Work in Progress: A Fresh Start

1598 engraving by Theodor de Bry depicting the “Black Legend” of Spain in Latin America.

One of the things I have encountered especially over the past few years, during which time I have been engaged in more conversations with space enthusiasts and people in the space industry, is the persistent idea that humanity can start over from scratch in space. More than merely having encountered this idea, it would probably be more accurate to say that I don’t know anyone who has not said this, or who has not said something that clearly implied this. I have heard this so often that I wrote a blog post about it, The Blank Slate of Outer Space.

After newsletter 149, in which I once again discussed Enlightenment ideology, I realized that there is an interpretation of the idea of outer space as a blank slate that follows from the attempt to construct Enlightenment political institutions. After more than 250 years of Enlightenment ideology, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to explain why societies constructed on the Enlightenment model do not seem to be converging upon a common, universal ideal, that these societies are deeply unhappy and dysfunctional, and the Enlightenment model is not being universally embraced. (I realize that all of these claims could be contested.)

With the failure to construct a functional Enlightenment society, the true believers in Enlightenment ideology must look further afield, and one way to do this to look to humanity in space. If the Enlightenment ideal cannot be realized on Earth, perhaps it can be realized in space. All the attempts to start society anew from a blank slate can then be reiterated in future human governments in space, and the Enlightenment imperative can ultimately be redeemed, even if it is not redeemed on Earth.

The above critique of Enlightenment political ideals is related in an oblique way to my criticisms of global governance as an idée fixe of futurist thought, which I discussed in When Futurism Gets Stuck in the Past. The relationship is that the persistent futurist idea of global governance is conceived as the ultimate imposition of Enlightenment universalism, in which the entire world is to be governed by Enlightenment principles. A civilization that arrogates universality to itself is not fulfilling its imperative if it fails to be truly universal. One way to deal with this “problem” is simply to impose the universal civilization even where it has been rejected (“grafting” Enlightenment civilizations onto local populations, in a sense to be described below).

Implicit in the above discussion is that a new political order would have a better chance starting from scratch in space as compared to attempting to start from scratch on Earth, where every particular region resonates with its history, and the past is a constant presence. Earth is not, and cannot be, a blank slate; its more than four billion years of history cannot be ignored. Earth’s history matters.

One way of understanding historicism (discussed in newsletter 151) is simply the idea that history matters. A strong formulation of this idea would be to say that history determines everything; the contrary strong formulation would be to say that history determines nothing, and this latter idea may be identified as a corollary of the blank slate. Between these two strong formulations are weaker formulations in which some history matters and some history does not matter.

When I started thinking in these terms I realized that there are degrees of starting over, and that the idea (or the ideal) of a blank slate is one end of a continuum (the end of the continuum where history does not matter), with the degrees of approximation to a blank slate being different degrees of starting over (which could also be understood as different degrees of abstraction from history).

One could “start over” by moving to a different home in the same neighborhood, but the experience of discontinuity would be much greater if one moved to a different home in a different neighborhood, and greater still if one moved to another city, or to another country. Starting over by going into space would be a relatively radical form of starting over, just as starting a human settlement on another planet (or on a moon) would be radical form of starting over, but it is also true that expanding into a new biome, or a new continent (say), would constitute relatively strong forms of a civilization starting over, as compared to starting over by establishing colonies within the same biome or the same continent. As the discontinuity of a transition increases, the stronger is the degree of starting over, but also the greater the challenge because the greater the novelty of the environment, the greater the change in selection pressures, constraints, and resources.

Susanne Langer wrote, “It is simply the fact that civilization can be transplanted, and live apart from its cultural roots. It can be grafted on other cultures and thrive on them.” A hundred years earlier Danilevskii made a more careful distinction between the transplantation, in which a civilization expands into new territory, and grafting, in which a civilization is imposed upon a native culture, which provides for the needs of the parasitic graft. This distinction was based on his Law 3 (Russia and Europe, chapter 5): “The principles of civilization for one cultural-historical type are not transferable to peoples of another type. Each type produces its own, influenced more or less by foreign civilizations preceding or contemporary to it.”

A colony is one of the obvious ways that a civilization can “start over,” though as implied by Danilevskii’s distinction, there are colonies founded on virgin soil, and there are colonies that are interpolated into an already extant cultural context, and the experiences of these two kinds of colonies can be radically different. How these different kinds of colonies develop, and how they come to an end, when they do come to an end, reflects these different experiences, which are different modes of “starting over.”

The crucial difference between mother and daughter civilization that makes the difference between continuity and starting over may be as simple as geographical size. Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “…there is something absurd, in supposing a Continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet; and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverse the common order of nature, it is evident that they belong to different systems. England to Europe: America to itself.”

With the establishment of a transplant or a graft of a civilization, there is also a change in the representatives of the civilization in question: the colonists represent a small minority of the population of colonizing civilization, so that there is a social and cultural “founder effect” no less than a biological founder effect. Since the population of this new outpost of civilization is distinct both from the original founders of the civilization (being removed in time from the founders of the civilization), as well as from the present makeup of the population (representing less cultural and genetic diversity than the total population), the society that develops from this distinct population subjected to distinct selection pressures cannot be expected to resemble the parent civilization for very long.

Thus when Langer says, “civilization can be transplanted, and live apart from its cultural roots” — yes, it can, but it does not remain the same, and the direction and directionality of its change is distinct from the direction and directionality of the parent civilization; the two bifurcate and grow apart, whatever efforts are made to preserve the unity of the parent civilization with its descendents.

At the other end of the scale from attempting (and failing) to produce unity where societies have bifurcated, is the attempt (and the failure) to cut all ties with the past, to burn all bridges. In actual fact, what we find is a selective attitude to the past, where a new entity that prides itself on its novelty, takes only from its tradition that which it wants, while cutting ties with all the rest. We find this with mother and daughter civilizations as well, but in this case it is the mythology of the civilization that is preserved and transmitted, while the dark underbelly of the mother civilization goes unacknowledged, and hopefully is left in the past. With a civilization that believes itself to be inscribed on a blank slate, the mythology is rejected as the most explicit expression of its parent civilization, while a record of the crimes and inadequacies of the parent civilization is kept in the forefront of public memory as a object lesson of what not to be. The obvious historical instantiation of this is the Black Legend of the Spanish in Latin America.

What I have above characterized as degrees of starting over could also be expressed in terms of habitability, taking that term in a broader sense than is now used in astrobiology and planetary science. For a people accustomed to certain resources available in their environment — say, for example, certain staple crops that grow dependably in a given biome, with sufficient yields to support a population — the absence of these resources in a new environment makes that new environment at least marginally less habitable than their environment of origin. Obviously, this is relative to the lifeways of a people, which in turn evolves over time as a people learns to exploit the resources in their environment. Move them to another environment, and they do not know how to exploit the environment as effectively.

The advantage of this fine-grained account of habitability is that it scales from moving to a different biome, to moving to another continent, to moving off Earth or to another planet. Each of these transitions — each of these discontinuities — entails a decrease in habitability. Moving off Earth would represent the most dramatic decrease in habitability, as in space there is neither air to breathe nor water to drink nor food to eat. To make these resources available to those living away from Earth would require an infrastructure of a kind that human beings have not yet constructed anywhere. And with this necessary effort to stay alive, with this decreased habitability, comes a higher degree of starting over. Thus there is some basis for the idea of outer space as a blank slate, but the technology we would take with us from Earth that would make the construction of such an infrastructure possible, embodies thousands of years of human technological development. Our history would not be left behind, but the form in which it accompanies us may make its influence on our lives as pervasive as it is subtle and below conscious awareness.



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