Nick Nielsen

Oct 17, 2021

8 min read

Work in Progress: Journey to Petrópolis

Friday 15 October 2021

I have had a trip to Brazil planned but I didn’t know if it would come off as intended because of the additional constraints placed on travel at the present time. I had to get a negative PCR test result less than 72 hours prior to departure (for which I had to wait an hour in line in Walgreens), and I had to fill out a health declaration form for the Brazilian government. When I got to the airline check in, they told me that they could not let me board the flight until I had an email confirming that I had completed the health declaration form, so I completed the form while standing in line at the airport, got the email, showed it to the airline staff, and they gave me my boarding pass.

I flew from Portland to Dallas-Fort Worth, then to São Paulo, and then to Rio de Janeiro. My flights all went well, and I made all my connections without rushing and also without waiting, which is about as much as can be hoped from airline scheduling. Arriving at Rio, a taxi I asked my hotel to send met me at the airport and drove me to Petrópolis, which is in the hills inland from Rio. The area is lushly green and the hills are covered with banana trees. Roadside vendors sell large bundles of bananas.

I am, of course, staying at the best hotel in town, the Hotel Solar do Imperio. As soon as I made it to the hotel I took a shower and then laid down and slept for four or five hours. After I woke up I went to a restaurant across the street from the hotel and had a bite to eat, then went for a walk, got thoroughly lost, took a bus back to the center, and eventually found my way back to the hotel. I finished my day with a swim in the hotel pool, which is warmer than a typical swimming pool but not as warm as a hot tub. Also, the pool was smaller than a typical swimming pool, but larger than a plunge pool, so it really inhabits the Goldilocks Zone of pools.

Petrópolis is a larger city than I expected. It is full of attractive and dignified buildings from the nineteenth century when the city was the summer residence of the Brazilian Emperors and the capital of the First Brazilian Republic. These large, dignified buildings are surrounded by present day Latin American infrastructure, which raises the question of how such structures were built in the nineteenth century without the benefits of electricity or fossil fuels, and all the tools that these energy sources power, but today, in possession of these technological advantages, the contemporary buildings are mostly dingy and dowdy, the sidewalks are narrow and broken, and the impressive structures of the recent past seem stranded in a much less impressive urban context — and perhaps also stranded in history.

All of this I expect when I travel to South America, and I don’t find it off-putting. Indeed, I rather enjoy it, which is why I travel to places like Petrópolis, but I have to wonder at the social model, and the changes in the social model, that have created the urbanizations we see today. In North America, there has always been a greater commitment to utilitarian practicality in urban design, so that spending money on attractive structures like those of historical Petrópolis has always been grudgingly undertaken, decoration is understood to be superfluous, so that what money does get spent is spent on brutalism, sterile post-modernism, and steel and glass towers. This explains much of the plainness and monotony of the American urban environment (made the more plain and monotonous by the destruction of statues and historically significant buildings during the 2020 summer of rioting). No doubt there are important exceptions in the US, but I haven’t traveled much in the US and can’t say much about it beyond my limited experience.

Many years ago I watched a television documentary about Vietnam, in which the commentator noted that the French had constructed a lot of impressive colonial buildings in Vietnam, and the Americans hadn’t done anything like this. However, the Americans did build roads, bridges, sewer systems, and so on — practical infrastructure which the French did not build. This contrast between the French and the American attitudes is telling. Most of Latin America today follows the US model of spending public money on infrastructure rather than on impressive public buildings, and the rationality of this choice is impeccable, but it does not make for beautiful cities.

Spending money on beautiful buildings gives us the beautiful nineteenth century cityscape of Petrópolis, but I would guess (I haven’t researched this, so, again, it’s just a guess) that very little in the way of proper infrastructure was constructed while these impressive buildings were going up. However, there had to be enough of an infrastructure in nineteenth century Brazil that the materials could be brought to Petropolis, or produced locally, and skilled craftsman were available to use these materials to build the buildings still standing from the period. What the houses of the craftsmen looked like, and whether they had indoor plumbing, is another question.

British colonialism in India both produced impressive government buildings and practical infrastructure like the railroads that India still uses today, so it is possible to do both, even if it is not so common to do both. And whether Brazil can properly be called a colony raises a number of interesting questions. The Portuguese Royal Court decamped from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1807 before Napoleonic forces rolled into Lisbon, and they ruled from Brazil for several years, meaning that Portugal was, for a time, ruled from its Brazilian “colony.” This is quite different from the US experience. Imagine a counterfactual in which the British Royal family left England for America, and ruled the British Empire from, say, New York. This would have been a very different history from the history that we know.

Another counter-example is the Haussmannization of Paris in the nineteenth century, which created much of what is iconic about Paris today, and which makes it a model of both attractive and livable urban design, but also involved the construction of a sewage system capable of handling the waste of a city the size of Paris. In retrospect, before its Haussmannization, Paris was the largest intact medieval city in France, and if it had been preserved it would have been an historical treasure without peer in Europe. Instead, we have a different Paris, a modern Paris with modern infrastructure. Again, however, with modern technology it would have been possible to put in modern infrastructure underground an intact medieval Paris, but in the nineteenth century this probably would not have been conceivable, and, if conceivable, almost certainly would not have been thought desirable.

On the flight to São Paulo I read Krafft Ehricke’s paper “The Extraterrestrial Imperative.” There are many versions of this paper. A collection of the Krafft Arnold Ehricke Papers at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum lists multiple versions of a paper with the title, “Extraterrestrial Imperative,” as well as subsequent papers with “Part II,” “Part III,” and so on, appended to the title. The Smithsonian page includes this:

“Ehricke retired from Rockwell in July 1977 and established Space Global Company with himself as president. Space Global was, in essence, a vehicle to promote space exploration and to promulgate his vision of a future space civilization, a concept he originally called the ‘Extraterrestrial Imperative’ but later referred to as the ‘Open World Synthesis.’ The basic concept was relatively straightforward: because Earth’s resources, although great, are limited, they place a limit on mankind’s development. The only way to escape that limit is to move beyond the Earth and exploit the resources available in space.”

There is also a paper from 1981, published in Futures, with the title The Extraterrestrial Imperative. The version of the paper that I read on the flight was quite different from the 1981 version; I don’t know which version I have, but I think it is from the early 70s, and I don’t remember how I got it. But I purposely dug out this paper before my departure as I wanted to get Ehricke’s take on what he meant by an imperative in the context of space exploration. Ehricke’s papers are heavy on technical details, but the opening of the earlier version of The Extraterrestrial Imperative is striking and — my apologies for invoking this over-used term — visionary.

When I was working with the Overview Round Table Ethics Proto-Task Force to produce a document and a presentation about space ethics inspired by Frank White’s conception of the overview effect and what he calls the Human Space Program, I came up with the idea of an “overview imperative.” I immediately recognized the potential of the idea, but didn’t have time to develop it as the paper was being written. So I have started a paper to be called “The Overview Imperative,” and that is why I wanted to read Ehricke on his extraterrestrial imperative.

The Ehricke paper was exactly what I needed. I now see my way clear to writing my “The Overview Imperative” paper, though a lot of details remain to be worked out. I can make use of earlier blog posts about the overview effect in its evolutionary context, and I can also push the idea farther and develop for myself a more comprehensive and a more adequate conception of the overview effect and its relationship to human moral development. After all, what interests most people about the overview effect is the claimed moral transformation of space travelers that see Earth entire from space. The overview effect should be studied from a moral perspective, even if the result of bringing philosophical analysis to something more generally treated from the perspective of enthusiasm may be deflationary.

Another obvious reference — one can’t really write about ethics without acknowledging it — is the Kantian distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives, and, as we all know, there is one and only one categorical imperative: act as though, through your will, the maxim of your action should become a universal law. In other words, what if everyone did this? Since there is only one categorical imperative, the extraterrestrial imperative must be an hypothetical imperative, but the argument could also be made the maxim of the actions involved in space exploration can be universalized, so that the extraterrestrial imperative is an aspect of the categorical imperative. Contrariwise, one could argue that the implicit maxim within pursing civilization as we know it in an exclusively terrestrial context is ruinous and therefore immoral. (The sense in which this would be ruinous, as well as the Kantian examples of behaviors that would be ruinous if universalized, imply something not that different from Sam Harris’ attempt to make ethics empirical and scientific, in so far as both appeal to manifestly ruinous or suboptimal states-of-affairs and assume that these states-of-affairs speak for themselves, morally speaking — but that is a whole other can of worms.) This particular rabbit hole has been pretty thoroughly explored in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century by thinkers who, in another social milieu, would have been Enlightenment rationalists, but who, having witnessed the events of the twentieth century, came to the conclusion that civilization as we know it is not sustainable.

Kant’s Enlightenment ethics in a sense meshes well with Ehricke’s extraterrestrial imperative, though Kant lays more stress on universalizability, while Ehricke lays more stress on progress, both universality and progress are integral and essential elements of Enlightenment ideology, and different permutations of the Enlightenment result from these differing emphases. Ehricke doesn’t formulate this ideas in terms of the Enlightenment, but rather explicitly associates them with what he calls our “techno-scientific civilization,” which arguably is a consequence of the Enlightenment, but we can also isolate the two — the Enlightenment and techno-scientific civilization — and consider each independently from the other. This might be an interesting project, but it probably would need its own paper or essay.