When Exploration Becomes Exploitation
Last month we learned there were possible signs of life on Venus. *
Immediately after the announcement was made, there was a lot of excitement as people imagined studying and interacting with alien life.
The idea of seeking out alien life or expanding the human experiment beyond planet Earth has never sat well with me though and so my response to the news about Venus was less excitement and more apprehension.
Because as I see it,
As a species, humans have a bad track record when it comes to exploring new places.
We rarely go as observers, appreciators. We go as conquerors, looking for resources to exploit, territory to claim, and life to bend to our will. This has been the story over and over again throughout human history.
We talk about the other planets in our solar system based on their suitability as a "backup planet" when we have done so much damage our current planetary home is no longer able to support us. We talk about the resources available for us to mine and extract. And we look for signs of life so we can study it in the same way our science fiction stories teach us to fear being studied by aliens.
We seek to explore and discover and study, to exploit what is beyond our existing knowledge before we are the ones discovered and studied and exploited. It's the fear we see played out by the plot of many science fiction movies, books, and tv shows after all.
And why wouldn't that be our goal? In our recorded history, one written by the "winners," those who are "discovered" don't fare so well, if they survive at all.
We are moving towards a time where we find signs of life, or more likely, resources, somewhere in space and as soon as technology allows, we will venture forth and repeat history, just on an exponentially larger playing field. Competing governments and corporations will hurry to stake their claim. Paying little mind to what is already there except for how it might best serve them. How it might give them an advantage. Destroying much in the process.
It was a small bit of comfort to know that I was not the only one who had this anxiety around the news about Venus. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer, wrote on slate.com:
One potential solution to this new chemical mystery on Venus is to immediately pour efforts into going there, leading to a near-future “Venus Rush.” But much like other moments in history where we have rushed forth, humans have the ability to curtail possible futures, and to create great harm, when we rush.
Planetary protection isn’t just cleaning a spacecraft; it is born out of a philosophy for how we can ethically engage with other worlds.
We do have a tendency "to create great harm, when we rush." And as Walkowicz writes, "In real-world space exploration...we humans are the invaders." A truth that makes me skeptical that we are capable of "ethically engaging with other worlds," especially given our history and our present.
A couple weeks ago we celebrated a federal holiday known by different names in some states. In North Carolina, where I spent Monday October 13, it is known statewide as Indigenous People's Day by proclamation of the governor. Missouri, where I live, continues to observe the federal holiday, Columbus Day. A day to recognize and remember "Christopher Columbus' intrepid voyage to the New World [that] ushered in a new era of exploration and discovery."**
Next month, we will again be invited to consider the stories we have been told about our country's "discovery" as we retell our national creation myth of the first Thanksgiving.
This history of "exploration" which is more truthfully a story of exploitation, makes me less than hopeful that we can approach outer space differently. Especially when we work so hard to ignore and hide the extreme harm done to indigenous people, their land, and their culture. When we are unable to remember our own history truthfully, we perpetuate the same harmful behaviors.
In the past, we have simply ignored the complexity of our history. We have sanitized the story to tell it in classrooms and failed to move beyond the Thanksgiving program where we made paper feather headdresses and pilgrims hats.
Unfortunately, current discourse, including from our President, moves beyond naivety and ignorance to accuse those calling for an honest reckoning with the genocide, violence, and exploitation in our history of being radicals and extremists.
Despite what the Proclamation said on Columbus Day, the land we call the United States, we call the Americas, was not "the New World" - it was an old home to many. It wasn't settled by the Europeans, it was invaded. The wilderness wasn't tamed, it was exploited. And it is a stretch to claim any nation is the "single-greatest the world has ever seen."***
This may sound extreme. It made sound radical and pessimistic and like I am "undermining" the legacy of this country and its "founders."
If so, it is because I feel called to be loyal to something greater than this country. My loyalty is to God. And my faith calls me to prioritize our call to care for the orphan and the widow and the stranger, to be good stewards of creation, to love. And when we have fallen short, as individuals, as community, as a country, we must call ourselves to repentance, to reconciliation.
Grappling with the sins of the past is not a character flaw, it is what allows us to grow and learn and do better. Both on Earth and in space.
*In the time I have been organizing my thoughts on this topic, other scientists have been unable to replicate these findings. As is the case with all science, we are constantly learning and refining what we know and think. It's only been a month, there is a lot left to learn.
** & *** Columbus Day Proclamation 2020
A resource I found helpful and am still thinking about is "An Old New World: When One People’s Sci-Fi Is Another People’s Past" which Walkowicz links in her Slate article about Venus.