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The Struggle for Freedom Beyond Earth



At some junctures in life, one often reevaluates their deeply ingrained beliefs. This introspection might involve spiritual reflection, shifting political allegiances, or simply dusting off the cobwebs of complacency. More often than not, wishful thinking collides with the complexities of the real world.


Nothing exemplifies this collision more than the concept of freedom in extraterrestrial environments; an idea that is touched upon in science fiction (rebellions, independent space colonies, etc.), but rarely fully realized. In fact, space is frequently perceived as a pristine canvas—a realm where individuals and collectives can freely realize themselves by escaping the dystopian conditions on Earth (or wherever).


Yet, this perspective overlooks a fundamental challenge: space is inherently one of the most inhospitable environments. Extraterrestrial environments are hostile to human life, which comes at a cost: our freedom.


Indeed, to survive in space, individuals will need to embrace a strong collective ethic and subjugate themselves to a centralised authority. In the absence of these, a collective is likely to experience erosion in critical concepts such as safety measures, procedures, and adherence to regulatory frameworks, all of which constrain individual freedoms and are costly in time or resources.


To exemplify this erosion, let us take an event that recently took place in an Earth-based analogue to the hostile environment that can be found in space: the deep sea. When plunging into the ocean's depths, engineers must devise reliable solutions to counteract the challenging conditions. In the absence of international regulations, anyone can construct their own submersible with whatever solution they deem safe.


Ocean Gate, a privately-owned U.S. company, embarked on such a path and, regrettably, the company and its now notorious owner, Stockton Rush, bear responsibility for a catastrophic incident that killed five people (including Rush) during an exploratory dive in June 2023 with the Titan submersible. Subsequent investigations have revealed that several critical systems lacked certification, and the engineering design was subpar. It is a tragic tale where individualism and reckless behaviour took precedence over the imperative for rigorous safety standards and regulations (which would be prohibitively costly if imposed).


Now let us imagine a future where a space settlement far from Earth's reach is a reality. To maximize survivability, it will be crucial to implement comprehensive safety measures, including regulations and procedures. In fact, every system within the settlement will be critical. Whether it’s selecting the fabric for undergarments, choosing computer programs for settlers, or determining the materials used in children’s toys, meticulous inspection, selection, and vigilant monitoring will be critical. Failure to comply might lead to a catastrophe. How will humans be able to express their individualities in such an environment? (And how could we safeguard against people's tendency to consolidate power? But that is for another post). Charles S. Cockell, Director of the U.K.Centre for Astrobiology, and author of the excellent book 'The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth' published by Springer, sums this up perfectly in chapter 4 : "The extraterrestrial environment has a tendency to centrifugally drive these two states [the collective effort and the need for individualism] apart to their utter extremes." He also writes that "...the extreme extraterrestrial environment is also the mainspring of individualism. The collective effort required from humans to survive in space and the likely conformity this will cause will impel individuals to seek their own identity."


Yes, virtual realities may address the strong need for individualism, but it feels somewhat disheartening to imagine settling on the moon Callisto only to spend most of our lives immersed in a virtual world.


After the initial thrill of space travel and colonization fades, who would willingly relinquish their personal freedoms—and those of their descendants—to inhabit a harsh, tightly monitored environment where instant death is a constant possibility? Remember those 1950s futuristic underwater habitats where people would be living and raising families by the year 2000? There is a reason why such a vision never materialised.


For more insights into the crucial topic of our freedoms in space, I highly recommend these three expensive, yet, excellent books published by Springer under their Space and Society series, all edited by Charles S. Cockell (who kindly collaborated with me on my first book).



As always, onwards and upwards!









1 Comment


peteandlou
Jun 02

Sci-fi has definitely tackled humans being indentured in space, and the issues of living in an environment constantly out to get you. Probably the closest I have read of the perils of ignoring safety checks when even the smallest misstep means your life was in a zombie apocalypse novel. Even the tiniest exposure in that story meant death to the reckless or careless (or unlucky) individual and all of their community. Punitive measures had to be harsh, ie capital punishment for any infraction.

But I like that you are focusing on the importance of cooperation and the collective good, with which Westerners can struggle. Perhaps less individualistic Asian cultures like the Chinese may be better positioned to survive in these…

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