Civilizations Beyond Earth: Possibilities

February 12, 2019 § 3 Comments

In many of the stories we’ve read this semester, humans (and/or aliens) create and inhabit settlements or civilizations beyond earth – either in massive spacecraft or on other planets. Are there common characteristics of these settlements? Are there certain physical traits that these settlements exhibit that are unique? Are there certain social structures that foster success in otherworldly civilizations? This blog post will certainly not answer these questions (and likely there are no concrete answers). But hopefully can start a discussion that we can continue on in the comments or beyond the blog.

The International Space Station – perhaps a spaceship settlement. Destroyed in Gravity (2013) 😦

A problem that plays into both the built environment of extraterrestrial settlement and social structures is the idea of scarcity. Not necessarily in a purely economic context, though. In space, we are constrained by either the resources we can take with us from Earth, or what we can generate and grow given inputs found either in space (solar rays, magnetic fields, etc.) or on another planet. (I’m operating under the assumption that our scenario would be occurring on a lush, earthlike planet with natural resources that we would know how to extract and utilize). Therefore, the natural tendency for an extraterrestrial civilization would tend to be one with pooled resources and strict hierarchies, controlling what is allocated to each individual, not unlike an autocratic, communist regime.

Space Communists

So how does this play out in some of the stories we have read? In “Universe” by Robert Heinlein, a civilization has been built on a ship adrift for so long that the passengers cease to remember that they are on a ship. Their civilization operates with a strict social hierarchy that relies on keeping that vast majority of the ship’s inhabitants ignorant. Similar themes emerge in Stephen Baxter’s “Mayflower II,” with a strict hierarchy between the ruling Elders and the rest of the ship’s inhabitants. However, in these cases, scarcity is not too much of an issue because the ships are able to self-sufficiently generate the necessities of life. However, they still attempt to rely on forms of social control to maintain some semblance of order, perhaps ineffectively. Even in Gravity, the members of the NASA mission are given orders by Lieutenant Kowalski (George Clooney) that they must abide by – in space, where things can go wrong in a moment’s notice, challenging authority is risky business.

In space, the constraining of resources calls for ascetic practices in living and unforgiving circumstances in the face of error. In the real world, astronauts have little privacy and room to roam aboard spacecraft and space stations. In Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” there is so little room for error (resources are so incredibly limited) that even one extra person aboard the ship leads to catastrophe. In “Mayflower II,” all surfaces must be cleaned impeccably to ensure that no contamination occurs that could harm the passengers. All of these reflect how the constraints of space affect the physical structure of these civilizations.

Not exactly Premium Economy
(but actually the interior of a Space Shuttle)

So, what better way to end a blog post than with…more questions?

Would a democratic form of governance be possible in an extraterrestrial settlement or civilization? What about a capitalist economic system? Are there other factors at play besides scarcity that I’ve missed? Is a strict hierarchy/chain of command necessary?

Some of these answers (or at least a scenario that could test some hypotheses) may come around sooner than we think. Elon Musk published fairly detail plans about traveling to and colonizing Mars in 2017 in the journal New Space [1]. According to him, flights to Mars could occur as soon as 2023. So perhaps, within our lifetime, we will witness the birth of humanity’s first true extraterrestrial civilization.

-Max B.

[1] Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space, 5(2).

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§ 3 Responses to Civilizations Beyond Earth: Possibilities

  • lloydc42 says:

    Considering Musk’s plan, and after reading the Red Mars, the first book in Kim Robinson’s Mars Trilogy(very good books about colonizing Mars), I am inclined to believe that colonization of a nearby astral body is currently technologically possible. Admittedly I am no terra-forming expert, but didn’t Neil DeGrasse Tyson say that the growing of plants in the movie The Martian was possible? If we can grow plants, inhabiting the world doesn’t seem far off. The question I am left to consider however, is why should we ever do so? The cost of sending the necessary supplies, the years of investment in resourses to make a martian colony self sustaining would be immense, and I can see little practical benefit of doing so. As cool as extraterrestrial colonization may be, I believe that we are currently held back more by financial restrictions, than technological ones.

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    • In response to the post, I believe that you hit the nail on the head with many of your questions. Piggybacking off of the previous comment, I think if the technology to terraform a planet is available there is a point where it will be attempted, regardless of the cost. The scarcity of resources and economy of space may be problems associated with “Universe”/”Mayflower II”-type ships, but who is to say another planet somewhere does not have the potential to produce as many resources as our Earth?

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  • cruzcastillo says:

    I think part of the problem with premises such as this is that we are inherently limited by our own understanding of the universe. Trying to apply words such as “capitalist,” or “communist,” or “autocratic” to extraterrestrial life is difficult to justify. Just as our understanding of life and the universe has been shaped by our environment and historical developments, it is reasonable to assume the same for any other intelligent life in the universe. In this case, such words may be essentially meaningless because they are restricted to a “human” perspective of society, potentially only one of a countless number of perspectives. Additionally, I do not believe democracy is the be all, end all of social structures, and the assumption that society works towards such a telos ignores how much society has evolved and developed over thousands of years. It is possible that by the time we do have intergalactic travel, contact, and/or colonization, the sine qua non of humanity’s societal and governmental structure may no longer be what we today define as “democratic.”

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