Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Moonbase Alpha? Space and Survival.

The news that NASA are planning to visit the Moon again with a manned mission in 2020 - looking to begin the establishment of a permanent moonbase - is causing some excitement. For those of us who were impressionable kids in the 1970s there are faint echoes of 'Moonbase Alpha', and the Moon inhabitants of the visually exciting, but factually implausable TV series Space 1999.
I even remember my brother having a model of the "Eagle" shuttle which bore some similarity to the real Space Shuttle.

Anyhow NASA are a little vague about the project, but do set out some of the reasoning and rationale on their website. This comes after the recent hoo-ha over Richard Branson's low-orbit 'space tourism' for the super-rich. We can only hope that that project has some useful technological spin offs to partially justify it.

Now Greens tend to be somewhat sniffy about space and space exploration. The classic response from greens and most leftists is to look at the poverty, environmental problems and political injustices in the world and grumble about the "wrong priorities". This has always seemed to me, though understandable, to be a little short-sighted and to appear to confirm some of the prejudices of the libertarian right (generally gung-ho pro-spacers) that greens and the left are anti-technology or regressive. The reason I think it is short-sighted is that a prime motivator for many greens is the desire to preserve life and ecosystems. Just a little thought (and a look at the fossil and geological records) will tell us that even in a politically perfect world, restricting ourselves (and the vast range of organisms and systems we are willing or unwilling stewards of) to Earth alone is condemning our species (and probably all other life forms on this planet) to extinction. This is the view of Martin Rees, author of the sobering book Our Final Century (published as Our Final Hour outside the UK)
Rees outlines the multiple threats - asteroid or cometary impacts, run-away climate change, global epidemics, technological disasters, war - that threaten the continued existence of human civilisation or even life on earth. He concludes that we have a 50-50 chance of surviving the next 100 years and that humanity will either choose to spread out beyond the planet (something that will take unprecedented human unity of purpose) or choose extinction.

The asteroid or near-space object threat is something that Rees has worked to make people take seriously, along with the 'maverick' Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, whose father was a distinguished Estonian astronomer. The Spaceguard project exists to work on this issue.

The modern Green movement grew in the 1960s and 70s inspired by a new global awareness, an awareness in part stimulated by those beautiful early pictures of our blue-green planet from space, and the movement of various oppressed groups to break free from the physical and mental restrictions of rigidly traditionalist religious and political systems. It has always been a struggle between reactionary romantic elements dreaming of their rural idylls and those on the more progressive green wing keen to embrace new technologies that minimise human impact on ecosystems and social systems that increase human freedom rather than retreat into insularity and xenophobia. This is typified by the contrast between deep ecologists and "bright greens" and in the opposition between conservative greens and social ecologists or ecosocialists. These lines are not always clear, and some individuals and groups hold combinations of ideas from different currents, but this dynamic is internal - the green movement is not either some monolithic reactionary force or red conspiracy as various elements of the dogmatic left or conspiracist right are apt to suggest.

Fellow Green blogger Daniel Ketelby on his blog Metaphysics as a guide to lunch has written of his liking for the work of political science fiction writer Ken MacLeod, which I share. But I agree that MacLeod offers a challenge to Greens that should be heard - can we create a movement that is progressive and open minded, that actually helps preserve life on this planet for future generations long enough to give those future generations a fighting chance of existing through the necessary "spreading out" that Rees suggests?
MacLeod has a Marxist background and his characters often have either a Marxist/Trotskyist or right libertarian/libertarian capitalist viewpoint. His greens of the future have degenerated from Arne Naess-worship into eco-fascism and primitivism. In the Star Fraction his main character Moh Kohn is scathing about the rural idyll of the primitivist greens -

“Protection. Conservation. Restriction. Deep ecology. Give me deep technology any day. They don't scare me. I'm damned if I'll crawl, my children's children crawl on the earth in some kind a fuckin' harmony with the environment. Yeah, till the next ice age or the next asteroid impact.”

I recommend MacLeods books as a useful mental exercise for more unreflective greens.

We should not be starry-eyed about space programmes - at the moment they are heavily influenced by the military-industrial complex and competing national capitals, with the free-market 'space tourists' coming up on the wings. But if progressives continue to ignore the current situation - which looks to me like a possibly quite tight window of historical opportunity, then not only will the above remain true, but the necessary urgent push for space colonisation will be muted, and largely dominated by the libertarian right. IF as a global movement we feel we can turn the tide and save the planet from ecocide, then surely we have the potential strength to affect the direction and priorities of space programmes - now not restricted to the USA and former USSR but increasingly encompassing China, Japan and Europe. Because in the longer term, saving the planet is a little self defeating if we then sit on it like sitting ducks waiting for the next extinction level event....

Various information is out there - there are even organisations like the long standing British Interplanetary Society (associated with the Science Fiction writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke)and the grandly named "Alliance to Rescue Civilisation" - about which I know little, but appears to mirror the aims of some of the groups and individuals in MacLeod's Fall Revolution novels.

I may, at the moment, plough a lonely furrow as a red-green spacer, but I will continue to argue that the green movement will only succeed if it wears its' humanist and progressive colours on its sleeve. A rural idyll or aiming for "self realisation" or "oneness with nature" is not enough to motivate sufficient numbers of people to make the kinds of efforts that are now required for our, and all other, planetary species. Frightening people about disasters is always a problematic strategy too. What is needed is to marry together the positive, forward-looking aspirations for progress (with the motivating dream of space exploration) with those desires to protect the earth (and our own DNA) that are so deeply ingrained as to be recorded as the ancient prime directive to "Go forth and multiply" and the latest understanding of evolutionary genetics.

If there is to be faith, let it not be in a deified nature or the wisdom of the holy market, but in the capacity of human beings to co-operate - to preserve and extend life to the stars......

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At 9:56 am, Blogger Daniel S. Ketelby said...

Well, there's a definite SF-attuned intelligently pro-space fraction within the Green blogosophere... you, me, and Peter Sanderson at Earthquake Cove.


At 8:28 pm, Blogger Matt Sellwood said...

And me!

And possibly Chris Cotton, if I recall correctly...


At 9:47 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me? Well not really- I just think there are some important issues around things like militarisation and other misuse of space that get ignored because they're pigeon-holed as a bit geeky. The MfSS, for example, is silent.

At 11:03 pm, Blogger peter said...

Greenman, You Are Not Alone ;)

I was very excited at the double whammy news today outlining the plans for a base on the Lunar South Pole; and the announcement of "compelling" evidence that water has flowed on Mars in recent years.


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