Ep 13: Should We Settle Space?

For the last episode of Making New Worlds, we ask the question we skipped at the very beginning: Should we settle space? Featuring answers by many of our guests from previous episodes.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Imagine this: You live on Earth, in 2018, still the early decades of the space age. It feels like humanity is standing at a crossroads: We’re beginning to face the ramifications of the damage we’re doing to the planet, while at the same time we’re starting to talk seriously about creating settlements on other worlds. But there are so many challenges facing us here on Earth, and developing the technologies and infrastructure we’ll need in space will require a huge amount of effort and resources. So… should we settle space?

Welcome to the final episode of Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. In the first episode of this podcast, I said that we’d be skipping over the question of whether we should settle space. I asked my guests and listeners to assume that space settlement was inevitable, and to think about *how* we should go about doing it. But now that we’ve reached the last of our planned thirteen episodes, let’s revisit this first, fundamental question.

I interviewed 28 fantastic guests for the podcast, and at the end of each conversation, I asked them the same question: Do you think that we should settle space? I got a really interesting range of answers, especially when you consider that the sample of people that I polled was limited to people who agreed to be on a podcast about space settlement. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of very enthusiastic “yes”s.

Michael Waltemathe: “Yes! Yes, I do. I definitely think we should settle space.”

Laura Montgomery: “Oh, yes. Oh, yes.”

Kelly Smith: “Oh, yes. Oh, yes.”

Shawna Pandya: “Oh, absolutely. There’s so many reasons.”

That was Michael Waltemathe, Laura Montgomery, Kelly Smith, and Shawna Pandya. The reasons that my guests gave for these “yes” votes reflected a lot of the motivations we talked about in Episode 1. For example, the idea that we need to spread our civilization to multiple planets in order to prevent extinction. Here’s Michelle Hanlon.

Michelle Hanlon: “Absolutely. I think it is incumbent on us to settle space for our own survival. I absolutely believe Stephen Hawking that whether we put ourselves into untenable position through nuclear fallout, whether it’s natural disasters, there’s a cycle in evolution, species die out, and if we want to continue as a species, we need to get off this Earth… We have the technology, we have the innovation, we have the brains, incredible minds right now working to get us back to the Moon with companies like Astrobotic and Part Time Scientists. There’s no reason not to harness that and get us out there and explore the Moon, Mars, and deep space.”

Shawna Pandya made a similar argument, one that I hear a lot in the space industry these days.

Shawna Pandya: “If we can successfully settle off-world, we’re no longer putting all our eggs, or in this case all our humans, in one basket. And there’s this facetious saying that I’m sure you’ve heard in the space industry, that the dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, and look how far it got them.”

But my guests also talked about other reasons for settling space, reasons that don’t have to do the with survival of the species. Here’s Brian Ferguson.

Brian Ferguson: “I think it’s a great aspiration. I think it’s something that could provide a unifying force for humanity. I mean, look, after all, at the space station today. Russians and Americans are not getting along very well right now,  but they are in space. And this is something that could be developed as a principle. I know there’s going to be more opportunities to militarize space but to work towards a space exploration that is not done on a national basis, but is done on a human basis, that includes people from all over the world, that could be a kind of a model for people back home and going forward in time, could eliminate some of the possible divisions that would ensue if it’s a nation-based colonization program.”

Kelly Smith brought up Manifest Destiny in his answer, an idea we discussed critically in Episode 1, but he also mentioned the idea that by moving our civilization off-world, we’ll actually make the Earth a better place for other species to live.

Kelly Smith: “I sometimes annoy some of my colleagues by being one of those guys that really believes in something akin to Manifest Destiny. I think if you really think long-term about the future of humankind, it clearly lies in space. Absolutely clearly. And that’s true even if you’re an environmentalist and you only care about stuff on Earth. It doesn’t seem like it, but you know, one of the arguments that people, I think, can make more of is they can say, “If you’re interested in preserving all the resources and biodiversity on Earth, then you have an interest in making sure that we don’t have strong incentives to dig stuff up and burn things down on Earth.” Well, we could go back to being Amish. Right? We could all live in the 19th century. But if we want a technological civilization like we have, we have to have a place to get those resources. And guess what? The Solar System is chock full of them. So you should really, in the long run, you should be in favor of trying to find ways to get what humankind needs from space.”

Some of my other guests were generally in favor of space exploration and settlement, but were a little more cautious. Lauren Benton and Keith Abney both pointed out that you can explore space a lot more efficiently and safely with robots than with human explorers. Here’s how Lauren Benton put it.

Lauren Benton: “I have learned very clearly from my scientist friends that they can very often do just as much space– just as much science remotely without human beings present, and maybe more than they can with human beings aboard. But at the same time, I think historically there is a lot of evidence that, you know, human beings like to be there, like to be witnesses, like to see themselves there. In fact, I would say that in the history of writing about colonization, the first-person testimony and the first-person witnessing reports were extremely important in circulating information about colonies. And I imagine that will continue to be the case, and could be the case in the future of space. So, I suspect there’s always gonna be an impulse for human beings to be there, even if there isn’t a scientific reason for them to be there.”

James Schwartz also made an argument for prioritizing science and exploration over settlement, at least for now.

James Schwartz: “We need to settle space over the long term. But over the short term, I think there are more pressing things to do, both here and in space. In particular, I think scientific research is the main thing that needs to occur in various places in the Solar System. And settlement can facilitate that in some ways but it can also get in the way because it’s a competition for resources. So I think in advance of any, you know, major settlement endeavor, we need to have good science done at various locations, in various places.”

Donna Gabaccia is a fan of space exploration, but is worried about the path we might go down if we shift our goal to colonization.

Donna Gabaccia: “Humans always rise to the occasion, they’re always curious. And, you know, that’s the part of exploration, in particular, that I still would encourage and support. Once we start to use the word colonization, however, I’m less sure that that should be our goal. It may very well be, some time in the very distant future, that we will encounter habitable (by human) empty spaces, but it may equally be possible that we will only find those habitable spaces to be inhabited by someone else. And both in sci-fi and historically, those have not usually ended well. They have generated inequality, they have generated massive death, and they have generated wars between worlds. So, when I think about colonization, I’m not so sure that’s a goal that should be pursued independent of, you know, let’s explore and see if there’s someone out there. I would actually think many times about that, because I believe humans frequently have made a mess of their own lives on this planet and I frankly would hate to see that exploited elsewhere. Sorry to be so grim.”

Some guests were skeptical of our ability to settle space, even with future technologies, given the enormous challenges. For example, here’s Mehmet Ozalp.

Mehmet Ozalp: “I certainly think we should try. We should try to look for ways, develop technologies that would take us beyond the Moon, to Mars, and beyond the places to Mars. And some pioneers may risk their lives in the process. It’s all part of that human curiosity and wanting to stretch the boundaries. I’m certainly for that. But I’m not sure if it will at all be possible to have a reasonable settlement in outer space, before we destroy the Earth itself. You know, like, we could run out of time. I don’t know, I’m not a futurist, but it doesn’t– I can’t see that we could do it in a reasonable timeframe and then still have a sustainable life on Earth.”

Other guests said yes, maybe someday, we should expand out into the universe. But right now? We’re just not ready. Here’s Karen Backe.

Karen Backe: “My hesitation is fundamentally ethical, I don’t think that humans are grown-up enough as a species to be responsible in exploration. I think that all of the Earth-bound incidences we have of human civilizations coming into contact with new places and other civilizations, we’ve seen a lot of exploitation that would be pretty tragic to repeat anywhere. But I don’t know, I guess I’m fundamentally an optimist, and I think that children never grow up unless they’re given the opportunity to take bigger challenges. And that there’s really a possibility that when presented with larger challenges that we might rise up to a new level of capacity, of being. And that would be pretty great.”

Several guests said we need more information, more data, about what it will take for us to live in space. For example, here’s Rebecca Kukla.

Rebecca Kukla: “ I’m not sure I have a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether we should settle space. I think that I would need a lot more empirical knowledge than I think even exists or certainly than I have about exactly the kinds of risks that you’re talking about. And also, I would want to know a lot more about how much is gonna be done in advance to make sure that by the time that colony starts, it has the kinds of social support institutions and legal institutions and so forth that we have here on Earth that I think are incredibly important protections for allowing people to lead flourishing lives.”

Some of the guests who said no, we shouldn’t settle space, pointed to an idea that’s come up in a few of these responses: that space settlement will just mean that humans will export all of the problems we have here on Earth into space. Here’s Sarah Newell.

Sarah Newell: “But generally, I’m gonna go, “No,” on settling space, because I think human beings are not to be trusted with colonization based on our past efforts. I think it will be another place for us to environmentally destroy and abuse workers.”

Others argued that the time and effort we would spend on settling space could instead be used for solving problems on Earth. For example, here’s Darcie Little Badger.

Darcie Little Badger: “One issue I have is that a lot of these resources that are being expended towards these vastly expensive projects that probably aren’t feasible within the near future could be instead used to help improve our prospects here on this planet. I do think that it is worth thinking about, but I do wish that maybe more of those resources could be instead funneled into Earth-improvement-based projects. Unfortunately, as a climate change scientist I am aware that some pretty serious changes are coming, not just with sea level change, or with drought. For example, I studied a toxic-producing phytoplankton, and blooms of these plankton are becoming more frequent. So, we’re having all these issues on Earth, and right now it is really the only place where we and our beautiful ecosystem can thrive. Although, I don’t— I’m not against settlement in space, you know, as a broad blanket statement, I do wish that more of this attention can be placed on improving the Earth right now.”

Zuleyka Zevallos made a similar point.

Zuleyka Zevallos: “There are no ethical justifications for settling other planets. What we need to do is focus on repairing the damage in our own planet, and taking greater responsibility for the way in which we plan future scientific endeavors on Earth, and how we can use science and other bodies of knowledge from Indigenous groups, from other people of color, from communities of color, bring them all together in order to make a more viable and sustainable future on our planet.”

A lot of my guests agreed with me that space settlement seems inevitable, so maybe we should be focusing on how best to do it. Here’s Michelle Brown.

Michelle Brown: “Because I’m sociological by training, I often– And maybe this is a way to evade your question– I don’t get into the “shoulds” as much as I think we will settle space. I think that’s, you know, I think that’s already– There’s enough indications that those sorts of things are already happening. I think in a world in which we have market economies and capitalism, space settlement will happen. So I’m much more concerned with the idea about what it would mean to have active democratic voices involved in what the actual shape of that existence would be and how we could do exactly the kinds of things you’re pointing to.”

Even these responses came with both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives. For instance, here’s Jesse Shanahan, with a glass that’s half-full.

Jesse Shanahan: “Because in so many ways, it’s a blank slate. We can choose what we take with us into space. And so, as much as possible, the people doing this need to be very progressive, and they need to be very well aware of existing social and ethical problems on Earth. Because we don’t want to take the problems on Earth and just copy-and-paste them into space.”

And here’s Debbie Becher, with a half-empty glass.

Debbie Becher: “I think as a sociologist, what I would want to point out is that space isn’t a blank slate. We are here already, as a world, highly institutionalized. That is, if we settle space we are bringing all of that with us. And it’s not just lessons, we’re actually bringing the institutions, the organizations, the governments, the corporations, our cultures, all of that will be involved in settling space. It’s not a matter of, we can just decide to pick and choose what we like from it and then, and take only the stuff we like over there. I mean, that’s what we’re seeing in this political and corporate fight for resources in space already, right? Only those who are powerful enough or scientific enough, or interested enough are getting involved in the first place. And they’re gonna wield those powers as they fight for it.”

I’m an optimist, by nature. So while I think space settlement might be inevitable, and while I’ve certainly become more convinced of humanity’s ability to screw it up in the course of making this podcast, I also think that we can prevent the darkest possibilities for our future in space by taking the time to think about the kinds of worlds we want to create. And there is so much we can learn from people like my guests, about how to learn from our past and present to work for a better future.

Michael Oman-Reagan: “They are going to settle space whether we like it or not, so we, especially people who are opposed or skeptical, or have critiques, or are excited about it but have visions that include justice, we need to engage with the idea of moving into space so that we can transform it into the fact that we are included, and thereby ensure that we also get to participate equally in shaping when, how, and why we move into space.”

T Hueston: “I just think that we should always think respectfully, both of our land and of, you know, possibly the damage that we might do to structures in space, whether or not they’re owned or already colonized by other living things, that there is some value in, you know, natural structures and other planets and space that should be considered inherent to itself whether or not it’s owned.”

Walidah Imarisha: “I think it is more useful to talk about, how do we go to space and create communities in a way that gives us a chance to be the species that we want to be, rather than being a species that other intelligent life in the universe actively works to avoid?”

That was Michael Oman-Reagan, T Hueston, and Walidah Imarisha. Thank you so much to all of my guests who took the time to talk with me. I learned so much from all of you. And thanks to you, my audience! I hope you enjoyed listening to this podcast as much as I’ve enjoyed making it. The podcast episodes will remain available on makingnewworlds.com if you’d like to get caught up, re-listen, or recommend it to your friends and family.

If you’d like to keep the conversation going, you can still reach me at makingnewworldspodcast@gmail.com, on Twitter @makingnewworlds, or on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds.

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