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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Minson

The Argument Against Space Travel

My mother used to say, “You can’t go outside until you clean up your room.” She also said, “You can’t have a puppy, ‘til you show me you can take care of a goldfish.”

I thought about that when I heard that Elon Musk and NASA were making big plans for us to head off to the red planet, Mars. As I listened to all of the excited justifications for it, I could just hear my mother’s voice saying, “Wait a second, you haven’t cleaned up your room yet.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for it. I think space exploration is fantastic and has benefitted our species greatly, if only because of the microwave oven. But this is a big deal and it’s not just about us and our exploratory enthusiasm. It is also one that could have tertiary effect in a way that I think is important and tricky. The real question is, are we really ready now? I can think of three reasons why the answer is, maybe not.

Argument number one. We are sloppy.

This point doesn’t need much of a case. One has but to look at our fastidiousness, or lack thereof on Earth, and it is pretty apparent that we don’t do a good job of global housekeeping. We have regular oil spills; we create plastic dumps that have wound up integrated into the biological web and into the phenotype of every species on the planet. We have created over 600 “forever chemicals” that cannot and will not degrade and in many cases, have no idea what sort of effect they will have on all the other life forms at our inventive mercy. In the most glaring and egregious cases, we have been less than honest when it comes to them. Take the chemical C-8, also known as PFOA or Teflon for example. For many years, the effects on the unborn and the living were hidden, denied, and obstructed from public disclosure, even though they were known. Now it estimated that this harmful and permanent chemical is in 99% of all life forms on the planet. The fact is, we are cleverer than we are responsible, and that is in an environment we know at least a little bit about.

Now imagine that we continue with our repetitive behavior on another planet where we do not have the same familiarity and estimation of impact. Can we really expect that we will suddenly be cautious, careful, and clean when the unscarred horizon seduces us into even less responsibility?

Argument number two. We are greedy consumers.

If our industrial and individual history shows us anything, it is that we have no real check on our appetites and consumption. This is true with measurable effect in terms of what and how much we eat, how we strip resources with abandon, and what we leave behind in terms of little or no restoration. If we were a pathogen on a host animal, we would most certainly leave a pockmark. In short, we are not good stewards, nor are we disciplined in how we extract and what damage we do.

Argument number three. We are a bellicose bunch.

Since mankind first emerged from a cave, or if you are so inclined, occupied the Garden of Eden, we have been at each other’s throats. In fact, over the last 2000 years there has not been an era where the whole of the planet has been comprehensively at peace. With more prevalence than breathable air, it is safe to say that at any moment, somewhere on the planet, someone is attacking someone else. Governments and societies may fall short of feeding their people, educating their young and curing their ills, but when it comes to war all of them are able to manifest the necessary motivation, resource, and organization to have at it. Almost every advancement we have achieved in terms of war enhancing technology – all done with the justification that we need it to preserve peace – has been used, and not just on purely military targets. The atomic bomb development in the United States was initiated with a justification of self-defense and continued when the initial justification was moot. Did we shelve the technology despite our lack of certainty of its impact? Of course not. In fact, one of the most common analogies I hear in large concept discussions among my government and scientific colleagues who want to do “something big” on the science, engineering and medical front is that we need something like a Manhattan Project to achieve a desirable end. That analogy chills me, considering that the original Manhattan Project left us with a continued legacy of nuclear threat, potential for annihilation, and an act by this country that led to the death of 200,000, mostly civilian, people.

We started the space program as a reaction to the same sort of paranoia. We feared then that Soviet domination of outer space would lead to subordination and military disadvantage. So, we went to the moon. Now we are planning to head to Mars. There is a pattern here that bears some similarity to the birth of the atomic age and that would wisely give pause. The question we have to ask ourselves is, have we actually amended our behavior to prevent similar misuse of such scientific achievement? Also, with the principal of greater force and higher ground as a philosophy of martial intent, will having an established foothold on another planet do anything but aggrandize our base nature?

At the very least, it is worth consideration.

I’ll take myself out of my consideration of space exploration as a human being and put myself in the “shoes” of another life form in the cosmos. That, of course, assumes that they need or wear shoes. If I do think of us, humans, as a neighbor, I can’t help but imagine that we must be like having one with an unkempt front yard where a rusting car sits on cinder blocks as the proprietor stands by holding a loaded shotgun and an empty bottle of antidepressants.

My point? Sure, let’s go to Mars, but maybe we should improve our own behavior before we inflict ourselves on the rest of the universe.

Oh, and for the record, I have several dogs and they are doing fine.

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