While we often discuss expansion into the Solar System as a step leading to interstellar flight, the movement into space has its dark side, as author Daniel Deudney argues in a new book. As Kenneth Roy points out in the review that follows, it behooves everyone involved in space studies to understand what the counter-arguments are. Ken is a newly retired professional engineer who is currently living amidst, as he puts it, “the relics of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” His professional career involved working for various Department of Energy (DOE) contractors in the fields of fire protection and nuclear safety. As a long-time hobby, he has been working with the idea of terraforming, which he extended to the invention of the “Shell Worlds” concept as a way to terraform planets and large moons well outside a star’s ‘Goldilocks’ zone [see Terraforming: Enter the Shell World].
In 1997, Ken made the cover of the prestigious Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute for his forecast of anti-ship, space-based, kinetic energy weapons. With his co-authors R.G. Kennedy and D.E. Fields, he has appeared multiple times in JBIS and Acta Astronautica with papers on terraforming and space colonization. He is a founding member of the not-for-profit corporation Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW), now operating as the Interstellar Research Group, and remains active in that organization. A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in engineering, Ken tells me he enjoys reading science fiction, history, alternative history, military history, and books on space colonization and terraforming.
Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, by Daniel Deudney (Oxford University Press, 2020).
A review by Kenneth Roy
Professor Deudney teaches political science, international relations, and political theory at Johns Hopkins University. His book can be difficult to read, in large part due to the academic writing style. Although there are a number of interesting arguments in the book, the lack of clarity and conciseness make them somewhat difficult to access. Once you get past the writing style, Deudney argues that humanity’s expansion into space will decrease the probability of human survival. Deudney raises some good questions relative to the future of Earth and actually makes a few good points applicable to humanity’s expansion into the solar system and beyond. Science fiction readers and space enthusiasts will not enjoy this book, but it is important that we try to understand and evaluate Deudney’s arguments, rather than dismiss them out of hand. You should appreciate your enemies; they will point out things that your friends and allies will never mention, things that you probably need to know.
Prometheans argue that scientific and technological advances allow for the total transformation of the human condition, a realization of utopia, with material abundance and even individual immortality. Starting with the industrial revolution, this trajectory seems to be leading to a very positive future for humanity. But around the mid-twentieth century a number of concerns surfaced suggesting a much more pessimistic end to the Promethean vision. The concerns include nuclear and biological weapons, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, environmental collapse, and even new forms of despotism based on advanced surveillance and coercion technologies. But all technology is always a two-edged sword capable of great good and great harm depending on the intentions and even wisdom of the humans that utilize them. This is this dilemma on which Dr. Deudney bases his central argument. He seems to suggest that because the sword can indeed harm the owner, perhaps he is better off without it. Or if he absolutely must have a sword, he should made it as harmless as possible. He argues that humanity should be able to discern which technologies offer more risk than reward and should thus be proscribed while pursing technologies and policies that offer great reward for only minor risk. He argues that colonization of space and the exploitation of space-based resources belongs in the former category and should be prohibited.
But Deudney isn’t entirely anti-space. He advocates Earth-centered space activities focused on nuclear security and environmental protection. He is okay with communication and weather satellites. He believes that space activities should be used to protected the Earth rather than expand the militarization and colonization of space.
Advocates of humans expanding into space and exploiting the resources there Deudney terms “space expansionists.” He describes space expansionism as a “complex and captivating ideology…that extrapolates and amplifies the Promethean worldview of technological modernism into a project of literally cosmic scope.” He considers space expansionism to be a science-based and technology dependent religion. Space expansionists advocate for human expansion into space and believe that such expansion is desirable both for those lucky enough to work and live in space but also for humanity in general and the Earth in particular. According to Deudney, space expansionists promise humanity a permanent final frontier, as well as knowledge, and material and energy resources almost beyond measure that can help address Earth’s environmental problems. Deudney disagrees and offers a number of arguments that are discussed below.
Two worrisome technologies that Deudney identifies as being advocated by space expansionists are genetic and cybernetic technologies. The first is also termed transhumanism or the improvement of human beings through genetic manipulation. The second is machine enhancement of human bodies and minds or possibly complete replacement of humans with machines with greater intellectual and physical capability. These two developing technologies do indeed pose many ethical questions. They would be useful but not necessary for successful expansion of humanity into space. But even if the human (or transhuman or cybernetic) expansion into space were to be completely banned, the issue does not go away. The transhumanism movement and the development of cybernetic technology will proceed on Earth completely independent of space activities. There is simply too much advantage to be had for those who possess it. Humans of 2020 are not the final evolutional product and Nietzsche’s ubermensch (or Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Sing and his augments) pose important ethical and even existential problems. But these technologies will not be avoided by restricting space expansionism.
A third technology that worries Deudney is nanotechnology. This technology enables construction of materials and machines from basic molecules. The big fear of nanotechnology is the construction of tiny machines that disassemble anything and everything they encounter and use the resulting molecules to make more of themselves, without end, until the entire planet is covered with them. This is known as the ‘gray goo’ scenario and it terminates humanity and indeed all life on the Earth. But nanotechnology is actively being pursued by numerous companies and countries because it has such tremendous potential. Nanotechnology would be very useful for space development but again, not essential.
Artificial intelligence is yet another technology Deudney, and others, are very concerned about. It offers great promise and great peril. Again, because of the potential advantages, it will be developed, and while potentially very useful for space activities is not essential.
These four technologies are intertwined, very powerful, and very dangerous. But because they are potentially so valuable, and so useful, they will be developed by someone at some point. Deudney’s fear that space expansion will accelerate their development, while possibly true, is irrelevant. They will be developed, unless a totalitarian world government using advanced surveillance and coercive technologies prevents it. In that case, the cure would be bad. Very bad, but in this particular case perhaps not as bad as the disease. Deudney fails to recognize that space expansionism offers some prospects for mitigating the risks of these technologies by allowing them to be developed in space at isolated research facilities that can be obliterated should something dangerous escape.
Deudney spends some time discussing the militarization of space. He seems to have associated nuclear-tipped missiles and the resulting nuclear annihilation risk with space expansionism simply because such weapons of mass destruction travel through space and can arrive at any point on earth minutes after launch. He doesn’t acknowledge that the first nuclear weapons were delivered by piston engine aircraft and that today hypersonic cruise missiles can deliver such warheads just fine without going into space. The Russians have nuclear-tipped torpedoes capable of destroying large harbors. Squashing the dreams of space expansionists will not in any way reduce the threat of nuclear war, and can arguably increase it due to resource depletion with increasing population pressures. Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative was actually intended to prevent nuclear weapons from traveling through space, but Deudney views this effort as simply another effort at the militarization of space and thus something to be resisted.
Space (including Earth orbit) is currently effectively demilitarized. No nuclear weapons are stationed in space and no kinetic or beam weapon systems exist that can operate from space. Space technology offers the possibility of Earth orbit being filled with beneficial infrastructure such as communication, surveillance, weather, and positioning satellites, along with solar power stations and even some dirty industries. Deudney points out that with the ability to place this infrastructure in orbit comes the ability to place large weapon systems there as well. Orbital weapon systems would be capable of striking any point on Earth with nuclear, kinetic, or energy beam weapons within minutes of the decision to do so. It is the ultimate high ground and the nation that can achieve unchallenged military control of Earth orbit can dictate to the other nations of Earth, resulting in a de facto world government. But nuclear weapons can be delivered without having to travel through space, somewhat undermining Deudney’s argument.
While a world government would probably use space-based weapons to exert control over troublesome provinces, the argument that space-based weapons would lead to a world government is somewhat weak. The question of the desirability of a world government is very real but is effectively independent of the space colonization question. North Korea stands as a stark warning of what a world government might look like. Its citizens endure starvation and concentration camps while the rulers demand not just total compliance in all actions but sincere correct beliefs. Of course, the ruling elite will live very well indeed. And the North Korean political system cannot be overthrown from within. Only external forces. can remove the current system or force it to moderate its actions. A world government based on the North Korean model with advanced surveillance and coercive technologies would have no external threats to force it to moderate its actions or ever remove it from power. One possible exception to this is human colonies on Mars or in the asteroid belt. They might serve to act as the outside force keeping the world government in check, at least somewhat.
Asteroids are common throughout the solar system and occasionally will smash into Earth. Sometimes with negative consequences. Just ask the dinosaurs how that turned out for them. It has been said that asteroids are nature’s way of asking, “How is your space program coming?” Space expansionists claim asteroid protection as one reason to go into space in a big way: to protect the Earth. But Deudney points out that the ability to deflect an asteroid also implies the ability to direct an asteroid to a specific destination. With such an ability in the wrong hands this actually increases the probability of a massive asteroid impact with Earth, rather than reducing it.
Deudney suggests that space settlements have a dark side. The term space settlements as used by Deudney includes lunar colonies, artificial space habitats (O’Neil cylinders, Stanford tori, Bernal spheres, etc), asteroid settlements, and terraformed worlds. Building space settlements involves material engineering and high energies suitable for warfare. This represents a variant of the asteroid problem: in the wrong hands, this technology could do terrible things.
Terraforming is the transformation of a planet, such as Mars or Venus, to resemble the Earth and support human and other Earth life forms. Terraforming requires high energies, long time periods, and the transport of large masses around a solar system. Deudney points out that the ability to make a dead planet live also implies the ability to make a living world sterile.
In addition, space settlements individually will contain thousands, or at most a few million individuals. The life support systems and structural integrity are fragile things requiring a high degree of trust and/or control of the population to identify and remove unstable or dangerous individuals. Rather than being islands of freedom, space settlements could become, and maybe must become, micro-totalitarian states. And like the Greek city states of antiquity, they may find reasons to war amongst themselves, and perhaps with Earth. And they will war with weapons far deadlier than anything carried by the Greeks.
As space settlements are built further and further out into the outer edges of the solar system, perhaps around gas giants and their moons, they become isolated. Over time, humanity could branch into new species, perhaps unable to breed with each other. Rather than encounter aliens, we will create them. With the aid of genetic engineering and cybernetics, discussed above, this divergence could occur relatively quickly. Even with the Central Earth government and most space settlements agreeing to forgo genetic engineering and cybernetic modification of humans, it only takes one isolated space settlement to pursue this line of research to produce something quite alien and perhaps anti-human.
To the best of my ability, I have tried to identify and list here all arguments that Deudney has identified as reasons that space expansionism can decrease the probability of humanity’s survival. Many of his issues are indeed existential threats to humanity but not because of what the space expansionists propose. But they are deserving of serious consideration. These include genetic engineering, cybernetics, nanotechnology, and AI. They are real threats but also real opportunities.
Expanding into space places god-like destructive powers into the hands of those moving asteroids or large mass space freighters. In all likelihood, propulsion systems will utilize fusion power of some type, again giving god-like destructive powers of a different nature. Interstellar missions will be capable of moving large masses at some percentage of the speed of light. Take a space shuttle, run it up to only10% the speed of light and you have a planet killer. We should ensure that individuals embarking on the interstellar missions have a deep respect for, and love of, Earth. How do we protect Earth from the even one slightly deranged or evil individual who has control of an asteroid (or starship) and can direct it at a target of his, or her, choice? Space expansionists need to address this question. Are we looking at a priest-hood type space patrol, or something else?
But perhaps the big takeaway from Deudney’s effort involves government and how humanity will choose to govern itself. Globalists view a single world government as a means to reduce violence and warfare on Earth, perhaps ending the existential thread of nuclear war once and for all. Others view a single world government as a threat to freedom and a short journey to a totalitarian nightmare. But can a single world government control a solar system with dozens of lunar settlements, thousands of asteroid settlements, perhaps a couple of terraformed planets each with a growing population in the millions or even billions, and thousands of space settlements, some of which exist in the Oort cloud? Then add in genetic engineering, cybernetics, and AI, and you have something new in human experience. How is conflict resolved? Are there indeed dangerous technologies that should be proscribed, and if so, how is that done? How does all of this relate to the Fermi Paradox? Once interstellar missions are underway, the questions only multiply. It is unclear what the answer is to this problem, which does not mean that there is no solution. The space expansionist’s dreams face countless problems and this needs to be added to the list.
Deudney perhaps overstates his case and many of his arguments are flawed, but he does raise some valid points. Points that space expansionists need to address. Looking into the future, questions of how humanity deals with Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Sing and his augments (or if you like, Nietzsche’s ubermensch) are very real and very important but separate from the space expansion question.
Deudney is also correct in that Earth is vital to future human expansion into the solar system and must be preserved at all costs. Space settlements and asteroid settlements will probably depend on living systems that must be renewed periodically by importing plants and animals and bacteria and viruses from Earth. Terraforming planets depends on life from Earth and even space settlements and terraforming efforts around distant stars will depend on life imported from Earth. Earth must be preserved for space expansionists to realize their visions.
The Universe has a number of methods available to it to sterilize entire planets. Deudney mentions asteroid impacts. He doesn’t address gamma ray bursts (GRBs). If we can deal with the unstable or evil individual problem, then space expansionists can protect Earth from asteroids and comets, and even the occasional runaway space freighter. But GRBs arrive with little warning and can irradiate Earth and other terraformed planets with intense levels of gamma rays, destroying the ozone layer and leading to an environmental disaster with eventual mass extinctions. But space settlements can be built with very heavy shielding and have no ozone problem. They could survive a GRB far better than a planet. Space-based colonies could then render aid to Earth, repairing the ozone layer and restoring the biosphere using techniques developed for terraforming.
Yes, Deudney is correct, the dreams of the space expansionists represent a two-edged sword for humanity. But sometimes a sharp sword is all that stands between you and eternal darkness.