Paleoreaction in the Space Age

It’s tiny out there…it’s inconsequential. It’s ironic that we had come to study the Moon and it was really discovering the Earth.

— Bill Anders from Apollo 8

Outer-space has almost always been the darling of humanists. Civilized man’s exploration of it functions as a symbol of technical optimism, and its grandeur has in many minds inspired the awe once reserved for gods. Note that it is not the contemplation of space that is unique among humanists; the stars have always shaped the imaginations and sometimes societies of animals, humans among them. No, what is unique among the humanists is the content of their contemplations: nearly always they imagine planets and stars and galaxies as another frontier, another place to bring human beings, a sign of the potential limitlessness of the project of civilization.

For instance, some technicians insist that existing civilization invest more heavily in space-related science and engineering, because if civilization fails on earth, the other-than-earths may be the only hope for future Progress. Elon Musk has been quite vocal about this being at least a partial motivation behind his SpaceX projects. And in his book Our Final Hour, Martin Rees explicitly states that space-exploration may very likely be the only chance to fulfill the progressivist vision.

This mentality provides a perfect foil to explain the incontrovertibly opposite mentality of rewilding. Few other subjects shed light on the deep chasm that separates the two philosophies.

Consider, for instance, that life in space is precisely the kind of life rewilders try to resist now, taken dramatically closer to its logical conclusion. I refer to a life dominated by artifice. Of course, and as I’ve said before, artifice is not in itself bad. It is simply an abstract term to refer to all the things made and controlled by humans and their technics. But tipping the balance of life toward artifice comes with consequences some people simply aren’t willing to make.

Consider the humorous example of a primitive person defecating in the wilderness. In these conditions, no further action is required. Spontaneous processes take care of the foul-smelling product, and often in ways that benefit other elements of the surrounding environment. But if we add just one artificial element to this equation, the toilet, the landscape of power, the landscape of life, and the real landscape all suffer far-reaching changes. You must have infrastructure to manufacture the toilet, like transportation systems and extraction technics. You must have organization for labor (the men who transport and extract); you must have organization for management (the men who legislate and design); and you must have organization for protection (the men who enforce and defend). One might even include social manners and values that coalesce around these new material conditions so that the humans using the systems built atop them use the systems efficiently. And all of these elements apply to each aspect of what was once a very simple human function.

The problem is that when artifice takes the place of wild processes, it must also be sustained by artifice. This new object or process that mismatches with all the other elements around it needs further energy to “fill in the gaps” of the system that wild nature once addressed in its own way. There are benefits to this, like comfort. But there are also oft-unacknowledged costs, like personal autonomy.

Civilization is this same process multiplied a thousandfold, and perhaps, I can say without hyperbole, even more. There are roads, there are states, there are labor unions, there are churches. And as the growth continues, more controls must be implemented so that the system runs just right. This is why, in an age where the internet has caused unpredicted instability, mass surveillance techniques continue reaching into private domains. No longer can these private domains remain private, because what occurs in them is potentially catastrophic to the efficiency of the whole system.

Space is this life to an obscene degree. It would require artificialization of elements of human nature as intimate as breathing. And given the trajectory we have been on of late, it is not hard to imagine such artificialization to have capitalistic qualities. “Choose FreshAir, the best air.”

In other words, the problem with the vision of the space-fetishists is synonymous with the problem of progressivism: it refuses to simply let nature be, including human nature. The ground must be moved, the sky must be obscured, civility must be instilled, the life and landscapes destroyed to achieve what we cannot even guarantee as “better” must be disregarded. And the great irony is that for all their talk about humanity and its beauty, the humanists, insofar as they push for continued Progress, are espousing a fundamentally misanthropic vision. They are not interested in humans as they are, only humans as they can make them. They cultivate civility from persons like they cultivate crops from the land. And it is rarely ever acknowledged that this cultivation, unrestrained, will eventually lead to the destruction of all the initial qualities that constituted “humanness” in the first place.

Perhaps in other conditions, then, an opposite extreme would be too much to espouse. But if Progress is dominant, there must be men among us who are willing to hold up our origins and reappraise them. And there will be, regardless of musts and shoulds, men who are not as easily inculcated with desires and manners and ideologies that are not their own; who are not as easily manufactured into something more efficient for institutions and large organizations that they hold no loyalty to, and that hold no loyalty to them. This is the case even now, when the undersocialized, usually unaware of the sources of their unease, nevertheless lash out in the form of riots and terrorism and even, especially in the context of the internet, pranks. How much more terror, then, will these stone agers cause for the civilians of the space age—when something as simple as an accidental spill on a computer system can wreak havoc on the delicate processes that sustain lives that could otherwise be wild? In this hyper-artificial world no nature can simply be. The whole project will be too fragile for a piece of space debris to hit a few critical wires, as squirrels do to our systems now; too fragile for a riot of any scale when the neighborhood is not simply a habitat, but one’s entire biome.

I sincerely doubt that this world of perpetual fear is one that even the progressivists actually desire. I give them the benefit of the doubt when I say that I do not think they would foolishly evaluate the consequences as worth the comfort or longer-lifespans or whatever else they may hold up as benefits; and I permit that maybe they just haven’t thought thoroughly enough about the issue. But once this probable future has been imagined in full, with all its costs and benefits, it seems as though thoughtful progressivists will at least acknowledge the importance of the imperative to conserve in the midst of an overwhelming social push for transformation, change, and Progress. When there are everywhere extremes of a Space Age destiny, the extremes of the Stone Age ideal must strike out in reaction, and be heard, even as Cassandras being thrust into a groundless future.

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