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Home / Region / Asia Pacific / China / #SpaceWatchGL Column: The hell of humans in heaven – Debating the risks of space technology and habitation

#SpaceWatchGL Column: The hell of humans in heaven – Debating the risks of space technology and habitation

by Dr. Bleddyn Bowen

Prof. Daniel Deudney; credits: John Hopkins University

Space technology and the potential habitation of the Solar System is lengthening the list of catastrophic threats posed to humanity, claims Daniel Deudney in his new book Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity. It follows on from his prior arguments about nuclear weapons and a world government in Bounding Power: the threat of nuclear extinction requires systemic political and social change in the way humans govern the world. According to Deudney, many visions of the human future in space dangerously ‘discount the potential for violence and totalitarianism’ and showcase a ‘frightening potential of evil’ that dovetails space enthusiasm’s ‘potential for fanaticism’, inviting disaster for the future of human society.

A Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, Deudney argues that what has already happened and may happen in space is far less positive than many people think. The track record of space technology as a positive force in world politics and the human condition is highly debatable on political, ethical, normative, and moral grounds. The key negative outcome of the Space Age to date is that space technologies – mainly rockets, missiles and military space infrastructure – make nuclear war more likely. Furthermore, if humanity develops habitats across the solar system, nuclear weapons will continue to be a reliable method of waging war which could extinguish life on Earth. The Solar System will not escape the condition of Mutually Assured Destruction or the Thermonuclear Revolution.

For Deudney, future crewed space ventures are likely to have darker and more troubling socio-political consequences than their advocates nonchalantly presume. The expansion of humanity into space should join the long list of the catastrophic threats that risk the future of human society and life on Earth as we know it. Its proponents – the Space Expansionists – are cheerleading a future that is hopelessly utopian and devoid of political understanding, experience, and historical reality. Humanity’s habitation of the Solar System beyond Earth is a potential existential threat to humanity, and as such, any aggressive expansion across the system should be relinquished.  The political naiveté, ignorance, and flawed assertions of the Space Expansionists must be scrutinised.

Deudney is quick to point out that he is not against the utilisation of outer space for the benefit of Earth and managing a more sustainable techno-ecological system here. Economic development and robotic space science are not the targets of Deudney’s arguments to ‘defund space’. Rather, he argues that the political and military potential of a system-spanning human civilisation only increases the chances of totalitarianism and the deliberate or accidental extinction of human society.

The risk of totalitarianism and dictatorship increases in space because space habitats will need strict population command and controls in order to function, let alone thrive. A small number of specific humans will control the fundamental elements of life: air, water, light, hydroponic systems. The citizens of space habitats – including in the wilder fantasies of the O’Neill habitats – will need to subordinate their individual freedoms to the pure needs of the technology’s ability to sustain life and the ship-like hierarchy that such technologically fragile and closed communities require to function. The power and control vested in the leaders of off-world human habitats on Mars or near the Jovian moons will tend towards despotism and totalitarianism because there will not be alternatives to life outside that highly controlled and controllable environment.

The risk of extinction comes from the military applications of the envisioned technologies needed to engineer space habitats or to terraform worlds. The control of asteroids and comets in particular pose a significant threat to life on Earth as even a relatively small asteroid can be deflected – intentionally or accidentally – and be set on a collision course that can easily destroy cities, alter the climate, or trigger a major extinction event.

1986 artist concept of a lunar colony; Credits: NASA/Dennis M. Davidson

Whilst I do not agree with all of Deudney’s arguments in Dark Skies, space enthusiasts and advocates should definitely grapple with them. As an academic specialising in astropolitics and space warfare, I know only too well the prevalent areas of the international – but mostly American – space communities that have wedded themselves to the technological dimensions of the possible futures of humanity in outer space whilst neglecting the political, ethical, legal, and moral dimensions of the techno-geographic conditions human societies beyond Earth will find themselves in. In part, human society is shaped by physical reality, and we simply cannot and should not impose a cardboard cut-out vision of Utopia onto a preferred space habitat future.

Who will control what resources are old questions in the political universe, as Deudney rightly points out. Who gets to go to space in the first place, let alone benefit from it, is a thorny political and socioeconomic question. Human habitats on Mars will not escape that pressing political and material reality. Those questions in public discussion and commentary rarely feature on the latest round of navel-gazing about Martian ‘colonies’ from billionaires or dramatic visualisations of crewed space exploration from civil space agencies. The continuation of the term ‘colonies’ in describing the potential human future in space should raise political and moral alarm bells immediately given the last 500 years of international relations. Will billionaires run their ‘colonies’ the way they run their factory floors, and treat their citizens like they treat their lowest paid employees? Will executive boards on a Martian capital curb the authoritarian powers of CEOs as well or as poorly as they do in terrestrial corporate power struggles? It is these sorts of questions and how they remain unasked, let alone answered, that drives much of Deudney’s opposition to the Space Expansionists and their vision of the human future in space and on other worlds.

Beyond a small number of space-oriented scholars in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, as well as some writers of science fiction, Space Expansionist ideals from the likes of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to Carl Sagan, from Gerard K. O’Neill to Michio Kaku, continue unchallenged by the more grounded perspectives of astropolitics from the geopolitical universe. To challenge the political excesses of STEM-derived (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fantasies of Space Expansion, Deudney’s work should join the likes of Walter McDougall, Alice Gorman, Asif Siddiqi, Alexander Geppert, Michael Sheehan, and Deganit Paikowsky (to name only a few!) in any essential reading list. Anyone wishing to promote their preferred space technologies and habitat methods cannot in good conscience ignore their socio-political ramifications and the required structures of governance.

Despite the necessity of Deudney’s critique, there are criticisms to be made of this valuable book. Claims about the suitability of authoritarian states to run space programmes better than more democratic ones are somewhat superficial given the track record of democracies in space to date and the academic debate over what makes a successful space power. Further, he makes the case that space cooperation can spill over into other areas of terrestrial cooperation – but in reality, space cooperation tends to reflect prevailing geopolitical trends rather than shape them. Apollo-Soyuz for example was the arguably the high point for détente which came about partly as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis – it was not the cause of détente. Similarly, US-Chinese cooperation in space in the 1970s and 1980s was the consequence of the Chinese-American rapprochement following the Nixon-Mao summits, and the rupture of the Sino-Soviet split. Then US-Chinese cooperation collapsed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Some space historians and military space experts will take several issues with Deudney’s claims about the role of space exploration in American military space development. Deudney’s views on space technology’s role in nuclear war and international stability is somewhat reductionist – the arguments overlook the role of satellites’ contributions to strategic stability through monitoring, verification, and missile launch early warning systems. Space technology is neither inherently stabilising nor destabilising. It has resulted in both effects and does not do so independently of subjective interpretation of ‘brute’ material technological forces. In my view, Deudney’s arguments tends to overplay the negative aspects of space surveillance and military monitoring with regard to nuclear stability.

A North Korean ballistic missile launch. Photograph courtesy of Reuters.

Deudney’s characterisation of intercontinental ballistic missiles as ‘space weapons’ does not sit well with most definitions and practical understanding of space weapons. This is also the cornerstone of the argument that space technology has been on the whole bad for humanity to date because it enables nuclear war. Logically, the definition makes sense. Practically, not so much. This undermines the negative view of space technology as a whole that Deudney possesses. Logically, an arrow can be called an air weapon as it travels through the air but is launched from the ground, and lands on the ground. Yet we do not call arrows an expression of airpower or air weapons. A more serious critique of this argument is that ICBMs are not needed to wage all forms of nuclear war – there are alternatives for delivery with both positive and negative effects for nuclear stability.  Finally, in terms of the book’s structure, it was overly long and repetitious on a few occasions, which sometimes got in the way of the flow of the critique of Space Expansionism.

Despite these issues however, I hope Deudney’s book reaches a wide audience within the international space community, and especially finds its way into American Space Expansionist circles. It is an important contribution to the political study of outer space, an extremely necessary, and at times a scathing critique of the geopolitical naiveté and historical ignorance of space enthusiasts and leading scientists. If Space Expansionists do not engage with and respond to Deudney’s critique and refuse to ‘look in the political mirror’, the chances of Deudney’s worst fears being realised will likely increase.

Why does any of this matter? Unlike my own work which is occupied with the here and now, Deudney’s work looks far into the future – many centuries perhaps. These questions and debates about the very long-term political and societal future in space are reflected in the way affairs in outer space are being governed and debated right now. Look no further than the debate and discussion about the rights and wrongs of the US Artemis Accords in managing a busier lunar environment, or the International Telecommunications Union’s rules for allocating precious radiofrequency spectrum slots. Who gets to do what, where, and how, and more importantly who gets to benefit from doing so, are visceral and core political questions that make outer space as much the home of the humanities, arts, and social sciences as for the scientists and engineers.

These questions are derived from the inherently anarchic international system and the inability of humans to form a powerful world government. For better and worse. There are no simple technological fixes, game-changing technologies, or an escape from Terran geopolitics into the cosmos that we can rely on to solve these problems for us. In many ways, Deudney’s book is an attack on the potential for technocracy which any reader of McDougall’s classic work on space history will be familiar with. Deudney is not afraid of a small base on Mars – he is afraid of what it might become; its political and military consequences if we do not think ahead in political as well as techno-scientific terms.

In fairness to the Space Expansionists, they often reflect their training, education, and knowledge which is usually from a STEM universe, and they do not know when they make bold assertions on fundamental issues of debate and contention within the political universe. Too often prominent space scientists drop ‘clangers’ in discussions of space politics and history, just as space strategists such as myself may get a fundamental aspect of orbital physics wrong. It is up to the humanities and social sciences to push back in a public, constructive, and conciliatory manner when political ‘clangers’ are dropped by STEM colleagues. The people who can confidently and competently straddle both worlds of STEM and the arts/humanities are very rare indeed – therefore both worlds need to work together and speak to each other.

In the final analysis, I find Deudney’s overall argument logically sound, but ultimately too pessimistic with regard to the threat of extinction. For me, space habitation in the long term does not change the potential of humanity to end itself by design or accident. However, the potential for tyranny in the polities of outer space is all too plausible. There is a chance a totalitarian hellscape may be brought about on Earth as a result of human expansion across the solar system – it is a possibility that Space Expansionists must be wary of. If – a big if – humanity is to develop as a system-spanning species, I expect political and social efforts to govern the system to follow when it becomes feasible. But there is no iron law as to what shape or form that governance will take. It will be a socio-political – not scientific – process. Whether those forms will improve the quality of life, liberty, security, and freedom for all, or only specific groups, classes, or peoples, remains an open and extremely important question.

Space is not just for the rocket scientists and dreaming billionaires. Space ‘colonies’ and the development of outer space are not inherently positive things. They will have negative political, economic, and social implications that will require significant imagination and thought to mitigate – from the social world and not the sciences. It is a relief then that humans have not resolved the question of whether they could live beyond Earth. There is still time therefore to ponder whether humans should try to do so in the first place. Is the prospect that ‘hell on Earth’ could become hell in heaven enough to make people try hard to avoid such a fate?

Deudney joins a recent wave of research, thinking and discussions about the politics of outer space and makes a very valuable contribution in itself, but beyond that he delivers a much-needed broadside against the techno-scientific utopianism of space enthusiasts. Provocatively, his argument that a particular strand of Space Expansionism is an ‘expensive suicide cult’ is not as absurd as it first sounds. If humans do not stop and think politically about the consequences of their designs for outer space, humanity increases its risk of self-destruction through totalitarianism and the use of extinction level event-triggering weapon systems. Though many will disagree with Deudney, all will no doubt be better off for having engaged in the discussion. Contrary to what many Space Expansionists and the ‘inspirational’ popular science communicators chant, they are reckless to assume that living in space will save us from ourselves.

Photograph courtesy of the author

Dr Bleddyn Bowen is Lecturer in International Relations at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK. He is the author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics published by Edinburgh University Press. Bleddyn has published research in several peer-reviewed journals, and is a regular columnist for SpaceWatch.Global. He frequently presents to and advises practitioners including civilian and military personnel and agencies in the UK and internationally on military, intelligence and strategic space policy issues. He frequently appears in media reports and news items on space policy and the politics of outer space as an expert source. You can find his professional profile here and his personal website here. He can be found on Twitter via the handle @bleddb

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