A Republic in Space part 2

This post was originally posted on blogspot.com at September 14, 2012

In this post I will discuss the question why Space colonization? First I will the discuss the common arguments, subsequently I will present our very own arguments.

In essence there are two classical arguments in favor of the humanization: the first I will call the survivalist and the second the environmental or demographical argument. According the survivalist position the continuation of the existence of Mankind or at least human civilization is worthwhile in itself, and that in order to save humanity from extinction as result of some global catastrophe man has to colonize space. This position is advocated by, for instance, Stephen Hawking.

The second argument is based on the claim that there are too many people on Earth, i.e. much more than our planet can actually sustain, or that is will be the case in the (foreseeable) future. This argument is primarily based on the concept of the ecological footprint. The idea is then that by moving people from Earth to space the pressure on our fragile ecosystem would decrease. One argument against this is that with current technology we cannot move enough people in a relative short time frame. Another frequently raised objection is that the world population will “stabilize” at ten billion at the end of this century (which will possibly grow to eleven billion by 2200), so space colonization will not necessary to accommodate all humanity.

A rebuttal of these counter arguments can be simply stated: if the world population will stabilize at ten to eleven billion people, then by moving a fixed number each year as part of a two century program, will effectively reduce the population pressure. And even if nearly all of humanity will stay on Earth, then still a lot of natural resources will be required to lift up global living standard to Western levels. And where else then in the Near Earth Asteroids can we find enough resources? Asteroid mining will provide the world economy with the resources it need, in an environmental friendly manner, while also lessen tension due to international competition for those resources and so promoting world peace. But extraterrestrial mining activities, even largely automatized , will require an extraterrestrial population.

However, our main argument is a different one, although we agree with two classical ones. Our argument is a political one. We should call this the utopian argument. Over the course of history, started at latest with Plato’s The Republic, people have designed ideal societies. Since the publication of Utopia by Thomas Moore, these “ideal societies” are commonly referred to as utopias, and the term utopianism used to identify political movements which sought to create such “ideal society”. Often this movements were very unrealistic, so the adjective utopian acquired the negative meaning it has today.

On Earth there is not much place for experimenting with new types of social organization. Existing societies are generally unwilling to adopt social reforms, which is of course understandable, and history teaches us that far reaching reforms cannot be established without high costs. Since reforming existing societies is quite difficult, many have tried to establish utopian communities in low populated areas. Most of these projects has failed. The main reason for this is that most of those communities were not able to become self-sufficient or were subject to external pressure.

Why would space colonization be able to provide better opportunities for utopian movements? We have to realize that the circumstances in outer space are quite different from what we are familiar with here on earth. Space is abundant in resources and the distances are enormous. And these an important things to consider.

In his famous book Anarchy, State and Utopia, political philosopher Robert Nozick argues that a minimal state (this is a political system in which the government only provides police, court system and national defense) will provide a framework in which everyone can creates his or her own utopia. Wisely Nozick states that there is no single “ideal” society that fits everyone’s needs, so for him utopia is necessarily pluralistic, whereas most previous utopianists tried to design one fits-all-society. However in his critical analysis of Robert Nozick, British philosopher Jonathan Wolf argues that Nozick’s utopian framework can only work “if there is plenty of space, and not many people” (Wolf, 135). Which is, of course, not the case on our planet, but it is in space. John Lewis argues in his book Mining the sky that the asteroid belt could sustain 10^16 people (assuming an average wealth of us$100,000 [in 1997 us$]). In order words Space could provide Nozick’s framework for Utopia, with one main difference: whereas Nozick argues for a minimal (possibly world wide) state within which people can create their very own utopias, in space each utopia will have to arrange these functions for themselves. In chapter 11 of The High Frontier Gerard O’Neill briefly discussed the perspectives for utopian communities in space. He states that there is a (fundamental) difference between traditional utopianists and the (complete) new social structures [of space colonies] made possible by modern technology. O’Neill is clearly enthusiast about the possibility of creating new social systems, provided that those are based on voluntary consents and that dissenters are allowed to leave for other communities. I do not know whether O’Neill was influenced by Nozick, since The High Frontier was published in 1976 and Anarchy, State and Utopia in 1974 this is possible.

Since different people have different values and preferences, they also differ in their political ideology, socialists desire another kind of society than libertarians. Like O’Neill I do not believe there is one single “best” society fit for everyone, many different societies exist and did have existed, and many of them did quite well. Space colonization gives us the opportunity to establish different political systems in a peaceful way. When space colonization will become a reality, politics will significantly change. We are used to see politics in terms of electoral competition, in space people will vote with the feet rather than to seek grand changes through elections. Especially for the more “radical” groups, it would be an interesting option to buy or lease a space habitat and to create their own social structures. This is what O’Neill refers to as social laboratories in his book.


Why do I stress this point so much? Because I am a republican, for the influential modern republican philosopher Hannah Arendt human life is about the ability to innovate, to begin something new. Space colonization offers us, human beings, the opportunity to create new societies. Politics, according the republican tradition, is about discussing how to organize society. The prospects of space colonization will revive Republicanism.



Lewis, John S. 1997. Mining the Sky. Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets. Helix Books/Basic Books, New York.

Nozick, Robert 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. Basic Books, New York.

Wolff, Johnathan 1996 (1991). Robert Nozick. Property, Justice and the Minimal State. Polity Press, Cambridge (Oxford?).