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No Country for Young Men

Richard Fernandez hits on something that bothers me about the mindset of the country: No Country for Young Men

The big giveaway is we as a civilization don’t want to go to the planets any more, because the old don’t want to go anywhere. Imagine clambering into spaceships! The very idea gives us the shivers. Only the young and immortal travel to places where they may never be able to get Ibuprofen…

And in consequence the future, rather than beckoning to us, envelops us like a shroud. America which was famous for optimism, has sold its birthright for a mess of Obamacare and Obamaphones, like an old couple that have given up sweeping and tending a house that grew too big now that the kids have left.

It overstates a bit the part about us not wanting to go to the planets any more, given the number of robotic exploration missions in progress and planned for the next 5-10 years.

What bothers me is that he may well be right about our desire as a nation to settle space. Sure, we have people like Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos routing around the traditional (ie: old) model of manned space being the province of civil agencies and military bodies. But while there is plenty of interest and enthusiasm in industry and advocacy/activism circles for what they’re doing, I don’t get the sense that there is any sort of broader interest in or optimism for the long-term goals that these new players could enable – namely, space settlement.

Instead, the old conflict between robots and humans is cited, as if “exploration” were the sole reason for the existence of everything beyond Earth – look at it, take samples perhaps, but don’t otherwise touch it. “Robots can do a better job exploring.” “Robots are cheaper to send out to do exploration.” “Robots are less risky.” But robots aren’t humans and thus can’t be settlers. The mindset Fernandez describes would seem to cover this – the “geriatric culture”, as he puts it, would naturally prefer safety over risks, and that which fits in their fixed-income budgets to a venture whose costs and benefits can only be guessed at in advance.

This mindset also helps explain the despicable attitude of people like Patrick Stewart who believe that humans should just stay home, sitting in the corner of the universe until they’ve thought about what they’ve done. The argument is that, because we’re so wicked and naughty as a species, we don’t deserve to travel to and settle other worlds – we should be grounded until we learn to behave better and clean up all our messes. What is this if not the thinking of a punitive parent or grandparent, aimed at putting wayward youth into its place?

As Fernandez hints, this is a cultural problem that leads us towards stagnation and decline while others (whose motives and philosophies may be anathema to our own) fill the gap. If we as a nation choose living in the constrained present instead of looking ahead to (and working to fashion) an expanding future, it doesn’t mean others will feel compelled to do the same. It just means we get left behind.

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