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.

Anderson: Yeah. 

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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