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Decolonise our future relationship with Space



By Carrie Stoddart-Smith

January 2019


The late and highly revered Stephen Hawking argued in favour of space colonisation. I hadn’t come across that particular phrase until I opened up his book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, and while scanning the contents, it was the first chapter title to grab my attention. Should we colonise space? Even as I utter it out loud the words roll uneasily off my tongue because there is only one kind of colonisation and it always involves power and hierarchies – the two pillars of structural violence. I’m astonished actually, that scientists, and indeed Hawking would choose colonisation as the way to describe the future of the human relationship with space.


History demonstrates that colonisation is incapable of benevolence. I acknowledge that Hawking didn’t just argue for colonisation of space but he certainly concluded that this was a position he supported. His argument in brief was that we should devise a long-term strategy to spread the human race into space if we want humanity to continue for another million years. He conceives that exploring the solar system to find out where humans could live may determine whether humans have any future at all.


Hawking recognised that outer space exploration wouldn’t be a reality for hundreds or potentially thousands of years and that it would be an expensive exercise that many would see as less of a priority than, for example, climate change. However, he considered that we could address immediate issues (like climate change), and simultaneously invest 0.25% of global GDP in a new and ambitious space programme that would accelerate the technological progress we need to ramp up our space exploration prospects. He asked isn’t our future worth a quarter of a percent of world GDP?


My reservation with Hawking’s argument is not the science or rationale he invokes for expanding into space. Survival of humanity is a compelling reason if you’re not a nihilist. Mind you, I’m somewhat sceptical about what could effectively result in an interstellar real estate mission given the central role he sees commercial entrepreneurs playing in advancing this kaupapa (programme). Mostly, my concern with his argument revolves around his disregard of the context of colonisation in arriving at his conclusion.


I agree that there are definitely some great reasons for space exploration as a means of looking for alternatives in our solar system to help us address issues like resource scarcity, climate change and technological progress. As Hawking points out, space exploration will help us understand who we are and our place in the universe because it directs our focus outward.


In my view, we have an opportunity to develop a stronger proposition – and one that Hawking might have supported – where the substance of space exploration in search of habitable planets for human survival remained intact. The difference would be conducting the philosophical work we need to do to ensure that our survival is not dependent on the annihilation or subjugation of any other species that we may encounter as part of that exploration.


Like many others who question the concept of space colonisation, the issue is not space exploration but rather the act of colonising another planet. After all, how do we guarantee the survival of the human species on another planet if we repeat the damage and destruction we have inflicted as a species on generations of human populations and this planet?


Hawking is right that we must design a long-term strategy – because space exploration will happen. It is not a question of if, but when. However, a strategy is not only about the how, it is also about the why and the values we ascribe to in executing our strategy. Philosophy then is integral to the strategic development of a space exploration programme to remind us of the interconnectedness of disciplines when attempting to traverse new frontiers.


Without a grounded and inclusive philosophy to inform the strategy, we risk power consolidating in a central form without a moral or ethical code that protects not only the rights and interests of any future human population but also any extra-terrestrial life and ecosystems we come into contact with.

While reflecting on Hawking’s chapter, a quote I cherished as an undergraduate philosophy student came flooding back to me:


“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)


For me, this quote speaks to the inseparability of science, morality and spirituality. Suffice to say, my brief answer to Hawking’s question “should we colonise space” is no. We should not colonise space. Talk of colonisation conjures up images of violence, invasion, genocide, oppression and eviction. Advocating colonising anything from that context is problematic. Some might argue that not all colonisation involves invasion and violent occupation or perhaps that future colonisation need not. I reiterate - words have meanings and context.


When we look to our own histories, we know that our ancestors were once in a position that future generations will find themselves in as they voyage into outer space. What do they take with them into unknown territory? What values will they hold onto? What stories will they tell their descendants?


If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably sat through hours of post-apocalyptic sci fi where the values system played out by the characters reflects some version of western liberalism and uses parts of that value system to justify violence in the quest for human survival. I’m not suggesting TV drama is evidence that we cannot have an ethical space programme to advance human survival. My point here is that if we ignore the importance of philosophy as we progress dialogue on this kaupapa, we risk creating a future society that mimics those dystopic power structures.


As Aroha Harris and Atholl Anderson wrote in the postscript to Tangata Whenua: A History - the past matters and the present is as it is because of colonisation. It may be easy for some people to dissociate from the effects of colonisation given many descendants of early explorers benefitted from the violent and oppressive actions of their colonising ancestors – whether directly or indirectly through the mechanics of systemic privilege. But if we are capable of making technological progress that can take us from stone tools to outer space, then why can we not make the same social progress from centralised to distributed power alongside space exploration?


Space exploration will be a critical part of the future of humans and if humans are to learn from the mistakes of history then we must advance science and philosophy concomitantly. We must also do more than just appeal to a particular branch or period of philosophy – we must ensure that decolonising practices are integral to the process. Doing so will ensure that the cultural wealth of all peoples becomes part of a new world and humanity can rid itself of the perpetual colonisation that weakens us as a species.

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