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.
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…
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]
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.
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.
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?
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.
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—
Shorto: —level of…uh…
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—
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: That is a long-term project.
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.
History Lessons for Space by Russell Shorto, at Slate/Future Tense
How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space? event page