Addendum on Spacesteading

21 September 2012


A few days ago in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II I mentioned the presentation made by Gabriel Rothblatt about spacesteading, and that I had written to ask him the following question:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

Mr. Rothblatt has been kind enough to favor me with a reply, and since I promised an addendum if he did respond, here follows Mr. Rothblatt’s answers to my questions:

To answer your question about distinctions between social structures I’d have to say purpose. Space colony social structures will be focused on workforce efficiency in production or extraction, with the colonies themselves existing as means to an end and resembling economic zones with policies otherwise incongruent with standards of modern civilized life. By definition and practice a colony will have no right to control its own organization and policy, therefore given the extreme circumstances and remoteness it is highly probable that exaggerated forms of exploitation will be introduced, much like they were in the Americas, which most closely resembles the space colony scenario to-date.

It’s important to consider here that most space enthusiasts are not suited or interested in performing labor and most people in a position to perform the tasks of a colony have no interest in opting to go to space to do so. Spacesteaders came to space voluntarily for the love and/ or the freedom and adventure. Space colonists do so under duress of their economic situations on Earth.

In contrast to space colonization the concept of spacesteading does not as clearly define a specific social structure. What it does is create space based communities that are free to govern themselves. Communities may engage in production and mining for commercial gain, but do not exist for that purpose. The spacestead is the end, the mining/production a means to maintain it. In the former scenario, you would see a homogeneous model of operations, regardless if Interplanetary or Sol Systems was operating the colony. In the latter model the Mormon spacestead may look somewhat different from the Terasemian Monastery and still yet different from the Space Gambit orbital laboratory for Interstellar R&D facility or the municipality of New Nairobi. All of them having in common with each other the right to establish their own laws and existing expressly to be free communities in space, not as feeders to a remote political and economic machine.

To conclude, it is not to say that every model of space colonization we’ve dreamed till now truly fits that definition, some are apt descriptions of spacesteads. I’m not the first to propose this separation nor even the first to use the term spacesteading. As we get closer to a realization of a community in space it becomes more and more important to distinguish between the different pixels in the picture. I foresee soon we will begin to look closer at government versus corporate space colonies, perhaps even religious (although I personally do not distinguish much between government and religion). It is also equally possible for a spacestead to achieve equal or greater degrees of immorality than a space colony, in my humble opinion however, it’s the most pragmatic safe guard against institutionalized human rights violations and an inevitable war of rebellion to interstellar colonialization.

Mr. Rothblatt has outlined several very important points here, and I realize now in retrospect that the paternalism and patriarchalism that I noted in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II as implicitly figuring in many of the 100YSS presentations might also be cast in terms of colonialism — one of the most pernicious and perennial rationalizations of colonialism being that of a benign presence that oversees and attends to the moral edification of the residents of the colony.

Mr. Rothblatt is exactly right to point to the danger of space settlements being primarily economically motivated and therefore lacking self-governance and therefore control over policies, practices, and procedures. We have an image of this danger in the science fiction film Outland, which depicts a space mining settlement as a “company town” with all that implies. This is not a model of development that we should want to extend to the human future in space. The danger of close Earth control over space settlements what I had in mind when I previously opined that it would be unrealistic to think that controlling powers on the Earth could reach out over space and time to shape the lives of those who would be, by then, living under very different conditions.

I also find myself in agreement with Mr. Rothblatt that spacesteading need not define a particular social structure. In the event of multiple settlements in space, I surely hope that we will see a hundred flowers bloom in terms of the diversity of social systems that will be attempted. The political and social experimentation with novel (and perhaps also not-so-novel) systems of governance under new and unprecedented conditions for human beings will be, I think, very healthy for our species and its continued social development. Something genuinely new may come about as the result of social experimentation in parallel with spacesteading, and this ought to be very exciting for any political philosopher.

The social and political diversity of space settlements — not to mention on long distance generational starships — may also, as Mr. Rothblatt points out, be the best safeguard against rebellion and militancy. Any quasi-colonial scenario immediately suggests the possibility of colonists at a great distance from the political center choosing to assert their independence even if this is denied them officially. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a scenario not resulting in violent separatism.

As the human future in space slowly and steady grows in scope, it will become increasingly evident that what Thomas Paine said of the relationship between Britain and its American colonies — using an astronomical metaphor no less — must also be true of the Earth and those communities that come to be established off the surface of the Earth:

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”

The Earth is an island in space. In time, we will come to see it as such, and we will be forced to recognize that this small planet, as beautiful as it is, is but a fragment of the cosmos, and that space must belong to itself and not to the earth.

I would like the thank Mr. Rothblatt for his response, which highlights so many important issues for the social future of humanity in space.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One version of the decomposition of the earth’s land masses into continents.

The idea of a continent is inherently ambiguous because it is ultimately derived from accounts of the world that preceded any scientific understanding of the structure of the world’s land masses; it is an informal concept, and it can only be formalized in a quantifiable scientific account if we adapt conventions that were no part of the original meaning. I can still remember learning about continents in my earliest elementary school education and how confused I was by the disconnect between the apparent principle and its putative application to the map. When I was asked, as part of a test, to approach the map and point out the various continents, it was with considerable trepidation that I pointed to somewhere near Lisbon to indicate “Europe” and somewhere near Vladivostok to indicate “Asia.” The distinction between Europe and Asia was not at all clear to me given the idea that continents were contiguous land masses separated by water. If anyone had taken the trouble to explain to me the profound cultural and historical difference between Europe and Asia I might have been a little less confused, but now I know that my confusion was justified, and no one at the time attempted to clarify the problem. As with much elementary school education, the function of the teacher was to exploit the ignorance of confusion of children in order to control them. The way to get good marks was not to understand, but to repeat conventions that have been established by authority figures.

A map of the world from the 1703 edition of Peter Heylin’s Cosmographie.

The purely convention decomposition of the world’s land masses into continents is revealed by the history of geography’s different ways of accomplishing the task. Peter Heylin defined a continent in his book Cosmographie of 1657 as follows:

“A Continent is a great quantity of Land, not separated by any Sea from the rest of the World, as the whole Continent of Europe, Asia, Africa.”

Emanuel Bowen was willing to take the next step in his 1752 Atlas, in which he declared that a continent is:

“…a large space of dry land comprehending many countries all joined together, without any separation by water. Thus Europe, Asia, and Africa is one great continent, as America is another.”

Thus making all the Old World a single continent and all the New World another continent.

A map of the Scandinavian continent by Emanuel Bowen — although Bowen certainly didn’t call it that, his map makes the point of the geographical unity and distintiveness of the region.

It is a mere accident of history that we refer to “Europe” as a continent while we do not generally refer to “Scandinavia” as a continent. Both Europe and Scandinavia are peninsulas of the Eurasia land mass, and each with its distinct cultural and demographic histories, and in this respect we are as justified in identifying a Scandinavian continent as a European continent. That we do not generally do so is, as I said, an accident of history.

Scandinavia usually collectively refers to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. There are linguistic and cultural ties that supervene upon the geographical relationships.

If we take Europe to include France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Andorra, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, the UK and the Czech Republic (roughly equivalent to Western Europe during the Cold War, but not exactly, as my division is as arbitrary as any other convention), then the geographical area of Europe is about 2,288,955 square kilometers.

Fennoscandia and Fenno-Scandinavia are geographic and geological terms used to describe the region made up by the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finland, Karelia, and the Kola Peninsula. (from Wikipedia)

If we take the geographical division sometimes called Fennoscandia including Norway (in which I will include the area of Svalbard), Sweden, Finland, Karelia, the Kola Peninsula, the geographical area of Fennoscandia is 1,491,587 square kilometers, or 65% of “Europe.” If we include along with Fennoscandia the culturally and commercially connected regions of Denmark, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Iceland, and Ireland and Scotland (as we would typically include the British Islands with the European continent), the total geographical area of the Scandinavian continent comes to about 1,961,458 square kilometers, or about 86% of “Europe.” If we include the 2,166,066 square kilometers of Greenland in the Scandinavian continent, it is almost twice the size of Europe. So, depending on what conventions we establish, either the European or the Scandinavian continent could be the larger.

Note: It has been observed that one of the consequences of the Norman conquest of 1066 has to shift Scotland and Ireland into the orbit of continental Europe, whereas they had previously been part of the Nordic region of Northern Europe, with their primary trading and cultural links (including genetic links between populations) being to Scandinavia. I read this recently but cannot remember the source.

My point here is simply that on geographical terms, Europe and Scandinavia are more or less on an equal footing. Tom Paine’s conception of a continent as formulated in his pamphlet Common Sense is relevant here:

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”

Paine passes beyond mere geography to incorporate a dimension of political economy into his understanding of a continent (as I understand his reference to “systems”), and this seems entirely justified to me, as I have pointed out above the separate and distinct cultural and demographic histories of Europe and Scandinavia. Europe and Scandinavia also belong to different, albeit related, systems.

I must also point out, however, that it is not entirely an accident of history that the cooler climate and shorter growing season of the Scandinavian continent produced less wealth and a smaller population than that of the European continent. France has about 33.46% arable land; Norway has about 2.70% arable land. These are differences that make a difference. The Scandinavian continent, being poorer and less populated before industrialization, was not in a position to assert its cultural difference to the extent that the European continent was able to do so in the same time period. (With the consolidation of industrialization, Scandinavia is now more wealthy, per capita, than Europe.) But, ultimately, this too is an accident of history, but an accident of of geology and plate tectonics and climatology. Presumably during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum climatic conditions on the Scandinavian continent were considerably different, but this did not happen to correspond to the rise of homo sapiens, which, once again, is mere historical accident on a grander scale.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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