Competition for la longue durée

30 December 2011


It has been widely reported that the China National Space Administration has released a white paper, China’s Space Activities in 2011, detailing China’s plans for space exploration in the coming years. Today’s Financial Times carried this as the front page story, complete with a color picture of a Chinese rocket blasting off. The most detailed story was on Xinhua’s English language service, China to launch Shenzhou-9, Shenzhou-10 spacecraft next year.

In section III of the paper, “Major Tasks for the Next Five Years,” there are three short paragraphs on human spaceflight:

China will push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight.

It will launch the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spaceships and achieve unmanned or manned rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit Tiangong-1 vehicle.

China will launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.

China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.

It has become a commonplace of political commentary that the “Space Race” of the 1960s was primarily driven by Cold War competition between the US and the USSR — a response to a perception to maintain national prestige requirements — and was not a disinterested quest for knowledge or a visionary undertaking for the future of humanity. Bertrand Russell responded to the Space Race in precisely this way, dismissing all space exploration on this basis, and in so doing demonstrating that even great men have their blind spots.

But competition between nation-states, and the incentive and spur to action that comes from competition, can be as essential to social and political life as it is to economic life. Isolated political entities not spurred on by competition can fall into an introspective languor that becomes a malaise, and all their promise is lost as they disappear from history simply because they lacked the interest to achieve anything. The world is covered by the remains of lost civilizations that grew, flourished, and then died, mostly without any kind of robust contact with other socio-political entities.

The transportation infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization has ended the possibility of a civilization completing an entire life cycle without being in contact with other civilizations. This has placed nation-state against nation-state and civilization against civilization and made our crowded world a dangerous place. This has changed the conditions under which civilizations exist. The challenge and response mechanism that Toynbee thought accounted for the emergence of civilization is now a mechanism that accounts for the growth and perpetuation of civilization, because civilizations are in competition primarily with each other, rather than with the natural environment.

Competition means selection, and we are now on the cusp of experiencing selection on a cosmological level. What we do now in terms of space exploration truly matters for the long term future of humanity. A selection event almost always involves competition, and competition can get ugly. Also, competition apparently lacks those elevated and high-minded features that we might most admire in humanity when they make their brief appearance among the baseness and squalor or our ordinary lives. We want ourselves to be better, but we know that we are mostly no better than our worst moments — and sometimes competition brings out the worst in us.

Competition gives rise to an unpleasant milieu of, “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels…” as John Stuart Mill put it (Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VI, 1), and which led Mill to speak kindly of the “stationary state” in his work on political economy. Russell belongs to this tradition, and we must see this tradition in historical perspective to understand that there will be future representatives of this tradition who will urge us to be content with what we have and not to strive for more.

If some (or even most) nation-states decide that space travel is not worth the time, expense and effort, and this particular aspect of human endeavor now falls to the Chinese, what civilization do you think will represent humanity to the universe at large? To the rest of the universe, we will be known as the Chinese planet, and China will literally fulfill its historical destiny of being the “Middle Kingdom” halfway between heaven and earth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Competition for la longue durée”

  1. MisterEgo said

    One would think that civilizations existence with each other will decrease war, that is, greater coexistence. What makes you think it does not?

    Fewer and fewer wars in the world… even counting parts of Africa and similar.

    Europe has had what can be considered long years of peace… South and North Americas as well, not considering USA excursions…

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