Ep 12: What Do You Think?

What do you think about the space settlement ethics topics we’ve covered in the podcast so far? This episode includes comments and feedback from members of the Making New Worlds audience.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Welcome to Making New Worlds. I’m Erika Nesvold. For the past eleven episodes, I’ve been talking to various experts about the kinds of ethical challenges we might face as we move our civilization into space. But as we’ve heard multiple times on the podcast, space is for everyone, not just the experts and industry leaders. So I asked my listeners and followers for their thoughts on the topics we’ve covered so far. Before I get into the results, I just want to point out that you shouldn’t read too much into the statistics of the responses I got. The polls I conducted on Twitter were extremely unscientific, skewed heavily towards other astronomers and space enthusiasts. But I got some really great answers, and I appreciate everyone who responded.

Let’s start back at the beginning, with Episode 1, where we talked about our motivations for going to space. I ran a Twitter poll asking what our primary motivation should be, and provided three options: one, as a backup to the Earth, in case humanity needs a new home someday; two, as more room for a growing population; and three, because it’s “humanity’s destiny”. That last one was the most popular answer, getting 44% of the votes. There were also some pretty poetic responses pointing out that humankind has a need to explore and expand that goes beyond just survival. A Twitter user by the name @TheClarksTale argued that “People need a frontier… to explore, and have an option to live outside the social confines of most of humanity.” As Twitter user @landingpartyof1 put it, “As far as we know human life remains meaningless. Assuming there is some sort of meaning to be had we aren’t going to find it sitting here. Thus, to space and beyond.”

But there were also some arguments for space as a way to protect not just our species, but the other species on Earth, either by preserving them in space in the event of a catastrophe, or by leaving them a cleaner, less crowded Earth while we go off to explore the stars. As my colleague Eric Dahlstrom put it, we should go to space to “‘green the asteroids’ into a solar system of biodiversity. (Humans are just tools for plants to explore space.)” he said.

And Jeffrey Montes said on Twitter, “These days I think often of the Earth and how precious and unique it is. Space is hopeful in that it might provide the only lasting way to protect Earth.” On our Facebook page, Joshua Rosenthal argued that the lessons we would learn by expanding into space and terraforming other planets could help us reverse some of the damage we’ve caused on Earth. He said, “If we have the technology to terraform otherwise uninhabitable planets making them habitable and earth-like, why would we not apply that same technology to fixing earth? I would argue that our society tends to seek solutions to problems and in this example could build other worlds, but would probably also actively repair our current one with that same technology. This would be practical and economical as well as moral.”

The next question I asked my followers came from Episode 2, which was about how we select who gets to go and settle space. Of the three options I offered in my poll, hardly anyone picked the first option, “whoever can afford the ticket.” The responses were roughly evenly split between the other two answers: either the space agency or corporation like SpaceX should select their passengers, or “whoever wants to should get to go.” You might remember that this last option was suggested by one of my guests for Episode 2, Michael Oman-Reagan, who argued that until we’ve reached the point that anyone who wants to can go live in space, we’re not ready to settle space as a species at all.

A few people suggested a fourth option: some kind of lottery system, or maybe a combination of a rigorous selection for some spots but a lottery for others. I actually really like this idea, myself. There was a lot of discussion about how people should be selected for a spot in the settlement. Physical fitness came up a lot, which made me think back to my guest Jesse Shanahan’s comment that even if you send the absolute healthiest, most able-bodied people to live in space, eventually, as generations pass, you’ll have disabled people living in space, too. So maybe the better choice is to plan to make space as accessible as possible.

People also talked about the non-physical qualities that would be required for selection as a space settler. On our Facebook page, Nick Krewson envisioned selection based on expertise, in several stages. He said, “First, engineers and biologists to build a basic, sustainable infrastructure. Next scientists and resource support personnel to build on that infrastructure. Finally, poets, dog walkers, and IT Directors?”

But on Twitter, the conversation centered around temperament. Harshita Gupta said we should send “People most likely to survive there AND not start a war on the planet. Basically really smart people.” And user @EliteYacob suggested “Extensive testing to determine individual personality traits and goals. Willingness to work and cooperate is important too. Selfishness and self centered personalities would lead to the same problems we have here. Also can’t have people who can’t accept being wrong. Hubris sucks.”

I think there are a few problems with screening people based on personality, although psychological testing is part of the NASA astronaut selection process now. For one thing, while we have some idea of what kind of temperament performs well in a dangerous, mission-based environment like space, I’m not sure we know as much about what kind of person would do well building a new community far from home. We can’t even agree on what a community should look like: how it should be structured and run, how it should interact with other communities. Not to mention, you probably need lots of different personality types to form a strong community.

Let’s move on to my next poll, which came from Episode 3, on property rights. I asked my followers to imagine living in a space settlement, then asked: “Who owns the land you’re living on?” This one was a landslide: 70% of the responses said it should be communal property, while only 20% imagined that they would have bought the land they lived on in space. User @landingpartyof1 suggested private ownership, but in a system where the land is distributed to owners, not bought: “Original settlers get X amount of personal space with governmental provisions to update policy as more and more arrive.”

Speaking of money, my question from Episode 4 had to do with economics: How do you acquire goods and services in a space environment? This answer surprised me a bit, although it shouldn’t have after the property rights poll. 50% of voters said “Everything should be shared”, while 27% voted for a barter system, and only 9% went with a capitalist system.

A few people pointed out that the answer depended on things like the size and age of the space settlement in question. David Wilson pointed out “there may be different answers for settlements just starting out with very limited resources, thriving self-sufficient settlements, and those somewhere in between.” And Joseph A’Hearn said “For a small enough settlement, people can share everything, but I don’t think it would work for groups of, say, over 5,000 people.”

One of my listeners from Ireland, Connor Hogan, reached out on Facebook to send me a link to his undergrad thesis on ethics in space exploration, titled, “Private Production and the Future of Human Space Exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit: A Practical and Ethical Critique”. In it, Connor talks about the challenges of labor rights in a capitalist space economy. He suggests that “we need a new approach that emphasises communal ownership (i.e. “whoever lives on the spaceship owns the spaceship”, or has a stake as it were), and a global forum/think-tank to approach these issues democratically with this in mind.”

Episode 5 was about crime and punishment in space. When I asked what a space settlement should do with a citizen who’s broken the law, only 10% of people chose “prison”. As my colleague J.L. Galache put it, “Space prison is a luxury we can’t afford in early space settlements. It also doesn’t work especially well on Earth, so we should learn from experience, no?”

The other options I offered were more popular. 24% of voters selected “send the person back to Earth,” while 43% chose “loss of privileges”. User @cdkharris suggested “Restorative justice + loss of privilege for repeats. If theft or destruction of resources, how can they be repaired or replaced? If someone was hurt, how can they be made whole?” I really liked this answer, and it reminded me of the great discussion I had with my guests in Episode 5 about transformative justice.

My next poll was a yes-or-no question, from Episode 6: Do you think war in space is inevitable? The votes were exactly split down the middle. And the responses pointed out that this question can be asked about our future in general, not just in space. As Laura Montgomery put it, “I don’t think space will magically make us better people, so if someone figures a need and a method, there could be war.”

Listener Kyle Foster also wrote in via email about Episode 6. Remember that one of the things my guests discussed in this episode was the possibility that international conflicts here on Earth could extend outwards to include those nations’ settlements in space. Kyle pointed to two contrasting examples of this scenario in classic science fiction: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, in which, as Kyle puts it, Mars colonists “return to Earth upon the occasion of a colossal war.” On the other hand, in the movie adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s “2010”, the threat of war on Earth briefly divides the protagonists, but eventually they buck orders and rejoin forces. Kyle wrote that the reaction of the characters in “2010” felt more plausible to him, and asked “to what extent would conflict on a home planet actually induce conflict in a colony? Is the leash really that long, that taut?”

Episode 7 was all about reproductive rights and challenges in space. I asked my Twitter followers how they thought a space settlement with limited resources should control its population size. 40% of voters said the settlement shouldn’t attempt any official population control, while 30% favored some kind of limit in the number of children allowed for each adult, and 10% chose a lottery for having kids.

Episode 8 was on terraforming and conservation. I asked whether we should be concerned with environmental conservation as we move out into space, assuming that we don’t find any life there. 58% of the voters said we should preserve historical sites, so I’ll just point out to those voters that For All Moonkind is working to do just that on the Moon. 25% said we should focus primarily on conserving resources, and 17% said we don’t need to worry about conservation in space at all. Here’s how Rand Simberg put it: “We should evaluate and respect the value of certain locations, but in general, rocks don’t have rights. Asteroids are certainly not scenery.”

Now let’s assume we do find life out there. We talked about planetary protection and astrobiology ethics in Episode 9. I asked my Twitter followers what we should do if we find microbes on Mars. 24% said that in that case, we shouldn’t settle Mars at all. That’s in line with what Carl Sagan said on the topic in his book Cosmos: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” But 59% of the people who responded to my poll said that we should try to carefully cohabitate with these hypothetical Martian microbes. Only 6% said that we shouldn’t worry about the microbes at all.

The last poll I ran on Twitter came from Episode 10, on medical ethics. I asked how we should triage patients in a resource-limited space settlement. The overwhelming majority of voters selected the triage methods we’re most familiar with in our medical system: prioritizing patients according to their likelihood of survival. I did get a few votes for the other options, prioritizing based on age or based on the patient’s expertise or job in the settlement, but it sounds like the people who responded are most comfortable with the triage protocol used in most hospitals and mass casualty incidents today.

I also got some great feedback on topics that weren’t covered in the podcast. For example, I received a couple different emails pointing out the challenges of communication as settlements move farther and farther from the Earth. As one email put it, “Can we find enough colonists to sign up and leave the Internet behind forever?”

Listener Terry Nesvold, AKA my mom, wrote in with another interesting point about the problem of privacy: “Arguably, scientists, as well as the backers of a space colony, whether corporate or government, if not all humankind, have a right to know how the colony is doing, collect data on the health and well-being of the colonists, and particularly learn as much as they can about the colonies that fail. Where does that leave the personal privacy of the colonists and their eventual descendants? Do they just sign that away at the start, as astronauts do? Do they get to draw a line somewhere, before their everyday lives become “the ultimate reality show” for the Earth-bound?”

I’d like to thank all of our audience members who submitted their comments and thoughts on Making New Worlds. So many of these questions reflect challenges and complexities that we already face here on Earth. I hope we can keep the conversation going.

Next week, we’ll explore a question that we’ve been avoiding for most of the podcast so far: Should we settle space? Join us next week for the final episode of Making New Worlds.

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