Doom And Gloom Won't Sell Space
Honolulu HI (SPX) Jul 13, 2005
Recently I found myself reliving my misspent youth while cleaning out my old university office. Among the documents that turned up was the 1977 magazine which led me to become an asteroid scientist and space activist, along with reports from the "Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy", an offshoot of the old L-5 Society.
Today's space activists are superficially more presentable than we were in the 1970s. It has been a long time since anyone tried to lobby the US Congress while wearing Starfleet uniforms and rubber Spock ears like some of my L-5 Society friends did. But when you get below the surface, their underlying message is as stale and yellow as those old documents from the back of my file drawers.
And that message is always one of impending doom and gloom. Space activists present an optimistic view of the human future in space which is based on a deeply pessimistic future of the human future on Earth. Only the nature of the impending catastrophe varies.
One major faction is the "Space Greens". These people expect the Earth to become uninhabitable due to some human action. They want to move themselves, or everyone else, or heavy industry into space in order to stop, or merely escape from, this catastrophe.
Over the years the Space Greens have proffered a variety of horrifying scenarios for how we humans will wreck our planet. Writers of the 1950s liked to postulate a devastating thermonuclear war. In the 1960s the nightmare was overpopulation. In the 1970s the Club of Rome used crude computer models to show that environmental pollution would soon kill us. In the 1980s we had another short period of war psychosis. In the 1990s, resource exhaustion and catastrophic climate change became the popular bogeymen.
In the other corner we have the "Space Libertarians" who complain that the growing power of governments, international corporations, the UN, etc. are stifling freedom on the Earth. They want to establish human colonies independent of any Earth government in order to preserve cultural and political diversity. Only a few people in this category are true-blue total libertarians. A good way to recognize them is to check their web sites for links to groups that are trying to set up new sovereign nations on unclaimed mid-ocean sandbars, abandoned offshore platforms, or even in cyberspace. More common are various types of limited libertarians. There is a large contingent of "Space Robber Barons" who wish to open up space for untaxed and unregulated cowboy capitalism. Another group is the "Space Frontiersmen" who long for the vanished days of the Old West or the Untamed Outback and claim that the lack of a New Frontier is psychologically stifling civilization.
Both the Space Green and Space Libertarian movements have their roots in the 1970s. It's hard to remember now, but these years were a period of dark despair among the intellectual class in the West. Serious people thought that the future of the human race on Earth was one of decline or even extinction.
And there were a lot of reasons to think so. In the USA, the two major political parties gave us our worst two Presidents ever from 1974 to 1980. Leadership in other Western democracies was equally uninspiring. During this period almost every government initiative was a dismal failure. Who can remember "Whip Inflation Now" or the U.S. Synfuels Corporation without a shudder of horror? Economists had to invent the new word "stagflation" to describe the prevailing combination of high unemployment and double-digit inflation.
To understand how bad the future looked back then, let's page through that yellowing June 1977 issue of TECHNOLOGY REVIEW now sitting on the far left side of my desk. This is an extremely highbrow publication produced at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The magazine cover has an excellent Don Dixon painting of an Earth-approaching asteroid being mined. Very little of the technical ideas in the space resources articles on pages 50-66 would have to be changed today.
But before you get to those articles, you have to plow through 49 pages of gloomy expert opinions about the future of mankind on Earth. And these academic experts make predictions of doom that seem completely insane today.
On p.4 an economics expert says that "Persuading people to pay higher taxes is critical to the control of inflation". On p.6 climate experts predict a series of unprecedented droughts (due to the effects of global cooling!) that will cause worldwide famine. On p.15 seismic experts predict that New England will be struck by devastating earthquakes. On p.18 an energy expert tells us that the world supply of enriched uranium will become seriously inadequate in the 1980s. On p.41 two more energy experts tell us that the world will run out of oil during the 1990s.
For another despairing view, just look at the far right side of my desk, at a stack of reports put out by the Citizens' Advisory Council in 1981-83. This group was composed mostly of neoconservative science-fiction writers living in California - about as different a group from MIT faculty as one can imagine. But the same theme of unrelieved doom and gloom pervades their publications.
Here the nightmare is world conquest by the Soviet Union. Again, there was plenty of evidence to support this view. During the 1970s, oppressive Soviet-backed governments seized power all across the Third World while the West did nothing. The nuclear balance of terror tilted toward Moscow, and the ominous term "Findlandization" came up in discussions of Western Europe. Intelligence reports claimed that the Soviets were working on ominous space weapon systems, while the US space program struggled with the disastrous Space Shuttle project. Erroneous CIA estimates seemed to show that the USSR would eventually grow into an economic colossus.
The Citizen's Council extrapolated these trends forward and foresaw the inevitable collapse of free markets and democracy on Earth. Our only chance to avoid global dictatorship was a vast program of militarization and colonization of space. As a byproduct, the economic stimulus would boost the sagging US economy and keep it competitive with those of the rising 21st-century superpowers - Germany and Japan!
These examples of expert idiocy from both the Left and the Right would be amusing - except that the same shopworn ideas are still being peddled by the space activist community. Just look at the Spring 2005 issue of AD ASTRA, the house organ of the National Space Society. On p.18, Jim Oberg writes, "For its true believers, myself most certainly included, space is the best, if not the only, way out of looming difficulties for our nation, our civilization, even our species."
On p.38 Greg Allison writes, "I am convinced that if we do not now begin to develop the capability to live in space permanently, we'll never do it. Due to powerful economic pressures from Peak Oil and other factors, I do not see the United States or any other nation launching space development 30 years from now or beyond."
This isn't the place to discuss the intrinsic merits of these deeply pessimistic world views. But I will state flatly that it is impossible to sell a more ambitious space program in the year 2005 by using doom and gloom as the main talking points.
This strategy might work if the target audience were Pakistani debt-peons, or Indian Untouchables, or ex-Soviet pensioners, or African child-soldiers. But these impoverished and powerless groups are not the people the space movement is trying to reach. It needs to appeal to intelligent, literate voters in the wealthy nations of the First World. In practice, most pro-space groups concentrate their efforts in the USA.
The average American of 2005 is not living in one of those dystopias that the MIT professors or the California SciFi writers predicted thirty years ago. He is twice as rich as his counterpart in 1975, uses about half the energy per unit of GNP, breathes cleaner air, drinks cleaner water, has wider educational and career opportunities, and a bigger house in a greener suburb with less crime. You aren't going to convince this average voter that civilization is declining on Earth. Your claim is contradicted by every feature of his daily life.
But thirty years of failure hasn't convinced the space activists to try something new. They continue to beat their heads against the same brick wall, without noticing how much higher and thicker it has grown. They haven't even noticed that other people have solved their pet problems, by rolling up their sleeves and developing real workable Earthly solutions.
The Space Greens ignore the birthrate statistics that show world population plunging by 2050, or the raw material prices which are lower than ever. The Space Libertarians ignore the Thatcher/Reagan Revolution, the collapse of Communism, the resurgence of regional languages like Gaelic, Hawaiian and Catalan, and the hundreds of micro-cultures on the Internet.
Readers in the USA can perform an illuminating experiment: Ask 10 of your friends to name the Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates for President in the November 2004 election. Unless your friends are political junkies, you won't get any answers.
If the mainstream Green and Libertarian worldviews are this unpopular, what chance do the Space Greens and Space Libertarians have? They are splinter groups from splinter groups. They live in an alt.universe that is very different from the real universe that real people live in. Their message isn't selling because it is tuned to the society of 1975. They might as well try to revive disco music or double-knit leisure suits.
Space activists need to develop a new message that will appeal to normal 21st-century voters, not just a few graying Baby Boomers. I don't know what that new message should be, but I know what it shouldn't be: Yet another prediction of inevitable doom here on Earth.
Jeffrey F. Bell is a former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.
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