Religion and Space Settlement, Part I

In the first two installments of this series, we discovered:

  1. Using foreseeable technology, it would be too expensive to go to space, stay there, find or make valuable things, and send those things to Earth.
  2. Any technology that would lower those expenses would lower the cost of finding or making those same things on Earth, meaning space settlements couldn’t compete no matter how low it cost.

From that, we conclude that space settlements will never happen for economic reasons.

But that doesn’t mean space settlements can’t happen. Human history is rife with examples of settlements founded for non-economic reasons. What do the original US states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have in common? Not ringing a bell? Maybe Utah? The Transvaal Republic? The modern state of Israel? Not to mention smaller examples, the Amish, New Harmony, the Amana Colonies, post-1848 German atheist-socialist colonies in central Texas, and post-1960s hippie communes in the US; Hutterites in western Canada; and odd colonies scattered across Latin America. All these places were founded as havens for religious* communities.

(* I use “religious” as a shorthand. The US states listed above had explicitly religious origins, providing havens for Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and Mormons. But Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, had little if any religious motivation, and instead sought a home for the Jewish people as defined on ethnic and cultural dimensions. Likewise, the Voortrekkers felt their way of life threatened by British customs, language, religious practice, and government policies. So “way-of-life” or “cultural” communities, or “communities dedicated to something greater than the individual” might be better descriptions than “religious.”)

This also explains the mystical overtones that advocates of space settlement tend to use. “We need to get off Earth in case a disaster destroys the planet.” Nevermind that in terms of cost, it would be cheaper to protect 1 billion people on Earth from a massive disaster than to set up 1000 people in a self-sufficient colony on Mars, Luna, or the asteroid belt. The spread of Earth-life across the solar system and beyond is seen as something greater than the individual, and rational discussion stops.

Or take Tsiolkovsky’s famous quote. It sounds motivating and galvanizing: “The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.” The hard-headed, economically-literate sf fan knows the intended conclusion only follows if we let the metaphor cloud our thinking. Why not remain on Earth? We evolved for this cradle. Climbing over the crib walls doesn’t get us into the rest of the house. Instead, it gets us into a frigid, irradiated, airless environment, with no food or toys. But for someone caught up in the religious fervor of Tsiolkovsky’s quote, those economic objections are irrelevant.

Further, to the truly fervent, high costs and low rewards are not a bug, but a feature, of space settlement. Making an investment that will never pay back shows one looks beyond crass economic calculation. If anyone can make a buck in space, then our lunar colonies, asteroid colonies, terraformed planets, etc. will soon be overrun with salesmen and tax collectors.

So if the only motivation for space settlement is religious, along what lines would space settlements develop? We’ll get to that next time.

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