Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Hello, listeners. We are changing our format just a slight amount. Previously, we’ve been doing our introductions before conversations, and our conclusions immediately after. We liked the idea of that sort of creating suspense and then talking about it, leading in with a little more suspense to the next one, having you sort of go along with us for the journey. We conceived of that model when we were thinking we’d record one a week and post one a week, and always be on top of it.
But, as you know, I’m not on top of it. So we’ve got this giant pile of audio. So we thought, we can actually do a better job of this, and we will record the introductions and conclusions after the fact. And hopefully this is going to make this whole process a lot more succinct.
So, that aside, this episode we’re talking to Robert Zubrin. He’s the head of The Mars Society, and I spoke to him in Denver, Colorado.
Micah Saul: So, we found out about Zubrin a little bit before the project started. He’s actually more closely connected with someone else in the project than anybody has been so far. Robert Zubrin and Chris McKay both deal heavily with the idea of Mars exploration. They know each other. They are friends. They were involved in early conversations about Mars exploration. They’ve authored books and papers together. They’ve done a series of public debates. But they’re coming at the idea of Mars and space exploration from very different directions.
Anderson: What’s really remarkable about what you’re going to hear in a moment is that actually Chris McKay doesn’t come up much. The connections with Robert’s conversation go in a lot of different directions, and I think some of the most fruitful ones you’ll hear will be with Max More and transhumanism, and John Zerzan and primitivism. So we’re going to be talking about a lot of ideas about technology. We’re going to talk about progress. We’re going to be talking about environmentalism and humanism.
Saul: And with that, Robert Zubrin.
Robert Zubrin: I’m an astronautical engineer. And I’m very much a child of the Space Age. The first real-world, big time, public event that I can remember from my lifetime is Sputnik. I was five when Sputnick flew. While to the adult world it may have been terrifying, to me it was exhilarating because I was already reading science fiction then, and what Sputnik said to me was that this stuff was all going to be real. I was nine when Kennedy committed us to go to the moon. I was seventeen when we landed. There was the vision, and was being realized.
I got myself a number of degrees in nuclear engineering, in aeronautics, and astronautics. And then I started hearing about the activities that were being run out of Boulder by a small group of graduate students called themselves the Mars Underground, and these were people like Chris McKay who were organizing these conferences called The Case for Mars. And I showed up at the third, in 1987. And one of the presenters of the conference was a man named Ben Clark, who was the manager of the Mars mission studies at Martin Marietta here in Denver. It took about a year, but I got hired.
And it was while I was there that I was recruited by Ben to come up and design new approaches for sending humans to Mars, because by this time the first President Bush had announced the Space Exploration Initiative. Go back to the moon, on to Mars, this time to stay. And NASA had responded with a thirty-year plan costing $400 billion dollars that was rapidly heading for defeat in Congress. And the management said somebody’s got to come up with any better than this, or this program’s dead. I and another engineer named David Baker developed the Mars Direct plan. It was a very radical departure from how people had thought about Mars missions before. There was no on-orbit assembly, no orbital infrastructure, in fact no orbital rendezvouss of any kind. It was long duration stays on Mars, starting on the very first mission. It was use of Martian resources, starting on the very first mission.
But when you put these different aspects of it together, it came up with a mission plan that was much more practical than others which involved creating gigantic spaceships built on orbit by floating space ports. In other words, when we showed this at Marshall, which was the first time we showed it outside the company, they said, “This is something we could actually do. This is something we could actually do.” And then word leaked out to Newsweek. So that story broke big time. And I was sitting at my desk at Martin, and my phone rings, and it’s a literary agent. She says, “You know, you have a book here.”
And it was out of that that came The Case for Mars, my book, which was published in 1996. It sold over a hundred thousand copies in English alone, and was translated into about six foreign languages. I got four thousand letters. And these were from all kinds of people. And they said all kinds of things in their letters. But underneath what they were all saying was, “How do we make this happen?”
And I looked at these letters, and this mass of talent, and humanity. I said if we could pull these people together we’d have to people who could make humans to Mars happen. And I showed this to Chris McKay, and he agreed. So we called the founding of the convention of The Mars Society in 1998. So that’s how I got to be head of The Mars Society.
Aengus Anderson: So here you are today, and time has passed since then. Where are we with Mars?
Zubrin: Well, the Mars program as such is in difficulties. Which is very ironic, because there was during our first decade an extremely active program of probing Mars with rovers and orbiters and all of this. And with the exception of two failures in 1999, taken as a whole the whole program was enormously successful. And one of the final elements of it is set to land on Mars in early August a few weeks from now. And there is a follow-on orbiter, a small orbiter, called Maven set to launch next year.
But the Obama administration for reasons that are very difficult to justify, decided to cancel all the follow-on missions beyond that. It’s quite amazing. It’s NASA’s most successful program. It’s one with bipartisan support. And there is no program in place to send humans anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. So you’ve got both the robotic and the manned program adrift at a point when a fiscal tsunami is on the way.
On the other hand, the Mars idea has recruited to it other forces outside of the political system. Most notably Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who created SpaceX. This guy was an Internet billionaire, but he had become a believer in this idea of human expansion into space and to Mars in particular. And he’s making significant headway. He’s launched medium-lift launch vehicles. They recently took their capsule and successfully orbited and docked it with the space station. They’re a very short distance away, I think, from being able to put people into orbit. Something that only three nations have done, he’s about to do.
While he’s still ways off from being able to send humans to Mars, it’s an idea whose time is on the way. So, while we may have a difficult period in the immediate future, I think our long-term prospects are good.
Anderson: And that kind of turns to a question that I would like to get to. Why is Mars good? Or why space exploration at all good?
Zubrin: The reason why space is good is because it is subversive to ideas that are extremely pernicious and which are supportive of the worst kinds of tyranny. Here’s a quote which illustrates a mindset that I am in violent disagreement with. This is a quote from a book by John Holdren, who is President Obama’s science advisor, and Paul Ehrlich who is the person who wrote the book The Population Bomb in 1968, and who in fact is Holdren’s mentor. He says the following:
When a population of organisms grows in a finite environment, sooner or later it will encounter a resource limit. This phenomenon, described by ecologists as reaching the “carrying capacity” of the environment, applies to bacteria on a culture dish, the fruit flies in a jar of agar, and to buffalo on a prairie. It must also apply to me and on this finite planet.
John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich, Global Ecology
So long as we’re limited to one planet, ultimately our resources are limited. And therefore every person in the world is competing with every other person in the world for a piece of a finite pie. Okay, and every new person born is a threat, every nation is fundamentally the enemy of every other nation, every race of every other race, and the only question is how do we kill them. And it is this ideology, as in fact I show in this book Merchants of Despair, that was responsible for the major catastrophes of the 20th century. World War I, Nazism. World War II. 1941, Adolf Hitler gave a speech in which he said the laws of existence prescribe unlimited killings, so that the better might live. It’s simply the inconvenient truth. We’re on a finite planet, after all. And if you have this worldview, there’s only one way it can end up, and that is war. And tyranny. Because human liberty must be severely constrained.
Now, if on the other hand you see the truth, which is that this is nonsense. That humans are not destroyers, humans are creators. The facts show it to be true. As the world’s population has gone up, human well being has increased. And there’s a reason why. And it’s not just because every mouth comes with a pair of hands. That would make it just a wash. It’s because every mouth comes with a brain. And so the more people there are, the more innovations there are. And these innovations done by anyone, benefits everyone. And so the more people there are on the world, and the more affluent they are, and the more free they are to invent, the better off we all are. Welcome aboard! This is not a jar of agar that we’re stuck in, and we’re not a bunch of fruit flies that have to compete with each other for the agar, or who should be willing to tolerate some scientist gods above us limiting our numbers and governing our activity so as to preserve us within the limits that might sustain our existence for a little longer.
If you understand that we live in an infinite world, that human limits are unbounded because of human creativity, and the issue is not whether we have space resources available to us now. The issue is ideas. The issue is people’s vision of what the future is. Because ideas have consequences. Germany was never short of living space. It was all in their heads. But they had to go out and commit genocide. Germany is a much smaller country today than it was in the Third Reich and has a larger population, but they live much better, because of technology. Because wealth doesn’t come from land, it comes from people.
Anderson: Is the crisis now one of really defending humanism?
Zubrin: Yes. That is precisely the crisis right now. Defending this idea of humanity as a noble species. One worth celebrating, one worth liberating as opposed [to] one that needs to be constrained. If you have this point of view that humans are destroyers, that they are not creators, then the world is a war of all against all. This is basically rationalized hate. It is a pseudoscientific argument for justifying xenophobia. This ideology has become so pervasive, and it has managed to portray itself as a new form of virtuous orthodoxy. It is a cult. It is a cult that could lead our civilization to destruction.
Anderson: And that circles us right back to the beginning, with space. Give me a good picture of the future. Where do you want it to go? We know that one planet is obviously finite. But the universe is not finite. Is space what we have to do to get out of that sort of anti-humanist system?
Zubrin: Well, I’m not sure that one planet is finite. I think there’s an infinite amount of complexity and additional features that can be created on Earth. Even in the absence of expansion into space. But expansion into space is the visible symbol of lack of finitude. And I do believe that expansion into space will be very much a part of the progressive optimistic human future.
If humans create another biosphere on Mars, it will be the total refutation of this vision of humans as destroyers of life. Instead it’ll become clear that humans are the vanguard of life. That humans are the species that the biosphere has evolved that allows it to be transported across space, and plant the seeds of life on currently barren islands out there. I believe the additional challenges that we will face will exercise our creative powers. And just as migrating out of our natural habitat of the Kenyan Rift Valley into Ice Age Europe and Asia exercised our creative power so that we developed technologies including language, and the domestication of animals, agriculture, and made us into a species capable of becoming a global species, and we leave the Earth and develop the technologies…
You know, the challenge of interstellar flight is immense, but I think people will take it on, so that five hundred years from now there will be thousands of human civilizations on thousands of planets orbiting stars in this region of the galaxy. And these will be incredible civilizations, more advanced and diverse in scope, and rich in texture compared to ours as ours is in comparison to that of the Kenyan Rift Valley. I think, though, that when they look back at this time, they will wonder at us.
Anderson: So you’ve introduced about twenty-three awesome concepts. Let me follow up on just one, for starters. This is something that ties all of these things together. I think with a lot of people who think about technology, the good is sort of increased choice, increased technological development, complex systems, generally a system of growth. I’ve spoken to other thinkers for whom the good isn’t measured in terms of stuff at all. The good is purely measured in terms of human relationships, or maybe in terms of a spiritual sense which is intangible. And those people typically advocate more steady-state systems on the planet. So how do we get this idea of the good? How do we measure it? Is it measured in terms of stuff? Is it measured in terms of complexity?
Zubrin: Look, stuff matters. Last night, in fact, I happened to see this movie called Germinal about life among these coal miners. And they’re extremely impoverished, and they desperately have to strike because they’re living on totally marginal wages. People live like that, where they have to save their pennies to make sure they have enough to eat. And 1932, Franklin Roosevelt ran for president on the slogan “A chicken in every pot” because people in this country didn’t have enough to eat.
Well, right now you go to the supermarket, Safeway. Chicken costs a dollar a pound, okay. Minimum wage in this country is seven dollars an hour. So, that means that in nine minutes of work at minimum wage, you can make enough money to buy a pound a chicken. That is why you don’t have to work in a coal mine, and you have time to go around and tape radio shows to put on the Internet. Because the need for income to have the means of existence has been rendered easy enough for you that you don’t have to worry that much about where your next meal is going to come from.
Anderson: But is that conflating technological and social systems? Whereas in those earlier time periods the issues might have been terrible social organization rather than the actual carrying capacity?
Zubrin: No. The issue is technological. The issue is, what is the total productivity of labor? Look, the average material well-being could be defined by the total gross product of material goods and services divided by the number of people. The productivity of each person is defined by the technology. Consumption per person equals production per person. So in fact, it is the technological level that defines the material living standard.
We live as well as we do because of all the people that have lived in the past and made technological innovations that we are benefiting from now. I mean, imagine if you will that Malthus had been able to rule, and had instituted a steady-state economy in the year 1800, and the world had had half the population it actually had in the 1800s. Well, they would’ve used a little less coal. But we’re not hurting for the coal they used.
But you get rid of half the people. You could get rid of either Thomas Edison or Louis Pasteur, take your pick. Give up electricity or give up modern medicine. We benefit from progress. We benefit from human labor around the world today, and in our past. And this is what allows us to have a life that is so much freer than anyone has had before.
Anderson: That makes me think back to a conversation I had in Seattle a couple of weeks ago with a woman who’s the head of the Seattle Happiness Initiative. And for them, the idea is to look at what makes a good life. Is GDP a sufficient measure of that? Or they have this ten-part metric that they’ve built based on the kingdom of Bhutan’s Happiness Index. Part of that critique is the notion that we have a society that’s optimized to produce material affluence, but that it isn’t necessarily producing lives that are better or happier. And they were feeling there are ways to sort of rethink this. Does that critique our assumptions of the good? The ones that we’re talking about here?
Zubrin: I think that that critique is based on ignoring the facts. Those people in Seattle, they’re getting the food from supermarkets which are based on modern agriculture and a worldwide division of labor which has eradicated the specter of famine due to global inadequacy of food. The fact that they are free from the terror of disease. Now this terror is out of mind.
Anderson: And I don’t think they would… I mean, they’re not anti-development or anti-science or anything like that. But I think they feel that we’re sort of optimized towards putting the priority of development above more intangible priorities, which they feel that you can measure. So, you can have a certain level of material well-being and that will ensure that you are significantly more happy. After a certain point, it doesn’t necessarily assure that you’re more happy, right. Because you may be lonely, you may be overworked.
Zubrin: Or you may lack a sense of purpose.
Anderson: And that actually was one of the the metrics that they measure.
Zubrin: Well, to me, I believe that the worth of your life could be measured by the good you leave behind. If you could imagine that you’ve just died and you’re in your coffin, and they’re hauling you out to bury you, and you could kind of get up in the coffin and lift up the lid and peek around and look at everybody. And then you have a chance to sit back and say, “Now, what was that all about?” and your life was something that you can justify to yourself, and it wasn’t just about chasing stuff at the mall. It was about trying to accomplish something that mattered. You did something. You created something. You defended something. You helped someone or something worth helping. These are sources of inner satisfaction.
But once again, the discounting of material well-being is a cheap shot. It’s like, from people who don’t have to deal with the lack of material well-being.
Anderson: Ah, so there’s an interesting class assumption, right. Because I actually spoke to a guy whose interview I just posted. He’s an activist in Oregon. And when I was telling him about the project and I was mentioning some of the stuff about material well-being, he said, “It sounds like the people you’ve been talking to are doing alright.”
Zubrin: That’s exactly it. I mean, it’s good that they’re doing alright. Don’t get me wrong. But to then dismiss the need of other people to do alright because it’s just material stuff and who needs that, that’s really being dismissive of vital concerns because they’re no longer of concern to you.
This idea that people are vermin consuming the world, this idea precreates catastrophic policies. Whereas the other point of view that humans are creators, and you can be a creator, and we’re all part together of this creative process of creating an ever-expanding horizon for humanity is one in which all men can be brothers. Whereas they can’t in this Hobbesian world.
Anderson: I’ve spoken to a lot of people who I think are very—I mean, even the most staunch primitivist Johns Zerzan who I spoke to—I think he would claim all of these material quality of life things have larger implications. Once you start opening up the can of worms of science, you usher in social systems that centralize control, that actually detract from individual freedom. You usher in systems that divide people against each other, and that with no technology at all, people would just be out hunting and gathering, and it would be very egalitarian.
Zubrin: So is he against the use of language? That’s a technology.
Anderson: He actually…is.
Zubrin: So he doesn’t speak?
Anderson: This is the trick, right. You have to say, “Well, I live in the system now, and I’m a speaker and a writer, because you can’t opt out.”
Zubrin: I mean, I just think that there’s enormous hypocrisy in this point of view, that here you have a person who’s engaged in literary activity as his activity, he’s not a hunter-gatherer, and he uses the products of of modern technological civilization all the time, to say nothing of the products of earlier levels of human civilization, to say nothing of those technologies that make us human. I mean, I—
Anderson: Does technology make us human?
Zubrin: I think language. Wherever you go on the surface of the Earth, there’s never been discovered a tribe of people that did not use language. And yet language is an invention. Language is a technology. Once you have language, you have stories. I can convey to you some course of action not by showing it to you with pantomime, but by telling you about. I can describe to you how tool is constructed. We have the use of fire, but I could imagine people being fundamentally people even without fire. But not without language. Language is a technology. Language is what makes us human. So for someone to be against technology is for someone to be against humanity.
Anderson: That was very quotable. Were you ready for that? In terms of other ideas about the good, when we’ve been talking about the future, something that seems to be coming up in our conversation is the idea that technology gives you this ability to find greater fulfillment. That’s ultimately internal, right? At the end of the day. With a lot of other thinkers, one of the big divisions is monists and pluralist, basically. So, people who think there is just matter and that’s it, and people who think there is matter and…something else. Call it spirit, call it…you name it. In our conversation, are we talking a monist universe, where people find fulfillment just in their own mind, defining their own ideas of good? Or are there ideas of good that we’re getting from somewhere else? I think when I talk to biocentrists, there’s always a sense that there’s a greater good, and you can’t quite justify that in and of your own self.
Zubrin: I’d have to think about this. I haven’t thought about it in these terms. I myself am a humanist. Which is not to deny a belief in God or other spiritual systems. But because the truths of these other belief systems cannot be objectively established. Take moral codes. And one particular moral code comes from one religion, and another comes from another, and they differ. And you say, “How do you know your prophet? How do I know prophet even existed? How do I know your god even exists?” And they say,“Because we say so.” And these various religious points of view can defined purpose, but they lack authority other than to their own believers.
So I define moral purpose as being that which advances the human condition. That’s not to say that environmental concerns have no merit, but only in that context. In other words, why is it important that there be a rain forest? To me only because a world with a rain forest on is a more interesting and pleasant one for humans to live on than one without it. I mean, that rainforest in the Amazon wasn’t always there, and regardless of what people do or don’t do it won’t always be there. Saving the rainforest is important because of what it does for humanity. I think it’s something within our portfolios of things that we’re interested in. But once again, that’s where the center of values has to be. And my quarrel with environmentalism is that they put an aesthetic preference above human needs. And I think that’s wrong.
Now, you can go into an argument with a supporter of Rachel Carson over whether birds were in fact being harmed by DDT or not. But really, it’s almost beside the point because according to the National Academy of Science, DDT by 1970 had saved five hundred million lives. And to even construct an argument that it should be banned based about concerns for the bald eagle shows an incredible misallocation of priorities, and empathy.
Anderson: So those other things do not have intrinsic value that isn’t assigned, by us.
Zubrin: Well, I like bald eagles. I’m all for ‘em. But the idea that having three million Africans die every year of malaria is an acceptable price for the preservation of the bald eagle strikes me as…to be frank, racist. I mean just imagine. If I could fly over the city of Boulder with a crop duster spraying DDT, and we knew that that would cure everyone in Boulder who’s dying of AIDS of AIDS, who would stop it? If somebody starts saying, “No no, you can’t do that. I’m concerned about the local eagle population,” people’d say, “You’re crazy. Get out of here. We’re going to do this.” Okay. Why? Well, because they’re white. The placing of some of these aesthetic considerations above human considerations has resulted in an immense amount of human suffering.
Anderson: If we set aside to construct of nature at all, where does that get us? One of the first conversations I had was with a transhumanist, and creativity and progress and sort of a scientific and complexity metric, those are his goods. And what he wants to do with that is essentially he wants us to start changing ourselves, at least people who want to make that choice. If we set aside concepts of nature and the natural, even if we’re looking at a world that’s very humanistic, does that ultimately lead us through technology to redefining what it means to be human?
Zubrin: That’s an interesting question. I have problems with transhumanism, although I can’t quite explain them completely logically. I guess one thing that concerns me is this idea of viewing humans as object rather than subject. The idea of people modifying themselves, mutilating themselves…this is not practical at the moment, but somehow adding computers to their brains or something, this has a quality to it that I find unsettling. I mean, there are certain aspects to it that are clearly to be avoided. This Brave New World approach to designing society by designing people, which basically is eugenics. That is out of the question, and I think there’s very clear reasons that most people would understand why.
Anderson: Yeah. And I think this guy, his name was Max More and he would have absolutely agreed with that. He’s very much of a libertarian bent.
Zubrin: Right. So then, in terms of people altering themselves…I don’t know. I’d have to think more deeply about it. All I can say is I’m uncomfortable with it, but I cannot refute it.
Anderson: If we embrace continual progress, is the idea of genetically engineering ourselves just kind of a natural extension of that?
Zubrin: Well, it’s an extension of it, and arguably a natural extension. Whether it’s a correct extension, I don’t know. I mean look, here we’re sitting in a room here with an excellent Border Collie named Kepler. And of course, dogs are genetically modified organisms. And they are one of humanity’s first critical inventions. The transforming of wolves into dogs gave humanity a critical ally in our confrontation with the wild. And I have never run into a person who sincerely argued to me that it was a great sin for us to create dogs. So genetically modified animals have been intrinsic to our society. Genetically modified crops. Virtually nothing we eat is not genetically modified, except for fish caught from the wild.
But now you’re talking about people. I guess I just have a sense of suspicion, a sense of unsettling that we’re crossing the line at that point that would not be wise and could have consequences. I mean, clearly even if it’s voluntary, well then certain people will be able to afford it and others not. So some people could make themselves superior in all kinds of attributes to people who can’t afford to have the stuff. I’m just not ready to go there yet.
Anderson: I mean, is that a spiritual or moral assumption? Or is that just bad statistics like, by doing that you roll the dice in a way that the odds aren’t favorable?
Zubrin: I guess that some of these modifications are such that would enhance a person’s power over others. And perhaps that is one of the causes for concerns. On the other hand, I have to say to you that I could not justify stopping research in such technologies. I think knowledge is freedom. Technology is freedom. You don’t stop a baby from being born because there’s a chance it might become a criminal. When you create a new capability into the world, I think that is intrinsically good. At a certain point you simply have to trust that it will be used more for good than for evil.
Aengus Anderson: So that’s an interesting way to move out of David Miller’s conversation.
Micah Saul: I think in a lot of ways it’s…well, it’s an extension of the conversation you had with David Miller.
Anderson: It sure is. There are a lot of ideas that popped up again and seem to get really developed a lot more.
Saul: Honestly the first one, and probably in some way the most important one, is what we were talking about with Miller with his very Lockean view of humanity. Like, humanity is fundamentally good.
Anderson: And that is such a major theme in everything that Robert Zubrin talks about. I mean, he uses the word humanism in a way that I don’t think we’ve heard it before in this project at all. And for him that is the virtue. This conversation is a conversation about man and man’s place in the universe, and bettering man’s condition.
Saul: In some ways it’s less humanism and more just pro humanism.
Anderson: Or, anthropocentrism, as we’ve been talking about.
Saul: Sure. Or just anthropocentrism. But even, I feel, there’s a… Anthropocentrism doesn’t have to believe that man is good, just that it’s the most important.
Anderson: Right. Though we don’t get into the same sort of governmental discussion that we get with David Miller. For Zubrin, the conversation is elsewhere, and the villain is not the government
Saul: Right. With Miller, the idea of man being good comes down to man looks out for each other. Where here, the idea of men being good is that man is infinitely creative, and it’s our creations that bring us up.
Anderson: Again there’s sort of an interesting Miller tie-in, you know, with Miller talking about, there are infinite resources. And I was really actually surprised to hear the same thing out of Robert Zubrin, though Robert brought that out in a very different way. Because for him, resources are infinite because creativity is infinite. He sort of really made that a more coherent argument.
Saul: And resources are infinite because technological progress will always move us beyond.
Anderson: And there is the other side of a discourse that we’ve been hearing a lot of from people like Joseph Tainter or maybe Jan Lundberg, people who are… Don’t have the faith that technology will provide that silver bullet, necessarily.
Saul: Lundberg called it magical thinking.
Saul: So let’s talk about his vision of technological progress.
Anderson: I do love the ideas of progress that we see again and again in the series, and all the different permutations. And this is one where technological progress really is the conversation. There are other forms of progress, but they are sort of carried on the platter of technological progress.
Saul: You know, he consistently comes back to the idea that we are better off now almost entirely because of the stuff we have produced.
Anderson: The stuff makes you healthier, it makes you more peaceful, it gives you more freedom. I mean, in a lot of ways he really sees himself, I think, as a champion of the underdog, of all the people who are just suffering and working hard.
Saul: But, there’s some weird inconsistencies going on with that. The first one that jumped out at me is, if technological progress and more stuff is what’s bringing up humanity, he never really addresses how we get that stuff. There are these complex systems around the production of our stuff that he kind of glosses over. Many of these systems and constructs around that actually can’t exist if we elevate everyone, right.
Anderson: You know, I mean, I think there’s a really sort of fruitful back and forth between him and Zerzan. Or maybe it’s a completely fruitless back and forth. But there’s definitely a back and forth of ideas, because I think Zerzan is the thinker more than anyone else who said, “Follow your supply chain back, and you tell me how you get people out of terrible jobs in mines.”
Saul: Even better than that, let’s use the example he actually gave. He said it’s the technological progress that allows you, Aengus Anderson, to travel around the country having conversations with people instead of working in a mine. Okay, that’s true. However, you are editing on a laptop, and you are recording people with a Sony recorder. To make those things, we need rare earth minerals, we need various metals which come from…a mine. Because you are able to do this and not work in a mine, other people have to work in a mine.
Anderson: At the same time, I’m sure Robert would bring up the relativistic argument, the notion that well it’s probably better for them to be working in a mine because it is incrementally improving their standard of living.
Saul: It’s a self-perpetuating argument. Because their standard of living is only necessarily better, using Zubrin’s definition of standard of living.
Anderson: Right. And that’s where I think his brushing aside of the Happiness Initiative is a little odd. Because obviously, say you’re a Bolivian miner working on rare earths for my laptop. You probably do have an increased ability to buy things. I don’t know what the cost of that is, though. Are you distant from your extended family?
Saul: Right. Do you feel better about the work you’re doing? I think all of this comes down to basically his sort of ignoring of any other sort of complex system that could potentially have any bearing on the average person. But he talks about class in a way that most other people you’ve talked to haven’t. He really does seem to be interested in elevating the standard of living for all of humanity.
Anderson: And he brings in race. I mean, he has some incredibly strong critiques of the environmental movement. And I think both of those are powerful in that the environmental movement can often come at a huge social cost.
Saul: And actually that’s a theme that you and I talked about even before the project started that we really wanted to make sure we got in here, and I’m I’m glad it’s finally there.
Anderson: I don’t think we’ve had anyone who’s really taken the gloves off against environmentalism. And we’ve had a lot of thinkers who I think you could place either in the environmental movement or as strong sympathizers. And Robert has no patience for them.
Saul: Right. He claims they’re anti-human. Let’s talk about why he has that belief. He basically argues that environmentalism stems from a belief that our natural resources and our natural environment is finite. I see nothing to argue with there. I think that’s exactly what environmentalism is about. Where he takes issue is that he believes that a belief that our resources are finite leads to hatred and death and war and genocide.
And that’s an interesting jump. And it’s a jump that I don’t really feel he did a very good job of defending.
Anderson: And it’s a jump that’s so different from the jump that so many of our other thinkers have taken from the same starting point. Look at David Korten, who will say, “We’re in a finite system. This is why we really have to work on being peaceful, and cooperative, and conscientious.” Or Timothy Morton, who is the ultimate in sort of a real consciousness of your part in the system, and an appreciation for that.
Anderson: Both of those guys seem to have a sort of spiritual reverence for this complicated system we’re in. And I don’t necessarily see that spiritual reverence for the system in Robert. And so maybe that’s one of the reasons they take different jumps from the same starting point of a finite earth.
Saul: Interesting. Yeah, I can see that. Because there’s a reverence there where Zubrin… I actually have listened to both the raw audio and the cut a few times now, and it was only the last time that I noticed this quote from him, which I just found amazing. “Humanity was created by the biosphere to spread the biosphere across the universe.”
Anderson: In a strange way, doesn’t that sound…spiritual?
Saul: Oh, it absolutely sounds spiritual. When you talked to Korten, he talks about two mythologies. There’s the religious mythology, and then there’s the…
Anderson: The Newtonian scientific model, is that what he called it?
Saul: Yeah, I think he did call the scientific model. They’re both the same mythology. This idea of humanity having a manifest destiny to lord over the rest of the universe. Again, this is absolutely a religious thing. I mean, this is Genesis 1:28.
Anderson: Robert mentions that religious texts can be valuable, and they can coexist with his ideas of humanism and scientific rationalism, and yet they’re not scientifically verifiable. But it seems like beneath his scientific goals, there is that…it’s not necessarily the Book of Genesis, but it’s from that cultural background where a lot of these quiet values are absorbed.
Saul: Right. There’s absolutely an underlying faith to his beliefs.
Anderson: Which I think is perhaps one of the reasons he was so uncomfortable with transhumanism?
Saul: Hm. He talks about mutilation of the human body. I mean, mutilation implies the human body is somehow sanctified. I think you can absolutely make that comparison. So where does that get us? Or where does that get him?
Anderson: I think it… Well, why did it not feel right, when logically it would be completely consistent with his other beliefs vis-à-vis technology to support transhumanism? And he mentioned that it felt like in some ways crossing a threshold.
And I think that’s an interesting connection to our next conversation, which is going to be Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. And one of his biggest concerns is hubris, and what he calls technological fundamentalism.
Saul: I think that Jackson will speak directly to a lot of the themes that came up in your conversation with Zubrin. Human creativity, manifest destiny, bioengineering.
Anderson: Finite systems.
Saul: Complex systems.
Anderson: I’m really excited about this next one.
Saul: You know there’s actually some other things I wanted to get to in this conversation that I’m just going to post as comments. So feel free—
Anderson: Now you’re on tape. You have to actually post your first comment.
Saul: Yeah. Feel free to take me up on some of the questions I’m going to pose. I really want to talk about Zubrin’s idea that technology is what makes us human.
Anderson: And that’s something that you can almost always count on us to fight about, so…
Saul: Yeah, exactly.
Anderson: And you know, I wish we had the licensing to just use the Star Trek theme to end this episode, like to just fade to Star Trek but…we’re not going to.
That was Robert Zubrin, recorded at Pioneer Astronautics on July 16, 2012 in Lakewood, Colorado.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.