I’m not sure why I find this thought so upsetting, but last year or the year before, it began to occur to me that interplanetary colonization is pretty unlikely, if not practically impossible. While the vast distances of space are one major impediment, these are not really the central problem. The central problems preventing long distance space flight revolve around just how hostile the environment of space is, coupled with the effects of low gravity on the human body. With respect to the first, space is filled with cosmic rays of all sorts that have a tremendous negative impact on both our own bodies and electronics. With respect to the second, human bodies suffer from severe muscle and bone degeneration when in low gravity environments. While we have found ways of mitigating this latter problem, it’s difficult to imagine a ship large enough to mitigate these problems for large numbers of people. Nor is it easy to imagine how we could create an electro-magnetic field around a ship sufficient to protect us from cosmic rays.
Now, there’s nothing really implausible about colonizing Mars. It’s likely that it would even be possible to terraform Mars, turning it into an Earth-like planet over the space of a few centuries by, ironically, creating global warming on the planet. For those interested in what such a process might look like, read Kim Stanely Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, which is one of the greatest explorations of eco-marxism ever written. However, even if such terraforming is possible, the big problem with Mars is that it has no electro-magnetic field to speak of. The Earth’s magnetic field– which, incidentally, is weakening –keeps our atmosphere from burning off, protects us from harmful solar and cosmic particles that cause mutations and cancers, and protects our electronics. As a consequence, it’s difficult to see how Mars could provide a plausible place to live for large numbers of people. Moreover, with current technologies, were we able to solve the problem of low gravitation and the production of an electro-magnetic field around a ship, we still would have no idea where to go in the galaxy to find other, potentially inhabitable planets.
What I find disturbing about this thought is that it entails that we’re pretty much stuck with this planet. There is no truly feasible escape hatch. At least not at this time. This, of course, is not such a terrible thing as it’s a great little planet. However, the fact that I’ve found these thoughts traumatic suggests to me that unconsciously I harbored the fantasy that we could always go elsewhere if things got too bad environmentally here; that like the humans of Wall-E or the citizens of Caprica in Battlestar Gallactica, we could set out to find another earth. Given the prevalence of science fiction films driven by this theme and their popularity, it would appear that I’m not alone in harboring this fantasy. However, perhaps confronting this fantasy as a fantasy and recognizing the improbability of such travel and colonization is an ecologically healthy thought to have. Aren’t we more likely to treat this planet with care if we recognize that we don’t have an escape hatch? Then again, there are many respects in which this fantasy is the fundamental fantasy of all capital. Is not capitalism rooted in the unconscious fantasy that we have unlimited resources and that the environment is infinitely sustainable, allowing for the endless expansion of capital without limit?