If we are to believe certain narrow-minded people — and what else can we call them? — humanity is confined within a circle of Popilius from which there is no escape, condemned to vegetate upon this globe, never able to venture into interplanetary space! That’s not so! We are going to the moon, we shall go to the planets, we shall travel to the stars just as today we go from Liverpool to New York, easily, rapidly, surely, and the oceans of space will be crossed like the seas of the moon.
— Jules Verne, ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (1865 – Walter James Miller translation, 1978).
It is the year 2150. The Moon harbors a settlement of approximately 50,000 people, mostly comprised by miners and workers, employed by the big lunar mining and solar power consortiums. They are responsible for providing for the energy sources that sustain all the colonies throughout the Earth-Moon system, and a big part of the Home Planet as well. But it’s not only business on the Moon, for a big part of the lunar population is just there for pleasure. The cislunar transportation networks are always filled with a steady stream of tourists, regularly visiting their private properties and other recreation facilities on the Moon. When someone feels the need to just relax and escape the everyday routine of life on Earth, the sight of the Blue Marble over the grey lunar regolith in Armstrong City is one of his first choices—and one of the most cherished tourist destinations in the inner Solar System. And those travelers are always welcome there, because they have always been a major source of income for the lunar economy.
Many space advocates would argue that the prosperous future depicted above, although frustratingly delayed, is ultimately inevitable. And they have maintained for decades that the reason for any lack of progress toward realising that future has mostly been due to the lack of adequate funding and subsequent political will. But it may be that funding doesn’t even make for half the reasons for such lack of progress.
Forty five years ago this month, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon, during an epic mission that fulfilled a centuries-old dream. One of the lasting legacies of this mission (and possibly of the whole Space Age) is the iconic “Earthrise” photograph of our Home Planet, seen by human eyes from the Moon for the first time. This sight helped to create a paradigm shift within humanity’s collective conscience, bringing home the reality of our place in the Universe more than anything else before it. It also helped to give a tremendous boost to the environmental movement that recognised the importance of environmental conservation and caring for Earth’s biodiversity while seeking the balance between growth and care for the environment—an important and necessary realisation for any maturing civilisation interested in its long-term survival.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, environmentalism is described as “an advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment; especially : the movement to control pollution.” As a contemporary movement in the U.S., environmentalism was heavily influenced during the 1960s by two best-selling books: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul and Ann Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.” Although later heavily criticized for their blatant inaccuracies, exaggerations, overt fear-mongering, and apocalyptic predictions that were ultimately proved wrong, both books had a large impact among the general public and government policy at the time, and still do to this day. Ehrlich’s book, in particular, could be viewed as a repetition of scholar Thomas Malthus‘ 18th-century apocalyptic visions of global starvation, hunger, and environmental catastrophe by exponential population growth.
A side-effect of the impact that those books had in society and public policy was the resurrection and advancement of Malthus’ ideas, which have gained much popularity and acceptance within the academic community, government, and the general public alike. Ideas that have created a mindset that more or less sees humanity as a virus, a disease that threatens the existence of the whole Earth’s biosphere and the rest of the Solar System as well, if it was left to expand beyond this planet. “According to this idea, humans are a cancer upon the Earth, a horde of vermin, whose unconstrained aspirations and appetites are endangering the natural order,” writes Robert Zubrin in his book “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.” “This is the core idea of anti-humanism. One does not provide liberty to vermin. One does not seek to advance the cause of a cancer.”
Making such an assertion today would surely raise quite a few eyebrows. After all, who would want to honestly not care for the well-being of Earth and its environment? And since human activities are harmful to the environment, shouldn’t such activities be restrained? But this question just misses the point. For the point is not to be uncaring for the Earth, but to find the right balance so that we don’t impede and stop human progress in the process.
“Anti-humanism is not environmentalism, though it sometimes masquerades as such,” writes Zubrin. “Environmentalism properly conceived, is an effort to apply practical solutions to real environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, for the purpose of making the world a better place for all humans to thrive in. Anti-humanism in contrast, rejects the goal of advancing the cause of mankind. Rather it uses instances of inadvertent human damage to the environment as points of agitation, to promote its fundamental thesis that human beings are pathogens, whose activities need to be suppressed in order to protect a fixed ecological order, with interests that stand above those of humanity.” And this “human virus’ philosophy” has major consequences on the efforts of advancing a space-faring civilisation as well.
It is not uncommon nowadays for space advocates to promote their visions of space settlement, and have them receive a mild hostility from the general public. Why would we want to pollute and infect the rest of the Universe with our presence? Haven’t we made enough damage to the Earth already? These are counter-arguments so often used by people who oppose the idea of humanity’s expansion out in the Cosmos. For someone accepting that humanity is inherently bad for the Earth and the rest of the Universe, the space program represents a threat to the preservation of that environment. The lack of progress toward advancing a space-faring civilisation hasn’t been caused primarily by lack of adequate funding. Global wealth is sufficient enough to allow us to care for the well-being of the Earth and its citizens, while allowing for an ambitious space program at the same time. A program that could ultimately lead to humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, an endeavour that would provide even more unimaginable benefits in return. Lack of funding has always been used as a marvelous excuse for hiding deeper ideological and emotional oppositions toward human space exploration and settlement. Fear of space itself, coupled with hysteria over the possibility of polluting it with our presence, are some of those reasons. If those deeper reasons aren’t addressed, we’ll continue to be Earth-bound, constantly dreaming of the stars but never actually getting there.
We could begin then by examining the idea of the “human virus.” Is it a legitimate one? Let’s think about it for a while.
One could start by asking, what is a virus? According to the Farlex free online dictionary, a virus is “any of various simple submicroscopic parasites of plants, animals, and bacteria that often cause disease and that consist essentially of a core of RNA or DNA surrounded by a protein coat. Unable to replicate without a host cell, viruses are typically not considered living organisms.” The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives a somewhat different definition: “An extremely small living thing, that causes a disease and that spreads from one person or animal to another.” After establishing a definition of what a virus is, we could then examine if this definition applies to the human species.
Homo sapiens has the ability to reproduce without the need to attach himself to an external host organism. The very act of reproduction doesn’t spread any particular disease that threatens the rest of the biosphere. If indeed that was the case, Homo sapiens would have been fatal to the Earth since the appearance of its first hominid ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. A virus, on the other hand, doesn’t have the ability to choose whether to infect a living cell or not. Its very nature demands that it does so, or else it perishes. It is genetically programmed to act this way.
No one could argue that human activity on this planet hasn’t been disastrous to the environment. But these disastrous effects have come by conscious choice and neglect, not because humanity’s nature is infectious and disastrous per se. But claiming that human kind is a disease that should be controlled omits the fact that Homo sapiens, in contrast to all the other animals on Earth, can choose and change behavior and destiny, for better or for worse, and that nothing is predetermined, genetically or otherwise.
Billions of years ago, life first began in the Earth’s seas. Under the guidance of evolution and natural selection, those first marine organisms later colonised the land. It was one of life’s major evolutionary steps, for it helped to create a much bigger biodiversity than could have ever been possible before. As a human species, we owe our very existence today to that great evolutionary step. Did sea life pollute the Earth’s pristine environments by expanding on the land? Should they have been kept confined in their own sea environment so that the Earth could be kept “clean”? Was it unethical on their part to come out of the sea? For that reason, was it unethical for the first human species to come out of the African savannas and colonise the rest of the land?
The very nature of life itself is to expand and colonise new places and new territories. When it doesn’t and is kept stagnant and idle, life ultimately perishes.
Yet, the thinking that humanity is just a pollutant to the environment suggests that it should be kept off-limits from the rest of the Universe as well. And this thinking is shared among many, even within academia. In a recently published book called “Encountering Life in the Universe: Ethical Foundations and Social Implications of Astrobiology,” authors Chris Impey, Anna H. Spitz, and William Stoeger explore the ethical issues of humans interacting with extraterrestrial life. Dr. Woody Sullivan, an astronomy professor of the University of Washington and one of the contributors to the book’s subject, advocates that humanity should be totally banned from the rest of the Solar System, in the interests of preserving all the pristine extraterrestrial environments and their possible habitats. He proposes an Antarctic Treaty equivalent that bans extensive human habitation of the Solar System. “The Solar System is our last great wilderness,” he argues. “We must begin now, to act to keep it untrammeled by human action.”
If that thinking prevails and finds its way into public policy, it could mean humanity’s indefinite confinement on Earth. Debates over the value of public versus private space programs that are so prevalent today won’t matter either. It would be bad news for all the emerging private companies as well that wish to mine asteroids and other planetary bodies for their precious resources. ‘There is the view that it’s just unethical to destroy another celestial body … but then [people] also question if it is right for a profit-making company to make massive profits from [mining planetary bodies], says Dr. Alice Gorman, a researcher in the field of space archaeology at Flinders University, Australia.
We’re far from the future depicted in the beginning of this article. But at some point in the (hopefully not too distant) future, when the technology has sufficiently advanced, we will be forced to consider if this vision of space settlement is something we will want to pursue. And the most deciding factor might not be financial cost, political will, or funding, rather it will be the way we view ourselves: Will we see us as something positive, to be cherished and expanded into the rest of the Cosmos, or as something negative, a deadly disease that deserves to be controlled and ultimately wiped out? “There was a time when humanity looked in the mirror and saw something precious, worth protecting and fighting for, indeed, worth liberating,” comments Zubrin.
As a species, the answer to the question of how we view ourselves in regard to the rest of the Universe might ultimately be the most important decision we will ever make.
The opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of AmericaSpace.
The author would like to extend his best wishes for the New Year to all the readers of AmericaSpace.