Column: Heading for the stars? (PART TWO)

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
March 11th, 2021

The Third Promised Land: outer spaces and the star-colonizing project      

“We have to colonize Mars to ensure humanity’s seed will survive if something happens on earth, like a nuclearthird world war or asteroid strike that could end human life.”  — Elon Musk, owner, SpaceX

“Elon Musk says he plans to send 1 million people to Mars by 2050 by launching 3 Starship rockets every day and creating ‘a lot of jobs’ on the red planet.”  — headline, Business Insider, January, 2020

“The solar system can support a trillion humans… we do have to go out into the system. …That’s the kind of  future I want for my grandchildren’s grandchildren.”   — Jeff Bezos, owner, Blue Origin

I am simply going to assume, not without cause, that my readership is a typical Canadian audience conversant with the future projected by our scientists, our cultural and political elites, our science-fiction literature: humanity will become capable with our technologies to put homo sapiens on the moon and on our near planetary neighbours, Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, Venus. The solar system is rightfully and naturally ours to inhabit. We will colonize the system. On whatever planet we settle, we will alter the ecology there out of recognition from its original condition.

We will do this in the name of our rights as conscious beings who somehow must survive and expand because we mean something to the universe. Or, if the word “mean” makes you uncomfortable, we can do it, so because we can, it is natural, realistic, scientific. SETI is on the only course possible for a species like ours.

A list of sci-fi books: sampling the flavour of human ambition in space/time

For those who dislike science fiction novels and film, this section might be skipped over. But these novels and films are, for good or ill, the cultural foundation for how we imagine life on Mars and other planets. I am quite sure most readers will know of the Star Trek andStar Wars imaginary landscapes, but the novels I list here are less likely to be known. The common point made by all this fiction is the point of my former section. The human condition is a colonizing, expanding condition.

          The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.

          The Foundation and Empire series, a trilogy and additional volumes, by Isaac Asimov

          Floating Worlds,  by Cecilia Holland.

          Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars,  a trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

          The Expanse, A series of nine novels by James S. A. Corey.

          Thin Air,  by Richard Morgan.

The last three works cited are the best because they are recently published and therefore their authors were more conversant with the time we live in, 2021. I particularly recommend them for how they conceptualize politics on the planet earth when the colonies on Mars are established. The authors seem to fully comprehend that the competition for power among the great nations of earth do not cease when humanity reaches its new planetary colony; the rivalry of the USA, China, Islam, Brazil, and Europe continue, and play out in effects on Mars.

At time of writing this, humans have been very active in sending technological extensions of ourselves to Mars; the USA, China, and the United Arab Emirates [UAE, the fabulously-wealthy oil states of the Persian Gulf, neighbour of the Saudis, Iran, and Israel] — all have sent missions there that are active now. Competition is a word the media try to avoid, but the history of our species is being replicated off our planet, and the states of Earth with the power and wealth to send such missions, will do so, and will carry their political and cultural differences there. America, China, Islam, India, Europe, are at present in the race, and more will likely follow.

There are significant feature films one ought also to see to as part of one’s cultural education in the matter of humanity’s future as a colonizing species in space. They are Avatar and Blade Runner, Aliens [a series of five films] and The Martian.

I personally found the first Alien film brilliant in one small detail. The writer of the story had foreseen, in 1979, that corporations would be sending spaceships to mine distant worlds, when most of  us then believed only government agencies would be in charge of space missions. NASA was known to us all; the writer foresaw the power of private capital in a company like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to take on private missions.

Who sets the questions for the Human Condition? Who has prior “rights”?

“We are hydrogen and helium that has evolved for so long we have begun to ask ourselves, ‘Where did we come from?’ ”   — Jill Tarter, Astronomer, SETI  scientist

What are the rights our species asserts for our claim to land that we take? Who determines what questions we have to answer before we feel at peace with our consciences? Are the questions of religion manifestly inferior to those of science?

What strikes me as I listen to scientists working in the space-exploration industries of human invention is their lacklustre capacity for philosophy  — I mean, for saying something with deep feeling for the immensity of this moment when a terrestrial species is able to leave its home planet and put the species on another.

I have used some quotes from Bezos, Sagan, Musk and Asimov as epigraphs for this column. The sentiments are bland and lack a sense of history, a sense that we have to ask harder questions about our right to the solar system, to the galaxy, that we intend to claim. Yet these men are supposed to be worth listening to.

SETI is trying to find extraterrestrial intelligence, with the best tools humans have. We have not yet. Jill Tarter at SETI talks about why that might be. We may not have found an e.t. sign because we do not know what to look for, other than what our kind of intelligence produces.

There may evidence but we have only studied one tiny sample of information from the universe;  in its immensity, the universe is a space as big as earth’s oceans relative to a teacup.

We might never find the e.t. civilizations that have existed because, before we find them, they have already become extinct. They rose to a peak of power but then failed to survive the challenge of that power, and have ruined their home planet, and disappeared. This is one hypothesis for why SETI cannot find other intelligence.

If there are no other intelligent life forms and no other civilizations out there in the universe, despite strong mathematical evidence in probability theory – the Fermi Paradox — that  supports the existence of thousands of such star civilizations, what does that signify for our species? What does it mean, if we are alone?

Jill Tarter was asked this. Her reply was to me pretty unimpressive. “Then, every human on earth, every one of us, must be aware of the responsibility humans have, as the only intelligent life. Each of us, wherever we are on earth, share the responsibility to ensure that human life will continue because we are the only ones here.” Well, Dr. Tarter, do you know the record of our species? Who is this “we” you believe in? Is there really, and realistically, one voice to speak for humanity as it now acts and conducts itself and its common affairs upon our common home planet? If not, stop using that pronoun “we”.

It is one of the great qualities of the Tao Teh Ching that the pronouns used in its scant 5,000 Chinese characters are I, they, and it, but never you or we. “It” when used in the text refers to the Tao most often, and the Tao is not God — and not anything like Gods in religious teachings. This classic Chinese teaching nowhere assumes it can refer to humans as “we.” There are “the people” and various powerful types among them such as nobles or the emperor, but the writer never presumes to speak for humanity. I think this is a sign of a very penetrating intelligence in the teaching. The “person of Tao” or “wise soul” is described, but hard to grasp.

And, if you read chapter 80, you will see that the mind(s) behind this book has absolutely no respect for expanding human dominion. Rather, the writer is always inclined to making humans less-sophisticated and less-numerous. The text was compiled at a dark time in China, a time of many wars; that chaos is its origin.

The Tao offers the imagery of water as a kind of model for human behaviour that will bring peace to the soul. Water is soft and yielding, conforms to whatever shape it flows into, always finds its way to the lowest places, not the high – and water benefits all. It overcomes the hardest stone, in time. Water is a model of how Tao operates. Without water on Mars, or the means to make it, colonies are doomed.

Conclusions: hoorah for us? The dismal side of critical judgement

“Wow. We have come such a long way. Our technlogy is so awesome… Yay human race! Thumbs up, human race!”   — DJ on Castlegar radio, Feb. 21/20, referencing NASA on Mars

“When I was in middle school and watchin Star Trek, I imagined we were moving closer toward the show’s version of the future: egalitarian, democratic, creative. Now when I watch the show, I vacillate between hope and escapism. I want to believe that “Star Trek” is predictive of how things will turn out for humanity. I want us to wander the universe … I hope we will find our way to peace. But if that’s not what the future holds, if it’s more war and injustice and greed that we’re headed for then all I want is to watch Captain Picard hold court on the bridge one more time.”    — Patrick Stewart, who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek

The history humans have made thus far, featuring war and greed and injustice as Patrick Stewart says in the quote above, seems to predict the future better than the utopian galaxies in Captain Kirk’s imaginary scenario.

As Kokanee salmon lay millions of eggs so that mere hundreds of fully-grown adult fish return to spawn annually, humans produce a plethora of individuals on our planet so that a minority flourish – that is one way to interpret the imbalance between the lives of the few in the wealthiest nations of earth and the lives of the many elsewhere (saying nothing about the miserable people living in those wealthy nations who never rise to the social-class level of the educated, profitably-employed few.) No one I have ever heard or read understands this imbalance that history has bequeathed to us; The Wheel of Fortune, the karmic theory, etc. all attempt to do so.

I can clearly recall, though I cannot find the source, reading that Patrick Stewart unequivocally declared himself opposed to the vast economic and material cost of sending humans to another planet while on this planet there are so many hundreds of millions of people living lives stunted by lack of access to some of the basics of life. The injustice he describes is simply the same one that already exists between the kind of lives some tens of millions of people enjoy in the most-advanced rich economies and democracies of Earth and the hundreds of millions who do not.

I live among the former, privileged and advantaged Canadian middle-class citizens, beyond understanding why the world I was born is so arranged.

Some humans get to Mars. Human DNA survives because we do, and that is the objective, scientific statement, requiring no other observation, and certainly no moral judgement. I want more, but there is no more. Thinking about human life on other planets is not something I have to do, there is plenty to think about for the humans I know on this one. That is likely true for my readers.

The crux of this essay’s concern is simple. I ponder the injustice of a few of the greatest powers on earth, governments, individuals, corporations, and whomever they choose to employ in the space-colonization project, leaving so many behind, and on a planet plundered by our capitalist economic structures that build the materials for the project. It is impossible to apply a standard of justice to the question, is it not? It is not just, but it is reality, and seems to be the future.

Once again, Shakespeare has the apt phrase: “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”

This conclusion is not what I want to write. But I am not going to use the default way out, the “solution” to leaving readers depressed that I see in all the writing on political, economic, social and environmental issues in the magazines and newspapers I most often read. I mean, I am not going to write a paragraph full of exhortations for “us” to do this or that, and what “we” must do to improve whatever condition is under study.

I address myself to individuals, and I offer no advice. You’re wise enough to find your own answers to the challenges of your particular life, I trust.

Wisdom alone is not enough; you and I know that too. Not good intention, not prayer, not intangibles of any sort. Acting, behaving, is what will make your life feel … however it feels to you. It works for me. That is the best I can offer. After all, I am an historian, not the Dalai Lama or the Pope, who are supposed to guide you.

So, all else failing me, I will end with a quote from the Dalai Lama:

“Spirituality is water, religion is tea. Tea is stimulating and tasty, yes. You can live without tea, but you cannot live without water.”

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