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Space Utopianism

Someone forwarded this to me from the Mars-Civ list:

So, when I think about [the difference between “territory” in space and on a planet] I don’t believe in territorial arguments for space. I don’t believe in classical claims as we know them on this planet and our legal mechanisms we have developed to process them. That would be applying a terrestrial mindset grown on drawing lines on 2D charts of unchanging topography to a vastly different environment where everything moves all the time in 3D. Except of course when you go down on a planet or planetoid and drive in stakes on its surface. But what is there deep down in these gravity wells that isn’t much more cheaply had from asteroids?

Besides, “claims” seem to already predict competition, when actually everything looks like only people who cooperate to the max with others (including their “competition”) have a chance of truly making it in space, whereas people with a competitive mindset holding back with sharing what they know and can do in order to beat the competition will perish in the long run. Was it Christina Merl who once coined the term “coopetition”? That’s how it’s beginning to feel when trying to grasp the implied complexities of a space effort beyond just getting the technology right, and includes the vital economics and politics.

So, for me this seems to reinforce the idea that we’re all in this together and need to cooperate to the max and focus on getting something happening out there, and for the time being not worry about classical planet-grown concerns of “claims”.

In other words, the existing human institutions concerning property rights and markets are unworkable in space. Why? Just because. They are. So, we have to cooperate with others, which will bring us together as a species, limit conflicts on Earth, and (as this writer asserts elsewhere) reduce the risk of violence against space assets by those whose feelings are hurt by being left out of the capitalist free-for-all that competition in space would create.

This sort of utopian thinking about space bugs me whenever I come across it. It’s not hard to find space advocates who take as an unargued assumption that the social, political, and economic systems which have evolved on Earth over six or so millennia simply must be left behind when we enter space, and whole new institutions must be created to deal with the very different environment we will find there. And as is so often the case, this writer (in further comments) insists that the new system be one to which everyone in the world will agree (good luck with that), yet doesn’t define that system in any detail beyond how satisfied people will undoubtedly be with the finished product. He’s focused on the feel-good outcome only, with no idea of how to achieve it but an absolute, unshakeable faith that if we just want it hard enough and are willing to work together with our fellow wo/man, it will happen and it will be right and good and all the things that traditional institutions are apparently not.

The problem is, we don’t have to go into space and try it to know how this approach will turn out, since it has been tried quite a few times right here on Earth over the past two centuries. In various countries the old institutions have been swept aside in the name of cooperation and consensus, and new orders have been declared in which everyone would work together for the common good instead of striving against one another in competition. But these efforts have always failed, because they are always built around the assumption that human nature can be modified to suit the utopian vision. While it’s true that institutions like property rights and markets and competition (i.e.: capitalism) evolved within specific social and cultural environments here on Earth, it’s less trivially true that they evolved to suit human nature as it is and so have proven effective even when applied to a wide range of social and cultural environments outside those they originated in.

Throwing away human institutions which demonstrably work simply because they are “planet-grown” amounts to throwing away the successful products of thousands of years of human history in favor of shallow and starry-eyed dreams of a utopian future which anyone with a basic knowledge of history can see are doomed to failure…new environment or no.

6 comments to Space Utopianism

  • Aaron_J

    Many of those arguing that we must leave the old ways behind also want to leave behind things that clearly work, and they want to again try things that have been proven not to. I would prefer to adapt something that already works, rather than try something that clearly did not work before. As you point out, human nature is not going to change, and that constant has more to do with the success of the system than a particular “environment”.

    I view it as an opportunity to bring with us that which works best, and at the same time shaking loose that which doesn’t. I liken it to moving to a new house and using it as an excuse to finally get rid of accumulated junk.

  • If public parks worked best, why is Disney World so popular and built up? The short answer: tragedy of the commons. If someone owns something, whether it is an endangered elephant or a patch of the Moon, they can better protect, develop and preserve what’s good about it. We will be able to tell that space development politics has grown up when the Utopians start opposing settlement.

  • Aaron_J

    Agreed. I don’t think many have said it better than John Stossel in his “Myths, Lies and Nasty Behavior” piece on ABC:

    Check out Myth #1, “Sharing Would Make the World a Better Place”.

  • For me the whole point of space is that there’s enough room and resources for people to try all sorts of things. Some things might work for people of like mind/culture that wouldn’t work for others. Space isn’t about some utopia, its about having enough room that you can do what you want without getting on someone else’s nerves.

    If the folks on Mars want to create some socialist utopia, then fine. I personally think its kind of silly to fight so hard to get out of one gravity well just to plop yourself right back into another one. For me and mine, its the asteroids…

  • Adrasteia

    Space isn’t about some utopia, its about having enough room that you can do what you want without getting on someone else’s nerves.

    I don’t know, that idea kind of sounds like utopia to me.

  • Adrasteia

    oops, your blogging software strips italics.