Ep 01: Why Are We Going?

Welcome to the first episode of Making New Worlds: Why Are We Going? Examining our motivations for settling space.

We talk to historian Donna Gabaccia about the historical reasons for human migration on the Earth. Sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos weighs in on the harmful effects of colonialism when planning a space settlement. Sci-fi author and scientist Darcie Little Badger and her partner, veterinarian and sci-fi fan T Hueston, provide their perspectives on space settlement as Indigenous people.

The transcript of the episode is below.

This is Making New Worlds.

Imagine this: It’s the future. Maybe decades away, maybe centuries. The first spaceship full of interplanetary settlers from Earth is about to reach its new home. They’ll touch down on the surface and open the next chapter in the history books. The decisions they make now will affect this new society for generations to come. Will they create a utopia? A dictatorship? Will their choices lead to rebellion, war, inequality, human suffering? Will they create an enduring legacy, or will the whole thing just collapse within a generation? Now imagine that you are one of these settlers. What choices will you make?

Welcome to Making New Worlds. I’m Erika Nesvold. I’m an astronomer and huge supporter of human settlements in space. But I’ve noticed that a lot of the people talking about the new societies they’ll create on Mars or the Moon don’t seem to be thinking about some of the thornier issues that might come up. It seems like a lot of the problems that plague us on Earth: inequality, immigration, bioethics, are just as likely to be problems in space. So I decided to make this podcast as a conversation starter, to encourage people to talk about these issues now, at the very start of the space settlement era. I’ll be talking with scientists, historians, sociologists, activists, futurists, and other space settlement enthusiasts like me, and I hope you’ll join the conversation, too.

Throughout the podcast, I’ll be asking you to imagine yourself as a settler on another planet, as you struggle with the complexities of participating in a new civilization. If you’re anything like me, you may have some experience with this little daydream.

So, picture yourself in your new life: bouncing around on the Moon in your spacesuit, or strolling through an underground Martian city. Can you see it? Okay, now let’s rewind. Before you land on your new home, before you even leave Earth, I have an important question for you: Why are you doing this?

For most of this podcast, I want to avoid talking about whether we *should* settle space. For now, I’m going to assume it’s inevitable that humanity will eventually migrate beyond the Earth, and instead, I’ll try to discuss how we can make that migration just and fair to everyone. But our reasons for migrating to space will have a big impact on the choices we make there, so let’s think about what those different reasons might be.

To predict future behavior, it often helps to look to the past. So I talked to a historian who studies the history of human migration.

Donna Gabaccia: “My name is Donna Gabaccia, I’m a professor of history at the University of Toronto. I’m a specialist on the history of international migration.”

So I asked Donna why, historically, people have migrated from place to place on the Earth.

Donna Gabaccia: “Oh. Oh, my goodness. Humans have had so many different motivations for migration.”

Donna Gabaccia: “There’s almost always an element of curiosity and adventure, but frequently the earliest humans were likely to have motivated in response to changes in climate and environment that threatened their food supply. They may have, we believe, migrated when they out-reproduced their food supply. And their human groups, which were based on families or wider, more extended notions of kinship, became too large for the ecological niche in which the had settled. In which case, family groups split, and especially younger members then moved to the margins, often into new ecosystems and new ecological niches that required adaptation.”

So one really common reason for migration is the pursuit of new resources. You outgrow your current environment, so some of you move on to a new one. That’s certainly a possible motivation for migrating to space, and it comes up a lot in science fiction. Take the opening narration of the TV show Firefly, for example:

Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion): “Here’s how it is: Earth got used up, so we terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths.”

Our current rate of population growth is likely unsustainable, plus we have the added pressure of climate change that will decrease the amount of food we can produce to feed all those people. But others have pushed back against this idea a bit, pointing out that we should be careful not to plan on just hopping around from planet to planet, using them up and then moving on to the next one.

Zuleyka Zevallos: “And there is something profoundly unethical about the idea that we just discard our planet after we’ve done so much damage and then go without having learnt anything and think that we’re going to overcome the problems we weren’t willing to do on our own planet.”

That’s Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, an applied sociologist with Swinburne University in Australia. Her research specialties include race, gender, and intersectionality, and she has a lot of experience running programs that work to increase diversity in science.

Zuleyka Zevallos: “So there’s a lot of problems in these discussions that really stem from the fact that many people who are enthusiastic about colonizing other planets don’t understand the history, they aren’t willing to do the work to fix the systems that they are already a part of here.”

In other words, if we don’t take a careful look at all the ways we’ve screwed up on Earth, both in terms of the environment and the way our society works, what’s to stop us from just screwing up the next planet we land on?

Setting aside the potential for a long, slow extinction due to starvation and overpopulation, there’s always the possibility that something else will take us out first. An asteroid impact, for example, or a nuclear war. Or a lethal pandemic. Or a gamma-ray burst. Or — you know what? Let’s not dwell on this. There are plenty of ways to wipe out the human race, many of which will probably occur to you as you’re trying to fall asleep tonight. Sorry about that. But most of these extinction-level events are only extinction-level because the entire human population lives on one planet. All our eggs are in one basket. So if we spread ourselves around a bit, establishing independent populations on as many different worlds as possible, we increase our chances of surviving in the long term.

This is the motivation for space settlement that you tend to hear from the biggest names in space technology right now. Charlie Bolden, for example, the astronaut and former administrator of NASA, gave a speech at the Humans 2 Mars Summit in 2014 where he said:

Charlie Bolden: “If this species is to survive indefinitely, we need to become a multi-planet species.”

Then there’s Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, who has repeatedly said that he wants to help make humans a multi-planet species. The Lifeboat Foundation, a nonprofit group with the ambitious goal of protecting the human race from threats to our existence, has started designing “self-sustaining space colonies in case… other defensive strategies fail.”

Given that there are so many people working on this kind of lifeboat-for-the-human-species, there’s a possibility that by the time an Earth-threatening disaster comes around, humanity will have already established self-sufficient colonies in space. In that case, the evacuation of refugees from Earth would run into a lot of the same problems faced by refugees on Earth today: How do you peacefully integrate into the societies that you’re fleeing to? I asked historian Donna Gabaccia about this possibility.

Donna Gabaccia: “It’s perfectly easy for me to imagine, and you see this in today’s world, a real sense of distance and differentiation between the people who are suffering the crisis back there on Earth and the ones sitting pretty, presumably, on their distant planet. It’s very easy for me to imagine the folks on the distant planet saying, “Gosh, those humans on Earth, they just cannot solve their political problems. And why should I solve their problems for them? Why should I send them a ship to bring them to my place? What have they done to deserve that?” And it’s perfectly possible for me to imagine, and again, I’m an historian, I deal with the past, not the future, but given the way refugee resettlements have worked in the past, it’s been more typical that wealthy societies just say, “Not my problem.””

Donna pointed to several examples from our recent history and today where humans had this exact reaction to incoming refugees.

Donna Gabaccia: “We know that there were millions upon millions of refugees in Europe after World War II, and we know that a very few nations agreed to admit the smaller number of them. At the same time, just after World War II, there were probably as many, if not more, refugees in China, in the aftermath of the war in Asia. And not a single one of those refugees were settled to the Western– the wealthy nations of the West. And so, even if we take that historical precedent, one almost always finds, in the case of refugee crises, what we see today in the Mediterranean, or with the fleeing of Rohingya from Myanmar. Right? A great deal of resistance, an effort to enclose refugees flowing in– escaping from one place, in a kind of an in-between space, which is how refugee camps organized by the United Nations function. So, if I were to project that into the future, what I would see is large numbers of refugees trying to get on whatever transportation is being provided by the wealth and comfortable interplanetary humans out there, and the remainder dying. Or, alternatively, the creation of, you know, an asteroid in between, and, “Well, you guys are going to stay there, because we can’t take all of you at once. We’ll try to feed you and house you, but you’ll have to stay there until we’re ready to relocate some of you.””

Donna pointed out that when conditions in refugee camps get intolerable, or when people are stuck in these camps for years, people just strike out on their own, risking their lives to attempt to reach safer countries illegally. That’s dangerous enough now, when you’re trying to cross the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat, or walking across deserts or mountains with no supplies or guides. It would be downright impossible if you were stuck on some kind of asteroid refugee camp. You can’t just strike out on your own across empty space.

But let’s set aside the idea of migrating to space as a way to avoid the extinction of the human race. What other motivations might we have? One common theme I see in a lot of discussions of space settlement is the attempt to draw a parallel with the American frontier in the 19th century. Star Trek, for example, was originally pitched as a “Wagon Train to the stars,” a reference to the incredibly popular Western in the 1960s called Wagon Train. A lot of the Americans in the 19th century who moved to the frontier and settled the west believed that it was their God-given destiny to expand across the country. This idea of “manifest destiny” was really pervasive, and still exists in our culture today. I’ve seen plenty of people use the same argument about space, that it is humanity’s manifest destiny to settle space. I see at least one big problem with this argument, though. The settlement of North America by European settlers screwed over a lot of people. And by screwed over, I mean straight-up killed, in a lot of cases. Do we really want to start the next phase of human civilization by comparing it to one of the many brutal periods from our past?

I talked to sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos about this, and the idea that even calling the settlement of space “colonization” is, well, icky. That’s my word, not hers. In her words:

Zuleyka Zevallos: “…while I can see why there’s a lot of excitement around the idea of so-called discovering new worlds and thinking about life in other places, I think some of that enthusiasm does come from a lack of awareness about the issues that we’ve faced regarding colonialism in different societies across time. And in fact, a lot of those conversations ignore the current issues that we have about colonization. I think many people who have not been on the receiving end of colonialism don’t understand that colonialization is still happening on Earth as we speak.”

I’ve run into this word, colonialism, a lot in my reading about space colonization and ethics. It really confused me at first because I thought it just referred to the process or history of colonization, but the more I read, the more it sounded like a much more negative concept than I had realized. So I asked Zuleyka to talk a little more about it.

Zuleyka Zevallos: “So, colonialism is a process that is rooted in historical and political processes. It’s really about how various nation-states have been able to enrich themselves through the economic and social control of other countries and other subgroups. And in particular, colonialism is the use of violence and state force as well as ideology that legitimizes taking over the land and resources and cultures of other groups in order to further colonial powers.”

So yeah, we wouldn’t want to repeat the kind of colonization that happened in North America, for example, where the European settlers violently slaughtered and displaced the indigenous populations while founding their own colonies. But wait a minute, on Mars or the Moon, there are no indigenous beings. So what’s the problem?

Zuleyka pointed out that we don’t know for certain that there is no life on Mars, for example, that we might damage with our colonies. This is something I’ll be talking about in more detail in a later episode of the podcast. But Zuleyka also pointed out that colonialism can hurt other groups of people, too, not just the indigenous beings:

Zuleyka Zevallos: “The other aspect is really about the efforts of what it would take for human beings to colonize other lands. And that effort, we know, from history, is one of inherent inequality. The people who finance the colonial efforts are not the people who do the hard work, who will have to build the machines, who will have to, you know, build the structures that would facilitate colonialization. And certainly the people who do that labor, that manual labor, will not be the ones who benefit from any space settlements that might be set up.”

Historian Donna Gabaccia made a similar point, and brought up another motive for settling space: profit.

Donna Gabaccia: “…colonization historically is not associated with free movement but rather with coerced movement. The forcing of millions of slaves across the Atlantic is the most obvious example of that, but many of the people who traveled to labor on the colonies and colonial plantations of the past did so by choosing to sell away their autonomy for periods of time, in exchange for their transportation costs. Are we imagining the colonization of space in a capitalist framework? In which case, profit has to be made and it’s often, historians tell us, the profit motive that encourages the development of unfree forms of labor and unfree forms of migration. And if that accompanies colonization, then of course the settled societies on whatever new planetary worlds they might inhabit are likely to be vastly inegalitarian, I mean, societies with vast inequalities. And even different statuses, for humans of freer and less free migratory status, let’s put it that way. There are the people who organize the movement, the people who make a profit off of it, and then the labor that they seek, which often involves forms of servitude.”

As a white American, I’ve only ever benefited from colonialism, so I reached out to science fiction writer and scientist Darcie Little Badger, who brought along her partner T for an additional perspective.

T Hueston: “So I’m T Hueston, I’m a veterinarian, I live in California right now. I’m half Navajo, I grew up on the reservation until I was about seven. And, my preferred pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘he’.”

Darcie Little Badger: “I’m Darcie Little Badger, I’m Lipan Apache, which is, we’re kind of the sister group to the Navajo, but there are some differences between us—”

T Hueston: “Sometimes quite significant—”

Darcie Little Badger: “Yeah, significant differences, which is why it’s always dangerous to lump all the Native groups together from this continent, but. I actually have a Ph.D. in oceanography from Texas A&M and a Bachelor’s degree in geoscience from Princeton University. And I’m also a writer of, right now, mostly short speculative fiction and comic books.… My preferred pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘her’.”

I asked Darcie and T what they thought about this “manifest destiny” motivation for settling space. Darcie pointed out something that I hadn’t considered:

Darcie Little Badger: “Just looking at the history of the way that science fiction writers and other people talk about going to Mars and colonizing Mars, there is this very obvious tie they make between the quote-unquote “Martian frontier” and the New World frontier. And to me, the issue I have with that is that Mars doesn’t have any people on it. I mean some people are like, “Well, maybe there is some kind of microbial life there,” but that’s as complex as it’s getting, if we even find that. So there’s no groups of people there, living on Mars that explorers to Mars could steal from, right? So to me, just linking the two together, linking the colonial drive and the colonization of the Americas to traveling to Mars and terraforming or whatever else these science fiction writers are talking about, it kind of suggests that the Indigenous peoples in the North American region almost didn’t exist. And that’s something that I think is problematic because there is an issue with erasure when it comes to talking about the Native peoples of these lands. There’s a tendency to forget that we were here, we had our own civilizations, and we were treated very poorly, dispossessed, murdered, put on reservations. It was genocide. And comparing this land to what is essentially a barren planet doesn’t really recognize that.”

So even in the absence of indigenous life in space that we could potentially harm with our colonization, drawing a parallel between the 19th century American frontier and the barren frontier of space effectively erases an entire group of people from history, people who very much still exist today.

T pointed out some other examples of colonialism in science fiction:

T Hueston: “I used to really enjoy science fiction and I read quite a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was younger. And some of the books are just downright disturbing— with their parallels between the treatment of Native peoples everywhere, not necessarily in the Americas. Like, specifically, Scott Card’s— I think that it was one of the books later on in that series (which is already obviously at this point a problematic series because of other things that he’s done, but) about humans going to this planet that already had indigenous beings that lived there. And they colonized it forcibly, and treated the native creatures terribly. And did awful things, and tried to put them on trial for doing things that were natural to them. It was— I just personally found it really disturbing, probably more than any of the intended audience for this book was probably meant to be disturbed. And even with discussion of space exploration and colonization of places that aren’t, you know, necessarily filled with sentient creatures, for instance, some of the later books of the 2000 Space Odyssey series, they go to Jupiter. And Jupiter has its own lifeforms. And they’re not smart, they’re like these jellyfish things, but they decide to, in order to benefit humanity, they want to light Jupiter on fire and kill all the indigenous alien things. And I just thought, “Wow, that’s really horrifying on multiple levels!” Like, “What?!” And I don’t know, I’m sure people that read that are like, “Hm, that sounds like a sensible thing to do,” but for me, I just found it really awful.”

And there’s another problem with using these very Western, American concepts to motivate our settlement of space: we’re not the only culture on the planet! If we want our settlement of space to be representative of all humankind, we need to make sure we’re incorporating the perspectives of all humankind. For example, I asked Darcie and T whether they could point out any cultural differences between the Lipon Apache and Navajo’s approach to space travel and the non-Indigenous American one.

Darcie Little Badger: “Hm. See that— that’s a full question because I know that even within my tribe, people tend to have different opinions on even their ties to this land, potentially their ties to other land. I do think that we place value in trying to preserve what little land we have… So there is, I think, this feeling of almost— We’re fiercely protective of what little land we do have, that is our ancestral territory. So there seems to be more emphasis on trying to regain that land and to protect that land from continuing development. Also in South Texas, near the Gulf, that region is being affected by some climate change issues. So there’s less of a desire to go find new land and more of a desire for us to save what little land we now can. And that might be something that differs from the greater Western desire to go to Mars and find these new regions, to make territories for people. What do you think, from your perspective?”

T Hueston: “Navajos are a little different than Apaches in some ways… The big difference, I think, is that Apache— most Apache tribes moved around a lot. Navajos are incredibly sedentary, so they actually build houses of mud and wood, that were permanent developments. And if you were born, designated female at birth, from someone who was already a landowner, you would basically stay in that same spot of land, that piece of land would be yours, and you would not move from it in any significant way until you died. And when you died, you would be buried in your mud house. It would be collapsed on you, and then they would build another house not very far away, basically.”

So that’s two examples right there of cultures who might not have the same kinds of motivations to migrate to space, due to their ties to their land here on Earth.

I asked my guests whether they had any suggestions for what space settlement enthusiasts could do now to try to avoid repeating the mistakes from our past. Zuleyka Zevallos pointed to conversations like the one we’re having now.

Zuleyka Zevallos: “I think, you know, that one of the fundamental things that has to happen is for conversations to be happening with the r— between the right groups. So, for the groups that are advocating space exploration, to actually connect with, you know, scientists and community leaders from groups that have a keen understanding of the history and current impacts of colonialism. So that means listening to the leadership and the wisdom and the scientific knowledges that come from from various Indigenous groups, you know, speaking to groups that have experienced enslavement, including various black communities from different parts of the world.”

Darcie Little Badger suggested one way to make sure that space settlement efforts are more diverse, while also working to repair some of the lasting effects of colonialism:

Darcie Little Badger: “I know that these initiatives to go to Mars, there’s a lot of educational opportunities, you know, internships, might even hire young students. And I know a lot of, at least, students from my tribe are starting to get into engineering and computing and other fields like that, so even just giving an opportunity for them to get experience on these projects would be great, in my opinion.”

So these are just some of the reasons that humans might migrate off the Earth and into space. Do you think I’ve missed one? What are your reasons for wanting humanity to settle space? Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com.

You can reach historian Donna Gabaccia on Twitter @drg1949, or check out her recent book with co-author Katharine Donato, called Gender and International Migration, From the Slavery Era to the Global Age. Zuleyka Zevallos is on Twitter @OtherSociology, and Darcie Little Badger is @ShiningComic. You can find a list of Darcie’s work at darcielittlebadger.wordpress.com, and check out T’s Tumblr at jarahamee.tumblr.com.

If you liked this episode and want to help the podcast reach more people, please rate and review it on iTunes. If the podcast gets enough positive ratings and reviews in the first few weeks, it could end up on the iTunes New and Noteworthy list, which would put it in front of a lot of people who otherwise might not hear about it. You can also take the old-fashioned route and just tell all your friends to check out the podcast!

Next week I’ll be talking about how we decide who gets to settle space. Will you have to buy a ticket? Pass a physical? Can you bring your dog? Let’s talk about it next week!

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.