All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2011:
The battle for the future (Dec.)
Available in any colour so long as it’s black / UK Space Conference and Sir Arthur Clarke awards / David Baker slaying the Space Age myths / Getting involved in the BIS / Cartoon: can Spirit come home now? (May)
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) Society between cosmic growth and utopian dreams
Among all the different civilisations which have emerged during the five thousand years or so since the first cities were built, the modern type of industrial society pioneered in Britain and Western Europe half a millennium ago is unique in having opened up access to the wider universe beyond planet Earth.
Yet Western civilisation has also come under severe criticism: its pursuit of growth and progress has created not only enormous benefits for its members, but also problems of social conflict and environmental damage along the way. So much so, that a surprisingly large number of people sympathetic to the political Left see us as, not a society reaching for the stars, but rather one racing headlong towards its own well-deserved destruction – whether through environmental apocalypse, or a revolutionary replacement of the liberal democratic capitalist order with a “socialist” or “communist” one.
It is therefore necessary for advocates of continued industrial growth and technological progress, particularly on the vast new frontier of space, to defend their case in the modern political arena. This is not difficult. Left-wing revolutionaries have only tried to change the world; but first they need to understand it.
I should like to discuss two basic facts of economics. The first is that the more assets an individual owns, the easier it is for that person or company to organise the work of others and hence multiply their own wealth. As a 19th-century economist called Karl Marx put it: “in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse” .
This can create problems for the workers at the bottom of the social-economic scale, who find themselves unfairly taken advantage of by their oppressive capital-rich overlords. The response of practical liberal politics is to enforce laws that alleviate misery and provide the worker with opportunities for self-advancement – through progressive taxation, regulation of working hours and conditions, social security, health, education and job-creation programmes. The success of this model is demonstrated by the unparalleled general prosperity achieved by the developed countries of the world, suggesting that it may also prove to be an appropriate model for future extraterrestrial societies.
The radical utopian response, on the other hand, is motivated by the sense of the quotation from Marx above, which dismisses the worker’s actual situation to direct an egalitarian focus on his or her status relative to the owners of the enterprise. This has led to various attempts by Marxist parties to try to change the whole economic system root and branch, in order to prevent the accumulation of private capital and to replace free market transactions by centralised state planning. This utopian programme can, however, only succeed by enforcing severe restrictions on private enterprise and individual liberty.
In his comprehensive world history of communism, Comrades, historian Robert Service asks whether the communist or socialist experience of the 20th century has been inherently despotic or potentially liberating. He concludes that if a state founded on Marxist principles is to survive, mass repression is unavoidable, leading to the kind of Soviet-style tyranny developed by Lenin and Stalin .
Utopianism is aimed at levelling down, at crushing the power of the rich, rather than augmenting that of the poor. Liberal politics is aimed, not at levelling up (an impossible goal in view of the economic fact stated above), but at improving the lot of the poorest members of society in the self-interest of the creative functioning of the whole, as well as sheer human fellow-feeling, while still leaving large disparities of wealth intact.
Since the poor greatly outnumber the rich in the social-economic pyramid, their position cannot be significantly improved by the state simply confiscating the wealth of the rich and redistributing it among the poor. Even if this was done, a new rich class would eventually arise as natural human inequalities of abilities and inclinations made themselves felt.
Therefore sustainable improvement for the poor in society can only come about in a growth economy. Their good fortune depends upon precisely the same processes of wealth creation which produce an even greater improvement in the lot of the richest: while the poorest become increasingly worse off relative to the richest, they become increasingly better off in absolute terms. This is why growth is the fundamental economic policy of every democratic state (in conjunction with the mutual rivalry among those states). It is also why economic egalitarianism is fundamentally in conflict with growth.
It is noteworthy that growth is given as the explicit motivation in all six key areas named in the current UK draft space strategy .
This leads us on to a second economic fact, often ignored by utopian and environmentalist thinkers, which is that in an industrial civilisation, economic growth is inextricably linked with technological growth, and this in turn with innovation. This means that growth is founded upon, not merely an increasing rate of consumption of natural resources (inherently limited by the finite supply of particular raw materials and pollution sinks), but on an increasing variety of products, an increasing efficiency of consumption, an increasing resource base, and increasing applied scientific knowledge.
In terms of the most fundamental industrial product of all – energy – the primary source has changed over history from firewood, muscle, wind and water power, to coal, to oil and gas, increasing the scale and efficiency of use at each stage. There is every prospect of the trend continuing into the future with next-generation nuclear fission, nuclear fusion and space solar power. The latter two energy sources extend an energy economy restricted to Earth’s surface with a lifetime of a few centuries (in the case of today’s fossil fuels) or a few millennia (nuclear fission of terrestrial uranium and thorium) to a vastly larger economy usable anywhere and everywhere in the Galaxy and with a lifetime in excess of a trillion years.
But technological innovation is critically dependent upon intellectual and economic freedom: this has been demonstrated over and over again in history. Always one or (frequently) two rare individuals make an unexpected breakthrough and pursue it in their own self-interest – Watt and Boulton with steam power; Edison and Swan with the electric light bulb; Whittle and Von Ohain with the jet engine. But too often those individuals also ask penetrating questions, not only in science and engineering, but also ones which challenge the established political authorities – most famously, Andrei Sakharov in Russia. As a result a despotic state cannot compete technologically with a liberal one, as exemplified by the downfall of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and the capitalist transformation of communist China, in the past century.
The political Left has meanwhile tried to align psychiatry with its case, by redefining the well-adjusted person as one who does not make inconvenient “narcissistic” demands on others or pursue self-motivated dreams, including spaceflight . It is clear that such a personality type also happens to be that of the ideally subservient citizen of a tyranny.
It is still possible to speculate about a benevolent dictatorship of the (self-elected representatives of the) proletariat, one wise enough and selfless enough to distribute a country’s wealth and power in accordance with egalitarian ideals (making a minor exception for the leaders of that dictatorship, for otherwise they would be powerless to govern), while also setting aside enough resources to encourage innovators and manage a planned programme of growth.
But in practice human societies do not work in such an enlightened fashion – rather, the dictum holds that power corrupts, and the utopian centralisation of power in the state corrupts to the core. The use of violent coercion necessary to compel the relatively privileged to give up their privileges and the relatively unprivileged not to aspire to privilege creates a social structure which is inimical to change and intolerant of innovation – for no innovation can benefit everybody at once. Any innovation creates inequality by its very nature, because only a minority can be the first to benefit from it, as we are now seeing in the case of private space travel.
In fact the technological trend is in the other direction, towards power becoming more diffuse and more widely distributed among an increasingly well-educated and well-informed computer-literate populace.
The law of creative growth is that such growth is only possible when the right balance is struck between order and disorder. This is the finding of research known as complexity theory or chaos theory, and is applicable to a wide range of dynamic non-equilibrium systems . Just as planet Earth itself is neither too hot (dominated by the chaotic motion of gases and lavas) nor too cold (frozen into rigidity), so a creative society can only exist in an economic and political Goldilocks zone in which it is neither too highly ordered by a central government monopoly on power, nor too anarchic.
The highly controlled despotic society is incapable of sustained technological and therefore economic progress (unless, like the Soviet Union, it is in competition with progressive liberal societies, in which case it courts its own dissolution). The lawless anarchic society, on the other hand, cannot protect property rights or enforce laws which bring a measure of fairness and predictability to economic life, and is therefore equally incapable of growth. Like third-world countries in Africa and Asia, it becomes dominated by robber barons or local strongmen who are above the law, or who make their own law to suit themselves. The creative society has to maintain a balance between these two extremes of unrestricted state control and unrestricted individual liberty.
The key indicator of a sustainable growth society is that overall wealth (in the broadest sense) grows faster than population and faster than the wealth of its richest members. If these two conditions are satisfied, then the wealth of all members of society, on average, increases, from the poorest social strata to the richest. Thus while Silicon Valley made its billionaires, it also enhanced life for everybody through precisely the same process of making new technology accessible to a mass market – a scenario which occurred earlier in products from cotton underwear to penicillin to aviation, and is looking to be repeated over the next few decades in space travel.
An increase in the wealth of society’s poorest members is an essential feature of social progress, because it decreases discontent and social unrest (expressed as crime, strikes, street violence and war), increases the purchasing power of mass markets, and increases the technical abilities of the workforce (as low-skill tasks are progressively taken over by innovations in robotics, and as new high-skill tasks such as web design are invented). This is why slavery is utterly incompatible with a modern society, and why liberal democratic capitalist states have avoided going to war with each other.
These trends towards a free, prosperous and well-educated population, despite continuing disparities of wealth, and towards the progressive marginalisation of war and its transformation into a type of policing operation, offer good reasons to anticipate that future states based in space and planetary colonies will also be prosperous and peaceful places in which to live.
Growth will continue so long as at least some regions are favourable to growth, because those regions will on balance outcompete despotic ones. But at our current monoplanetary stage it could still be aborted through a global catastrophe (major asteroid impact, outbreak of supervolcanism, nuclear war, global hysteria leading to takeover by a despotic ideology, global pandemic disease, etc.).
As civilisation diversifies on an interplanetary scale, so it becomes progressively less vulnerable to such large-scale threats, except locally, and so the security of the long-term project of the growth of civilisation from a planetary to an interplanetary and ultimately a galactic status is greatly enhanced, and thus the security of the general human heritage.
No expansion can go on forever, of course. But, as Gerard K. O’Neill wrote back in 1976: “an exponential growth of wealth can be considered rationally if we can find the environment in which that growth can proceed for many hundreds of years. There is an enormous difference between sharp limits, forced on us within years or decades at a time when most of us are still in deep poverty, and limits reached only after several hundreds or thousands of years, under conditions of high prosperity and universal education in a generally affluent and literate human population” .
In order to share the benefits of the technological and industrial revolution worldwide, therefore, further growth is still necessary. Because space offers greater challenges and greater rewards than any to be found on planet Earth, up to and including the construction of entire new civilisations which dwarf by orders of magnitude any possible on Earth alone, space technologies are the key to long-term sustainable future growth.
Those who care about the poorer members of global society, who are concerned to use politics to help the underprivileged to raise their standard of living and integrate into the developed world economy – rather than to carry out an ideologically motivated vendetta against the rich which cuts the ground out from under the feet of both rich and poor – need to be enthusiastic supporters of space development. Industrial and population growth in space will be the engine of social progress through the new technologies and investment opportunities it creates, provided that individual inventors, entrepreneurs and investors are free to develop those opportunities and to enjoy rewards commensurate with the benefits they have created.
(2) UK Space Conference – latest news
This PDF flier recently published by the UK Space Conference 2011 team gives the latest information on the speakers and schedule.