Response to VVEV: Section V – Concluding Thoughts

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by by Maciej Rebisz.

This is Part 5 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section V of VVEV is entitled Concluding Thoughts, and contains three essays:

  • The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the “Emergency Century, Kim Stanley Robinson, in conversation with James Bell
  • The Practical Economics of Space, Clark A. Miller
  • High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

This blog post contains spoilers!

VVEV concludes with three essays that reflect on many of the key themes raised by earlier sections, and consider the future of spaceflight.

From James Bell’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, a couple of paragraphs stood out to me. First:

But really, I think the Mars project should be bigger than any one company or one person’s dream. That angle, suspiciously like the old science fiction stories of a boy building a rocket to the Moon in his backyard, I think actually deflates public interest in Mars and space generally, by turning it from an exploration of the commons to just another rich person’s hobby, the equivalent of bungee jumping, except up instead of down. Who cares what the rich do to entertain themselves? That’s just a matter of celebrity culture—so maybe many people will care, who knows. But Mars is bigger than that, and I prefer to think of it as something like Antarctica or the ocean, a commons that everyone belongs to equally, so that exploring it should be like exploring Antarctica, a place of scientific interest and international cooperation, as well as adventure tourism. That would be the way to treat it.

I certainly don’t disagree with the sentiment that KSR is expressing here. But I would posit that Antarctica retains this status due to two hugely significant factors. Firstly, the Antarctic Treaty System, which governs the activity of twelve major nations and their citizens/companies, was an agreement between governments as the key players in the region. Secondly, though Antarctica contains mineral wealth and commercialization potential in the form of tourism, etc, the barriers to extraction and market entry have done more to prevent resource exploitation of the region than the treaty has. In other words, it’s really hard to make a profit in Antarctica vs just drilling for oil somewhere else… for now. As soon as that fact changes, you can bet the practical terms of that treaty will change too.

The parallels to space futures then are clear: follow the money. In the first place, the major players in near-future human spaceflight seem as though they will be at least as much private as government, and possibly far more so. Private companies are not bound by treaties, including the Outer Space Treaty signed by many nations that now provides the framework for space law. If a company violates a treaty in space, who is going to stop them, how, and by what authority or jurisdiction? Earth-based militaries are well positioned to enforce their treaties on well-grounded authorities; the same cannot be said for space. What is to stop private companies or massive corporations from doing whatever they want outside of Earth’s atmosphere?

In the second place, protected regions have had a bad record of being exploited as soon as enough baseline infrastructure and political framework is available to turn reasonable profit. Politicians know who writes their campaign checks. As soon as some combination of climate change, extraction technology advancement, and resource depletion elsewhere makes Antarctic drilling a sound business investment, then the treaties that protect it are going to go out the window very quickly. The same is true for space resources, and it just so happens that there are lot of more companies actively engaged in the development of this domain than for Antarctica. Why? In part because governments (including the United States) have an explicit policy of encouraging space commercialization, and the government as a prime investor and guaranteed customer changes the profit/loss equation considerably.

The second segment that jumped out at me is about the value of going into space at all. KSR seems to throw cold water on the idea of space commerce:

  So, mining the asteroids to live in the asteroids—it’s a very plausible science fiction story, it’s how it would be done. But it’s a tautological justification. If you say, “why go to the asteroids,” and the answer is, “so we can mine water to live in the asteroids,” it has no force as a justification. When people say “mining,” the implication is that we are extracting something that we want here on Earth and bringing it back to use. And that isn’t something space can do for us.
The exceptions might be energy generation in orbit, beamed down to Earth; and maybe helium-3; and maybe some rare earths. But none of these really pencil out in the capitalist economy. There would have to be a post-capitalist system and some kind of overriding need, which I doubt exists. So again, these are fantasy projections, I think, made by people who “want space” for noneconomic reasons—which is fine—and then try to justify the desire by way of a projective economic logic that doesn’t actually pencil out.
We don’t need space. We need sustainability in this biosphere. Space is a luxury problem and a luxury opportunity. It’s what we get to explore in some detail, in the centuries after we succeed in inventing permaculture here, if we do.

There’s a couple of things I agree with here, though I disagree with the meta-point he seems to be making. Firstly, it’s absolutely true that most of the value of extracting space resources is in using them in space itself. A future that involves any sort of large-scale, permanent human presence in space will require the exploration, extraction, transportation, and processing of in-space resources, for straightforward reasons of Earth’s limited gravity and Earth’s limited supply capacity.

Where I disagree with KSR is his assumption that such expansion into space won’t happen in the first place unless there is an economic argument to do from the beginning. There are plenty of forces that are attempting to catalyze a space-faring civilization that have nothing to do with near-term profit. For example, governments see it as a matter of national security and a source of soft-power not to be overshadowed by rival nations. If the Chinese land on the moon and establish a base, you can bet that NASA will see an immediate funding boost to do the same and grab territory or influence faster than the other. There is the opportunity that rapidly developing nations such as India, Brazil, the U.A.E., and Nigeria see in bypassing the industrial revolution stage that the old powers went through, and moving directly to staking a claim in a new space economy in which everyone is substantially on the same footing for now. There is the fact that many countries, including the United States, have explicit policies of subsidizing and protecting the commercial activities of their domestic space industries. There are the dozens of wealthy billionaires who seem willing to throw money at space because it is sexy, and a perception that being among the first will have brand value. There will be all the people who work for the people who do the above, because it’s a job and other jobs are disappearing because that’s how technological change in economies works. Eventually, just as in migrations and colonizations past, there will be the hundreds and maybe thousands of common people willing to leave Earth for brave new hardships, simply because they are different from the hardships they have been stuck in on Earth for generations, be they from persecution or simply population pressure. And others will go for fun, just because it’s awesome.

In other words, in the near-future, plenty of people are going to go into space and live there more or less permanently, not necessarily because it makes immediate economic sense, or because they have a driving need to go, or even because they even really want to go. But for innumerable aggregate reasons they will go… and when they are up there, they will need resources. When they need those resources, the people, companies, and nations that made the early investments in being able to acquire and deliver those resources are going to be very, very rich.

In The Practical Economies of Space, Clark A. Miller makes quite a few great observations, but the one that resonates most with me is about not losing sight of the common people who have nothing to do with the “mission” of whatever we are going into space for, but have everything to do with making it a place to live.

To bloom in space, humanity will require the grounding “soil” of the local coffee shop, the local bar—but as the stories in this collection suggest, we’re going to have to work hard to create space economies that have commercial establishments in them. To create commercial establishments, you have to create all kinds of things: the kind of people who need commercial establishments, the kind of people that run them, and the material and financial markets that support both. That will not be easy. It will require visions of the future and of people’s lives and roles in those futures that differ markedly from those being pedaled in the current imaginings of space policy and the commercialization of space.

[..]

Creating a human future in space where people live, work, and play, have families, raise their kids, run businesses, write novels and poetry, celebrate their gods, and dance amidst the stars—where they thrive—seems like a goal worthy of human striving and human enterprise. We will need Myrna and many others just like her—social entrepreneurs of the best kind—to make that happen. Let’s make sure we write them, and all of humanity, into our future plans.

One of the criticisms of Red Soil Through Our Fingers that has stuck with me came from writer Morgan Crooks, with whom I crossed paths at many a New England science fiction con. He said (and I paraphrase), “I really liked it. But where’s the sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Is there god in Red Soil?” He meant, and he was absolutely correct, that science fiction writers, myself included, often forget to include enough of the the everyday, the personal, the elements present in every real human society that don’t make any rational sense or serve any mission purpose, yet make the setting authentically human. In doing so, we shortchange our visions of the future, and make it harder for anyone outside of space nerddom to understand what space holds for humanity’s future. In both fiction and nonfiction, we should remember the bars, places of worship, and open mic nights that may be just as important as long-term stability of a space settlement as the resource supply chain.

The final essay of the collection is High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic, by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, which takes it’s name from a combination of philosophical stances that believe we should work towards good things, and that we actually have the power to make these things happen.

Though short, Elkins-Tanton’s essay makes at least a dozen points I agree with from spaceflight to the need for diversity to the failures of rote, fact-driven approaches to teaching science. I can’t help imagining that were we in the same room with a few beers, the author and I would find plenty to rant about in vehement agreement for hours.

I would like every person on Earth to feel they have the capacity to think of something new and wonderful, that they have the agency to make a positive difference in their world, and that they have the knowledge to make progress solving open questions and problems. What could we accomplish if a larger proportion of us thought clearly about, and worked to create a positive future for, our species?

Amen to that, and a fine place to leave the collection.

I was going to include my overall thoughts on VVEV as a whole in this blog post as well, but it started getting unwieldy, so I’ll tack on a Part 6 shortly.

 

 

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