The real issues with colonizing space

At Nautilus, Phil Torres argues that we should think twice about colonizing space.  His reasoning appears to be that as we spread throughout the universe, we will undoubtedly diversify into different species, and that those species may come to distrust each other, and eventually try to destroy each other.

Now, I’ve argued before that most of the urge to colonize space has problematic assumptions, at least in the short term.  Setting up an independent self sustaining ecosystem in a space colony is going to be far more difficult than most colonization advocates realize.  Any colony in the short term is likely to have a crucial supply lifeline back to Earth for the many vital things unavailable in its small ecosystem.  Such colonies wouldn’t last long if human civilization destroyed itself.

And even if we did figure out how to set up an independent ecosystem, it would be far cheaper and less dangerous to colonize Antarctica, the sea floor, or underground.  Yes, living in those locations would be difficult and expensive, but the difficulty and expense are a fraction of what any conceivable space colony might involve.

Of course, eventually the sun will force us to migrate somewhere else, but “eventually” is hundreds of millions of years from now.  And even then, we might find it easier to alter Earth’s orbit than to relocate to another solar system.

But when we start talking on longer time scales, other possibilities improve the chances that some sort of interstellar colonies might be feasible.  We should eventually be able to modify our biology to make the lifeline with Earth’s ecosystem unnecessary, transform ourselves into machine intelligences, or some combination of the two with machines and biology merging into engineered life.  Which could make space a far less inhospitable place.

But worrying that eventually we might turn on each other?  That does seem inevitable, but it also seems inevitable if we just stay on Earth.  The difference is that a distributed humanity (or post-humanity, or whatever) seems far more resilient to stupid wars or movements than a humanity with all its eggs in one basket.

The issue isn’t that we shouldn’t leave that one basket, it’s finding a way to become independent of it, and taking care of it until we do.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

24 thoughts on “The real issues with colonizing space

  1. Will we diversify into different species? Yes, almost definitely. Will those species distrust each other? I guess that’s plausible. Will those species try to destroy each other? I doubt that.

    We’re talking about colonies spreading across the galaxy. Unless somebody discovers FTL technology, how much opportunity would these future humans have to fight each other?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. In my mind, a lot depends on whether an interstellar economy is possible. Given the costs involved, it’s unlikely to involve trade in physical goods. It would have to be some sort of informational economy. But once that exists, interests can conflict, and at least the incentive for warfare might be there.

      The question is whether attacking across interstellar space would ever be practical.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. This all strikes me as the premise for an interesting Sci-Fi universe. If this were a movie or TV show, it provides a nice excuse for all the “aliens” of the galaxy to look more-or-less human. But as an actual factual prediction of what the future will be like… I don’t know. Maybe two groups of humans might try to colonize the same planet, which could cause some problems. But without FTL, I don’t see how truly interstellar conflict would be possible.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Alastair Reynolds in his book “House of Suns”, posits a universe similar to that, set millions of years in the future where humanity has diversified into numerous forms, although he doesn’t really have any interstellar scale war in it.

          But I think it pays to remember the colonial empires prior to the 19th century, where it often took months or years to traverse distances, or even to communicate, yet empires still had economic conflicts and wars, just spread out in multiple theaters.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I guess that’s a fair point. But those 19th century empires were still fighting wars that could begin and end within a human lifespan. An interstellar war could take many centuries or many millennia. There’d be so many changes in culture along the way, and so many changes in leadership too. I think it would be hard to sustain the war effort that long. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I certainly don’t think it would happen often enough to threaten humanity’s survival.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Your last two paragraphs bother me. Of course human beings turn on each other and are likely to do so in a “distributed” or “post-humanity”; and therefore you think there is an issue whether we should try to leave our “one basket” on this planet to live elsewhere.

    Before resorting to what seem to me the virtually science fiction options you discuss, I think we should focus on the basket we are in now. Admittedly our history is not great, but after a century of “stupid wars” China has emerged in the last forty years with population control, ninety percent reduction in poverty, the second largest economy in the world, and the Belt and Road Initiative to share the largesse (and profit of course) with third world countries around the world. That’s some cause for hope and reason to stay on our planetary basket.

    Besides, physics, chemistry (and therefore biology) being what they are, the baskets on the countless millions or billions of planets in our and other galaxies in the universe are probably pretty much the same as our own with struggles (“stupid wars”) similar to our own. So we might as well stay here and try to improve what we have.

    Your “post-humanity” interests me. What would such creatures be like? Would they have no pleasure, pain, feelings, imagination, cognition such as we recognize in ourselves? Would their women be good looking?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mark,
      I think you’re reading things into those final paragraphs I didn’t write into them, or at least didn’t intend to. My only point was that using future conflict as a reason, in and of itself, to eschew space colonization, isn’t a good one, that we’re going to have conflict regardless of whether we migrate out or just stay put.

      On post humanity, who can say? In the short term, I wouldn’t expect us to deviate that much from the traditional human form, if only due to psychological inertia. But as the eons add up, that may change. Of course, even if we don’t take control of our own evolution, the natural variety would change us over time. No matter which way we go, a human 100 millions years from now (if there is anything recognizably human then) will be very different from us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the clarification, SelfAware.

        I think resolution of conflict (or at least peaceably managing it) is well within the neurological/mental parameters that have evolved thus far in human beings on this planet. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to think of a post humanity where machines and biology merge into engineered life.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Mark, I find your enthusiasm for the Chinese political model of control very disturbing. If there’s one thing we have learned about totalitarian, authoritarian political systems it is that they eventually collapse, suddenly, catastrophically and irreversibly.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Steve,

            Please don’t be disturbed. My interest in the Chinese system of government (post Mao) is fairly recent and has been driven by its evident success in managing an enormous population, increasing national and personal wealth, all but eliminating poverty, and creating mutually beneficial economic arrangements with other (mostly third-world) countries. So I have been spending some time reading about their Constitution, the idea of “democratic centralism,” and above all how membership in the Party (about 8 percent of the population) is created and how the Party functions.

            What’s disturbing about that?

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Hello Hi Mr Mike Smith and Mark Titus,

      I agree with you that there are many problematic assumptions in the human urge to colonize space, not to mention that the culture of expansion and exploitation as well as the ever-burgeoning population is the crux and bottleneck of those issues, along with potentially serious interspecies and intraspecies conflicts both on and beyond the Earth.

      Since the human species has not (always, adequately and/or consistently) been a good custodian of the environment and the Earth (not to mention countless wars, atrocities, resource depletions, species extinctions, environmental degradations and so on, plus an area of rainforest as big as 100,000 football courts is being cleared or destroyed everyday), there is no assurance that once the human species migrates to another planet, the same problems would not again surface and plague us, perhaps at an even quickening and/or devastating pace as a result of better and greater expansion, production and technology. We would indeed export our baggage and problems to other worlds!

      A friend of mine wrote to me:

      I think if we went to Mars, we’d deal to it the same way we’re currently dealing to Earth. Richard Attenborough summed it up when he referred to us as the ‘scourge’ of the planet. Caused an outcry, but it seems to be true. Jared Diamond has published a good analysis of it, if a little deterministic for my liking. The reason would seem to be a faulty survival mechanism – hard-wired techniques for maximising resources that worked when we were on the ragged edge of extinction in the ice age, but now serve to create problems.

      Perhaps we could also liken humans as cancer cells on the petri dish that is Earth.

      Extinction is a euphemism for extermination, considering how many and the manner in which members of many endangered species have met their fate and untimely end.

      99% of all species that ever appear on Earth are already extinct since life began.

      The average lifespan of a species is one million years. The human species (counting the early hominids) has lasted six million years. Extinction is the rule; survival is the exception.

      Even if humanity were to survive and later conquer other planets, there will be no guarantee that humanity will not repeat its mistakes and export its problems to other extra-terrestrial worlds, as I mentioned to a blogger (who happens to claim and portray himself (or itself) to be an alien) in a very long, special and important comment of planetary and even interstellar significance, located at

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There certainly seems to be good reason to be pessimistic about what we might do if/when we start colonizing the galaxy. I just think it’s premature to start worrying about anything specific we might do that far into the future. And the idea that humans would inevitably wage interstellar wars against each other seems far fetched to me, unless FTL technology is invented.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I kind of think of hyperspace and wormholes as a form of FTL technology. Basically, if there’s any way to get from one star system to another relatively quickly, I think that makes interstellar conflict much more likely. Otherwise, all those little isolated colonies of humans can be mad at each other all they want, but they probably can’t do much about it.

            I think the collision with Andromeda will be a very interesting time. As I understand it, galaxy collisions happen fairly slowly, at least from a human perspective. So Milky Way residents should have plenty of time to dodge incoming Andromedean stars. But I don’t know. It’s a really neat thing to think about, though.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. As I understand it, the probability of any two stars colliding, or even dramatically affecting each other’s solar systems, is remote, even during a galactic collision. Of course, some stars (along with their associated systems) will be thrown out of the galaxy via gravitational dynamics. But life on any individual planet is unlikely to be affected.

            Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Soundeagle,
        My response is similar to James’. No doubt that we would bring many of our problems with us to other worlds. But I’m not sure that’s necessarily any reason to stay on Earth. We are part of nature and it’s in our nature to try to survive and thrive. Yes, our instincts are problematic, but what choice do we have but to keep on trying, and hoping we find a way to survive?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It does seem likely that posthumans will be adapted to the different environments they inhabit. So they would have even less incentive to cross the vast interstellar distances and try to grab each others’ stuff.

    There have been wars based at least nominally on religious or other ideological differences. But I doubt that many of them would have happened if it were impossible to take the other guys’ land or other resources. Reminds me of a protest sign during one of the Gulf Wars: “Bad News — Oil discovered in North Korea”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I decided a while back that I was going to treat all “futurists” with the same regard that I do gypsy fortune tellers, tarot card and tea leaf readers, throwers of chicken entrails, and astrological analysis.

    Liked by 2 people

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