Monday, September 04, 2023

Should we colonise space? How not to debate that question.

Software engineer, astrophysicist and human spaceflight enthusiast Peter Hague has commented on Twitter about my Guardian “Big Idea” piece assessing the notion of colonising other worlds. I debated whether I should respond, given that Hague’s critique is steeped in the kind of vituperative ad hominem attacks that seem to characterize a lot of the discourse coming from advocates of space colonization (something remarked on by Erika Nesvold, whose excellent book partly inspired my piece). But perhaps a response will serve to illustrate some of the challenges of debating the issues. So here goes.


Hague says:

Ball claims there is “a dismaying irrationality in the answers”, and then proceeds to quote mine and cherry pick answers without adequately demonstrating that they are in fact irrational. Or, in fact, being specific about what he means by irrational. It’s actually important, because whether some action is rational or not is entirely contingent on what you are trying to accomplish. Ball’s statement has embedded values, even though he leaves them unstated – perhaps relying on the Guardian audience to share them. In that case, ‘irrational’ just becomes a word that can describe more or less anybody who doesn’t share that worldview.


I have not quoted anything by Hague (unless he believes he is Stephen Hawking). I had no idea what Hague might or might not have said on the issue. I’ve simply no idea what he’s talking about there.


The irrationality I have in mind is illustrated by what follows, but also by the ad hominem aspects mentioned above. One might imagine, for example, that Hague would start by finding out something about the author of the piece he is attacking, which would have very quickly revealed that I am not a “Guardian writer” (unless every single person who has ever written in the Guardian becomes that by default).


Hague quotes me thus:

"The timescales just don’t add up. Climate change either will or won’t become an existential risk well before it’s realistic to imagine a self-sustaining Martian settlement of millions: we’re talking a century or more. Speculating about nuclear war post-2123 is science fiction. So the old environmentalist cliche is right: there is no Planet B, and to suggest otherwise risks lessening the urgency of preserving Planet A. As for the threat of a civilisation-ending meteorite impact: one that big is expected only every several million years, so it’s safe to say there are more urgent worries. The sun going out? Sure, in 5bn years, and if you think there will still be humans then, you don’t understand evolution."


He then says:

Ironically here Ball vindicates a point I have made myself. A century probably *is* a timescale for when migration off Earth becomes a significant contributor to resolving pressure on the biosphere. But this means we need to get started now, so that we can get to that point in a century. Doing so means we only need to juggle human and environmental issues for a finite time, and we don't have to just slowly wind down human civilisation.


Huh? Is anyone suggesting we must “wind down human civilization”? (Well I guess some might – you can always find someone saying anything. But it is hardly the default position.) Anyway, I don’t follow this “resolving [presumably meaning “relieving”] pressure on the biosphere”. Many forecasts suspect that human population will peak around 2075-2080, and then stabilize. I don’t see many arguments that off-planet settlement is needed to absorb an excess of humans – but presumably to make a real difference, we’d need to see a billion or so decamp on that kind of timescale. Is that likely to happen? I have to say it seems hard to imagine. At any rate, my point is elsewhere, specifically about the popular idea that an off-world colony would be a back-up for civilization on Earth going off the rails. The threats we currently face can’t credibly be extrapolated to the point where a human settlement on Mars (say) might plausibly be entirely self-sufficient. And in any event, the argument seems incoherent. It’s like saying that, because Johnny’s behaviour is wreaking havoc in his neighbourhood, the solution is to send him to the next town, where somehow he’ll stop being so antisocial.


Hague adds:

His complacency about asteroids is not shared by those who study them, and the argument about the lifetime of the Sun is not used as an argument for immediate settlement by anybody I know of, and he doesn't attribute it, so we can move on from that.


This is what I mean about rationality. Sure, we are right to want to monitor asteroids and meteorites because a Tunguska-size blast over a major population centre could be devastating. And bigger ones would be terrible indeed. But a blast so great that it poses a truly existential risk to the planet? I give specific figures for at kind of threat – the chance of it happening in the next couple of centuries, say, is minuscule. If you’re kept awake at night because of that fear to humankind, you have an impressive capacity for displacement. But does Hague address this? He does not; he simply tries to imply that the issue here is a lack of expertise.


Hague then quotes me:

"For some, the justification for planetary settlement is not existential fear but our innate drive to explore. “The settlement of North America and other continents was a prelude to humanity’s greater challenge: the space frontier,” reads a 1986 document by the Reagan-appointed US National Commission of Space, rather clumsily letting slip who it was and was not speaking for. But at least “Because it would be cool” is an honest answer to the question: “Why go?”"


And he replies:

This is a low blow. He is cherry picking a forgotten government document to try and lob a vague accusation of racism around. If he wanted to look seriously at the argument that there are parellels [sic] between the opening of the American frontier and the opening of the space frontier, he might address the work of @robert_zubrin, who has articulated this far better. There is no indication the author has even heard of Zubrin though, which doesn't speak well to his knowledge of the argument he believes he is rebutting.


OK, there’s a fair bit to unpack here. First, there’s the question of whether you really want to hear from someone whose argument goes like this:

“Anyone who hasn’t heard of Zubrin is probably not qualified to write on this issue, and I’m going to totally guess that the author hasn’t heard of Zubrin, so there you go.”


What’s even more absurd is that, when it was pointed out to Hague on Twitter that in fact I very much know of Zubrin (as he could have discovered without too much trouble), he says in effect “Well that proves my point! – he knew of him but didn’t mention him!” Specifically:


“Then it’s especially ridiculous that Ball ignores his advocacy in favour of skimming ancient NASA documents for some hook to launch his fatuous accusation. It’s possible that he has forgotten who Zubrin is, seeing as his interest in the subject is clearly surface level.”


Ah, so OK I knew Zubrin but perhaps forgot about him. Sorry, but Christ on a bike.


Also, about that “forgotten government document”: someone on Twitter kindly pointed out that it is on the contrary it is a significant text, whereupon Hague says Sorry for dissing the document! Bear in mind I was 5 when it came out. So how does this work? Should I be confining myself only to things that were known or published after Hague grew up?


Moving on, Hague says:

Now he takes a swing at Gerald O'Neill. Or, more correctly, he takes a swing at Don Davis for his famous illustrations of O'Neill colonies, given that the dismissal of O'Neills entire work seems to be based entirely off aesthetics and lifestyle - a lifestyle, by the way, that although it isn't approved of in the Guardian, migrants literally risk their lives every day for a chance at.


Sorry, what? Let’s come back to the point, yes?


And my point is that there is a long history of presenting life in space as utopian, in the case of those famous illustrations at the expense of all scientific credibility (just cut out a slice of the American natural ecosystem and plant it in a rotating space colony). I don’t see a response to that here.



At last we get to the meat of the objection:


"If you want to know what to expect from colonies established by “billionauts” such as Musk or Jeff Bezos, perhaps ask their employees in Amazon warehouses or the Twitter offices. Many advocates for space settlement are “neoliberal techno-utopians”, says the astrophysicist Erika Nesvold, who sell it on a libertarian ticket as an escape from the pesky regulation of governments. The space industry doesn’t talk much about such things. As Nesvold discovered when she began quizzing commercial space companies in 2016, ethical questions such as human rights or environmental protection in space typically meet with a response of “we’ll worry about that later”. The idea is to get there first."


Hague says:

Ball presents Nesvold as an authority, and not an activist, which is what she is - and gives her a platform to basically label "bad" labels on the enterprise.


So anyone who has a view different from his (even when articulated carefully, calmly and in a deeply informed way, as in Nesvold’s book) is dealt with not by addressing those arguments but by dismissing said person as a mere “activist”. You see what I mean about longing to see a more rational debate?


He says:

It’s not explained why space colonies being libertarian is bad, nor why they would be run like Amazon warehouses. This is just a collection of boo words for the particular audience of this paper.


I think Hague is having a lot of trouble distinguishing the piece from the platform in which is appears, with which he clearly has lots of issues. In any case, if a powerful person has an ambition to establish an enterprise, I’d be curious to see how they have run other enterprises in the past. Call me naïve, but I just have a hunch we might learn something from it. Sure, I can’t speak for anyone but myself when I say that I’d not want to be living on Mars under the aegis and whim of a Musk or a Bezos. I just feel governance is an issue some might like to think about.


Hague quotes me thus:

"If the notion of a “colonial transporter” gave you a twinge of unease, you’re not alone. Associations of space exploration with colonialism have existed ever since it was first mooted in the 17th century. Some advocates ridicule the comparison: there are surely no indigenous people to witness the arrival of the first crewed spaceships on Mars. But the analogy gets stronger when thinking about how commercial incentives might distort rights afforded to the settlers (Musk has floated the idea of loans to get to Mars City being paid off by work on arrival), or how colonial powers waged proxy wars in far-off lands. And if the argument is that these settlements would exist to save us from catastrophe on Earth, the question of who gets to go becomes more acute. So far it has been the rich and famous."


Then he says:

Correctly sensing he may be ridiculed for this argument, Ball tries to preempt this but then continues to make equally ridiculous arguments, simply because the word 'colonialism' is bad, and anybody using it must be planning to become the next East India Company. Reasoning by analogy is not valid.


I’m curious to know what is “ridiculous” here, but there’s no indication, so it is hard to know what to say. Personally, I think history has things we can learn from, so it is worth heeding it. I think that’s probably quite a common view among historians.


Hague goes on to quotes me:

"Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the “Columbus” comparison, however, is that it encourages us to believe that space is just another ocean to sail, with the lure of virgin lands to draw us. But other worlds are not the New World; space is harsh beyond any earthly comparison, and it will be constantly trying to kill you. Quite aside from the cold and airlessness, the biggest danger is the radiation: streams of charged, high-energy particles, from which we are shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, a crewed mission to Mars would be prohibited by the permitted radiation limits for astronauts. We don’t have any solutions to that problem."


He says:

In the single point where he makes any kind of technical argument, Ball immediately fumbles. It is not, primarily, the Earth's magnetic field that shields us from cosmic rays,


Well you know what, I think I’ll go with what NASA says here, as they actually send people into space.


…and they are not as lethal as he believes. If they were, every geomagnetic reversal would be a mass extinction event.


The possibility of mass extinctions associated with geomagnetic reversals has in fact long been discussed – many palaeo scientists anticipate that this might happen. But it has been hard to assess, not least because it is not clear to what extent the geomagnetic field really does drop to nearly zero during a reversal. Some studies suggest that, while the field rearranges, it remains substantial enough to provide a fair degree of shielding. NASA again: “During a pole reversal, the magnetic field weakens, but it doesn’t completely disappear. The magnetosphere, together with Earth’s atmosphere, still continue to protect our planet from cosmic rays and charged solar particles, though there may be a small amount of particulate radiation that makes it down to Earth’s surface.” During the latest reversal 780,000 years ago, the magnetopause may still have existed a considerable distance from the Earth’s surface. It’s also been suggested that the solar wind could itself induce magnetic shielding from cosmic rays in the absence of a geomagnetic field.


Humanity has, in fact, survived many of them.


The last known geomagnetic reversal was that one 780,000 years ago. The earliest known Homo sapiens fossils are around 315,000 years old. But whatever.


What does protect us is the thick atmosphere of this planet, and in that we see not only is the solution known it is blindingly obvious - mass. A few metres of rock on a Martian habitat will block the radiation, as will to some extent the atmosphere of the planet.


Yes, there is talk of building permanent settlements inside caves on Mars, or in empty lava tubes on the Moon. It’s a good sci-fi scenario: underground cities that never see the light. I’m not envisaging that those stories would be very rosy ones, but we can make up whatever we like, I guess.


As for NASAs limits - he does not cite a source so its hard to tell where he is getting this from,


Maybe he should read Erika’s book instead of just criticizing it.


but its contingent on travel time, shielding, and risk tolerance. The danger is not of some horrific case of radiation poisoning - its a small increase in the lifetime risk of getting cancer. Despite sounding scary, radiation is not really the top technical hurdle.


Again, I think I’ll go with NASA on this: in terms of health risks, it is absolutely seen as one of the major risks.


I don’t want to be uncharitable, but it does rather seem as if Hague is just making confident-sounding sciencey assertions that are out of touch with the facts, and assuming he’ll sound more authoritative than a “Guardian writer”. I do think there’s an interesting discussion to be had around, and responses to be made to, the points raised in my piece. But I’m afraid it’s not to be found here.


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