Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gerry has a very insightful post at culture monkey, discussing Zizek's anti-ecology. He points out that Zizek is correct in pointing to the problem of entropy and the reality that human society and the Earth's ecology will eventually fail no matter how much work is done to preserve. However, Gerry argues that Zizek errs in arguing against the "ecology of fear and finitude" is that finitude is a necessary adjunct of political awareness and action, that finitude is the ground of all future action. I bristle every time I hear a Marxist accuse Capitalism of just "tinkering" in order to reach a false Utopia. The false Utopia is true, but I believe that tinkering is a necessary part of human life, that we can only approach problems from a finite state, and therefore we need to deal with them on a more or less ad hoc basis (although I don't want to undercut forethought, analysis, and prediction).

Gerry's post also got me thinking about something else. Gerry mentioned the Mars Trilogy and the plan to terraform Mars, as advocated by Robert Zubrin and the Mars Society. This idea appeals to a fantasy of expansion and colonization, the exploration of other planets and so forth. And I don't believe that setting up a scientific colony on Mars is an impossibility (although I don't think I'd advocate it). However, rarely is the question posed: why bother? Mars, like Antarctica, is cold, desolate, and low in natural resources. Moreover, the shipment of food, building material, and anything humans might need to survive would create enormous expenses. A place that has virtually no exports and almost 100% imports would have to be one of three things: a scientific colony funded by governments and corporations, a tourist spot inhabited by multi-millionaires, or an incredibly poor and desolate colony in constant need of aid from the outside. This last one makes no sense, because people couldn't travel all that distance without the money to take them there. The first one makes sense, but like Antarctica, it would remain sparsely populated. It would, of course, be of less scientific interest than Antarctica, because the information gathered on Mars would be less applicable to life on Earth. And the tourist vacation for rich people also makes very little sense. The rich tend to prefer comfort over adventure. All in all, the amount of excitement and energy expended on Mars seems out of proportion with the potential gains. And the potential for success seems less an exciting prospect than the telos of all our dystopian fears.


Gerry Canavan said...

In the books, the characters are sent to Antarctica to train for the mission to Mars. The colony begins as a small scientific colony, but a need for minerals (not all that implausible) as a well as a population crisis on Earth drives further colonization.

There's also a very prototypically American focus on the need for a frontier—by the end of the series people are hopping hollowed-out to other star systems.

In general what drives this is a highly Singularian notion of what it is possible for human beings to accomplish, including major geoengineering projects and functionally immortal lifespans.

Gerry Canavan said...

hopping hollowed-out asteroids, that is to say.

Alex Greenberg said...

The thing for me is that a population crisis on earth and the need for minerals don't seem compelling enough drivers to Mars. Why would one replace a depleted, almost desolate living-habitat with a depleted, completely desolate one? If one can establish life-supporting colonies on Mars, why not establish them on Earth with less trouble? But the singularity argument was certainly in the back of my mind. And I think the frontier-drive is very plausible. It's certainly what drives the current would-be Mars colonists. I saw an interesting interview on Discover with a former Mars colony fanatic. He lived in an isolated training colony for a while, and he pointed out that when you get a bunch of people who are all equally passionately driven toward a goal, they clash very strongly over execution, tempers flare, and life gets very difficult. It's like a nerd reality show: "What happens when people stop being nice, and start getting in arguments about whether to terraform or to create biospheres?"

Gerry Canavan said...

A lot of the more serious pro-Mars commentary involves one-way suicide missions -- the mission is a lot easier when you don't have to figure out how to get them back again. The only snag is that nobody thinks NASA will sign off on a mission whose most likely outcome is our listening to an astronaut hero die alone (or go insane) over the radio.