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Humanizing the cosmos, a critique and counter-critique

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
31st March 2011


I asked our friend Eric Hunting, who is involved in open source space efforts, to comment on an article in the Monthly Review (by Peter Dickens), which you can find here.

As you can read, Eric was not happy with it:

“He is not using the term ‘humanization’ in any positive context. He is characterizing it as synonymous with everything he considers negative about contemporary Industrial Age culture; economic and social injustice, environmental degradation, war. He’s declaring ‘human’ a dirty word.

I was reminded immediately of the introduction to the book Gaiome by Kevin Scott Polk (a book on the use of permaculture models as the basis of new space habitat designs) where the author describes a small space conference attended by a younger Jeff Bezos -who went on to become founder of Amazon. Bezos was presenting a paper on a scheme for asteroid utilization and as he was talking a woman in the audience became increasingly visibly agitated until she finally jumped out of her seat shouting; “All you want to do is rape the universe!” and then ran from the room sobbing. Bezos then turned to the author and said; “Did I just hear her right? Was she arguing for the inalienable rights of barren rock?” Now, working in the textbook business as I do, I can think of a great many other reasons why people would want to angrily shout at Jeff Bezos in public, but this article seems to be making the same sort of peculiar accusation toward space activity in general. It’s boils down to the suggestion that we should stay out of space because it has no possible ROI for the exploited common man and we’ll only F-it up. So instead we should focus on a concerted global effort to solve terrestrial problems and make ourselves nicer people. And in that is the critical misconception. A presumption that there is an inherent dichotomy between improving life on Earth and pursuing settlement in space based largely on the presumed character of the corporations and institutions that seem to dominate space activity today, rather than a consideration of the nature of space development activity and its impacts. It has the tone of the argument of environmental extremists who regard the human race as a ‘mistake’, a cancer that must be contained before it metastasizes across the universe, confined to an ascetic meditation on its own pathology until it evolves to a more noble state more deserving of a place in the universe. How do you learn and evolve without actually doing anything?

One thing I find astounding is this author’s use of the Space Renaissance Institute’s manifesto (apparently triggered chiefly by the presence of the word ‘renaissance’) as a basis of his argument. He uses this as an example of what could be called an ‘Enlightenment pathology’; the systematic exploitation of notions of liberty, reason, modernity, and progress as a ploy to sell Industrial Age paradigms. It’s a standard trope of environmental extremists, with just enough exceptions to prove the rule. Basically, he’s accusing anyone who espouses an aspiration to these virtues of being liars simply because, through history, some other people who also espoused those aspirations were ultimately proven disingenuous. I’m actually a member of the RSI. I recall how the leaders of that very nascent space advocacy group labored for two years over every single word in that manifesto like it was going to make or break the whole future. Right now the organization is facing a crisis of confidence, losing people -particularly in America- because it is accused of being too humanist. Too fluffy. More concerned with cultivating a philosophical stance than bending metal -which turns off those of an engineering bent who would rather get on with launching hardware than have tea with the PM. RSI’s core objective is to re-establish the cultural relevance of space as a drive for social and economic progress -and, of course, today you can’t use the word ‘progress’ without it being assumed by the fundamentalist left as a codeword for exploitation and environmental degradation. My chief complaint with the RSI is that, so far, they haven’t demonstrated a very coherent strategy for how to do what they intend to do, but then this is a nascent organization. Its membership is modest and it’s still largely unknown in space advocacy circles, though a bit more well known in Europe than elsewhere. It hasn’t yet approached the name recognition of the Mars Society, L5 Society, Planetary Society, or even the Lifeboat Foundation.

But what really blew this fellow’s arguments away for me was when he started noting some really bad science. The suggestion that failure of the Cassini probe launch could have caused 40 million deaths because it was powered by plutonium is just breathtakingly stupid. Either this guy doesn’t know one isotope from another or is deliberately exploiting people’s general lack of that knowledge for the cheap fear factor -as a few less than honest environmentalists once did during the Cassini launch, scaring some people enough to hide in their basements as the spacecraft took off. I realize the PhD is no longer the hallmark of a rounded education it once was, but how do you even get one in any field and fail at high school level science?

I could go on for days with what’s wrong with this article, but the bottom line here is that, for all the large numbers that get bandied about with space programs, the totality of what we have so far done in space is pretty penny-ante compared to the scale of economics of mundane industry, commerce, and transportation. It seems like a big deal because it’s high-profile, but more money is spent every year building cruise liners than is spent every decade on space. Satellites may be significant today in communications and military applications, but even they are on their way out in commercial roles since latency is becoming increasingly critical to mainstream communications applications and they can’t keep up with the pace of land-based communications evolution. It’s not unusual for telecom satellites to become obsolete before they’re even ready for launch. Only military applications have seen sustained growth -thanks to the Forever War On Terror. Concerted civilian space development is actually in decline, abandoned by both left and right sides of the political aisle. New Space is, still, largely dominated by a tiny community of eccentric middle-aged billionaires with Tahiti Syndrome. It’s pretty well understood that, because of its origins in the Cold War and the nature of western governments, contemporary space development has had bad priorities and an unhealthy relationship with the military industrial complex. And, as I noted, there are issues in the New Space community that derive from the isolated culture of the small eccentric faction of IT-boom nouveau riche that is predominately driving it. But there is a fundamental aspect of space development that has huge potential positive impact on terrestrial civilization that some in open manufacturing are starting to clue into. Inhabiting space means figuring out how to go from sunlight, rocks, and dirt to a sustainable middle-class standard of living using hardware on the scale of home appliances. That’s what it’s essentially about. If you can’t visualize the potential socio-economic-environmental impact of that kind of capability, you’re not trying. That by itself means a potential change in how we do just about everything on planet Earth. We can do that on Earth too, but there isn’t the same imperative because the terrestrial environment is too kind to us. Mother Earth lets us slack-off or cheat, and that’s exacerbated by vested interests that resist innovation on Earth.

The laws of physics largely prohibit the costs externalization common to terrestrial industry and economics and will, in the near-term, limit simple ROI on Earth from space to a region of space relatively close to Earth. Ultimately, space will have to be settled by people seeking an ROI realized/used out there. Even Wernher von Braun understood this. His experience with both Nazi and American militaries taught him that the strategic military imperative could not get you past Earth orbit and neither could the profit motive. There was neither economic nor strategic military value any farther out than that. To go farther and to stay there space had to be a cultural imperative. So he pursued the concept of a civilian space program and, in partnership with none-other than Walt Disney (who understood the potential entertainment value inherent in visions and narratives about the future), an imperative for space based on the humanist ideal of inhabiting it. Sure, much of the first Space Race was fueled by nationalism and Cold War paranoia, but the ‘promise’ of space that mattered to the culture was the prospect of opening it up for all as a place to live an aspiration shared by both East and West. The loss of this is the basis of the long ennui in public space support. NASA’s key problem is forgetting that essential original intention and, thanks to its progressive political and corporate corruption and increasingly self-absorbed nature, the result has not been an advance to space but an incremental retreat from it. New Space may have some current gravitas, but too few objectives. For space tourism to actually realize CATS (cheap access to space) it would have to reach a tremendous scale, like those that have made conventional air travel affordable. CATS is not a technology problem. It’s a logistical question based on operational economies of scale. (the reason why we have A360s and not as many Cessnas as cars) We would have to be building an Orlando Florida on orbit to get to a Pan-Am Orion. Not a very likely prospect soon given the extreme up-front costs and functionalism still demanded by space habitats today.

So maybe it’s time for a people’s space program as I’ve been proposing with the International Open Space Initiative concept. A global open-participation public space program based on a Linux model of development, a very direct unrestrained back-flow of technology transfer, and a social ROI sought in that technology back-flow.

As I’ve suggested in my writing for TMP2, future space settlers will not consider themselves ‘conquerers’ of space but rather the gardeners of the universe -because their lives will generally revolve around the cultivation of garden habitats in that environment for them to live in. We go to space to bring it to life as an act of creative expression, an exploration of the spectrum of potential lifestyle, an expansion of culture, not to futilely attempt to externalize the costs of an unsustainable terrestrial junk-world civilization. And in so doing we are compelled to learn, and bring back to Earth, the craft of sustainability because, in space, you have no choice. It’s not forgiving like the Earth has been with its benefit of three and a half billion years of biological alchemy. Carl Sagan said that we are a way for the universe to know itself. But there’s more to that than just passively bearing witness. We have to interact with it, inhabit it, bring it to life, make it conscious. We have to make love to it as an artist makes love to his medium. Like the sculptor discovering, with his hands, the forms hidden in the rock at the interface of mind and material. This is what humanizing the cosmos really means. Maybe we’re still too clumsy by far at this and, like a too-inquisitive toddler, consequently an inherent danger to ourselves. But you can’t learn this schtick waiting, meditating, and hoping for a spontaneous quantum leap in human consciousness before the next asteroid hits. Better to go out like a proper human being; with a hammer in your hand rather than a bible.

Searching for an example of the kinds of videos I intend to develop for the TMP2 project, I found one on YouTube recently that is derived from one of the very few hard SF anime called Planetes and which well sums up my point of view here;”

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