Religion and Space Settlement, Part II

Now that we know religious sentiments will be the only rationale for space settlement, how can we expect space settling to unfold and what will space settlements look like?  Here are some initial thoughts.

1. Space settlements will be founded by colossally wealthy individuals

As we discussed previously, the costs of space settlement will be extremely high in the near term. At $400K to put a person on the Moon, and assuming a person requires 10x his mass in initial infrastructure and 1x his mass in replacement infrastructure every year, a lunar colony of 150 people would cost $660 million up front and $60 million every year.

In the farther term, even though the absolute costs might drop thanks to nanotechnology or the like, the relative costs (in a purchasing-power-parity index) will remain very high. So only very wealthy individuals will have the money to pay for these costs.

Given that individuals who amass immense wealth tend to be committed to their work and immune to fanciful, fanatical ideas (e.g. Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett), few of the founders of space settlements will be first-generation billionaires. (Bill Gates is one of the few to walk away from business and devote himself to charitable work). More likely, second- and later-generation billionaires, with inherited wealth, without the drive of their ancestor, and a craving for meaning in their lives, will be the primary population of space settlement founders.

1b. …not corporations or governments

Although these entities have the colossal wealth, they lack any religious motivation. Corporations are driven solely to profit. Governments are driven solely to amass the social capital equivalent of profit–support from the powerful, acquiescence from the masses, and deterrence of potential foes. (Government space programs are the equivalent of Mayan stelae, ostentatious displays designed to show foes the power of the government so the foes don’t challenge it).

While both classes of entities are willing to use the religious sentiments of their customers/subjects, they themselves are immune from it. They would still have roles to play in the space settlement process. For example, corporations may profit by providing transport for space settlements, on the principle of “in a gold rush, the only man who gets rich is the shovel salesman.”. Governments may provide the impetus for space settlements–consider local governments in Illinois and Missouri supporting vigilantism against the Mormons, or the French government’s alliance with anti-Semites during the Dreyfus Affair as reported by Herzl.

2. Most space settlements will be undertaken by Westerners

There are two reasons why. First, in the near term, most billionaires of the recent past have lived in the US or other Western/Westernized countries, so most of their heirs will too. For the foreseeable future, the world’s new billionaires will come disproportionally from these same regions. Amassing great wealth requires a large number of prosperous customers, which in the near term means Western/Westernized countries. Developing countries may have faster economic growth rates then the US and EU, but the developing countries are starting from a lower base and will have slower growth as low-hanging productivity fruit are picked. Thus, the West will have the lead in large numbers of prosperous consumers for many decades yet.

Second, Western cultures seem more susceptible to intense religious fervor than many others. Perhaps this is a product of the West’s greater individualism and loss of faith in traditional things-greater-than-oneself. The US has long held the lead in inventing new religions (the Great Awakening, the Latter-Day Saints, Scientology, UFO cults, etc.). Europeans spent a century and a half, from the French Revolution until the fall of fascism, devising secular ideologies that filled the same psychological need. The West also has had decades of a high material standard of living, with resulting affluenza. The developing world hasn’t had enough wealth for enough time to suffer the same ailment. So even if the wealth to build space settlements is amassed in the developing world, the needed fervor is likely to be missing.

2b. …but not necessarily white people

The industrialized West has tens of millions of persons of color, many of whom have imbibed the cultural traits discussed above. African-American history has prominent examples of ethnic solidarity rising to the level of religious belief, culminating in separatist urges. Marcus Garvey, Rastafarianism. (Bradbury wrote sixty years ago about African-Americans escaping prejudice by settling Mars). The growth of evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism in Latin America indicates eruptions of religious fervor could happen among Hispanospheric peoples and cultures, especially those with the most exposure to the US.

3. Space settlements will be established by fanatics

Whatever their skin color and their belief systems, space settlers will have beliefs so intense and/or out of the mainstream and/or confrontational that space settlement–a prodigiously expensive and dangerous undertaking–will seem the best option for them to preserve their way of life. They will be in contrast to average people, folks who go along to get along and adapt their beliefs to life in their home culture on Earth. ‘Fanatic’ seems a good label for the minority who won’t.

4. Space settlements will stay fanatical longer than religious settlements on Earth did

Most of the settlements founded for religious reasons that we discussed last time have evolved over time to have few, if any, beliefs outside of the mainstream.  (Today, the descendants of the post-1848 German atheist-socialists who settled central Texas go to church and vote Republican no less than their neighbors). Pressure, and especially economic pressure, from the outside world ground down the sharp edges of strange beliefs and practices. The Latter-Day Saints’ dropping of polygamy happened to remove the last obstacle to gaining the benefits of US statehood for Utah.

Space settlements built using foreseeable technology, where settlements would be dependent on Earth for imports of specialized goods and spare parts, would be exposed to those same pressures. But under foreseeable technology, space settlements will be uncommon for reasons of cost.

Nanotechnology, or comparable magic wand technology, changes that. If space settlements have nothing to import from Earth, then they can ignore the threat of economic sanction for sticking to their beliefs, as well as the carrot of economic reward for moving to the mainstream. Also, they will have little, if any, exposure to travelers, traders, and other strangers bearing different beliefs. Thus, space settlements can maintain their fanaticism. (Eventually, the fanaticism will erode for internal reasons. I have a character in New California say “The passion of youth turns into the settled habit of middle age.” But the absence of external pressure will slow the process).

5. You would dislike most space settlement cultures

Remember, space settlers will be fanatics who can’t or won’t fit in with the mainstream of their native culture on Earth. If you’re part of your culture’s mainstream, then space settlers will seem like heretics or madmen. And if you’re a fanatic, you’re probably a different sort of fanatic, and think of all other fanatics as your enemies.

This poses a challenge to an sf writer: How do I make likable a character from a fanatic culture?

But note, what we think of as our cultural mainstream is likely to seem primitive and barbaric to the cultural mainstream in the medium to far future, when self-sufficent space settlements may be possible. An sf writer could write a satire in which a culture thinking all the things we’re supposed to think (democracy is the best form of government, church and state should be separated, markets should be generally free but regulated for the common good, every child should go to college and then work a white-collar office job for the next fifty years) is made up of deranged fanatics who self-exile to escape the Earth of 2100.

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