*Sorry this is so late. I came home mildly con-crudded but it took the turn for the much worse overnight and I think I might need a nap to get through the day. I’m slow and stupid today, and trying to finish short stories that are grossly overdue. This post by DR Loss is fascinating, or at least I found it so. Back tomorrow – SAH*
From Generation Unto Generation by Douglas R. Loss
A philosopher friend of mine, Jim Schwartz, gave a presentation at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop’s 5th Interstellar Symposium in Huntsville, AL, in October, 2017. In it, he asked some probing questions about the morality of forcing future generations into prescribed lives and roles aboard interstellar generation ships: https://youtu.be/5pfZkGSE1WM.
A couple of months ago Jim and some others had a section in Futures about space colonization, in which philosophers and social scientists supposedly debated the question, “Should humans seek to exploit and/or colonize space? If so, how should this be done?” To my mind this was in irrevocably flawed question to start the debate with, as it assumed that any human expansion into long-term settlement of space would necessarily be exploitative and would be colonial in nature. Predictably, at least half of the academic respondents didn’t even bother with the proposed question but just used the “debate” to ride their hobby horses de jour.
Still, the philosophical and moral questions they ignored are interesting ones. Another philosopher friend of mine, Nick Nielsen, and I decided to start an email dialog roughly about how this might all work out. Nick’s initial thoughts were that we might make an attempt to revive some of the original meanings of the term when colonization in classical antiquity meant the splitting of a wealthy city by the creation of a new city which was thought of as a “daughter” city (the original wealthy and populated city being the “mother”). This was the Greek model of colonization around the Mediterranean. When the Romans controlled the Mediterranean Basin, the meaning of colonization changed, as the Romans would settle retired soldiers, often in purpose-built cities. Such cities could, by definition, defend themselves as they were populated by former soldiers. In neither of these ancient instances did any negative connotation attach to the idea of a colony.
The above ideas could be combined with ideas taken from Fustel de Coulanges’ famous monograph on ancient cities, in which he makes a sharp distinction between the ancient cities of the early Greek period and the cities of later classical antiquity. This theme could be elaborated to note further mutations in the role of cities since the ancient world. Cities founded in artificial settlements in space or on the moon or other planets would represent another stage in the mutation of the theory and practice of the city.
Nick considered these to be much better models of what will happen with human expansion beyond Earth than that oft-invoked cautionary tale of 19th century European colonialism during the Great Game. He also noted that a roundtable called “No Planet B” is scheduled for CASCA-AAA (A joint Canadian Anthropology Society and American Anthropological Association conference) in Vancouver this November with this as its premise:
As a planetary species we live together among the rising seas and blazing fires of climate catastrophe. Meanwhile techno-capitalism is birthing a new space race out of an emergent Silicon Valley Military Industrial Space Settlement Complex.
Rather than face up to the reality of many-species suffering, climate refugees, wars, colonialism, and artificial scarcity of capitalism, globalizing Silicon Valley elites work on plans to leave the Earth and “colonize” other worlds or flee to their heavily secured bunkers on our planet.
As Nick said, this pretty much ticks all the boxes of the emerging anti-space settlement sentiment in elite discourse. Of course, these folks see themselves as rebels against any and all elites. He said he could rant about this, but that that wouldn’t be as productive as answering a couple of questions:
- Is it possible to talk to people like this?
- Will any of this matter, or will boots-on-the-ground establish the facts that we will later rationalize?
I replied that I thought that the concept of off-world permanent settlements is being colored very strongly by the terminology being used. Calling such settlements “colonies” is triggering an autonomic response among the unthinking ideologues. Of course, their denigration of their conception of colonization is based on the exploiting of indigenous humans in the areas colonized, which wouldn’t be the case in the settlements we’re talking about. To maintain their outrage, they have to find something else to putatively be exploited. That’s why we’re seeing them complain about the possibility of exterminating extraterrestrial lifeforms, even though no such lifeforms have been identified, and about the possibility of making scientific investigation of non-living materials and locals impossible (or even just less possible).
So my answer to his question #1 was “No.” As to question #2, I’ve always felt that the elite whining about all this is fairly meaningless as they won’t be the ones going or the ones deciding to go. If off-world settlements become feasible and economically and socially desirable, they’ll happen and all the academic caterwauling won’t be any more effective at stopping them than spitting into the wind.
I thought it might be useful to try to guide the terminology away from “colonization” and toward “community construction.” There’s a somewhat long history of intentional communities, constructed communities, etc., that might give us a more rational perspective on off-world settlements, as they’ll be just that, and won’t be nearly as analogous to terrestrial colonization as they are to intentional community creation.
I lived for a few years in Columbia, Maryland, which is an intentional community. I’m sure there are some folks there who like the place, but I found it sterile and barely a community at all. To my way of thinking, the designers of said community really hadn’t studied and didn’t understand how functional, organic communities start, grow, and succeed. I hadn’t actually studied the variety of intentional communities to see what has worked and what hasn’t, but I suspect there would be a good deal of valuable information to be gleaned from such a study.
There are other intentional community movements underway that could be considered analogous to off-world settlements, such as seasteading. There’s also Asgardia, although I’m inclined to view that as either a hobby by the originators or a scam.
Nick wrote back that he found it interesting that there are so few successful intentional communities (once called communes, and no doubt there have been other names as well), fewer still that endure for a significant period of time and cover a large geographical area. While in countries with a reasonable degree of freedom there is no legal regime that prevents the creation of intentional communities, nevertheless few are created, and fewer still are successful. One might argue that very small nation-states (say, Monaco or Vatican City) are something like intentional communities, and that our nation-state system of political organization today forces them into the mold of nation-states. He wasn’t sure if this is accurate, but there is no reason that a successful intentional community could not iterate its social and economic model and grow to a great size within a given nation-state. However, this hasn’t happened. Why hasn’t it happened, and would the fact that intentional communities haven’t been successful have consequences for building communities off world?
The artificiality of intentional communities may be an important component of this. While a top-down plan is being awkwardly imposed, people are responding to the actual conditions of life and creating a community from the bottom up that reflects the ordinary business of life, and intentional communities get stuck when the bottom-up reality comes into conflict with the top-down model. We can easily see this happening off world, when a government or commercial enterprise seeks to establish a presence according to the model approved by the higher ups, which works well on paper but which clashes with conditions on the ground. Governments and companies can impose their will (something intentional communities usually try to avoid), but this, too, leads to conflict, and often also leads to independence movements.
Following the foregoing, one could say that a colony, in the narrow sense, is a community in which the top-down model prevails, while a settlement is a community in which the bottom-up model prevails. Civilization has its ultimate origins in bottom-up social organization, but the later stages of a civilization (once a social, political, and economic model has reached maturity) tends toward the top-down. Nick said this is how he would define it, but whether anyone else would want to adopt these usages is another matter (and not likely).
Part of the problem with terminology surrounding “colony” and “colonization” is a peculiarly American obsession with language. We all know that governments and large companies in the contemporary world hire consultants to try to arrive at linguistic formulations that serve their interests while alienating as few as possible, though it was Nick’s observation that this surface-level debate has little traction outside the western world. People usually know they are being sold a bill of goods.
He agreed that, when the technology is available and the enterprise can be financed, off world enterprises and associated human communities will happen, regardless of the language used to describe them, and regardless of how they are conceptualized, and when society changes enough over historical time there becomes a real question of identifying institutions of the past with institutions of the present. He mentioned again the differences between Greek and Roman colonies and the European colonies established in the course of the Great Game. One could say that the linguistic continuity masks a multiplicity of differences that matter. Any future communities that might also be called colonies would also have this linguistic continuity covering over substantive differences on the ground.
It is human, all-too-human to want the linguistic continuity because this gives us some orientation in the midst of a changing world, and it is similarly human to engage in more-or-less similar enterprises over time, even under changed conditions, so there is justification for the extension of traditional language to new activities. By definition, off world human communities will be historically unprecedented, but we will talk about them using established language and think about them in terms of our existing conceptual framework, though our language and our concepts will slowly shift to accommodate our behavior. Top-down linguistic and conceptual revisions are about as artificial as top-down social organization. Esperanto has its enthusiasts as well as its critics; it is the intentional community of languages. Nick would bet on the success of spontaneous and fragmentary innovations of language and conceptual framework that change our way of thinking on an evolutionary scale, scarcely noticeable within a human lifetime, but adding up to substantive changes over historical time.
I did a bit more investigation into what I’d called “intentional communities.” At the time I hadn’t realized that that was a term of art for artificial communities created with specific social purposes as their defining raisons d’etre. What I was thinking of was more what’s often called “planned communities,” like Columbia, MD or Reston, VA. Or come to that, the great majority of retirement communities or gated communities that are springing up these days, or even the company towns of yore. As I live just a stone’s throw (almost literally) from Alcoa, TN and a short drive from Oak Ridge, TN, company towns are pretty familiar to me.
It seemed to me that a major difference between intentional communities and planned communities is that intentional community membership is generally based on an acceptance of the social raison d’etre while planned community membership is based on a contractual agreement between the member and the controlling organization. Whether the planned community be a company town, a gated community, or a retirement community, an individual or family will only be allowed to reside there by agreeing to fulfill contractual commitments.
This seems to me to be a likely organizational tool for off-world settlements too, as the local environments in which the settlements exist will not be forgiving of casual modifications of, or abandonment of, agreed-upon facilities.
I recognize that this sort of organization might be chafing to many. But if there are multiple settlements with somewhat varying contracts for membership, self-sorting may occur.
Again, I’m drawn to the literature on “seasteading,” even though seasteading is only at the very edge of nascency.
The balance between top-down organization, which at some level will be an absolute requirement if the settlement is to be able to sustain human life and a continuing biosphere, and bottom-up organization, which will be an absolute requirement if any true sense of community is to develop, will be interesting to observe. I wouldn’t pretend to be able to design a feasible and functional interface between these two organizational modes, but I think such an interface will become one of the necessary and defining characteristics of any successful off-world settlement. Or any seasteading, for that matter.
Nick replied that one can think of intentional communities as civilizations in miniature, with the pretext for the community being analogous to the central project (the social raison d’etre) of a civilization. The pretext for a community can be a pretty low bar, such as a single interest. For example, a nudist colony has as its central project nudity in the public spaces of the colony. That’s a single-interest central project. Other intentional communities might have a more complex central project, like people who participate in renaissance fairs and seek to reproduce past ways of living.
If we look at it like this, the low success rate of intentional communities can be considered equivalent to the claim that civilizations don’t scale. When you make a civilization and its central project too small, it just doesn’t work well. However, the problem with this is that it would place a big question mark on the origins of civilization. If civilization doesn’t scale well, then how did they get started? And we can’t consider the origins of civilization to be a rare or unusual thing, because multiple civilizations independently emerged in widely separated geographical regions. So there’s an idea, and a problem with the same idea. The imperative of survival is probably key. If a nudist colony fails, usually no one dies.
Nick said he considered company towns as particular instances of intentional communities with a low bar to pass: employment in the company whose town it is. The social raison d’etre is the success of the company. A contractual arrangement may be thought of as a formalization of a social raison d’etre, much as the law is a formalization of some baseline social agreement on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable within a given community.
He agreed about the self-sorting of membership in various off world settlements, and if off world company towns exhibit sufficient diversity and variety, that might be sufficient. Any one company town has the motivation to pull together when it is in rivalry with another company town. When a company town fails, the former residents usually distribute themselves among nearby company towns at a lower level of status, or leave the area entirely. That in itself is a motivation for everyone to be successful in their first choice of company town. The balance of this calculation changes, however, depending upon the supply of labor. If labor is tight, conditions will be good, and individuals will be incentivized to leave for another company town. This mean less loyalty and less likelihood of pulling together. If labor is abundant, conditions will be worse and individuals will be incentivized to stay where they are at.
This observation suggested an interesting tension: moving people off world will be expensive, so labor will be tight. Companies will be incentivized to move enough people off world that they can be more choosy about their labor and not be completely at the mercy of a workforce (which could, for example, unionize, and bring work to a halt in an economically disastrous way).
To return to the example of law, with Roman law and constitutional law we have a top-down model of jurisprudence; with common law we have a bottom-up model of jurisprudence. To this day, England has no constitution, so its legal system is primarily bottom-up, but the tradition of monarchy, and the borrowings from Roman law inject some top-down concerns. The US began with a constitution (if one doesn’t count the Articles of Confederation) so its legal structure is primarily top-down, but the tradition of popular sovereignty injects some bottom-up concerns. This is what we see in most societies: a primary model that is supplemented by subsequent revisions. Nick expects we will see the same in the future, with off world settlements starting out as top-down entities that are later supplemented by bottom-up concerns.
Once there is a critical mass of a human population off planet (and we don’t know what this critical mass will be), then there will be the possibility of alternative forms of social organization coming into their own. Given the incentive by companies to move more people off world in order to assure an ample labor supply, the very action taken to retain top-down control could lead to passing the critical mass after which top-down control will become impossible.
This discussion was a lot of fun, but I realized that we hadn’t actually addressed either Jim Schwartz’s morality questions in the above-referenced presentation at the TVIW symposium, or the question about whether or not to “colonize” space that was raised in Futures.
The question of the morality of committing future generations to lives aboard generation ships or other extraterrestrial settlement from which they have little or no possibility of leaving is one worth examining on its own. As to whether humanity “should” “colonize” space, that’s just academics virtue signaling to each other. If and when it will make sense economically and technologically, it will happen, and all the whining in the world won’t make a bit of difference.
Nick commented that anything that we do in the present to set up a world for the future commits future generations to living in that world without their consent. This is true if we put them on generation ships, and it is true if we confine them to Earth. An argument could be made (though he would not maintain that this is a definitive argument) that we have a moral obligation to follow out all the possibilities of the first “pulse” of industrial civilization, as we may not get a second chance. If we don’t open the door to the universe to our descendants, they may not be confined to Earth, which may be seen as a greater error than being confined to a generation ship.
Nick’s greatest concern for existential risk is what he has come to call “sustainable dystopia” (https://geopolicraticus.tumblr.com/post/182270083427/sustainable-dystopia-a-form-of-permanent) in which we ensure that things can go on indefinitely, but there is no possibility of broadening horizons or any hope for the future other than more of the same.
As to the future generation question, I’m drawn to pioneer movements of all types in the past. When poor people took passage from Europe to the New World in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, they knew it was virtually impossible for them to ever return, or for their progeny to go back should they want to. The lure of freedom and economic betterment convinced them to make the voyage, in the belief that whatever the consequences for them and their offspring, their lives would still be better than if they’d stayed in Europe.
Nick said that if memory serves, Edward Glaeser in his book The Triumph of the City characterized moving to a city as making an investment in discomfort in order for the children of those experiencing the discomfort to have better lives. This was true for pioneers in the 19th century, it is true for people moving from city to country in the 21st century, and it will be true for people moving into space in the coming century.
This moral question isn’t one of absolutes, but of probabilities. If the lives of future generations must be taken into consideration when making such decisions, the only reasonable way to phrase the question is, “Will doing this make my progeny better off than if I don’t do it?” If the question is phrased, “Do I have the moral right to compel future generations to live with the consequences of my actions?” and the answer is “No,” then there is no moral justification for any action, ever. If the answer is “Yes,” then any action is justified.
As I mentioned a while ago in a comment to an earlier post by Sarah, Professor Randy E. Barnett of Georgetown University wrote an 80-page section on “Constitutional Legitimacy” in his 2004 book, “Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty.” In it, he examines the concept of “consent of the governed,” and whether and why the Constitution is binding on us who were born to citizenship in the US. Naturalized citizens have in fact consented to be governed by the Constitution, but natural-born US citizens have in general not affirmatively consented to be governed by the Constitution. I mention this all just to let you know about it; there’s no way I can summarize 80 pages of closely reasoned legal philosophy here. Just be aware that such questions are not being ignored, and that they are somewhat analogous to the question of the moral responsibilities to future worldship generations.
I hope this intrigued you, and would love to hear your responses to it.