Worlds Without Ends

What's the point of going into space? The answer lies in a future economy based on "charm"

The disappointing progress of the U.S. space program was not primarily the result of the technical difficulties it faced, nor the dangers to which we were alerted by the Challenger disaster, nor its great expense, nor the sense that there were pressing social and ecological problems to be solved at home, nor the fact that the leaders of the program were World War II-era people with World War II attitudes and style who had not replaced themselves with fresh blood. All these were factors, certainly, but they are symptoms of a larger problem: We will only begin to develop a truly spacefaring civilization when we feel it is in our interest to do so.

What does one do with space once one has got there? What interests of ours are met and served by going there? Space turned out to be just what the word originally meant, that is, distance and interval. There is no point in going to distance or interval. There's no

there there. One goes through it to get someplace where one has business or pleasure. Space is a whole bunch of nothing. Of course there are things and places on the other side of space, but they turned out to be just exactly the kind of things and places one would try hard to avoid if they were down here on Earth--baking hot or freezing cold or poisonous or totally barren--just plain miserable.

Movies, of course, imagined these places inhabited by sweaty miners or oppressed factory workers or heroic warriors or ascetic scientists, who are about the only people who for practical reasons go willingly to such places on Earth. But it is hard to imagine anything worth the transportation costs into and out of the Earth's gravity well; one mines and manufactures to be able to afford the luxury of going into space, one does not go into space to afford the luxury of mining and manufacturing. There is valuable information to be gained out there, but it can be obtained efficiently by robots, which is not the same as actually being there.

But certainly if we wanted we could, by the '90s, have gone to all the places in the solar system and done all the things that we expected to in the '50s. If we had as a planet committed to a consistent space effort the kind of resources we committed to World War II, we could have colonies on the Jovian moons by now and be working on interstellar flight. If we had just had enemies out there, we would have a splendid space program. Now we don't even have the Russians.

Maybe, however, we don't need Russians, or their equivalent (an Eldorado, an opulent Indies, a mine of information). Postwar generations of space thinkers have proposed a different goal for space exploration from the old ones of mining, industrial profit, war, or science. What is suggested is that livable worlds can be built, created, out of those extraterrestrial wildernesses. Ecopoiesis (the introduction of freestanding and proliferating life into a lifeless environment) and terraforming (the further project of creating an environment hospitable to human beings and other earthly animals) offer a much wider field of possible interests than do traditional visions of space exploration.

Yet the prospects here, too, are not promising on the surface. We had better face it. No Antarctic waste, no arid desert or barren mountaintop or volcanic inferno or abyssal ocean trench on Earth is more hostile to life than the most benign microclimate anywhere else in the solar system. So far so bad, as far as the case for space exploration is concerned. But this is not the end of the story. With terraforming and ecopoiesis we are beginning to enter mental territory where the glimmer of possible human interests might begin to show.

One key issue is what constitutes a human "interest" and, even more important, how human interests will change during the coming era in which planetary engineering will become feasible. The first European explorers of the Americas in fact misunderstood their own interests: They were looking for precious metals (which, though abundant, were never as plentiful as their seekers wished) when the real riches of the New World were the great pre-Columbian food and stimulant crops, and the fertile land and rich base metal resources of the western continents.

The gold and silver brought back by the Spanish monarchy had the complex economic effect of impoverishing and depopulating Spain and enriching its enemies, England and Holland. In Iberia profitable farming, with the dense population it supports, was priced out of the social market, to be replaced by flocks of voracious goats that ate the vegetation, damaged the soil, and dried out the climate. Bankers along the Rhine, the Danube, the Po, and the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic grew rich on high-interest loans taken out by Hapsburg monarchs to finance the defenses of their far-flung empires; the accumulation of capital fueled the Northern European industrial revolution, whose raw materials were the mundane bulk commodities the Hidalgos had scorned. The true beneficiaries of the Columbian discovery were not the aristocrats, sailors, and warriors but the farmers and planters who followed them, and the businessmen and industrial entrepreneurs who followed them.

The basic wealth of feudal aristocrats, what they correctly perceive it in their interest to possess, is land with an established peasant population. The way to obtain this wealth is by conquest or marriage, and the pool of such wealth is limited. One warlord's gain is another's loss: There is an unchanging pie to be divided according to the courage, intelligence, charisma, and luck of the individual. The secondary wealth of such leaders consists of portable works of precious metals and other rare durable materials, embodying fine craftsmanship--objects that can alleviate the drabness of a subsistence economy, that can symbolize the magical powers of command and education at the disposal of the elite, that can be given as rewards for service to a faithful thane or samurai, and that can honor the God of Christendom (or the mandate of Heaven, or the pyramid of Tlaloc). It is such goods that the conquistadors were seeking; but at the moment they found them, the game changed, the pie started to get bigger, wealth changed its colors, other currencies began to harden. Free farmers could get more out of the soil than could serfs; traders could multiply the local value of things by the alchemy of the market; craftsmen could leverage production upward by new technologies; city republics could bankrupt counts and dukes. The very meaning of America, as a resource and as a set of interests, changed as the European conquest proceeded.

Thus, if we are to get an accurate picture of the potential wealth to be gained from the solar system, we must recognize the successive waves of economic energy through which our present civilization is passing, the paradigm shifts that change the nature of wealth and the interests that drive human effort. A modern economy is not like the old notion of a balanced ecology, in which every species occupies its own fixed niche and a mysterious set of feedbacks preserves a homeostatic harmony among them. Instead, it is much more like the present model of ecological succession, where clusters of species rise, replace their predecessors at the top of the food chain, and are demoted, giving way to others. The very shape and identity of the ecological niches undergo continuous, irreversible metamorphosis. We live in a world of economic transvaluation, in which each wave reaches and passes its point of maximum capital flow, employment, and cultural influence, to be succeeded by a further wave. Obsolescence disrupts people's lives, and at the same time society as a whole becomes--erratically but inevitably--richer and more full of opportunities for those willing to use them. As each new wave comes along, the disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor first increase, and then decrease, leaving the average person with much more disposable income than before.

Two hundred years ago America was an agrarian nation in which 90 percent of the people worked on farms and 90 percent of the capital commitment and cultural energy went into agriculture. Prices were relatively high enough, and the production system labor-intensive enough, to support a large rural population. Wealth was widely distributed, reinforcing the American political ethic of equality that de Tocqueville celebrated. Then, with the introduction of such devices as the cotton gin and the combine harvester, the cost of production dropped rapidly, prices collapsed, production sharply increased, the number of workers needed fell sharply, and, after an initial increase in investment for mechanization, the capital requirements for farming relative to the rest of the economy went into steady decline.

Rural unemployment sent thousands of jobless farmers out on the roads. Farming simply bulked less large in the nation's economy, society, and culture. It took up a smaller share of its interests. Today perhaps 2 percent of our national treasure and work goes into farming. One odd little counter-trend, however, may be significant: There is an increasing number of gentleman and lady farmers, freed from more pressing economic necessities, who have taken up ranching or planted gardens or bought vineyards for the sheer joy of doing so. Like aristocrats of an earlier agricultural era, who hunted, rode, bred animals, sailed, or fished, preserving in their leisure the ancient work patterns of the hunter-gatherer past, the new leisure classes have rediscovered as a pleasure and spiritual recreation what was once the drudgery of survival.

It is already clear that what happened to farming is now happening to the extractive and manufacturing sectors. In the developed countries manufacturing employment and capital investment rose until it tied up about 90 percent of the available labor, capital, and cultural energy. At first, huge fortunes were made. Then wealth became widely shared; the essential and collectively powerful assembly line workers could ask a decent fraction of the earnings of their masters. Then automation, robotics, computer-assisted design and manufacturing, materials science, miniaturization, just-in-time inventory techniques, discount retailing, and global competition created successive leaps in efficiency--cutting costs, prices, and labor requirements, increasing volume, and maximizing the utility and durability of the product.

Manufacturing, like farming, became more capital intensive and less labor intensive. Marx's 19th-century proletariat withered away. Unemployed industrial workers crowded the decaying inner cities. The rust belt succeeded the dust bowl, and we are now reaching the point where the capital requirements for manufacturing are likewise dropping--until, perhaps, they will be no more than the 2 percent or so we need for farming. The amounts of money to be made out of manufacturing are also shrinking, and thus the amount of the world's interests tied up in it. Finally, perhaps, a few dozen biotech/nanotech factories, with some bored troubleshooters and elite staffs of artsy, temperamental designers and marketers, will make all the world's necessary stuff. We may even, in what will appear to be a decadent and deplorable cultural development, create gentleman factories, like our present dude ranches, to provide the old thrills of heroic industrialism. The present vogues for furniture making and home improvement may already be examples of this trend.

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