By Frank White
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
We don’t often think of ourselves, of humanity, as a species, but that is what we are, the product of billions of years of evolution on a small planet at the edge of a galaxy in an immense universe.
As a species, we face a decision, one that has been long in coming, but now stares us in the face and cannot be avoided.
As the Frost poem eloquently pictures, two roads diverge before us, and we, as a species will soon decide which road we are going to take: will we hunker down here on our beautiful planet Earth and make the best of it, or shall we leave home and venture out into the unknown, taking the road less traveled?
When advocates of Large-Scale Space Migration (LSSM) make their case for leaving the Earth and expanding into the solar ecosystem, opponents argue that, no, we should stay right here and focus all of of our energy and resources on addressing the problems that plague the Earth.
Without pausing for very long, space advocates typically rush to refute this argument with a counter-narrative about the benefits of evolving outward.
However, before doing that, wouldn’t it be interesting to explore in more depth the vision offered by the nay-sayers? What if humanity abandoned human space exploration and simply stayed home on Earth? What would happen then?
The honest answer is “We don’t know.” The only way to find out what self-imposed limits would bring upon us is to do it, i.e., to ban or voluntarily give up the idea of human migration off-planet. It wouldn’t mean that space exploration would end, only that it would happen through astronomy and by sending robotic probes to faraway places, not through human beings physically leaving the home planet.
Accepting the fact that we do not know the answer, let’s do some “thought experiments” about what might take place if “The Ban” were imposed:
- Would it mark an end of a human journey that began thousands of years ago? Exploration and migration appear to be embedded in the human psyche. Recent research suggests that our species originated in Africa and has been exploring both land and sea ever since. Although the motives for this unrelenting mobility have varied widely—from seeking new resources to escaping political tyranny—the migratory tendencies of humanity have rarely faltered. Exploration is a human trait that has carried us forward until there is very little land on Earth that has not been viewed by human eyes (the oceans are another matter altogether!)
- Would it stultify human evolution? Evolution occurs when an organism enters a new environment, or when the old environment changes around it. Biological evolution, particularly speciation, takes place when a group of animals becomes separated from the main gene pool, allowing mutations to survive, take hold, and persist through many generations. If humanity leaves the Earth in large numbers, evolution is almost certainly guaranteed, and speciation may follow. However, if we stay home, that is highly unlikely. Homo sapiens will probably change very little. Biology is not the only evolutionary domain, however. Unique situations nurture creative responses in politics, economics, societal norms, and the arts. Will these fields stagnate if we cease to migrate?
- Would it lead to authoritarian government worldwide? Realizing that we live on a finite planet is a positive insight, because it is simply true, and we need to do all we can to preserve “Spaceship Earth.” However, deciding that we cannot reduce our impact on the planet by having people and industries migrate to the solar ecosystem might be a very bad outcome politically. To maintain social order, governments are likely to impose severe restrictions on human freedoms, as they have done during the COVID pandemic. Every government has authoritarian tendencies that are difficult to hold in check. What will governments do if they are given a powerful excuse like, “This is the only planet we have. You have to give up your freedoms for the common good?” Is this something we want?
- How will the exploration gene express itself? There is good evidence that 20 percent of the human population has an “exploration gene.” This gene predisposes people to risk-taking and adventure. It can show up in positive ways, i.e., space exploration, mountain climbing, or medical research. It can also show up negatively, i.e., drug addiction, dangerous thrill-seeking, or criminal behavior. Having the gene alone is not enough to make an individual prone to exploration; society has to support its expression for it to emerge. (1) If one of the primary positive means of expressing the gene, i.e., space exploration, is shut off, how will those with this tendency deal with it? We can hope their predisposition will be channeled in positive directions, but what if it isn’t?
- Will there be more wars? History shows that there is no single cause for humanity’s perennial obsession with war. However, conflict over scarce resources is clearly one motivation, as is a desire for ideological dominance. On a finite world in which expansion is outlawed, will nations fall into conflict over finite resources more easily? The Harvard philosopher William James famously argued that we need a “moral equivalent to war” as a way to channel humanity’s more aggressive urges into constructive endeavors.  Space exploration as a united initiative by all of humanity could easily fill that role, but not if the opportunity to do so is prematurely closed off.
- Will an extinction event be the end of humanity? Elon Musk famously argues that humanity must become a multiplanet species because it is the only way to ensure that the fragile spark of consciousness that has arisen on Earth will be preserved. It is well-known that eventually the sun will become a red giant, incinerating the Earth and the inner planets of the solar system. However, long before that, a comet or meteor may well strike a defenseless planet, sending humans down the road once traveled by the dinosaurs. Nuclear war, climate change, and other natural or human-induced cataclysms lurk just outside the fringes of our consciousness, made all too real by the headlines that shout “Danger, danger, danger” every day. Could Elon be right?
Perhaps you don’t trust humanity to be better stewards of the natural world beyond Earth than we have been right here at home. Maybe you are worried that the solar ecosystem will be plundered by billionaire space moguls, and you would rather not take the chance. Alternatively, you might be convinced that it’s just not ethical to use scarce resources on future space migration when human beings are suffering in the here and now.
Still, if the answer to any of the questions I have posed in this blog is “yes,” it might be time to reconsider.
The people of Orbital Assembly, and their colleagues in the space community have made their decision—go for it!
In the words of President and CEO Rhonda Stevenson, “We really don’t have a choice if we want to ensure that humanity will continue to survive and thrive. We must become a multiplanet species, and we must do so quickly.”
About the Author
Frank White is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned an M.Phil. in Politics from Oxford University, where he was a member of New College. The fourth edition of Frank’s best-known book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, was published by Multiverse Publishing, a division of Multiverse Media LLC, in 2022. Frank is president of The Human Space Program, Inc., a nonprofit organization based on an idea initially proposed in The Overview Effect.
(c) Copyright Frank White, 2023, All Rights Reserved. Published with permission by Above Space