Space is big

I’m taking a risk today, commenting on a TV programme I didn’t actually watch, although my husband did.

On Monday night BBC 2 broadcast “The Search for a New Earth” Part 1. I quote from the description in the Guardian Guide: “With humans knackering up the Earth good and proper, Stephen Hawking reckons we’ll have to make preparations to colonise another planet within 100 years.… But how would we get there, and where would it be?”

This is of course not a new idea. Humans are damaging our planet, using up its resources, and also having more children than it can cope with – in any case sooner or later the sun will burn it up, so we’ll need to move on. And humans have an insatiable curiosity which needs to be satisfied with space travel.

I’m sure there are many people like me who find this an exciting idea when it’s science fiction. Surely I’m not the only one with deep misgivings when it refers to plans for an actual future?

As Dr Ian Malcolm said in “Jurassic Park”, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Let’s say it’s possible to find a world we could live on, in the Goldilocks zone. (Isn’t it absolutely charming that they call it that?)

This planet may be apparently lifeless and oxygen-less, and then we would need to “terra-form” it.

As Malachi pointed out to me, wouldn’t it actually be easier to put right the earth we’re living on, large parts of which are still very hospitable despite our efforts, than to transform an entire planet light-years away?

Moreover, terra-form it for whom? Some people end up living on Earth; some on Planet A; two parallel societies. Which is going to be the privileged one? I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that one or the other option would be the good one, the one for the rich and favoured; the other for the bottom layer.

On the other hand, we might just find a planet where there is already life – plants, animals, bacteria or other. How exciting and useful.

This is where I get really agitated. It’s all in that word “colonise”, which the Guardian (the Guardian!) apparently used without irony.


Yes, I know, I’m shouting.

If we find a planet where humanoid creatures greet us with obvious language, wearing clothes and living in buildings like something off Gallifrey, I would hope even the most expansionist human would pause before saying “Hello. We live here now. This is a gun.”

I would hope.

But suppose the life-forms don’t have office buildings and flowing robes?

“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars, and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time.” (I don’t need to tell you where this is from, do I?)

Who are we to judge whether life on another planet is “intelligent” enough that we shouldn’t disturb it? Or even if it isn’t intelligent by any standards, in a few million years it might be, if we don’t exterminate it, exploit it, enslave it, put it in a zoo, genetically modify it, give it our diseases, and so on. Things that we have surely no right to do.

Any planet, with or without life, may be a part of God’s plan that has nothing to do with us. I am tempted to say, with Screwtape, “This is so obvious that I am ashamed to write it.”

If you’re a Christian you probably believe that God gave humanity the right to “fill the earth and subdue it”. He didn’t include the whole universe in this grant.

If you don’t believe in God, then there is no inter-galactic estate agent out there.

Who is there who can give or sell us the moral or (for want of a better word) legal right to take over other planets for our own use?

Five hundred years ago, the European nations wanted riches, slaves and space for people to settle. The consequences for the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, Australasia and Africa, were catastrophic. We all know this, we all look gloomy and distressed about it, and despise our ancestors for doing it, but have we learned anything about taking what isn’t ours?

How can another planet be ours?

As President Whitmore said in “Independence Day” of a different species, “they’re like locusts. They’re moving from planet to planet… their whole civilisation. After they’ve consumed every natural resource they move on… and we’re next.”

“Independence Day” is a favourite film of mine, for pure daftness; but here I’ve always thought its applicability was obvious.

I’m not denying that curiosity is a legitimate human characteristic. If we can spare the energy from more important tasks like stopping global warming and war, let’s explore and visit the galaxy.

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

The mission says nothing about stealing the worlds we explore.

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Stephen Hall

    18th September 2017 at 2:22 pm Reply

    Perhaps it’s a man thing, but I think there is a pretty innate human desire to explore. I don’t imagine the proportion of global GDP spent on space travel is that big – why not have a space programme AND solve global warming?

    I wouldn’t seek to defend the many terrible things Europeans did when they first encountered other civilizations in America and elsewhere. But some of the bad things that unfolded in these places can perhaps be better blamed on ‘progress’ rather than the conquistadors. Unless there had been a centuries-enduring and rigidly-enforced no-contact policy, the indigenous peoples would have acquired guns, alcohol, the small pox virus etc from us in any event with doubtless disastrous effects on local buffalo and child mortality.

    And the impact of a more technologically advanced civilisation on, for instance, North America hasn’t been all bad (without seeking to deny the terrible things that did happen). It ultimately produced New York, Hollywood, The Godfather, Game of Thrones and other jewels in the crown of human cultural achievement! Some of this at least arose from the unique can-do character of a pioneer ‘frontier’ nation. Tired old cultures like ours can produce great art too, but perhaps of a different kind. Nor were there not great benefits for Europeans at the time: potatoes, sugar cane, tobacco! Er, well anyway, what wonderful new flavours and damage-free pharmaceutical products might we encounter on other worlds!?

    I don’t know if the North American Indians and Australian aborigines alive today would swap their lives for those of their pre-contact ancestors. Maybe they would, but they might have pause for thought. That contact has ultimately brought the descendants of the survivors some real boons, say in terms of healthcare. While decrying its racist component, I’m not sure all Indians regret all aspects of the Raj’s influence on modern India – the rule of law, an apolitical civil service, cricket, tea etc.

  • Judith Leader

    19th September 2017 at 5:40 pm Reply

    I guess we are talking about sci fiction as reality. We are assuming we are the master race and will conquer the people who live there, but in our alternative world, where we will manage somehow to get there in great numbers, they might conquer us and then we will be slaves. Do you think that would salve our conscience. They might even eliminate us or there world might be overcrowded and disintegrate before us.

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