A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Hoffer on Mass Movements

In this more-or-less weekly feature, I will explore the applicability of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer — Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to space exploration and the space advocacy community in particular. I will follow the format of the book, with a summary of Hoffer’s arguments in yellow highlight followed by my comments on their applicability to space advocacy. Some chapters may end up being combined with others or skipped over entirely.

III. The Interchangeability of Mass Movements

Those whose circumstances or character make them open to a mass movement will be open to any mass movement. Even after joining a movement, the true believer is still susceptible to conversion to another movement — even the most zealous member can experience a "miraculous conversion" to a different and even opposing mass movement. This flexibility of allegiance makes the members of other movements more attractive as recruits than those not affiliated with any movement…they are already primed to join on, if given sufficient motivation to do so. The raw material of all mass movements is the same: "all mass movements draw their adherents from the same types of humanity and appeal to the same types of mind." There is therefore a zero-sum competition between them for the limited number of available "true believers".

While I have not seen it explicitly called for, I have noticed a tendency of space enthusiasts to belong to more than one space advocacy group (Mars Society, Planetary Society, et al).  When looking to add to the ranks of a local chapter, it’s only natural to look to those who already have some connection to a space advocacy group, as one can be more certain of success — it is easier to get someone who has actively promoted the idea of space exploration and settlement in some form to join up with one’s specific flavor thereof than to recruit someone who has not. Poaching members from other organizations — or encouraging them to join yours too — is more efficient than locating raw recruits, i.e.: those who may be amenable to the aims of your organization but who have yet to actively involve themselves in promoting those aims.

And just as the members of a movement can change allegiance, so too can the movement itself, made up of people with "flexible" allegiances, change its focus and aims…a religious movement can be come nationalist or revolutionary over time, for instance. A mass movement is rarely of exclusively one form or another, but rather a mixture of the three forms, and its nature changes as the influence of each form rises or falls. "The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another." Banning or crushing a movement is not as effective as providing a substitute, especially one of a different form. The substitute will compete for adherents, drawing them away and limiting the size and therefore the influence of each movement. Unfortunately, this approach brings with it great risks those who value the status quo, the very people who might be tempted to use it as a strategy. Playing one side against the other can end up with you caught in the middle.

While support can be deliberately drained from a nascent mass movement through the creation of substitute movements, it can also occur unintentionally through the splintering of a movement. The creation last fall of the (independent) Mars Institute by a number of prominent members of the Mars Society was greeted with apprehension by many Mars Society members, as it was perceived that just such a splinter had occurred. While the Mars Society and the Mars Institute need not be mutually exclusive movements (see above), the implication from some sources was that Institute members would no longer be involved with the Society. If true, this would have resulted in the draining away of key talent, valuable connections, and the scientific credibility of the Mars Society’s projects, which ultimately would have diminished the influence of the organization.

The rise and spread of mass movements can also be controlled via the provision of safer substitutes: "[i]n general, any arrangement which either discourages atomistic individualism or facilitates self-forgetting or offers chances for action and new beginnings." One important "safe" substitute used by many societies to deal with mass movements is migration. Migration offers a safe means to attain the desire for change and a new life that motivates people to join a mass movement. Those who would join a mass movement are oftentimes the same type of people who would emigrate elsewhere if the opportunity presents itself, and for the same reasons: the chance to start over and to make something of themselves, that isn’t offered by the circumstances in which they find themselves — a purpose in life and a hope for the future.

Though the destinations may be as diverse as the Moon, Mars, or orbiting habitats, migration is the common thread running through most space advocacy organizations…and is in many cases the organization’s reason-for-being. Space science and the "pure knowledge" type of exploration and such may be useful rationalizations for NASA budget items, but compared to space migration (however slim the chances of actually seeing the "promised land"), they offer little to attract the true believer seeking a new beginning or a higher purpose.

This may in fact be partly responsible for the building resentment towards NASA and its activities on the part of those whose interests would seemingly place them among the agency’s most ardent supporters. NASA should, one would suppose, be tapping into that reservoir of potential support, but instead is doing everything possible to avoid doing so, specifically by refusing to articulate a believable long-term strategy that would lead humanity to any of the desired destinations. The substitute the agency offers — an elite astronaut corps temporarily occupying the nearest sliver of space for the pious but sterile purpose of gathering data — just isn’t enough. The believer wants to go, not watch others go around in circles.

The result of this (intentional or unintentional) obstruction is likely to be disastrous for NASA: the creation, encouraged and facilitated by advocacy organizations, of a non-NASA means of getting to where we want to go, and increasing calls — loudest of all from space advocates — for the severe curtailment or even abolition of the agency.

Even when migration is not a substitute for the lure of mass movements, mass movements themselves can use migration as a tool to achieve their aims. "Every mass movement is in a sense a migration — a movement toward a promised land". If the opportunity presents itself, a mass movement may become a literal migration. Migration undertaken by a mass movement tends to strengthen the movement via a shared struggle which provides a sense of unity and purpose. To this end, most mass movements practice some form of migration, whether literal (permanent relocation) or figurative (pilgrimages).

Space migration need not be a literal relocation to another celestial body…and in the absence of a sustainable means of access to those celestial bodies, literal relocation is impossible anyway. That leaves us with metaphorical migrations.

Pilgrimage is a form of migration because it presents a disruption of the familiar patterns of life and a struggle towards a goal that mimics, in miniature, those of a permanent relocation, resulting in a transformation of the pilgrim himself. When the pilgrimage is conducted with others with similar interests, the shared experience of struggle and (ideally) ultimate success bonds the pilgrims together more strongly than their shared interests. A bond of loyalty among the pilgrims is created that lasts even after the pilgrimage is over — an important benefit for the organization, given that the pilgrimage form of migration is, by its nature, only temporary.

While it may not be immediately apparent, tours of duty at Houghton Crater, one of the Mars Society’s research stations, or even the Antarctic science bases constitute a form of pilgrimage. "Real life" is put on hold, a long and difficult journey is required, the living conditions are cramped and spartan, and under these conditions the team is expected to join together to perform certain tasks in furtherance of the organization’s goals. Those I have met who have spent time in the research stations all speak not of the results of their research, but of the shared experience — how they bonded with the other members of their team, and how the experience changed their perspective.

Comments are closed.