https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnnL12q6aqU

Andrés Martinez: Good after­noon, and wel­come. My name is Andrés Martinez. I am the Editorial Director of Future Tense and a pro­fes­sor at Arizona State University School of Journalism.

Future Tense for those of you who don’t know is a col­lab­o­ra­tion between New America, Arizona State University, and Slate mag­a­zine. We look at the impact of tech­nol­o­gy on soci­ety. We do that through live con­ver­sa­tions like today’s, and also through great pub­lished con­tent on Slate mag­a­zine. Torie Bosch our fear­less edi­tor is look­ing very embar­rassed because I’m call­ing her out. But I think she deserves a spe­cial call­out for this event, because if you go to the Slate web­site and look at Future Tense we have a very robust pack­age of space set­tle­ment sto­ries. Everything from how will we work out on Mars, to some of the oth­er themes that we’re going to be hear­ing about today. And so thank you Torie for all of that great con­tent that all of you if you haven’t read it it’ll still be there.

Tonight you can fol­low us on Twitter at @FutureTenseNow. And tomor­row night, we’re doing one of our recur­ring My Favorite Movie nights and we’re show­ing Mars Attacks!, and that’s at 6:30. I was notic­ing that the num­ber of RSVPs for both the event and the movie seem to be going in tan­dem, so maybe a lot of you are doing both. But if you haven’t signed up, we do those at the E Street Cinema. So it’s a fun movie to see and then we’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion about the themes in the movie.

I’m very excit­ed for today’s event. I’m not a space expert by any means, but it’s hard not to be excit­ed about this moment in time, both look­ing at the his­to­ry and the anniver­sary that we’re about to com­mem­o­rate of the Apollo land­ing. And then also all of the activ­i­ty that’s occur­ring in terms of space explo­ration going for­ward. It’s fun­ny how when we think of manned space flight there’s a temp­ta­tion to think of it as his­to­ry. For those of us who are not in the indus­try you know, it’s fifty years of get­ting to the moon and it feels a lit­tle bit like super­son­ic flight in terms of some of those cool tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs that are all in the past.

But obvi­ous­ly that’s a very sim­plis­tic read because there’s an awful lot of activ­i­ty, as many of you are more famil­iar with than I am, in terms of set­ting up what might be the gold­en age of space explo­ration going for­ward. And at Arizona State University we’re very for­tu­nate to have one of the lead­ing space explo­ration schools, and we have this excit­ing Psyche mis­sion, which is going to go to a met­al aster­oid. We have researchers who’re col­lab­o­rat­ing with the UAE’s Mars mis­sion. Our good friends Lindy Elkins-Tanton is over­see­ing a university-wide inter­plan­e­tary ini­tia­tive which is multi-disciplinary, and its mis­sion is to build a future of humans in space and thus to make a bold­er and bet­ter soci­ety. And so that is a lit­tle bit of the sen­si­bil­i­ty that informs the con­ver­sa­tion we want to have here today. And it’s also very much in keep­ing with the JustSpace Alliance’s mis­sion. We’re we’re real­ly thrilled to do this in part­ner­ship with JustSpace, whose mis­sion is to advo­cate for a more inclu­sive and eth­i­cal future in space, and to har­ness visions of tomor­row for a more just and equi­table world today.

So I think it’s impor­tant as we are at this thresh­old of what might be an excit­ing peri­od of space explo­ration to take a moment to think about you know, how we want to gov­ern these endeav­ors, and how we want to have this next chap­ter of space explo­ration reflect our bet­ter val­ues. And so part of what we want­ed to explore here today are some of the things that we ought to be think­ing about, includ­ing lessons from our his­to­ry.

So with that, I want to quick­ly just intro­duce the first con­ver­sa­tion, which as I said will begin with some his­tor­i­cal lessons. We sort of cheek­i­ly are nam­ing this con­ver­sa­tion you know, What Could be Unsettling about New Settlements?” as we look to the new hori­zons.

So I want to introduce—Russell Shorto is a con­tribut­ing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. I think I first met Russell a New Netherland Society gath­er­ing, and that was when he was in the ear­ly stages of report­ing this book. Russell’s going to kick us off with a short talk, so Russell if you want to move up here. And then also why don’t the oth­er first pan­elists join the stage. Bina?

Bina Venkataraman is the Director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard & MIT. She’s a Future Tense fel­low. And this is real­ly excit­ing. I promised her I would wave the book. And she’s like, You don’t have to do that.” But she is the author of the forth­com­ing The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. So, wel­come Bina.

And Armstrong Wiggins, who is the Washington DC Director of the Indian Law Resource Center. So Armstrong, if you could also joins us.

So I will now let Russell do our first provo­ca­tion.


Russell Shorto: Thank you very much Andrés. Thank you all for being here.

When Andrés first con­tact­ed me about doing this I said, You obvi­ous­ly you have the wrong man. I don’t know a whole lot about space.” But then when he explained it, basi­cal­ly there are no prece­dents for this sort of enter­prise, so nat­u­ral­ly peo­ple look to his­to­ry. And then I looked back through the work that I had done on the Dutch found­ing of a colony in North America that they called New Netherland with its cap­i­tal of New Amsterdam on Manhattan island in the 1600s, and thought through the whole scope of that enter­prise with space set­tle­ments in mind. It was very inter­est­ing. Because I saw a lot of pos­si­ble tem­plates or mod­els or…you know, poten­tial par­al­lels.

So, I’m just going to give you some of my reflec­tions and I hope that they will be inter­est­ing. And I just learned that this is a provo­ca­tion so I hope that they’ll be provoca­tive.

The con­trol­ling notion, the con­trol­ling fact about this whole enter­prise that I’m going to talk about in the 1660s, which I think is very applic­a­ble to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of space settlements—especially giv­en where things seem to be going, is that it was found­ed under the aus­pices of a cor­po­ra­tion. There were very def­i­nite pros and very def­i­nite cons as a result of that.

First let me give you a lit­tle quick two min­utes of back­ground. This is the 1600s I’m talk­ing about and, improb­a­bly, in the 1600s, this lit­tle coun­try which is fight­ing for inde­pen­dence becomes arguably for a time the great­est, most pow­er­ful nation in the world, the Dutch Republic. And this explo­sion hap­pens of cre­ativ­i­ty that is called the Dutch Golden Age. And that is going on while they’ve found this colony in the New World.

So you know, you have Rembrandt and Vermeer. You have inno­va­tions in art. Suddenly they’re doing art that isn’t just for the church, it’s ordi­nary peo­ple and por­traits and ordi­nary scenes. You have an explo­sion in sci­ence and in peo­ple look­ing in tele­scopes and micro­scopes and try­ing to com­pre­hend the world. And that is real­ly cen­tered on these provinces.

And maybe most of all, in com­merce. The Dutch at this time found­ed the Dutch East India Company, which was real­ly the first mod­ern cor­po­ra­tion. They invent­ed the notion of shares of stock. They invent­ed the first stock mar­ket where peo­ple would go and swap these. And along with that all kinds of oth­er things that we think of as very mod­ern came in the ear­ly 1600s on the heels of this. Things like short-selling stocks and naked short-selling—all these terms that peo­ple on Wall Street use.

The Dutch East India Company becomes the largest cor­po­ra­tion in the his­to­ry of the world up to that point. And they’re fund­ing these vast, expen­sive voy­ages to what they called the East Indies, so Asia, to get what they called the rich trade; these prod­ucts that were very very valu­able, pep­per and nut­meg and silk and things like that; and bring­ing them back. And it becomes the engine, the eco­nom­ic engine, that fuels all this cre­ativ­i­ty.

So they’re doing that, and then they say, This is work­ing so well for the East Indies, let’s also do the same thing for the West Indies.” And the West Indies meant…you know, if you’re look­ing at a tra­di­tion­al map and you’re in Europe the West Indies is basi­cal­ly every­thing on your left. So every­thing on the oth­er side of the Atlantic. The coastal North America, the Caribbean, South America.

The West India Company then becomes the enti­ty that founds this colony called New Netherland. New Netherland was a large chunk of the Eastern seaboard. You had the New England colonies, the English colonies of New England to the north. And you had Virginia to the south. And basi­cal­ly every­thing in the mid­dle is this Dutch colony. All are parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, a lit­tle bit of Pennsylvania.

So a huge chunk of land, found­ed by the West India Company. And prob­a­bly the biggest ini­tial issue that they had with it was that this colony was not the main enter­prise of the com­pa­ny. And in fact through­out the whole basi­cal­ly forty-year life of this colony, they are say­ing, What about us?” Because they’re looking—this is a com­pa­ny, and this is again I think poten­tial­ly rel­e­vant to notions of space. If there is a com­pa­ny that is the main con­cern, and this enti­ty’s rela­tion­ship to the set­tlers is ten­u­ous, than that becomes very prob­lem­at­ic for the set­tlers. And the kind of upside of this sto­ry is that through­out the life of this colony there is this ten­sion, and the colonists them­selves real­iz­ing the struc­tur­al inher­ent prob­lems in this set­tle­ment and try­ing to fix them, try­ing to make it work.

The West India Company then founds this enter­prise. It’s for prof­it, they want to make a prof­it and it’s not mak­ing a prof­it right away. Brazil is doing bet­ter, the Caribbean is doing bet­ter, so that’s where their atten­tion is. They decide that they don’t want to do the real­ly hard work of run­ning this enti­ty. So they come up with an idea, which again strikes me as some­thing that could poten­tial­ly apply.

They go to very wealthy indi­vid­u­als, peo­ple who’ve made this sud­den mon­ey from the East Indies. And they say, We’ll give you a whole big chunk of this land. We’ll give you half of future New Jersey, let’s say. All you have to do is set­tle it. You have to pay for the peo­ple. You have to pay for the equip­ment, the ani­mals, what­ev­er. You do it, and by the way you can do it what­ev­er way you want.”

So this gets at this notion of gov­er­nance. Because there was this idea, which was­n’t explic­it but you feel it as you’re look­ing at the doc­u­ments from the peri­od. There was this idea that this is— I mean, North America, for these peo­ple was…it might as well have been an area with­out oxy­gen, you know. It was this total wilder­ness. It was there. And there was a sense that it did­n’t mat­ter what peo­ple did. In oth­er words, here in Europe we have cer­tain laws, and we have the morals and the church. But all that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to apply over there. So if you…you know, sort of Warren Buffett of the 17th cen­tu­ry want to…or Mark Zuckerberg or who­ev­er, want to like, take a chunk of this land and set­tle it, you can do what­ev­er you want with that land and with those peo­ple. So that was a poten­tial­ly very prob­lem­at­ic ele­ment. Fortunately, I think, this—it was called the patroon­ship sys­tem and it nev­er real­ly took hold. There was one patroon­ship that real­ly last­ed, but oth­er­wise not.

Another very prob­lem­at­ic fea­ture of this being set­tled by and found­ed by a cor­po­ra­tion was that they want­ed a monop­oly on the trade. The main trade ini­tial­ly was furs, in par­tic­u­lar beavers. And they want­ed the monop­oly on that. And that was prob­lem­at­ic for sev­er­al rea­sons. One, it did­n’t give the peo­ple there, the set­tlers on the ground, a real incen­tive, a real stake in the place. But even­tu­al­ly this colony did real­ly take off. And about twenty-five years into it, one of the promi­nent set­tlers goes back to the home coun­try and he makes an appeal. Because there was a miss­ing piece at that time. And again, it was the set­tlers them­selves would work all this out. And the miss­ing piece was gov­ern­ment, actu­al gov­ern­ment.

So what hap­pened was fif­teen years into it, after a lot of com­plaints from the pop­u­la­tion, this monop­oly was bro­ken down. In 1640 they said, Alright, we’ll end the monop­oly.” And when that hap­pened, indi­vid­ual trad­ing hous­es in Amsterdam sent one of their sons to New Amsterdam to open up a branch office. And sud­den­ly you get this pro­fu­sion of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty at the ground lev­el.

How this plays out in a space colony is anoth­er mat­ter. Because pre­sum­ably you have to mon­e­tize what­ev­er it is. You know, dilithi­um crys­tals or what­ev­er it is that you’re going for. And the con­trol­ling enti­ty then nat­u­ral­ly wants to take con­trol. But it’s only when indi­vid­u­als have a real stake in things that life begins to hap­pen.

So, once this had been worked out some­what, one of the indi­vid­u­als, one of the lead­ers of the colony, goes back to the home coun­try. And he is argu­ing that the gov­ern­ment needs to play a role. And he’s point­ing out, he’s look­ing over twenty-five years of his­to­ry, and he out­lines sev­er­al prob­lems that they have had. One of them, the first one, he says is—and he pub­lished this as an essay—is bad gov­ern­ment. And he actu­al­ly put it in ital­ics, both words. And he said The Managers of the Company adopt­ed a wrong course at the first, and as we think had more regard for their own inter­est than for the wel­fare of the coun­try.” So they were direc­tors of a com­pa­ny and they want­ed prof­its for the com­pa­ny and for them­selves, and they weren’t tru­ly think­ing about the lives of the set­tlers.

Among the prob­lems, he said, were unnec­es­sary expens­es. This was a very top-down entity—the West India Company, from Europe, try­ing to decide what they need. And so he points to things that—initially, bad deci­sions that were made. He says that from Europe, they ordered the build­ing of a ship, three expen­sive mills, a brick­yard, and oth­er projects which maybe sound­ed like a good idea, on paper from far away, but the peo­ple once they were there real­ized they had oth­er needs. And by then they were sad­dled with all this debt from these projects that they did­n’t real­ly have need for.

Another prob­lem that he iden­ti­fied was… I guess you would say that the orga­niz­ers, the direc­tors of the com­pa­ny, had over­looked the role of the human heart in enter­pris­es like this. He said that the com­pa­ny sought to stock this land with their own employ­ees,” who left the colony as soon as their time was over. Instead, he said, what they need­ed to do was think about how can we attract peo­ple who want to call this place home? Who want to raise their chil­dren, see their grand­chil­dren grow up, give their land to them, that kind of thing. Over time that is what hap­pened but again it was peo­ple on the ground, see­ing these flaws and work­ing dogged­ly to change things.

By the 1650s…so twenty-five, thir­ty years into the life of the colony, they had some­thing very inter­est­ing, a very inter­est­ing mix of ingre­di­ents, and I will wrap it up by just kind of out­lin­ing these.

There was pri­vate entre­pre­neur­ship. They had bro­ken down this monop­oly and so there was this very vig­or­ous trade going on at all lev­els. And at the same time it was under the aus­pices of this char­tered com­pa­ny that took the respon­si­bil­i­ty for cer­tain large-scale oper­a­tions. And, in part thanks to this mis­sion that I was just talk­ing about, there was gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion. As a result of this mis­sion that he had to the gov­ern­ment in Europe, in 1653 this enti­ty on this wilder­ness island of Manhattan got a munic­i­pal char­ter. So New Amsterdam becomes an offi­cial Dutch city, which is still the begin­nings of New York City.

That meant they had a city coun­cil. The city coun­cil as soon as it first sits, they com­mis­sion a cen­sus; they wan­na know who all lives where, how much land do you have. Pay tax­es. We’re get­ting income. We’re gonna do improve­ments. We’re gonna improve roads. We’re gonna build a wall. Later they’re gonna call that street Wall Street, you know. So it’s the city gov­ern­ment hav­ing that func­tion. So that inter­play of those three enti­ties becomes very impor­tant. And there was one oth­er, which was a state church, which every nation in Europe had a state church, an offi­cial church, at that time. And what the church did was pro­vide an orphan­age and poor relief. And what was dif­fer­ent in the Dutch con­text which pro­vid­ed for I think…helped to seed what New York City became, was that in this case, where­as else­where in Europe intol­er­ance was offi­cial pol­i­cy. You had to be a mem­ber of our church. The Dutch had this offi­cial pol­i­cy of tol­er­ance of oth­er faiths. And that allowed for more peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds to come.

So when that hap­pens, and then even though it gets tak­en over by the English, you have this live­ly going con­cern. And when the English take over in 16— And it was in fact because all of these ingre­di­ents were in place, and it was this very vibrant city at that point in what would lat­er be New York Harbor, the English by then are very attract­ed to it, and they invade it and they take it over. New Amsterdam becomes New York after James, the Duke of York. The sec­ond city up the riv­er, which the Dutch had called Beverwijk, because it was a beaver town because they trad­ed beavers there, became Albany because James was also the Duke of Albany. And what they had called Pavonia became New Jersey. There was a moment when they were going to call it Albania, also after the Duke of Albany. My lit­tle joke there is that there are a lot of New Yorkers who still think of Jew Jersey as Albania.

So the English take over. They take over and they don’t under­stand nec­es­sar­i­ly this mix of ingre­di­ents that had come into being. But it was this hard-fought slog, where you have this…you know, we’re all excit­ed about big cor­po­ra­tions and this big cor­po­ra­tion’s going to run this enterprise—wait a sec­ond there are prob­lems with that. Let’s allow pri­vate enter­prise. And that’s not good enough either, because we as indi­vid­u­als are too vul­ner­a­ble here. We need gov­ern­ment in as well. You can see them over this forty-year peri­od work­ing that out and mak­ing some­thing that becomes a pret­ty suc­cess­ful enti­ty on Manhattan Island. Thank you all.


Andrés Martinez: Thank you Russell. And it is fun­ny. When I first called you I was like, I’m sure you get invit­ed to tons of space events. Could you do anoth­er one?”

But I think one of the ten­sions that you touch upon in terms of the hubris of the cen­ter, whether the cen­ter is a cor­po­ra­tion with far-flung oper­a­tions every­where. Or you know, a nation that has set­tle­ments some­where else. Or when you were think­ing of space [indis­tinct], the hubris—you see this with you know, ear­ly days and like world reli­gions too, the hubris of the cen­ter feel­ing that it can con­trol 100% what its sub­sidiaries or its rep­re­sen­ta­tives across the world or across the uni­verse are going to do. And that for­ev­er more, the val­ues with which they were ini­tial­ly dis­patched and the inter­ests are going to be pre­served, and over time invari­ably you see that that isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the case. That’s a real­ly inter­est­ing theme.

And then of course, one of the rea­sons why I think the his­tor­i­cal prece­dent of the Dutch in what became New York is inter­est­ing is that the idea that it was a pri­vate enter­prise. And so you know, this is the— I think it was this week that Virgin Galactic has a list­ing where now, as you could have back in Amsterdam in the 17th cen­tu­ry, you can now buy stock in this com­pa­ny that is gear­ing up to go and engage in space explo­ration. And I think one of the oth­er things that is hap­pen­ing at ASU that I did not men­tion is an involve­ment with Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ lunar ambi­tions.

So putting you on the spot as a this fore­most space expert, if you look for­ward fifty, a hun­dred years from now, do you think that the pri­ma­ry actors in what­ev­er it is that we’re doing in space—which grant­ed is going to look dif­fer­ent than the his­to­ry. Hopefully, espe­cial­ly, that’s anoth­er thing we’re going to get to. But even in terms of the legal frame­work which will be our sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion. But what­ev­er it is that we’re doing to give us a bet­ter future option or to extract min­er­al wealth or what­ev­er it is, do you think the pri­ma­ry actors will be pri­vate, or do you think his­to­ry sug­gests that it might be nation-states? Right now there’s an inter­est­ing mix, right—

Russell Shorto: Yeah.

Martinez: —in this space.

Shorto: Well, I… This is way out­side of my com­fort zone, if that’s okay?

Martinez: That’s why you [indis­tinct] some­thing with full con­fi­dence.

Shorto: Well I think we’re already mov­ing into a very—uncom­fort­ably for most of us, into a place where nation-states, gov­ern­ments, are being forced to cede author­i­ty to cor­po­ra­tions. And that is going to, I assume, hap­pen faster and faster. And if you throw in space, if you throw in the lim­it­less­ness of space, then I mean…the sky’s the lim­it so to speak. I don’t know what the…where that takes us.

Martinez: Armstrong, I want to bring you into the con­ver­sa­tion, because of course this rich his­to­ry that Russell is talk­ing about, it’s real­ly inter­est­ing to think about it from the per­spec­tive of what peo­ple in Amsterdam cre­at­ing these com­pa­nies were try­ing to achieve and how it might have dif­fered from what was hap­pen­ing in New England or Virginia on the English side of the ledger. And there’s you know, from the per­spec­tive of Europeans they were dis­cov­er­ing they were…you know, set­tling and of course there’s a com­plete­ly over­looked oth­er side of that sto­ry which is that well, you know, there were peo­ple already liv­ing in North America who did not refer to their home as the West Indies, which I think Russell described real­ly well the per­spec­tive of Europe. You know, East was to your left and West was to your right or vice ver­sa.

And I think we’re all try­ing to be super care­ful. The roy­al we in terms of like, space is not going to be a do over of our colo­nial expe­ri­ence. And I think even the Outer Space Treaty, which we’ll hear more about lat­er, has that as sort of its ani­mat­ing inter­est. I only know that because I heard Henry say that a few min­utes ago. And we’re gonna get to that.

But, how wor­ried are you? You work very close­ly with indige­nous pop­u­la­tions in the Americas—

Armstrong Wiggins: Peoples.

Martinez: Peoples.

Wiggins: Not pop­u­la­tions.

Martinez: Sorry. That are still strug­gling with some of the lega­cies of…well you know, unin­tend­ed or, in many cas­es very intend­ed con­se­quences of this sort of cav­a­lier atti­tude of let’s explore and dis­cov­er new lands. And how con­fi­dent are you that as we go into space we’re not going to repeat… Or how con­fi­dent are you that we are going to repeat these… What are the cau­tion­ary tales that you would wan­na insert into this con­ver­sa­tion?

Wiggins: Well, I am very con­cerned. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly because— My back­ground is elec­tri­cal engi­neer at the begin­ning. Before I went into polit­i­cal sci­ence and law. And so I do real­ly fol­low John Houbolt’s strug­gle very care­ful­ly, very very close­ly, when he was going through a lot of strug­gle to go to the moon, how to land. And I was real­ly fol­low­ing that because I went to engi­neer­ing school in the 70s at University of Wisconsin. And so I am not just an igno­rant guy talk­ing here as an indige­nous per­son about sci­ence, about tech­nol­o­gy.

Having said that, we are very con­cerned because even when Russell talked, I lis­tened to him and he did­n’t men­tion the human side of it: what the Dutch found here. There were peo­ple here. There were nations here. They had gov­ern­ments.

Shorto: Could I just… The only rea­son I was doing that was because I’m try­ing to draw a par­al­lel with space

Wiggins: There were gov­ern­ments. There were gov­ern­ments here.

Shorto: I was try­ing to draw— Um, God I was provoca­tive.

Wiggins: The Dutch is nev­er explained…

Shorto: Okay, wait.

Wiggins: And the West Indies still exist, but there are—

Martinez: Russell is—

Wiggins: —peo­ple from the Caribbean. They’re from—

Shorto: Armstrong, I…

Wiggins: —Suriname.

Shorto: I could do a whole talk, on that. On that inter­play between the Europeans and the Native Americans. My assump­tion is…

Martinez: Like, we are in the place of the Dutch [indis­tinct]—

Wiggins: And for us…

Shorto: My assump­tion is that, in space we’re not going to find peo­ple when we’re there.

Wiggins: No. We’re still called aliens. We’ve been called aliens.

Martinez: Yeah. [crosstalk]

Shorto: Right.

Wiggins: So you might find aliens up there.

Shorto: Maybe, maybe so. But that’s [crosstalk] too much for me to com­pre­hend.

Wiggins: The Belize gov­ern­ment calls Mayan Indians aliens.

Shorto: Yeah.

Martinez: Yes.

Wiggins: The United States calls all the peo­ple com­ing to this coun­try aliens. So we’re aliens. Think about it. The way the Europeans think. When European [?] get here, our gov­ern­ments, Indian gov­ern­ments, Native peo­ple that exist­ed here, the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Incas… Big civ­i­liza­tions. The build­ings are still there. If you’re an archi­tect, you can look at those build­ings. They’re still there. Built from very good mate­ri­als. That’s why the Mexican cathe­dral sur­vived in El Zócalo, because they used Aztec civ­i­liza­tion mate­ri­als.

Martinez: But that insen­si­tiv­i­ty of this colo­nial expe­ri­ence—

Wiggins: So what I’m try­ing to say is this.

Martinez: Right.

Wiggins: Let me fin­ish this. One con­ti­nent called Europe did all the dam­age in the same world that we live in. When they came to America. When they went to Africa. When they went to Asia or the Arab world. And then lat­er they want­ed us to be like them. Think like them. And that did­n’t work. And look what’s going on around the world today. Because of that think­ing. And that what Russell was say­ing was pri­vate, mixed with maybe some gov­ern­ment after?

Martinez: Yeah.

Wiggins: But this is pri­vate. That’s going to hap­pen. And so what is going to hap­pen to those…maybe aliens they might find down the road? But the species that exist there. Are they going to treat them like that? For indige­nous peo­ple, when we went to Geneva for the first time, I was one of the founders, in 1977. The whole…all Indian lead­ers that came from to the United Nations in 1977, one of the most impor­tant things for us is our land. When we lose our land we lose our civ­i­liza­tion. We lose our cul­ture. We lose our future gen­er­a­tions. And so, what is going to hap­pen… Look what hap­pened when Europeans came into this…they tried to destroy our legal sys­tem. They tried to destroy our civ­i­liza­tion. They tried to destroy… And I can read a line a Supreme Court judge said here in the United States. After 500 years, we don’t have to wor­ry about Indians or Native Americans. They will be all assim­i­lat­ed.”

Today, I can say to you young peo­ple, we’re not assim­i­lat­ed. We’re strong. Our move­ment is com­ing back. Our move­ment is very strong at least in the Americas. And we’re con­tact­ing with all Indian peo­ple, not just in the Americas. But in Asia, Africa, all over the world.

Martinez: So when we think of human set­tle­ments in…whether they’re backed by com­pa­nies or governments…in Mars or the moon. Even short of meet­ing species, are you wor­ried about… You start­ed off by say­ing you were very wor­ried when you project ahead to what’s going to hap­pen. What are some of the things that those explo­rations should be mind­ful of to not repeat the his­tor­i­cal mis­takes. Or…

Wiggins: I’m wor­ried because—

Martinez: Is it inevitable?

Wiggins: The Europeans—and the native peo­ple call them the white folks—never learn. And we’re afraid that they go over there, and if they find that, they will make the same mis­take. Because in this Earth…we call it Mother Earth, there are still indige­nous peo­ple uncon­tact­ed. And nobody knows how to deal with that—they’re killing them. Okay. War hap­pened against Indians. War is a mur­der. If you read about war. And they killed so many Indians. That can hap­pen again, because they’re not still want to learn. Look what happened—and they talk about let’s make America great again.” But they only talk about the United States. The America is the whole con­ti­nent, not just the United States. But they don’t want peo­ple to come through the bor­der. They’re still killing Mayan kids at the bor­der.

Martinez: Bina, I can see you want—

Bina Venkataraman: So I just want­ed to say I think one of the con­nec­tions here that is impor­tant that you’re mak­ing is this idea of unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. Or maybe in some instances they were intend­ed con­se­quences or col­lat­er­al dam­age, from the men­tal­i­ty of the col­o­niz­ers. And I think at one of the things that we do when we think about the future, right, we think that space set­tle­ment is a very futur­is­tic enter­prise, right. We think the peo­ple who’re involved with doing it are vision­ar­ies who are look­ing ahead far­ther than the rest of us.

And I think one of the things we need to be care­ful of is what we’re imag­in­ing when we imag­ine that future. And I’m going para­phrase loose­ly Thomas Schelling, who’s the Nobel Prize-winning econ­o­mist who said no mat­ter how hero­ic a per­son­’s imag­i­na­tion is, they’re nev­er going to be able to think up a list of things they nev­er’ve imag­ined, right. They’ve nev­er thought it, right. They’re nev­er going to have that on their list.

And, I think when we look at what’s being imag­ined right now around space set­tle­ment, we see a lot of exam­ples of the infra­struc­ture, right. We see peo­ple— We see the sort of Matt Damon Martian ver­sion in our imag­i­na­tions. We think about how peo­ple are going to grow food. How they’re going to breathe. How we’re going to deal with the cli­mate on Mars.

And that cer­tain­ly is impor­tant from an engi­neer­ing point of view if you were actu­al­ly get­ting to the point of doing this. But I think we’re not includ­ing enough in our imag­i­na­tion of that future issues around gov­er­nance, issues around the plan­et we have here. What’s the moral haz­ard of decid­ing to, or mak­ing a clear deci­sion that we can inhab­it places beyond our own plan­et, right. What does that say about what we’re doing to the plan­et today about whether it’s cli­mate change or resource degra­da­tion, or human rights. Are we giv­ing up on those par­tic­u­lar strug­gles and say­ing we’re instead going to pur­sue this utopia abroad. What hap­pens when we think about who leaves and why they leave? Is leav­ing an escape for the elite? Or is leav­ing an evic­tion for the peo­ple who no longer get to use the resources of Earth? And I think these are the kinds of things we need to bring into our imag­i­na­tion.

I also think from a gov­er­nance point of view, there… The frame­work that I’m think­ing of that is in the book that you waved around Andrés, thank you, is real­ly to think about what we have now as an inher­i­tance. And there are, I think as Russell point­ed out, part of the inher­i­tance we have here is that lega­cy of how the col­o­niz­ers thought and also their real­iza­tion that you need­ed a struc­ture of gov­ern­ment. You could­n’t just have a free-for-all-market where cor­po­ra­tions would just take what­ev­er they want­ed.

Wiggins: But you see, the gov­ern­ment [what] they were think­ing was the European type of gov­ern­ment. Not gov­ern­ment that exist­ed here. And the ide­ol­o­gy that they brought from the European side to the Americas is all European ide­ol­o­gy includ­ing from col­o­niza­tion, to cap­i­tal­ism, to Marxist Leninist, to [indis­tinct], to reli­gious think­ing, Christianism. Which we did­n’t have Jesus in this con­ti­nent.

Bina Venkataraman: Right.

Wiggins: So they had to bring Jesus from there for us to believe. And some of them are not still Christians.

Venkataraman: Yeah. So I would say that’s the oth­er part of [crosstalk] the inher­i­tance—

Wiggins: That’s the oth­er part of the inher­i­tance.

Venkataraman: —and that we haven’t actu­al­ly exam­ined the weak­ness­es of that inher­i­tance. I think actu­al­ly right now we’re in a point where we are dis­cussing that more as a soci­ety. People are look­ing at the Constitution and say­ing, Wow, that was real­ly good for gen­er­a­tions of Americans to secure indi­vid­ual lib­er­ties and rights. But it real­ly has­n’t done any­thing about the struc­tur­al prob­lems with cap­i­tal­ism and the fact that there’s gross inequal­i­ty.”

Wiggins: And we just fin­ished a study for young peo­ple… Go to the Library of Congress. We just fin­ished all the con­sti­tu­tions that exist­ed in this con­ti­nent before Europeans came here. Those were Indian gov­ern­ments. Constitutions. But they ignored that, and they imposed their own legal sys­tem. That’s why we call Indian law, which means our law that exist­ed here. Not the European laws that now dom­i­nate over indige­nous peo­ple. When Russell talked about New York, he did­n’t men­tion six—we rep­re­sent­ed six nations. The Iroquois peo­ple. Great, great great six nations. They’re still there as a gov­ern­ment. They’re still there. They don’t belong to the United States gov­ern­ment. They have their own pass­port. The trav­el to Geneva with their own pass­port.

So the strug­gle goes on. So maybe that might hap­pen in space. I think Andrés said that there are no indige­nous peo­ple in space.

Martinez: Well I don’t know—

Wiggins: But you nev­er know. There are…there might be.

Martinez: But I want to get to that.

Wiggins: There might be indige­nous aliens in Mars.

Martinez: And I should men­tion, to be fair to Russell, one of the these sto­ries I men­tion that are in this great pack­age on Slate is Russell writ­ing about this. And he does get at the sort of moral blind­ness and lack of per­spec­tive on the part of the way we talk about this and the way the ini­tial set­tlers did. And he talks about the pre-existing pop­u­la­tions.

I think the point of the talk was real­ly—

Wiggins: No I under­stand.

Martinez: —we are in the posi­tion of the Dutch in this dra­ma. We are the ones who are going to go off and maybe be equal­ly insen­si­tive.

Shorto: I was also being sim­plis­tic because this is a broad enough thing.

Martinez: Yeah.

Shorto: So assum­ing…because I can’t go that far to assume okay, once we have a set­tle­ment on anoth­er plan­et, and there are crea­tures there with whom we inter­act in an intel­li­gi­ble way, then what we do with that? That’s…that’s anoth­er—

Martinez: Yeah.

Shorto: —lev­el of…uh…

Martinez: Yeah.

Shorto: —con­fu­sion or dif­fi­cul­ty.

Wiggins: [indis­tinct] this small, but think about the British. Think about the Spanish that went through Mexico, Central and South America.

Shorto: Yeah, no I total­ly under­stand that. I total­ly under­stand that.

Wiggins: I mean, think about that.

Shorto: I’m just try­ing to con­tain—

Martinez: We are talk­ing about—

Wiggins: …from Europe

Venkataraman: I think— —talk­ing about the moon and Mars—

Shorto: But wait, let me…

Martinez: We’re talk­ing about peo­ple who were vic­tim­ized. And so one ques­tion is, if we could stip­u­late that there are no beings on…you know, no liv­ing crea­tures on Mars or moon, does that mean that every­thing goes? If we’re only talk­ing about the repecus­sions for— I mean I assume the answer is no, and what are—

Venkataraman: Yeah, I was going to say beyond human rights if you can think of space more like a com­mons, it’s more anal­o­gous, right, it’s anal­o­gous more to the ocean, or to think­ing about—

Wiggins: Water.

Venkataraman: —right. Thinking about resources that are shared that have no juris­dic­tion over­see­ing them like you know, at least until the United Nations and then you could argue that there are these enti­ties, mul­ti­lat­er­al region­al enti­ties that sprung up to try to gov­ern that resource. But that space is much more…you know…and the tragedy of the com­mons is this idea that when there’s no sense of own­er­ship that resources will be exploit­ed, that there will be dam­age done, and it’ll end up being to the net detri­ment of all, I think is a very impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when we think about space. Because we don’t know exact­ly what all those resources are. We have these treaties, we have these ideas, but they’re not enforcible with­in spe­cif­ic juris­dic­tions yet.

Wiggins: Yeah, and I’m con­cerned because of the legal frame­work. I’m con­cerned because of all the prob­lems that exist, and all the resources they’re going to spend to go to space when the cli­mate sit­u­a­tion is so huge. I’d rather put that mon­ey into cli­mate issues.

Martinez: Although some peo­ple are argu­ing that that’s why we should do it. That it’s a—

Wiggins: But that’s how I feel. That’s as a per­son, yeah.

Shorto: I think maybe…kind of sum­ma­riz­ing what the three of you are say­ing is, in envi­sion­ing this future, what bag­gage of ours do we want to bring with us and what bag­gage do we want not to? And how in the world do we, because if there are—[crosstalk]

Martinez: They’re pri­vate com­pa­nies so they might charge us a lot for the bag­gage.

Shorto: …a dozen dif­fer­ent enti­ties— [laughs]

Wiggins: And that’s anoth­er thing, only the rich rich can make that trip. Not us. We can’t afford it.

Shorto: Yeah. Well, but then again you know, if I’d look back to that Dutch mod­el, times were good in the home coun­try at that time. They had a very dif­fi­cult— They could only get the minori­ties, the kind of lowest…the peo­ple at the bot­tom of the socioe­co­nom­ic lad­der to go. So that’s who were there. And that’s why New York basi­cal­ly became the way it did, because it start­ed off with this mix of peo­ple speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages. So, that’s back to the point of will it be the elites who go, or is it you know, peo­ple who have noth­ing else…have no oppor­tu­ni­ty here?

Martinez: I did see an inter­view—

Wiggins: That’s one of the rea­sons human vio­la­tions against natives were so gross. Because of the kind of peo­ple that came from Spain to the Americas with Christopher Columbus and with oth­ers. Because they were basi­cal­ly butch­ers. Most of them. You know.

Martinez: I did see an inter­view with Jeff Bezos recent­ly where he talked about how maybe we can— This idea of off­shoring a lot of the unpleas­ant activ­i­ties that we have to do on Earth… You know, maybe there’ll be more resources. But it was almost as if you know, I think he had a line where he said some­thing like we can zone earth for res­i­den­tial and like, let’s out­source. And I think this gets a lit­tle bit to the idea of even short of talk­ing about if there are crea­tures out there, that there’s a way in which you might dis­re­spect or abuse the envi­ron­ments there, because it’ll take off some of the bur­den here and it’s this thing—

Wiggins: All the garbage float­ing up them.

Shorto: And that gets a lit­tle bit to what England had in mind with Australia as this okay, we’ll [crosstalk] put our pris­on­ers there.”

Martinez: Right. It’ll become our Dumpster.

Shorto: Never mind the fact that there are peo­ple liv­ing there, too, but we’ll just out­source our pris­on­ers over there.

Martinez: Well Bina very quick­ly because as we feared, this has flown by and I feel like we’re we’re just get­ting start­ed and so thank­ful­ly we have two more con­ver­sa­tions. And I also want to— I should’ve men­tioned this at the begin­ning. After the three con­ver­sa­tions we will have a recep­tion so hope­ful­ly some of you can stick around and we can con­tin­ue talk­ing.

But Bina, very quick­ly. Your fan­tas­tic book, which is com­ing out in September. Or is it late August?

Venkataraman: Late August.

Martinez: Late August, but you can prob­a­bly order it already on Amazon. You posed a ques­tion as to how do we acquire the wis­dom to pre­vail over reck­less­ness on behalf of our future selves. It’s so…beautifully word­ed, first of all. But I think it’s very à pro­pos of when you think about the chal­lenges of cre­at­ing struc­tures that are going to work a cen­tu­ry, two cen­turies from now as we enter this new space. Why does it seem like our soci­eties and our democ­ra­cies strug­gle to think beyond and to plan for any­thing beyond the next you know, bud­get cycle. And you were in the White House, the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion, work­ing on cli­mate change, which is a sim­i­lar kind of chal­lenge. I mean I think now we’re get­ting more and more aware, thank­ful­ly, of the urgency around cli­mate change—but it is anoth­er one of those things that often to just seems very abstract in terms of the sort of long-term nature of it. And how can we change that, in a cou­ple of min­utes?

Venkataraman: Yeah, how long do you have? So, to give the very highest-level… So our eco­nom­ic struc­tures and polit­i­cal struc­tures are not well-suited to these long-term prob­lems. I think that’s pret­ty obvi­ous. The elec­tion cycles, the way that cor­po­ra­tions report their prof­its. But I think that it’s a sort of…it’s a myth that this is just human nature, that human nature is inca­pable of think­ing ahead. I think peo­ple actu­al­ly do think ahead. Look at all of you in this room think­ing about space set­tle­ment when we have real issues that are imme­di­ate as well. And I think that this kind of think­ing, right, can be enabled by cul­ture we put our­selves in, envi­ron­ment we put our­selves in, and exer­cis­es we use to inhab­it our imag­i­na­tion about the future.

And that’s… I guess the con­nec­tion I would make to this con­ver­sa­tion, because there’s so much more I can say about that, is that what I find most inter­est­ing about talk­ing about space set­tle­ment is what it does for us to help us imag­ine and envi­sion the future soci­ety on this plan­et regard­less of where soci­ety is. So it helps us under­stand both what we’ve inher­it­ed, both the ill and the ben­e­fits of what we’ve inher­it­ed from the past, but to under­stand like what’s miss­ing in that inher­i­tance and how do we shape that so that it’s a bet­ter heir­loom for the future. And that means we have to be think­ing about if we think about gov­er­nance or a new con­sti­tu­tion of the future we have to be think­ing about the indige­nous rights that were left out of that. If we’re think­ing about the fail­ures of cap­i­tal­ism we should be think­ing about build­ing in anti-corruption and eco­nom­ic rights into future char­ters for these set­tle­ments.

But that imag­i­na­tion of using space as a place that’s eas­i­er to sort of let our imag­i­na­tions wan­der to should also help us to think about the future here on Earth more prac­ti­cal­ly. And so I think there are a num­ber of tools that we can use to do that, and part of it is allow­ing our­selves to embrace that way of think­ing and not to allow the imme­di­ate mea­sures of what we’re doing inter­fere with a sense of being able to imag­ine that bet­ter future.


Martinez: We have a cou­ple of min­utes for one or two ques­tions. And I apol­o­gize I haven’t left us that much time, but sir. If you could wait for the micro­phone and intro­duce your­self, since this is being livestreamed.

Aaron Oesterle: Aaron Oesterle with National Space Society. I have a quick ques­tion that I’d like a one-word answer for from every­body. Accepting the premise that if we can retain…you know, the knowl­edge, the wis­dom, of doing things bet­ter, respect­ing human rights, respect­ing indigenous…etc., etc., etc…is space set­tle­ment some­thing we sh— That is fun­da­men­tal­ly ben­e­fi­cial, or fun­da­men­tal­ly bad? At a very base lev­el. And a sec­ond part. Again: yes/no. Can space set­tle­ment help solve major prob­lems we’re fac­ing right now, or in the near term?

Martinez: So basi­cal­ly, should we try to cre­ate space set­tle­ments for [indis­tinct], yes or no.

Shorto: I think it’s a start. I think its value-neutral. It depends on us.

Venkataraman: I was going to say the same thing. [laugh­ing] You stole my answer!

Martinez: Oh come one, it’s a yes or no.

Shorto: Okay, I’ll say yes. I changed my answer.

Wiggins: It’s hard to say yes. Just that, if we can learn from our past mis­takes and try to do the right thing, I think because I am also a sci­en­tist, you know, I think it’s impor­tant to under­stand space. But I’m fear­ful because we have so many prob­lems here on this Earth. The Earth is upside down right now, and we need to think about that.

Oesterle: I guess my sec­ond ques­tion is to your point. Yes/no: can set­tle­ment help us solve these prob­lem?

Wiggins: I’m not sure.

Martinez: So I’d be curi­ous Armstrong, just giv­en what we’ve been dis­cussing and your enthu­si­asm around the moon land­ing and Apollo 11, and with your back­ground as an engi­neer and sci­en­tist. And now on the oth­er hand, your his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge that we’ve been talk­ing about. When that hap­pened, did you feel a trep­i­da­tion of oh my gosh, we might be start­ing some­thing that could go awful­ly awry?” Or were you as enthu­si­as­tic and bull­ish on that moment as a lot of the coun­try was, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en what else was in the news. Was there part of you that was like [sucks air through teeth]

Wiggins: Yeah, some­times I had sleep­less nights…

Martinez: But in that moment too.

Wiggins: Yeah. Because all the mis­takes we’re doing here… You know. We might not even see the result of space explo­ration. Because this Earth might dis­ap­pear.

Martinez: So when Armstrong small step for—” you were like [sucks teeth] I’ve seen this.”

Wiggins: Yeah.

Martinez: Ok.

Wiggins: That is a long-term project.

Martinez: Yeah.

Wiggins: It’s not a short-term project.

Martinez: So, in def­er­ence to the next two con­ver­sa­tions I should cut this off. But again, we’re going to stick around and we’re going to be around at the recep­tion, so feel free to approach us.

Starting off with the his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sion is always a lot of fun and it can often be…unwieldy, but I hope you found it as inter­est­ing as I did and worth­while. And now we’re going to segue into a focused con­ver­sa­tion on sort of the legal frame­work. I do want to intro­duce my part­ner in crime for this event Erika Nesvold, who is an astro­physi­cist and a devel­op­er at Universe Sandbox. She is the cofounder of our part­ner for this event, The JustSpace Alliance. I should also men­tion, anoth­er thing I neglect­ed to men­tion at the out­set, is that Lucianne Goldberg, who is the oth­er co-founder of JustSpace Alliance and was going to mod­er­ate the third con­ver­sa­tion unfor­tu­nate­ly could­n’t be with us today at last moment, so—

Wiggins: And I want to thank you and Lucianne and you for invit­ing us.

Martinez: No, thank you. Thank you. So if you’re in the sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion, come on up. Thank you.

Further Reference

History Lessons for Space by Russell Shorto, at Slate/Future Tense

How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space? event page


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