The other night I had a conversation with my friend AJ about what would be necessary for civilization to achieve a significant presence in space–not necessarily interstellar travel, but even colonization of the solar system. This post is mostly a reconstruction of his argument, but I found it depressingly persuasive. Space travel is expensive. Humans haven’t in the last 25 years been more than a couple hundred miles from the surface of the earth. The moon is 250,000 miles away. The nearest planet is millions of miles away. Going to the moon required the United States, the most prosperous nation on earth, to come together in a way that it hasn’t before or since. And even so, only a handful of people have been to the moon. Less than a dozen I think.
This conversation arose from his complaints about the verisimilitude of Star Trek. According to his theory, the Klingons would never make it into interstellar space. They would destroy themselves with any technology they could develop that can achieve that goal. And so would we, in our current state at least. Interstellar travel would require a large-scale organization of humanity in one of a couple ways we could think of. One would be what I’ll call the Starfleet option, where everyone is part of a hierarchy much like the US military today. Members of the military go through a period of training and indoctrination, before they’re allowed to participate in any significant way in the military’s operations. When this indoctrination is complete, each member is capable of functioning as part of a grand hierarchy that seems to be a very effective way of organizing a large number of human resources quote-unquote. (I know there are civilians in the Federation, and that the Federation government is a civilian organization that the Starfleet military hierarchy answers to. This may or may not be compatible with a successful Starfleet-option society.)
The other way is what I will call the Vulcan option. Every member of the species is indoctrinated with a code of ethics encouraging self-sacrifice and a devotion to reason. As Spock said, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Or the one.”
The Vulcan option sounds a lot like a religion. Modern religion, however, would seem to be too divisive. Every major religion, at least each of the Abrahamic ones, specifies (in one way or another) that other religions are wrong and must be destroyed–even other sects of the same religion. (The definition of “must be destroyed” varies, of course.)
We were divided about the Romulans. He believed that a culture driven by conquest, even one where all members were loyal to the greater good of that culture, would eventually turn that drive for conquest against itself.
The modern corporation has been successful at organizing a large number of human resources. But since the corporation’s tendency to treat things like environmental damage as “externalities” has contributed a great deal to our current environmental problems, I’m not sure this is the answer we’re looking for. The externalities could easily kill us.
Another thing that can bring the species together is impending disaster. In Vernor Vinge’s story Long Shot, humanity realizes that the sun is about to explode within a few decades. The collective effort of humanity is able to produce a ship capable of a one-way, 10,000 year trip to a habitable planet orbiting one of the stars of Alpha Centauri. The ship has no living passengers, but it is crewed by an artificial intelligence and carries a couple tons of ice protecting some frozen human embryos, and the equipment necessary to gestate them once the ship lands.
Humans’ ability to respond to such a crisis, however, is called into question by the fact that nearly every scientist agrees on the danger of anthropogenic global warming, but we, collectively, are not able to decrease our carbon emissions enough to have an effect on this.
In order to get our collective eggs out of this very small basket, we need to survive long enough to do so, and to do that we need to develop a sustainable way of life. Individual selfishness, collective ignorance, and collective divisiveness could doom the human race to be confined to this planet until we go extinct, and to hasten that very extinction.
Could a new social movement change that? Or would it just become another voice lost in the cacophony?