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