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.

So far this is a familiar story. According to its script the third wave, the information age, is upon us, the golden dawn upon the economic horizon. However, it takes a little more imagination to see that the same thing will happen to the information industries, currently ascendant, that happened to the farms and factories. There is no reason why the technologies of data storage, management, and retrieval should not perfect and miniaturize and cheapen and streamline themselves almost out of existence like their predecessors. If the historical analogy holds, employment, investment, and cultural commitment in the information industries will rise to about 90 percent of the given resources. At first huge fortunes will be made; then, as the labor demand rises, economic equality will increase; there will follow the predictable collapse of the labor market as the information industries become more and more cost efficient, smaller and smaller on the world's horizon, less and less labor intensive, and finally less capital hungry and less profitable, leaving a few cash cows providing all the world's needs.

Eventually their operation will take up 2 percent of our money and our people. Hordes of information workers will be turned out on the streets, asking the employed if they can spare a dime. Moreover all this will happen much faster than the rise and decline of manufacturing, just as the manufacturing age happened faster than the agricultural age. Everything is getting faster and faster. Information resources will be virtually invisible, at our mental fingertips, perhaps even wired into us by neural/cybernetic interfaces, activated by an unconscious movement of the will as are our own brains–as natural, cheap, and convenient as a hammer. Will we then create clunky antique data devices, requiring programming and the memorization of command codes, for the leisured and the nostalgic?

But for those who believe we should become a spacefaring civilization, the great question that arises from this review of economic succession must surely be: Which of these economic paradigms will best support space travel? The agricultural model, despite such appealing visions as Robert Heinlein's hardy wagon-train pioneers, is clearly by itself insufficient. Oddly enough, the human race does not need more cultivatable land; in countries where farm production is rising the most, the proportion of land given over to it is decreasing.

The industrial paradigm is not much more promising. A space program based on an industrial manufacturing model will be a bigger and bigger fish, and a hungrier and hungrier one, in a pond that is shrinking and drying up. We may never build the gigantic space hangars, with their banks of tiny windows and huge, half-obliterated identification numbers, the enormous space-cruisers with their turrets and flying bridges, that we see in our science fiction movies–the iconography of the foundry and the drill rig and the aircraft carrier transferred to space.

Two hundred years from now such images may seem as quaint as Edward Bellamy's science fiction cities of the 19th century, with their skies packed with airships sporting baroque gondolas full of men in top hats and ladies in crinolines. Our spaceships may actually look like inside-out trees or jellyfish. Or we may not even use spaceships as such to get from one place in the universe to another, but something more like a photographic studio or an X-ray machine. There is no reason why we will need huge edifices made out of riveted plates of metal. If we are essentially growing our machines and appliances ad hoc as we need them, and re-dissolving them when we want them out of the way, and if their shapes are customized perfectly to the task at hand and to human aesthetics, our devices will probably look like plants or animals or exquisite little works of art. If, as is already happening, much of the technology comes to be in the hands of individuals rather than vast state organizations or centralized corporations, our collective works may be more like hives or coral reefs or village markets than like the totalitarian one-vision, one-use monuments of the Bauhaus and the Capitol. And all of this is not in the remote future, but just around the corner.

For a while a space program based on the information industries–one in which we go into space to hunt out valuable data or in pursuit of the raw materials of hardware and software–will flourish, but its possibilities are strictly limited. The largest pool of important information in the known universe is right here on our planet; it is thus no coincidence that by far the largest commitment in our space program is to devices designed to look at, or direct messages to and from, the Earth. If we, and our living companions, were to go to other parts of the universe, then they would become valuable as information. But we have to get there first, and we can't afford to; the cash flow and amortization problems would be insoluble.

Of course, if we discover alien civilizations, then everything changes. We would then need centuries of highly lucrative scholarship and cybernetics to process the gigantic wealth of knowledge that would flow from such a discovery, and the information industries would be in the delightful situation of having simultaneously a glut of raw materials and an endless consumer demand. Space travel might flourish, on a pay-as-you-go basis. But the last few years of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have presented us with a single massively important and dispiriting piece of negative information: Against all our expectations, the galaxy seems to be silent of technological civilization, at least of anything that might use electromagnetic waves for communication. Closer to home, within our own solar system, we are almost certainly alone. There is more going on in a single earthly forest or village than on the whole of Mercury or Venus–more surprises, more unprecedented and unpredictable events, more emerging structures of information. The information-industry model of wealth creation will not take us into space, any more than the manufacturing model will.

But perhaps there is another model, one that will succeed the knowledge industries. An economic wave or paradigm loses its hold on a civilization not because of inefficiency but because of efficiency. Earlier waves of economic activity are not suppressed by succeeding waves. The reason there are so few farmers in the United States and so little money tied up in farming, when once 90 percent of the nation was agrarian, is not the failure of farming but its astonishing success: Farming now needs only a tiny fraction of the country's human and economic resources to supply more than enough foodstuffs and raw materials.

Finally, we will be left with the irreducibly labor- and capital-intensive human industries of what we might call "charm": tourism, education, entertainment, adventure, religion, sport, fashion, art, history, movies, ritual, personal development, politics, the eternal soap opera of relationships. Once the world's wages have leveled up to those of the developed countries, a process already well in train, the service industries will begin to starve for labor, and be forced to raise their pay scales. At the same time the job descriptions, and the actual content, of service employment will begin to approximate those of artists, entertainers, educators, and sports professionals. One can already see this process at work in the restaurant industry in such wealthy cities as Dallas, New York, Phoenix, or Los Angeles: Good waiters, sommeliers, and cooks are wooed and tempted by rival establishments, and each evening is conceived as a little work of art.

Given a cheap and effortless supply of materials, manufactures, and information, which will be on hand in a few decades if this scenario of economic evolution is plausible, the chief natural resources required for these new charm industries will be empty space and empty time. The rich, who since the Renaissance have lived as the rest of the world will try to live a few decades later, and are thus the harbingers of the future, have always valued empty space and empty time. That is why they buy land and build mansions in the country, and why they hire managers and secretaries to handle their deadlines. Often they are quite frugal in their consumption habits, not out of affectation but in the pursuit of a more refined joy in the experience of life.

The arts and pleasures of the charm industries take up time and space; they also paradoxically increase both time and space by their magical powers of illusion, delay, inner articulation, and concentrated attention. But time and space, with the present buildup of physical, temporal, and cultural waste product on our planet, are becoming increasingly scarce and increasingly at a premium. We are swamped by mountains of junk information, junk production, junk cultural overflow. We will be prepared to pay top dollar for silence, horizons, the threat and presence of death, the strange and mystical experience of uneventful time. Japanese Heian princes, with all the resources of a rich civilization open to them, sought the exquisite boredom of glacially slow Noh drama and court music. American and European millionaires outfit one-man ocean-going yachts and, on the fine edge of loneliness, terror, and tedium, sail round the world. Our civilization as a whole will seek out the ultraviolet-ravaged red wastes of Mars, the voiceless empty grandeur of the Jovian moons.

New planetary habitats obviously offer enormous amounts of empty space. Less obviously, they also offer huge quantities of empty time. Outer space has an inexhaustible resource, which is temporal separation from the home planet. Nobody on Mars can have a phone conversation with anyone on Earth, because the light that carries the message takes time to get from place to place, and even a one-minute time lag puts a gap between two people almost as great as the grave: Mars is at least three minutes away, and sometimes as much as 20. The times of Mars and Ganymede are empty of Earthly chatter and Earthly information overload. The relativistic time-separation from Earth of even the closest planets imposes an impenetrable barrier of privacy, and creates huge unexploited temporal niches for the coming charm industries. The tragic existential choices that faced emigrants to the New World, and that made possible their creation of new societies and new alternatives for the human race, will once again be possible.

The other worlds of space offer empty time in another sense. When you are sailing, or horseback riding, or gardening, or training an animal (as my friend Steven Bodio points out), you must adapt to the rhythms of the rest of nature. Survival tasks take a lot of time, but most of that time is spent attentively waiting. If you try to hurry a boat, a horse, or a plant, you will come to grief. Human beings, however, especially when armed with timesaving devices like fax machines, telephones, e-mail, copiers, and computers, can, it seems, hurry each other up without limit, to the point of catastrophic stress. The planets offer us places to slow down, precisely because the processes we will require to stay alive–and to transform those hostile environments into Arcadia–take so much empty time.

But emptiness is not enough. What the dream of ecopoiesis and terraforming also offers is a project whose grandeur equals or surpasses every previous aspiration of the human species. The combination will eventually be irresistible. It will be the last reliable source of economic wealth.

Tourism is already the world's largest industry, but tourism is only a pale shadow of what its seekers desire: the chance to make history, to be true explorers, naturalists in a new world, anthropologists of a never-before-encountered civilization. More epoch-making than the first winged flight would be the first created planetary atmosphere where human beings might fly under their own power. More splendid than any ocean voyage is the colossal task of filling a new ocean. More scientifically bold than any naturalist's exploration is the creation of a new ecosystem. More daring than any big game hunt is the introduction of genetically adapted wildlife where once no life existed.

When we are all able to dispose of resources equivalent to those of a present-day aristocrat, we will all want to do the equivalent of hunting, sailing, fishing, gardening. We will all want to relive the wild adventure of the Amerindians working their way down a brand-new continent, the Polynesians feeling their way across the Pacific, the Bantu conquering southern Africa, the Europeans carving out colonial empires. We will never again need theme parks; new planets will satisfy every need that the theme park unsuccessfully tries to meet, and Old Earth will take on instantly a pathos and preciousness it never had for us before by contrast with the terrors of our grand adventure.

Thus we will rediscover the wild again in the almost insuperably hostile plains and mountains of Mars. No longer alienated from reality, we will feel its gritty pressure as we struggle against the hostile terrain. We will be making history there, for there is all the history in a world to make. The mother planet, already beginning to be a boxed-in little place for the more spiritually enterprising, and a prison for our useless young men, will gain a new kind of magic as our home and alma mater.

Who will make all this happen? Not, perhaps, the nation state; it is doubtful that the state as an institution will ever again command the kind of loyalties and commitments and moral prestige that gave us World War I, the Grand Coulee Dam, the defense of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, and the Apollo program. It will be corporations that will go into space, but not, surely, corporations like industrial General Motors or information-based Microsoft. Charm industry corporations will be more like exclusive safari adventure outfits, theater companies, churches, movie studios, art workshops, literary publishers, sports clubs, resort hotels, restaurants.

Eventually it may even be families and individuals who go up there. The technology they will use will be a combination of the almost unimaginable with the familiar: biotech and nanotech to supply the manufacturing base, traditional aeronautics to get us out of Earth's gravity well, human bioengineering to alter our bodies to suit other planets, architecture and theater design to create bearable living conditions, materials science (especially intelligent materials), artificial intelligence, horticulture, self-replicating robots, genetically tailored and trained domestic animals. The keys will be financial cheapness (mainly keeping down labor costs through the recruitment of wealthy volunteers and hobbyists), the use of local materials, improvisation in a technologically fail-safe context, the adaptation of humans to the environment, and the identification of existing far-from-equilibrium energy systems in the solar system that can be tweaked with little effort to create big changes.

More important than the technology, though, will be the artistic insight and economy that will tie it all together and sell it to the public. I have spelled out how all this might work in my epic poem Genesis, and more scholarly treatments may be found in the work of such scientists as Robert Haynes, Christopher McKay, Robert Zubrin, Freeman Dyson, Carl Sagan, and Martyn Fogg.

Apologists for space exploration have often added to their list of practical reasons to go to space a half-apologetic reference to the adventure and aspiration of it. It is as if they were ashamed of their true motivations and had to relegate them to the position of an afterthought. But a cold analysis of the direction of the world's economic future leaves such motivations as the only reliable source of good old-fashioned profit, once every automatable and replicable industry has, by improvements in efficiency and competitive reduction of costs, priced itself into economic insignificance. The nations and corporations that get in on the ground floor of the emerging charm economy will control the pipelines of economic value. Terraforming is art, adventure, history, travel: Invest in these and watch your money grow.

Frederick Turner is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. His most recent book is The Culture of Hope (The Free Press); his forthcoming collection of poetry, Modern Ecologues, will be available soon from Story Line Press.