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.

Australias in Space

As far as space settlements go, I think we could do much worse: Space pioneers look to Australia’s colonial past

While the images from popular movies, television shows and books tend to shape most people’s concept of space travel, the research team has now boldly gone where no researchers have gone before.

In an attempt to come up with scenarios for what they say is the inevitable colonisation of other worlds, they have analysed attitudes toward space exploration.

Dr Toni Johnson-Woods says she and her colleagues found there is a prevailing belief that other planets and their natural resources are there simply to be exploited.

“The focus is on exploitation of the minerals. Basically, it’s just Australia all over again,” she said.

“You go out like the British did to Australia, you take everything you bloody can out of a place, and then you ping off.”

She says the “spirit of exploration” that has marked the space age appears to have given way to thinking that is closer to that of pre-20th century colonialism.

“There’s also an idea that there’s nothing already on Mars, which I presume there isn’t, in the same way that Australia had that terra nullius, like there’s nothing in Australia, so, ‘we’re just going to go there, take what we need and leave’,” she said.

Huh…last time I checked, Australia wasn’t a mined-out, barren, uninhabited wasteland, it was a thriving, prosperous nation. Eh, what do I know…

It’s easy to dismiss Dr. Johnson-Woods’ findings as the same old anti-space luddism that’s been with us since hippies discovered the logical end of their fraternity of flower-power in knee-jerk technophobia and universal misanthropy. What makes it especially easy to dismiss is the lack of information presented on methodology — we’re told that her “team” has “analyzed attitudes towards space exploration”, but the how is left open. We’re left ignorant as to whether this research consisted of in-depth surveys of space settlement advocates, exhaustive analyses of scientific and engineering publications, or merely a gaggle of postmodernist literature criticism undergrads sitting around at a coffeehouse at UQ sharing their unexamined “conventional wisdom” about the ostensibly dire state of this planet and how it illustrates Man’s unfitness to join the cosmic community until he learns the proper care and feeding of celestial bodies. I suspect the “research” consisted more of the latter, given that Johnson-Woods’ academic background is non-scientific, and even there is not in one of the “soft” disciplines like sociology or anthropology which might offer some useful insights into the humanism of space settlement.

But let’s look at what else the article has to say:

The researchers concluded that the digging up and processing of minerals is likely to be a factor driving future planetary colonisation and Dr John Cokley says that is where Australia’s experiences could provide valuable lessons…

Dr Cokley says the social and environmental mistakes made during the opening up of Australia – and in particular its rugged mining regions – could serve as examples of how not to establish communities in space.

Oh…you mean…we might actually be capable of learning something from past mistakes and excesses, and we humans might not be hardwired to rape and pillage the environment for our own trivial amusement? Who knew? (Evidently not the “Trashy Fiction of the 19th Century” majors Dr. Johnson-Woods consulted for her study.)

Seriously, though, there is an important ethical and economic question here: have we learned from the excesses of past periods of colonization? I would say the answer is an obvious “yes” (after all, we’re reminded every damned day about the inescapable existential guilt of the West by our moral proctors in the mainstream media, and frequently get our noses rubbed in the “horrific legacy of colonialism” by those prim and earnest scholars of the international intelligentsia who in contrast see nothing wrong with representing or at the very least defending the world’s most thuggish dictatorships and shameless kleptocracies — how could we not have learned by now what those mistakes were, or the incessant nagging and whining that would be the price to pay were we to forget those lessons for an instant?), but that most of those lessons will be irrelevant to space settlement.

The primary lessons to be learned from past colonial periods can be lumped together under a single, general commandment: “Be nice to the natives“. The obvious and traditional aspect of this amounts to: Don’t kill or enslave the local sentients, and don’t convert them to your religion or culture against their will. But if there aren’t any local sentients, this aspect doesn’t apply, and need not be considered further until that distant day when we might again encounter members of an alien (in this case extraterrestrial) culture.

The more trendy application nowadays is: To hell with the sentients, don’t change the local natural environment in any way whatsoever. It would be accurate if somewhat flippant to also say this doesn’t apply to space settlement, because the concept of “natural environment” commonly used on Earth also doesn’t to our current knowledge apply in any meaningful way to any planet in the solar system (let alone asteroids or free space). So far as we know, there is no “nature” anywhere but on Earth, in the sense of the sum of the biological activity in a given area. Trivially, no biology = no nature.

“Ahah,” an environmentalist might say, “but it’s not only life that defines and environment”. And that is true — nature or “the environment” includes the geographical surroundings, including the non-living elements. Here, too, attitudes have changed over the past century. Where once the American West was considered a useless wasteland, it is now seen as a unique repository of beauty, valuable in itself. We have come to value the natural environment (living and nonliving elements alike) for aesthetic reasons, and have a better appreciation for what could be lost if we disregard the broader effects of our activities. Nowadays the balance is often tilted much too far towards the inviolability of nature, and as the history of protecting Yellowstone shows protection itself is sometimes as damaging as development, but the point is that we have indeed learned from past excesses to take the aesthetic effects on the environment into account. This is promising, because it is this aspect of the natural environment on other bodies that space settlement is most likely to affect.

So where does economics come into play? Aside from the aesthetics-based objections, the major environmental concerns with development on Earth are with the byproducts of industrial activity (pollution) and with the using up of certain limited resources (and especially the concentrated stores of those resources available in the natural environment). There is little if anything that we can use directly from the environment in supporting a space settlement, particularly on a planetary surface. There are no forests, no wild game, not even freely available water…or air, for that matter. As for mining in particular, the very different geological processes on the Moon and Mars will probably have done less to concentrate valuable elements in ore bodies rich enough to mine economically with technology commonly used on Earth. In short, everything required to live on another planet (or asteroid, or free space settlement) will have to be extracted or manufactured, if it isn’t simply imported from elsewhere. The costs involved will drive settlers to “everything but the oink” efficiency, and will spur the development of new technologies for increasing that efficiency (phytoextraction, for instance — it makes economic sense to use the bioaccumulation properties of certain plants for pollution remediation since you’re dealing there with a diffuse source, but not for “mining” of most elements since other, richer sources are available — but on the Moon or Mars, diffuse sources may be all you have to work with, which changes the economics). Given the lack of cheaper or richer alternatives readily available in the environment, every waste stream becomes a potential resource. To simply dump polluted water or industrial waste into a nearby crater would be irresponsible stewardship, it’s true, but even worse it would be a squandering of valuable resources vital to the settlement’s economic viability.

Clearly Dr. Johnson-Woods’ study doesn’t tell the whole story. Perhaps space settlement advocates do see a future of mining space…but they see that as a part — one part — of building a new branch of civilization, much as Australia has over the past two centuries become not a sterile desert of worked-out mineshafts and abandoned tailing piles but a self-sustaining, economically powerful branch of Western Civilization.

9 comments to Australias in Space

  • Huh…last time I checked, Australia wasn’t a mined-out, barren, uninhabited wasteland, it was a thriving, prosperous nation.

    You, Sir, have clearly not seen the Mad Max trilogy.

  • Mars is a great place, but unless they can locate some resources on that red planet (as in something specific in a specific area, and don’t just say “minerals” as there are plenty of worthless minerals as well as valuable ones) then you will not see large populations on that planet in the next century (or two).

    I’d like to be wrong on this (as Mars looks like a beautiful planet) but if their is now way to pay for our stay on the planet, we might as well skip it.

    Just my two “red” cents.

  • T.L. James

    “You, Sir, have clearly not seen the Mad Max trilogy.”

    Come now, Brian, that post-nuclear dystopia of gas-shortage-induced anarchy and ultraviolent bisexual punk biker gangs is the *future*, not the result of the colonial past Dr. Johnson-Woods is talking about.

  • Darnell, you’re describing one of the things I mention in the post. Mars and the Moon are (to my understanding of the processes involved) unlikely to have the same sorts of ore concentrations as one finds on Earth, since neither body appears to have experienced the same sorts of water-and-volcanism-dependent geological processes that concentrated certain elements in veins, ore bodies, etc. But that’s not to say conclusively that such concentrations couldn’t have occurred (by the same or other processes) on Mars or the Moon.

    And as I wrote above, the lack of such concentrations can be overcome using methods evolved from technology available today, such as phytoremediation (and possibly the engineering of bacteria to do the same job on an industrial scale).

    Barring unlikely breakthroughs in transportation providing cheap access to the Moon and Mars, neither place is likely to be an economical export producer of primary materials anyway, even if there were piles of elementally-pure metals and the like, free for the taking, waiting on the surface (one possible exception being elements rare on Earth but abundant elsewhere, such as PGMs).

    But that doesn’t automatically preclude settlement on economic grounds, since this fact works both ways (it’s prohibitively expensive to import primary materials). Mining would still be needed to support the local industry in space settlements, it just wouldn’t be a major export industry as it was in Australia and in the African colonies.

    Remember, though, there are many other reasons for settling a place than the extraction and export of the locally-abundant resources.

  • “I’d like to be wrong on this (as Mars looks like a beautiful planet) but if their is now way to pay for our stay on the planet, we might as well skip it.”

    Darnell, I think you’re ignoring the ‘Pilgrim’ effect. The Puritans founded their colony with the idea of making a profit, but the entire point of going was to create a City On the Hill and remove themselves from a society they regarded as corrupt and unworthy of them.

    This may be the big driver for colonization. But it gets ignored – I think – because it’s hard to measure the social factors that would produce a Plymouth Colony.

    What is needed is a group of people that are wealthy enough to finance this venture, oppressed where they live and are not welcome in other lands.

    Oh and cheap space lift and a few decades of experience living .. for good .. in outer space.

  • There’s a reason I prefer the term “settlement” over “colony”.

    “Colony” implies that, whatever else is done there, the activities of the development are above all else focused on the extraction of some primary resource for export. And like the linked article suggests, this can lead to a colonial enterprise becoming a ghost town when the resource it is based on is no longer profitable to extract.

    “Settlement” implies “town-building” — that is, the creation of an integrated community with a diversified and sustainable economic foundation. A settlement may indeed be built up around the export of some resource, but is more than that one enterprise and so can survive when that business peters out.

    While one might not think of it as a colony, the Copper Country of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula provides an interesting example of this. The industrial development of the area was based entirely around the extraction of copper, which was shipped (in most cases without even being smelted, since it was native copper) to the mills of the industrial Northeast to be processed into wire and other products. There was little if any development of local manufacturing industries to make products from the locally-mined copper (meaning, I’m not aware of any such companies at all, and I would have remembered had I heard of them). So, when the copper could no longer be mined as profitably as it could be in Montana and elsewhere, the mining companies gradually shut their doors and walked away…as did around 90% of the population. While still populated, the Keweenaw is littered with ghost towns and old mining and milling sites (which, contra Dr. Johnson-Woods, can actually be fun and fascinating human additions to the landscape), illustrating that the copper industry was a *colonial* enterprise rather than a *settlement* which could survive and thrive after the central industry’s demise.

  • Come to think of it, Traverse City (my hometown) illustrates the other half of this idea. It started as a lumber camp and was built into a real town by the lumber barons, with the industrial base diversifying early on into agriculture as new settlers were encouraged to move into the community to take advantage of the newly-cleared lands (and to buy merchandise at the lumber barons’ dry goods store). As the lumber was used up, the economic base became wholly agricultural, diversifying again into tourism, and most recently into retail.

  • “Come to think of it, Traverse City (my hometown) illustrates the other half of this idea.”

    I suspect this would be true of most places people are living in. It’s true of where I live, now.

    Settlements were started to trade with the indians and settlers. Then the lumber guys moved in to cut down trees. The timber played out and town moved into paper mills. Now that is playing out and the paper mills are becoming specialized paper mills or closing down while other light industry picks up the slack.

    Current major employers are

    – a call center company
    – electronics manufacturers
    – a foundry
    – paper companies

  • Stewart

    I like to think of the first true settlers in space will be those who a) desire the lower gravity of Luna or Mars for health reasons, and b) enjoy growing the gardens necessary for a sustainable atmosphere inside the settlement. The first real money from space settlement will be to those who set up “retirement homes” where us old folks can peacefully putter in our gardens with much less fear of life-threatening injury from a simple fall.