‘Off-Earth’ asks how to build a better future in space
MIT Press, $27.95
Astrophysicist Erika Nesvold once asked an executive at a moon mining company how he planned to manage the risk of mining machines carrying microbes from Earth and contaminating the moon (SN: 10/01/18). His answer: “We’ll take care of that later.”
That’s reckless thinking when it comes to preparing people to live and work in space, Nesvold argues in her new book. Outside Earth. It means making decisions with your eyes closed. History is full of cautionary tales of mutiny, exploitation, and humanitarian and ecological catastrophe that would be all too easy to reproduce in space.
“Proponents of space colonization often tout space as a blank slate where we can build utopian societies free from the crowded territory and bloody history of our earthly homeland,” writes Nesvold. “But adopting a ‘worry later’ attitude towards human rights and ethics seems to me a way of repeating the tragedies of this story through ignorance.”
Nesvold is an educational software/video game developer Universe sandbox. In recent years she has shifted her focus to how to build a fair and equitable future in space and co-founded the JustSpace Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to doing just that. Outside Earth is an extension of their podcast from 2017, Create new worlds, which raised ethical questions about colonizing space. The book takes up some of the same questions and expands on them. Each chapter title is a question: “Why are we going?” “Who gets to go?” “Who is responsible?” “What if I get sick?” “Where does Mecca lead to?”
Most chapters begin with three vignettes, usually from different time periods. A chapter that outlines debates about whether to colonize space at all begins with the reader being asked to imagine they are in the 17th century and decide to uproot their family and travel to the New World. A chapter on how land-use and property rights might work in space imagines a person recently freed from slavery in the US South in 1865 and concerned that the new President will reclaim the land they eventually own . A chapter on the ethical questions raised when people get sick in space conjures up a 2020 hospital worker making heartbreaking triage decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The third vignette is usually placed on a space settlement in the year 2100.
Nesvold then examines how various ethical scenarios related to the chapter’s theme might play out in space. She cites experts in fields not often found in space science: ethics, philosophy, indigenous history, law.
This approach diverges from many books about the future of life on the final frontier, forcing readers to confront harsh realities and potential points of friction. Many arguments for removing humanity from Earth assume that space is a land of infinite resources. But at least initially, the settlers will have much more limited resources than on Earth. And situations where people with limited resources are isolated, like on ships or in colonial settlements, have often been recipes for disaster.
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So how will space settlers share what little they have? How will they decide who lives and dies and what quality of life and death they will have? Will living in the harsh conditions of an early space settlement foster innovation and creative advancement, or nurture humanity’s worst tendencies toward exploitation and tyranny?
Most of these questions have no clear answers. That’s partly because ethical issues rarely do. The book “undoubtedly revealed a lot about my own political opinions and priorities, not to mention the influence of my personal background and the culture I grew up in,” writes Nesvold. “In the same way, your position on these issues is likely closely linked to your own values and beliefs.”
Finding answers is also challenging because it requires anticipating what our descendants who will live in the space communities we have already created will want, need, and believe. For the best chance of avoiding catastrophe, the time to consider these questions is now, not later, even though space colonization may be decades or centuries away, argues Nesvold.
Outside Earth should be required reading for anyone who dreams of living in space. Space is not a blank slate, but imagining a better world out there can help us build one—and can also help make our earth-based civilizations better.
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