What Is To Be Done? Part One: Far Future Goals

This week I’m going to try to use the blog to work through some of my current thinking in short bursts. Throughout most of college I was a great optimist about the future, but recently my experiences with the recession and my studies into the other problems of the world have dulled my hopes. The feeling is what writer Bruce Sterling calls “dark euphoria” — the sensation that everything is possible in this age of wonders, but you never realized you’d have to dread it so much. I don’t much like feeling darkly euphoric, so I’m going to work through my thinking until I can see a path through the decade and onward that I feel confident in, or at least until I am sure that the light down the tunnel isn’t just another train.

Today I’m going to start by laying out the end goals that I think humanity should work towards. There are lots of different things I hope we can accomplish down the line, but there is one big one that stands out: space migration. I believe there is a moral and pragmatic imperative to get as many people off the planet and living in as many different locations in the solar system (to start with) as possible, as quickly as possible. We should develop sustainable, resilient, and self-sufficient populations and high population densities (cities) on Mars, Venus, the moon, near earth asteroids, and anywhere else that we can dig into, float above, or eventually terraform to our liking.

I want this not just because I think it would be really cool (though it would be), but because this is the best way to ensure the survival of our civilization and of life itself into the long term (millions of years). Life is a good thing: something about this peculiar arrangement of matter and energy, with its complex emergent behavior that transforms chemistry into creatures and that makes a few of these creatures intelligent and social and fewer still capable of creating technology and culture — something about it is worthwhile. Unless you are a nihilist, this is a premise we can all agree on. If a trickster god or evil genie made you choose which of two planets he would destroy, one inhabited by a great many living things and one nothing more than lifeless space rock, I hope that we would all spare the one with life. Whatever it is, life is worth protecting and even worth spreading to the rest of the universe to bring more matter and energy into its elegant dance.

Unfortunately though life is capable of spreading quickly to a variety of terrestrial environments, as far as we know it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe. Yes, life and even intelligence might turn out be incredibly common, like in so many science fiction stories, but we can’t bank on it. Even worse, as resilient as life is, here on Earth it is incredibly fragile in a cosmic sense. Any number of celestial events could wipe out life, or at least civilization, without much warning. They have nearly done so several times in the past.

Luckily life has recently evolved a species — the first of its kind, we believe — that is capable of actually leaving Earth. I’m talking, of course, about us. With our unique nervous systems, opposable thumbs and strong muscles, we have turned out to be capable of designing and creating increasingly complex tools and technologies, not to mention art, literature, philosophy, music and religion. Some of these tools are great vehicles with which we can escape Earth’s atmosphere and gravity well and travel to more or less wherever we want. We can spread life to the rest of the solar system, galaxy and universe, making life more likely to survive for longer even if some catastrophe were to befall Earth, and making the universe a more beautiful and worthy place. As far as we can tell we are the only ones who can achieve this, and thus I believe that it is our moral obligation to do so. And our window to get off the planet before some hurtling rock wipes us out may not be that large, so we should get to it quickly.

You don’t need to believe in God to believe that human beings have a mission. You just have to believe that life is worth more than dead matter or empty space.

I wanted this piece to be about 500 words, but I don’t think I can rehearse my space argument in less than 600. Oh well. Point is: space migration is the big goal I want us to aim our civilization towards. Unfortunately though space science continues happily along with little probes and robots, space development has stalled out this past decade and with the world’s governments increasingly broke and assailed by a variety of pernicious global forces, it doesn’t look like it is going to get on track any time soon. Tomorrow I’ll try to discuss (more briefly) those problems that make getting from A to B so difficult and unlikely at the moment.

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