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14.6.06

Moon Colonies II: Social Justice

Another problem with the idea of colonizing space as a solution to environmental problems on Earth is the question of social justice. The pro-colonization argument glosses over this issue -- a move that is symptomatic of the strain of environmental thinking that John Dryzek labels "survivalist." Survivalists see all humans as being in the same boat, and favor solutions by whatever means necessary. As I see it, there are at least two major social justice problems involved in a large-scale transfer of people to space.

The first, raised by Amanda Marcotte, is the question of who gets to go. Marcotte argues that it will be the already-privileged, such as white Americans, who can afford to escape to moon colonies, leaving the already-oppressed behind to fend for themselves on a crisis-ridden planet. Even with a lip-service commitment to fixing the Earth in addition to space colonization, the fact that the elites can all depend on space to save themselves will undercut their motivation and ability to adequately protect the enviroment (just as their cushy offices and access to Whole Foods currently makes them insensitive to the environmental plight of the poor and minorities). And to return to the population theme of my previous post, we have to remember that population is not a single global stock -- overpopulation happens at a local or regional scale, so moving a bunch of Americans to Mars won't help people living in crowded areas of Africa.

So why not charitably offer to bring a more diverse selection of astronauts -- e.g. if the United States were to finance the migration of Zimbabweans and Kenyans instead of sending its own people? Doubtless many of the underprivileged would sign up. Many would also be exploited by human traffickers and other scam artists. And many would be justifiably suspicious -- why are the global elites trying to push us out of the way to an unknown frontier? Are we just expendable guinea pigs whose troubles in the new colony can be waved away as inevitable kinks that have to be worked out? (And I can already hear the conservative pundits: "you declined our offer to send you to the moon, so don't come crying to us for welfare.")

The second important social justice implication is the connection between a high-tech engineered environment and authoritarian social relations. Any extraterrestrial colony will have, for the forseeable future, a highly managed environment. They won't have any room to rely on nature to take care of itself without close oversight. One little hole in the dome, and everyone dies. This sort of situation lends itself (as GGCT has seen) to an authoritarian social system. Everyone must submit to the dictates (benevolent though they may be) of the experts who run the biosphere. This is not an attractive option.

Related to this point are the implications of the argument that the scientific progress spurred by space colonization will prove useful in learning to handle the Earth's environment. Artificial space environments will be of necessity highly engineered environments, controlled and stabilized in all their particulars by expert oversight. Moon engineers will bring this hubristic managerial perspective back to Earth with them. Yet just the opposite perspective -- humble, and cognizant of the ecosystem's unpredictability -- is what's needed to solve the terrestrial environmental crisis.

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