So, a few weeks ago, Brad Torgersen stepped up onto the soapbox at Mad Genius Club and knocked one out of the park, in your humble blogger’s opinion. But a visitor in the comments’ section brought up an idea I’d like to chew on a little, although it was not the individual’s main point. The question is: Should we wait to return to space until Earth is perfect? Or, to phrase it a different way, should only saints be allowed into space?
I’m not meaning saint in the religious sense (although those of you remembering Arthur C. Clark’s 9th Church of Christ Astronaut or the Via followers in the Hammer’s Slammers just dated yourselves 🙂 ), but meaning someone who has achieved moral perfection, however so defined. I suppose the question could be rephrased as 1) should we avoid space until all of Earth has been improved as much as possible, and 2) then send morally perfect individuals out to survey the galaxy? The next question becomes what is moral perfection and who decides it?
The religion I practice states that perfection is not possible in this life, for reasons we won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that any time someone starts to talk about how to make the perfect human and perfect society, I get a little uncomfortable. But let’s conduct a short thought experiment:
We start by assuming the perfection seekers are not intending to apply the definitions used by any of the current major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on). So what is perfection in a strictly secular world? Well, everyone has food, shelter, electricity from some source, health care, a good education, and lives in a society that has developed ways to defuse interpersonal problems so that crime and war are no longer concerns. No one has “too much” of anything, or too little. I would suspect that as envisioned by the Perfectionists, this society is post-industrial and “green” in that the current major forms of air, water, and land pollution are no longer present, and large areas are set aside for wildlife and green spaces. Food production is likely done via some form of hydroponics, industrial-scale recombination of organic chemicals, and molecular manipulation. It is likely a society that has a very low risk tolerance, because risk threatens the stability of society in general, given the levels of management required to keep everything balanced and running smoothly.
What sort of morally perfect people make up this imaginary society? They would never consider committing a crime, because there is no need to steal or to injure anyone. If all have the same material goods and the same education and same opportunities, why envy anyone? The Perfect likely conform to regulations in order to preserve their perfect, orderly society functioning smoothly and to keep from damaging others and their environment. Curiosity is channeled into safe directions, and passions are channeled into avenues and pursuits unlikely to cause strife. The Perfects are aware of all the possible consequences of their actions, and avoid conflict. Any risk-seeking is also directed and discouraged, because of the danger to the individual and to society. You do not want to hurt anyone, even accidentally. All individual activities would take into consideration the possibility of causing offense to another, and would be restricted or encouraged with that concern in mind.
It would be a society without rough edges, populated by people without rough edges. Where is there room for space exploration? If Earth is made paradise, why leave? If people have been perfected, why should they have any desire to abandon their perfect society and take risks to go out into the long emptiness of space? Right there is the first problem I foresee in waiting until Earth has become problem free.
But let’s assume that a need to explore arises. The sun begins to fail early, perhaps, or something from the Oort Cloud makes a direct course for Earth and the impact will make Chuxulub’s crater look like a dimple on a baby’s cheek. Humans need to leave paradise. Will they be able to? Can the society based on non-ambition, group before individual, and taking no risks, reorient and develop the mental toughness and durability to launch out and look for a new home, or for new resources and worlds?
But let’s say the Perfect World decides to explore space, and send only morally perfect people. If First Contact is made, there will be no repetitions of the shameful past, no genocides or ecocides, no massacres of strangers, no colonies based on exploitation and enslavement. Humans will simply express our desire for peaceful coexistence, and will politely avoid inhabited worlds, unless we get a proper invitation and take precautions to prevent accidentally causing offense or importing dangerous ideas into the new-to-us world. Although, given human history, and the faint possibility that a little aggression and ambition might linger in some bit of our DNA, it would probably be better for our explorers to broadcast warnings encouraging any others to avoid humans, lest our cruel, bloody history corrupt anyone we come into contact with.
OK, I see about half of you making mental lists of every disaster that will ensue, starting with encountering a species that takes pacifism to mean “free lunch!” Another quarter are nodding, because Society of Friends (Quakers) in Space sounds like the best, safest way to explore, if explore we must (without the Christian religious aspect of the Society of Friends, of course). And another quarter have already given up because you are irritated with the long, impossible conceit that your just read. And a few are furious because I’m making fun of your vision for the future.
I don’t believe we can wait. We humans are creative enough, ambitious enough, and determined enough to work on space exploration as well as feeding people (I’d wager that you won’t find many space-opera and hard sci-fi fans blocking Golden Rice and other developments) and bringing world justice (the Taliban, Boko Haram, Hindu fundamentalists, and others don’t read sci-fi. Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and like-minded men and women don’t want space travel, because people might escape. Unless it is space conquest, by their hand-picked supporters, for the greater glory of [dictator].) We just need pioneers willing to take risks, to do the best we can with what we have, and to be willing to fend off trouble if trouble comes looking for us. And perhaps Joss Whedon is right: we’re it, and the universe is ours for the taking, even if we are our own worst enemy.
TL;DR – If we wait for perfection so we can send only saints into space, we’ll never leave Earth. If we wait until we’ve returned Earth to its green and pristine pre-human state, ditto. If we wait until the waters of justice roll down over the world and everyone has everything and all creatures are equal, well, according to several faiths, at that point, the Most High has ended and remade creation, and we won’t need rockets or gravity elevators to visit other worlds. I’d rather give it a try now, as we are, imperfections and all.