Search This Blog

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Ideological Critics' Reply

Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2I


The ideological critics' reply

A justification that involves technological and economic growth is not likely to impress ideological critics. Indeed, they see the alleged benefits as causes for concern. For many of these critics, and especially for some influenced by the environmentalist movement, the very idea of space exploration is not only unwise, but also immoral. They are particularly harsh to some of the grandiose proposals for going into outer space to solve pressing terrestrial problems. According to Wendell Berry, for example, the lesson that we should learn from the closing of the earthly frontiers "calls for an authentic series of changes in the human character and community that, if made, will afford us the spiritual resources to live both within our material means and with each other."[1]

Space exploration, he thinks, tries to outflank the lesson entirely. The space enthusiast – and here Berry has Gerard O'Neill in mind – ignores what is essentially a moral problem (i.e., the changing of human character and community) and offers technological solutions instead. The morality of the space enthusiast is thus both shallow and gullible, for he offers "a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change."[2] Space exploration, to someone like Berry, could only be "a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do."[3] According to another critic, Dennis Meadows, "What is needed to solve these problems on earth is different values and institutions – a better attitude towards equity, a loss of the growth ethic.... I would rather work at the problems here."[4]

At first sight Berry seems to beg the question. According to him, the closing of the earthly frontiers presents a moral problem to which only moral solutions are applicable. Gerard O'Neill and other space enthusiasts ignore the moral problem. Thus, Berry concludes, the space enthusiasts are not only doomed to failure but are also immoral (not just mistaken or unperceptive). But what O'Neill and the others question is precisely whether all the frontiers have in fact closed. And certainly, if those frontiers haven't closed, we have no reason to believe that we face a moral problem. In assuming that the high frontier is not a genuine option, Berry heaps moral blame on the space enthusiasts while begging the issue in question.[5]

But perhaps there is a more sympathetic reading of Berry's position. What he may have in mind is that the experience of the (partial) closing of the earthly frontiers is enough to show that Western man's approach to nature is inherently unwise, and thus that its extension through space exploration is destined to fail. On what grounds should we trust O'Neill's grandiose plans for gigantic solar power satellites, let alone those for artificial worlds (his space colonies)? Surely projects of such magnitude cannot be made plausible by mere theoretical proposals. How can we be assured that no essential detail has been left out?[6] The most straightforward way to resolve this issue might be to demonstrate the feasibility of increasingly more complex stages of these projects. O'Neill would have been quite agreeable to this suggestion, but Berry and many other ideological critics would probably resist it. The reason for resisting it is that to undertake such demonstrations we first need a large commitment to space exploration, for the demonstrations require that we build and operate very large structures in space. But given the poor record of big technology, Berry would say, why should we extend it the benefit of the doubt on such a scale?

The ideological critics are thus not impressed by the suggestion that space exploration can help correct some of the excesses and mishaps of technological civilization. Nor are they impressed by the claim that space exploration enables us to appraise better how critical our environmental situation is. Giving credit to space exploration in this regard may call to their minds the case of a drunk who drives his car into a bed of flowers. Should credit go to Detroit for inventing the tow truck that gets the drunk's car out? Such would be the wrong approach to the problem. What we need to do is prevent the situation in the first place. Space is, then, a delusion, for it offers more growth and technology to stop the mess caused by growth and technology. Of course, the more we foul up the world, the more space will look like a necessity. But this is a false technological panacea. It is rather like a pain reliever that keeps the patient from having the operation that will save his life. As Wilson Clark puts it, "[O'Neill] speaks in terms of a ‘first beachhead in space,’ evoking the image of greener grass on yonder hill. Unfortunately, we have little time in which to prevent the elimination of the vegetation altogether."[7]

The urgency of the situation, as these ideological critics perceive it, makes unwarranted our engaging in any more technological detours. Western man's approach has brought the world to the edge of crisis by marrying technology to the mentality of growth. This ideological criticism touches the heart of space exploration insofar as science is supposed to provide the promissory note that underwrites that marriage in the first place. Once again, the satisfaction of scientific curiosity – at least where "big science” is concerned – may be seen as a disturbance, an interference with nature. The emphasis on beneficial results is only a smoke screen: In the long run only a change of attitude can be beneficial. Anything not in harmony with nature is bound to make us fail. In the eyes of the ideological critics, space exploration amounts to a distraction at a time of crisis – the siren voice that calls us from the cosmos still sings the tune of our doom.

I will offer three comments on this controversy. First, most of the vehemence against O’Neill was caused by his suggestion to build space colonies, some of which would house millions of human beings. The idea that one could build artificial self-sufficient environments on that scale seemed naive and arrogant to his critics. As the many difficulties encountered in trying to create such a closed environment in Biosphere 2 indicate, we are a long way from knowing enough to attempt anything remotely approaching the ambition of O’Neill’s projects.

Biosphere 2 is a three-acre compound in the Arizona desert originally designed to prepare future space colonists by having them live sealed off from the rest of the world in a self-contained environment for long periods of time. The first attempt failed: crops were poor, oxygen fell to a dangerous level (15%), and there were several violations of the planned isolation. The second attempt was aborted. Eventually the facility was turned over to a team from Columbia University to perform environmental experiments, many of them connected to the ways buildup of CO2 affects a variety of habitats. Actually, the project still offers much promise, in spite of its initial difficulties.[8] Indeed, Biosphere 2 may contribute to the realization of O’Neill’s dream some day, but not soon. In the meantime it is clear that the ideological critics’ warnings were not entirely off the mark. A peculiar consequence of the scientific approach to Biosphere 2 is that environmentalists and supporters of exploration have found common ground.

Second, as I mentioned above, new, smaller (football-field size), and cheaper designs of solar power satellites are getting a good deal of attention and several demonstration projects have been proposed. If the experience of building the International Space Station is positive, our new confidence in building large structures in space may suggest solar power from space as a reasonable alternative to traditional power plants for generating electrical energy.

Third, space enthusiasts often present solar power satellites as the main scientific alternative to the energy crisis. But other scientific proposals may serve us just as well, if not better. For example, Roland Winston and others have demonstrated that by keeping light from forming images (non-imaging optics), it is possible to achieve here on Earth temperatures much higher than those on the surface of the sun. Non-imaging optics may also be used to power lasers and even spacecraft. At the moment, most of the applications are in the heating of buildings and the like, but with the advent of the right kind of photovoltaics, it will be possible to transform that energy into electricity.

If that happens we will have a revolution in electrical power plants analogous to that brought about by personal computers in information. Personal computers liberated us from the institutional giant computers of three decades ago. Non-imaging power generators would liberate us from giant power plants -- for a lot less money and at far less risk. Every building would have its own extremely efficient, non-polluting, and independent means of generating all the electrical power (as well as heat and air-conditioning) it needs. Power cables to housing areas would become a thing of the past. Of course, this particular technology may not pan out any better than solar power satellites, but its very possibility should make us beware of making space technology the only scientific alternative.[ix]

Solar power satellites are not even the only alternative space science and technology suggest. Jerry Kulcinski and John Santarius claim that a deuterium-helium-3 reactor would offer abundant, cheap energy free of radioactive-waste. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen and it is not difficult to get, but there is no helium-3 on our planet. We could mine it on the Moon, though, and, Robert Zubrin adds, we could also scoop up large quantities of it in the atmospheres of Jupiter and the other gas giants of the solar system.[x]

Of course, this proposal comes, as all do, with several ifs attached (if fusion can really be made to work, if we can really mine helium-3, etc.), as do the other proposals to solve our energy problems by going into space.

In the meantime the ideological critics impatiently point to solutions that, they believe, truly get to the heart of our planet’s problems.

[1]. Wendell Berry in Space Colonies, Stewart Brand, ed., Penguin Books, 1977, p. 36.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Ibid., p. 37.

[4]. Dennis Meadows, Space Colonies, p. 40.

[5]. And then, by all appearances, he piles abuse on top of bad argument.

[6]. Some question, for example, the belief that in just a few years we could build an entire ecosystem from scratch, as would be required in one of O'Neill's space colonies. In addition to that, proponents of the exploitation of the resources of the solar system are often very optimistic about doubtful technologies; for instance, they frequently make references to self-replicating machines. The implausibility of such machines, also called "von Neumann machines," will be discussed in Chapter 8.

[7]. Wilson Clark, Space Colonies, p. 38.

[8]. “Brave New World of Biosphere 2?” Science News, November 16, 1996, Vol. 150, No. 20, pp. 312-313. The relationship with Columbia University ended in 2003.

[ix]. Winston, R., “Nonimaging Optics,” Scientific American, March 1991, pp. 76-81.

[x] The standard fusion reactor design uses a deuterium-tritium reaction, which produces neutrons, which in turn generate radioactive materials in the metal structure of the reactor. See Zubrin, op. cit., particularly pp. 84-90 and 158-163.

1 comment:

james.schwartz said...


I'll be commenting as I go through your blog---so I might suggest a reference that you address later on---apologies in advance if this happens. In case these comments are not chapter/section specific, I am writing this after having read through 2B.

I like the historical canvass of the ideological objection. I am reminded of Lynn White's "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (Science 155 (1967): 1203-7) in which she argues that it is the prominence of Judeo-Christian ideologies that drives the man-dominating-nature mentality. I am also reminded of Bonnie Steinbock's slightly more recent criticism of space enthusiasm, "Progress and the Value of Space: Two Views" (The Monist 71 (1988):33-44).

Still, Steinbock's criticism is somewhat dated. She consider a proponent of using satellites for "electronic mail," pointing out that technology had, at the time. failed to improve mail service ("...I must point out that with all our technological developments, including zip codes and computerization, mail service today is slower and less reliable than it was forty or fifty years ago" p. 35). Of course, many would agree that electronic mail---email!---is a very useful thing indeed.

I tend to worry about the space-war issue. I've come across a few philosophical publications discussing the wisdom of, for instance, housing nuclear weapons in space. The conversation seemed limited to cold-war era game-theory issues (e.g., would putting nuclear weapons or missile-defenses in space actually make the world safer?). Is this a topic you still consider relevant, given that the cold war has been over for about 20 years? Is this still one of the platforms people will use to object to new technology?

My research on the ethics of space exploration was conducted principally from the perspective of environmental ethics (which seems to be where most of the work on space is done in philosophy). Here the question is not, "Is space exploration good for human beings?", but instead "Is space exploration good for the environment?" It seems that many people would now agree that Earth's environment is due some degree of ethical consideration. But why should we think it is only Earth's environment that is due ethical consideration? Why not Mars' environment? Or the Kuiper Belt?

So I think, at least in contemporary environmental philosophy, the ideological objections have been worked out in quite a bit of detail.

Just some thoughts,
-Jim S.