A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!
This meme-worthy quote from the 1982 movie Blade Runner drips with satirical intent. We hear it booming out from a gaudy, hovering billboard as it drifts over a dark, rain-soaked noir vision of the future Earth.
For many of us living today, this indiscrete cautionary note is the kind of message we should pay attention to. For a long while we’ve cogitated and agitated about where our technological powers might take us. We’ve discussed the pros and cons of moving beyond our rudimentary exploration of the solar system by sending humans into the void, and even argued about taking the plunge into full-on colonization. But there has always been ample scope for criticism.
Looking back at some of the proposals from the dawn of the space-age, across the 1950s and 1960s, it’s not hard to see where that unease can come from. Take for example Werner von Braun’s 1952 ‘Das Marsprojekt’, a muscular technological vision for human exploration of Mars. It’s full of massive spacecraft, vast infrastructure, and bold thinking. It also requires the unquestioning devotion of a nation, perhaps even a civilization. This isn’t a side hobby, it’s a species-wide commitment.
And that’s just for a program of extensive exploration. Even with many advances in how we engineer and conduct spaceflight, and new visionaries like Elon Musk and SpaceX, the overhead involved in putting human colonies elsewhere in the solar system, and sustaining them, would be even greater.
What would we accomplish, really, in the end?
That’s where the debate ratchets up a notch. It is indisputable that living on a single planet is perilous in the long term. The history of life on Earth is a four-billion-year catalog of change. Cataclysmic asteroid impacts, restless volcanism, shifting climate states, chemical evolution, and endless Darwinian molecular evolution are just some of the hazards that have ended some species, while helping set others in motion.
Just because we’ve done well for ourselves in the past 150,000 years says absolutely nothing for our future survival. Beyond the obvious dangers that will occur again (like asteroid impacts), are still poorly understood cosmic perils from phenomena like exploding stars and the galactic environment. And, of course, there are perils due to our own successes; we are making physical changes to the very conditions that gave rise to us.
An off-world colony, a seed-bank, an escape hatch would definitely improve our long-term prospects. This really cannot be argued with.
But we’d have to also convince ourselves that we’re not going to make just as big a mess of new worlds as we’ve done here on Earth. Is it worth finding an existential backup plan off-world if we’re going to be just as miserable there? A recent essay in The Atlantic by Sam Kriss rather brilliantly articulates this viewpoint by tackling the dubious (although indirectly posed) suggestion that somehow recent exoplanet discoveries like the TRAPPIST-1 system give our species a bolt-hole. The bottom line – don't get distracted, solve our many social, economic, and environmental problems first.
These are good points. But I’d like to suggest another way to think about all of this.
It is of course more or less impossible to argue that setting up human colonies on Mars, or the Moon, or anywhere else, wouldn’t divert resources and attention from earthly problems. Nor can we guarantee that the first colony township on another world won’t run into all the same issues that we have here on the home world. Human nature is what it is, and chance and contingency keeps shaking our butterfly jar to keep things interesting.
Except I think that when we talk casually about expanding into the cosmos we typically ignore the most obvious challenge – that in itself will force the experience to be an opportunity for radical social and conceptual growth. That challenge is how awful it will be.
If we ever have interplanetary pioneers they will necessarily face a set of hurdles that few humans have ever come close to experiencing. Being in space, being on the surface of a distant – and barely habitable – world makes the frontiers of Earth’s continents and oceans seem like a stroll in the park.
We could certainly build cozy pods on Mars, for example, but your every living moment would hinge on a substrate of machines and systems that attempt to replicate your terrestrial environment while protecting you from the native one. And there are deeper, ancient, needs that we barely understand in terms of generational biology. From low gravity to the vast environmental microbiome that we all take absolutely for granted, our bodies and minds have dependencies that may be whipped away from us on an alien world.
Here on Earth we may have had explorers and pioneers poking into the desolate reaches of our continents. But no one has ever tried to live their whole life in isolation at the South Pole, or to raise a family on Everest’s peak. The challenge of solar system colonization is terrifying.
But I think that’s precisely why it could have a positive effect, even beyond the goal of crudely ameliorating existential risk. Imagine a future Colony Number 1 on Mars. They will experience stresses and misfortunes, and probably triumphs, that won’t just captivate us back here at home, but could provide radically new examples of what our species can do and how it can adapt its social and cultural spirit. If they survive, we can all survive.
The catch is that this evolution might not happen if a limited, cautious colonization effort was made. A tightly controlled, triply-redundant ‘pretend’ colony won’t cross the threshold into this new landscape. It probably has to be all-or-nothing.
The golden land of adventure and opportunity might be backbreaking, biome-killing, and harsh beyond belief. But it would mean a new life for us all.