable and advanced weaponry could destroy entire civilizations?

> Human beings have made many catastrophically bad decisions in the past. Some of these outcomes could have been avoided if only the decision-makers had deliberated a bit more about what could go wrong—i.e., had done a “premortem” analysis. We are in that privileged position right now with respect to space colonization. Let’s not dive head-first into waters that turn out to be shallow.


The last phrases of the article sound like we didn't think long ages already about colonizing space.

We're thinking about it from times immemorial, and last century we think about it too, taking into account our latest understanding of possibilities and dangers. One would hopefully think our expansion is limited mostly by our abilities, not by our doubts?


His biggest failure is that he fails to notice that earth itself provides ample different environments to allow for human speciation. It's coming whether we colonize space or not.


Space? ... no. Another planet maybe?


We should think a lot about colonizing space, and plan, and then do it.


> But for many “space expansionists,” escaping Earth is about much more than dodging the bullet of extinction: it’s about realizing astronomical amounts of value by exploiting the universe’s vast resources to create something resembling utopia.

But they literally just quoted the argument from Elon Musk where he says: “there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multiplanetary…to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen.”

This article is an interesting mix of philosophical essentialism (lives outside of a single, united planet would be meaningless and dystopian: "But would these trillions of lives actually be worthwhile? Or would colonization of space lead to a dystopia?" -- requiring that life having meaning before being considered worthy of existence) and fear-mongering (being close-ish to other settlers-diverging-to-species would result in asteroid throwers). It also presumes the outcomes of capitalism are necessarily negative.

Is this some iterated form of Luddite-ism?


I have to say this is not a very well thought out argument. Plus the kinds of arguments he makes about hierarchy, control and the state are extremely authoritarian. It seems to boil down to, we can't enforce a galaxy wide police state, so let's stay here on Earth where we can really keep people under control. There might be lots of reasons not to colonize space but that's not one of them.

Also, if it takes decades or centuries and a huge amount of resources to even travel from one system to another, what reason could there possibly be to send an invasion fleet? The idea is ludicrous. If you can't meaningfully control some other system, doesn't that remove the justification to go to war?


This guy seems to think that the reason people get into wars is because they don't like each other's faces, or something. That's not a reason to risk your life in a violent conflict. The reason wars start is because the king/emperor/CEO or whoever is at the top of the food chain has an interest in expanding their dominion because it makes them richer. That's why wars get started. To think that wars just randomly start because people are crabby or don't have an adult to supervise them- that's the thinking of a child.

But he says right in the article that there's no meaningful way to actually control people in another system! So what would be the reason to go to war?


You can downvote me but it's still true. Wars of conquest are started by princes not peasants.




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