Policymakers are far too shortsighted – we should be investing in space exploration. It will transform our civilisation for the better.
More than ten thousand years ago, a group of humans began to grow their own food. The choice could have been born out of desperation. However it came to be, this new practice spread and eventually became the norm for humanity. This had monumental consequences.
Agriculture was a folly for those first adopters. Compared to hunting and gathering, which anthropologists believe demanded but 20-30 hours per week of labour to meet subsistence needs (with work often seeming to be synonymous with leisure), farming yielded but 60% as much sustenance per unit of labour.
Farming brought with it greater susceptibility to famine and disease, and reduced nutritional diversity. This widespread malnutrition meant that it was only in the twentieth century that the global average height re-surpassed the average height of humans before the widespread adoption of agriculture.
This adoption of agriculture, now called the Neolithic revolution, was “the greatest ever mass-destroyer of skills, cultures and languages in human history”. Gods, virtues, and ideals were cast aside. The property-free, (relatively) egalitarian, and affluent old ways died. The harvested grains allowed for food surpluses, which in turn allowed for specialisation away from sustenance, and the power to control surpluses by budding rulers. A new age of property, hierarchy, and scarcity had come.
Property, hierarchy, and scarcity bred new ways of undertaking warfare, trade, and culture. These in turn brought about the consolidation of peoples into larger social units that were ever more effective at producing and competing with their peers. More intricate and complex institutions and relationships evolved, necessitating new tools for societies such as mathematics, astronomy, and writing.
If there is such a thing as human progress – whether we consider it to be a function of our material wealth, or of our capacity for a rich inner life – such progress has ultimately resulted from the decision to live off of crops.
Such progress was probably never envisioned or comprehended by those who first tilled the fields. They only knew that they would be trading a life of relative ease and plenty for one of hardship and drudgery. If homo economicus had witnessed this, he would have rolled his eyes and walked away from these inefficient and unproductive fools.
Homo economicus also balks at another prospect that would have just as radical an effect on the lives of future generations as the Neolithic revolution: the transition of humanity into a multi-planetary species.
Devoting resources towards the project of human space colonisation is derided as being the obsession of fantasists and utopians – a project that is simply not to be countenanced beyond science-fiction. In 2012, when Newt Gingrich proposed a Lunar colony by 2020 if he were elected president, the chorus of guffaws and derision faced by him overshadowed much of his campaign. Journalism and government seem to agree that humanity faces too many problems on Earth to waste resources on such a fantastical project.
Yet there is a growing existential risk to human civilisation that would be best reduced through extra-terrestrial colonies. Access to the vast amount of rare earth elements which can be extracted from near-earth asteroids alone could vastly reduce the global cost of living by driving down the prices of services and consumer goods such as phones, medical equipment such as MRI scanners, and industrial and scientific equipment such as lasers and fuel cells.
Like the Apollo programme, a manned exploration and colonisation initiative could generate a great deal of positive externalities for those on Earth. Fundamental questions for the sciences could be solved through a manned presence throughout the solar system.
Robert Zubrin argues that the technology for manned Mars missions has been available to us for decades (and if NASA had been given a clear directive, it would probably be able to land a man on Mars with the agency’s present budget). Colonisation, of which exploration is a prerequisite, also appears feasible using present technology and methods emphasising the use of on-site resources.
Homo economicus is right in supposing that the endeavour will be costly, but it seems obvious to any whose time preference is inclined towards the longer term that the material, scientific, and societal gains that are to be had through the transition of humanity to a multiplanetary species substantially outweigh the immediate costs.
Just like the Neolithic revolutionaries, modern man must pay for the settlement of space – albeit at a far lower cost incurred by our ancestors, since it will not bring the famine and malnutrition which that earlier revolution did. Also like the Neolithic revolution, the settlement of space also will have far-reaching effects on our civilisation in the long-run. We do have reason to believe that the “space revolution” offers future humans a far more profound internal and external life than that which we have available now, owing to a vastly expanded resource base for the species.
The colonisation of space will create a frontier. This frontier will be a place for those who are discontented with the modern world in some way to go to liberate themselves, whether it be from government, society, or the economic realities of Earth. It will create a possibility for those who wish for a life of significance, conscience, and hardship to direct their energies through creating homesteads or contributing to the creation and expansion of wider colonies.
Humans can never be rid of the conditions of poverty and inequality. There never will be a “perfect” time in which humanity must choose between devoting resources to space colonisation or improving the immediate well-being of individuals right now on Earth; whether it is us or our descendants, the transition to a multi-planetary civilisation will always be at the expense of some present improvement in a mono-planetary civilisation. There probably never was a “perfect” time for the first people of the Neolithic to grow their crops, yet they undertook their revolution anyway.
The sacrifice of those first settled men and women may have just been motivated by that most uniquely human desire to leave a legacy for future generations. It is a desire that resonates throughout time: we dream of distant children who shall smile upon our labours.
Matthew Kirtley reads PPE at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.
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