Off-Earth will amaze you: On nearly every page, it will have your jaw dropping in response to mind-blowing revelations and your head nodding vigorously in sudden recognition of some of your own half-realized thoughts (assuming you think about things like settling space). It will also have your head shaking sadly in resignation at the many immense challenges author Erika Nesvold describes.
But the amazement will win out. Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space is really, really good.
The shortcomings of a STEM education
Nesvold is an astrophysicist. She worked at NASA; she can easily run the equations to calculate how much fuel we need to get people, life support, and mining equipment to Mars.
But at some point, she realized that was the easy part. Her extensive education had not trained her to do what she was really interested in: building a just, equitable, sustainable, and lasting human society in space. So she started interviewing ethicists, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, lawyers, economists, and policy pundits and gathered their insights into the podcast Making New Worlds. This book is an expansion of many of the ideas initially explored there.
The chapter headings, all of them questions, give a great indication of the issues she highlights in the book. Should we even settle space? Why? Who gets to go? How will property rights be distributed and finite resources be allocated? Do we need to protect the environment in space? How will we do that? What happens when someone breaks the rules or needs medical care? What if that person is the only one who can fix the water purifier? Underlying all of these questions, as yet unaddressed by any public or private institution currently shooting rockets into the air: who gets to decide?
Many of these issues have been dealt with, extensively, in fiction. But Nesvolt doesn’t really mention these works except to caution against the risk of taking them as prophecy.
Lessons from history do not bode well
Each chapter begins with three fictional vignettes, set in the past, the relative present, and the future–in 2100, in a space settlement that was only recently established but already up and running. All three are about different people leaving their homes; what types of people leave, their motivations, and the circumstances surrounding their decisions. Her goal is to remind us that settling space is not just an endeavor that concerns the human species as a whole. Rather, it will involve and impact many individuals comprising that whole. It is a more effective conceit than it sounds like it should be, and her narrative skill in relating them belies her lack of humanities education, which she bemoans.
The metaphors most commonly used in thinking and talking about settling in space have revolved around Europeans colonizing the New World and the Manifest Destiny-driven expansion of those colonists into the frontier of the Wild West. This view portrays space as an empty blank canvas just waiting for civilized people to build a utopia within it. One problem with this framing is that the analogy may be most compelling to the Americans who are currently advocating for settling in space. For those who weren’t reared on this mythology, it is likely much less so. Another issue is that the outcome of these precedents is not all that encouraging.
Nesvold elucidates numerous ways space settlement can repeat the mistakes of colonialism, labor exploitation primary among them. The financiers who funded and often profited from colonial enterprises were usually not the laborers who went to the new territories to build the colony and its infrastructure (except when they were; that’s what happened at Jamestown). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, indentured servants alighting on America’s shores had already traded their unpaid labor upon arrival for the cost of their passage. These vulnerable workers, far from home in a trying new environment, were at their employers’ mercy.
In 2020, Elon Musk proposed that people who wanted to go to Mars with SpaceX but couldn’t afford it could take out loans to cover the $200,000 fare and work them off once they got there. What happens, Nesvolt wonders, if their working conditions are terrible? What is to stop their employer—who controls their oxygen supply, remember—from holding them hostage even after they’ve worked off their debt? They can’t just walk and try to fend for themselves; there will be no living off the land, or off the grid, in space.
But Nesvolt is not pessimistic. She notes that if we don’t want to bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice with us when we eventually settle in space, all we have to do is eliminate those things on Earth first. And we must do it now, not once all the technical challenges have been solved and we’re ready to leave the planet. If we want a civilization worth exporting ito space, we must create it here.