Science fiction is interesting.
As someone who cut his teeth on Herbert's Dune series in his youth, and who had a childhood fascination with the Apollo missions, space exploration has always held a special thrall over my imagination. And the next logical step for an imagination captured by space exploration is to think about space colonies. Imagine what could be accomplished with them!
Climate change? Ignorable when you can just go to a new planet. We're hopping aboard the USS Sunflower and landing at Plymouth Crater – we could trade used PS4s to the natives for their land! My God, there probably aren't even any natives... the colonizer's dream.
Limited resources hindering growth? There are
8 ahem 7 other planets and countless asteroids to harvest resources from. And think about other star systems and how rich in resources they might be!
Speaking of star systems, what if we built a Dyson sphere and simply harvested all of the energy of the sun? A nearly infinite power source, harnessed in its entirety. Humanity would be a type II Kardashev civilization on its way to becoming a type III. We got to skip type I completely!
Anyway, I'm going stir-crazy from recently hurting myself and not being able to get any hours in at the gym, so let's take a big ol' poop on the sort-of-but-not-quite modern idea that space will save humanity from itself.
This Belief Motivates Real People
I remember talking to a data scientist at a dive bar once about space colonies. I tried to express my more adult-knowledge-level-informed skepticism of space colonization to them, but they wouldn't budge on their belief that, within their lifetime, we would see colonies on Mars, and that this technological innovation was necessary to even make doing anything – going to work, reproducing, spending money, inventing things, making art – worthwhile. To paraphrase their final stance on the issue: "Otherwise, what would be the point of any of this?"
It gets tiring having to bring up topics the modern technocrat isn't versed in and defend your ideas in real time. The cards are stacked heavily against you as long as they know what k-means clustering is, which is so depressing I don't want to think about it too deeply right now.
When one is well-compensated to be what is considered a smart and successful person in an age of technological imperialism, especially when one is compensated for one's technical knowledge (even if it is just running an algorithm you didn't design over data you didn't capture and outputting some values to a spreadsheet), no idea anyone else has could be correct if it contradicts one's beliefs in said tech-imperialism as the True Path of the Techno-Buddha.
This type of conversation ends up as a constant search on phones for sources that can just be dismissed out of hand by the technocrat in the heat of the moment. It isn't science that wins this argument, it's rhetoric, and no amount of scientific reason can ever trump deep-seated and systemically-backed theodicy – or techno-theodicy, in this case. Galileo recanted, after all, so what hope does rationality have against the high religion of market forces and algorithmic news feeds?
It seems like there shouldn't even be a heat of the moment, ya know? What recanting would even need to be done? It's A then B then C, thus if A then C, isn't it? Why would emotions and faith become involved in something so scientific, technical, and far into the future? Something that none of us would likely ever see?
Hmm, something faith-based, far into the future, that we will likely never see, but just have to believe in because it's what we are supposed to believe according to the modern zeitgeist... Wait a minute! We've seen this before!
The space colonization of science-fiction fame and modern economic wet dreams is effectively some type of techno-economic eschatology.
The reason I am writing this is due to the Weinersmiths having just released a book that I will (eventually) read. Until then, I might as well give my thoughts on the topic. I'm sure when I get around to reading their work they will have detailed far more than this little think-piece ever could, and I will exclaim, "GOD DAMN IT ZACH YOU SMART MOTHERF-" and that's OK. They are paid to be smart people who write smart things, and this is just a hobby of mine that keeps my brain going and my sinking depression at the current state of affairs merely nipping at the heels of my psyche instead of consuming it.
It's like intellectual cutting or something. I dunno. Anyway...
Life Just Can't Live Out There
Alright. I thought about this a lot over the years, and it has only led to a complete distrust of all pop-scientific pseudo-journalism (and in a lot of academia that relies on grant funding by those who consume this media, and in modern economic structures that produce this media, and in modern governmental budgeting which is propped up by the public's trust in this media, and on and on and on). It's all sci-fi nonsense at the end of the day, Utopian visions at The End of History, some variety of techno-metaphysical edging, designed to replace some Nietzschean God-vacuum that the modern consumer feels the need to subconsciously sate when they consciously realize all the plastic in their garage hasn't provided the salvation they dreamed it would when they clicked "Buy Now" on the Amazon app.
Let's consider a surface-level examination of what it would require to create a colony on another planet (or planet-like body) that can sustain itself, and whether anything within some reasonable travel range could provide this environment.
Our carbon-based life is heavily reliant on, uhh... Carbon. Wherever we could live would need a very high level of bio-available carbon. Thankfully, carbon is one of the most abundant elements in the solar system. This should be easy to tackle!
Mars seems like a perfect environment, doesn't it? Its atmosphere is roughly 95% carbon dioxide. We could plant some trees up there and, even if it took centuries, we would have a livable habitat!
Except... Mars' atmosphere is less than one percent of Earth's when measuring surface air pressure. This is a vanishingly small amount of available carbon. This thin atmosphere not only prevents plants from growing (they need a lot of carbon to grow) but also prevents spacecraft from easily landing – an atmosphere is required for craft to slow themselves without spending a lot of fuel, and squishy Earth-born, carbon-based bodies don't do well with high-velocity impact. You quickly run into an engineering nightmare when thinking about how you could send a million people to a place that doesn't want you to land slowly on it, and how you need to have a lot of fuel (which is flammable) on board to even stop. You start to realize you're not launching colony ships, you're just launching explosive missiles at a distant, inhospitable rock. It's like a floating Everest that you have to hop on a rocket to climb, but the sherpas this time are engineers who have never been there and won't be the ones colliding with the summit.
Anyway, I am quickly spiraling out of scope. That is how ridiculous the idea becomes. Let me get back to the biological problems – I will leave the engineering failures and eventual loss of life to be demonstrated by the tech billionaires in real time.
This lack of available carbon in the Martian atmosphere means plants can't live there in any meaningful quantity. They would quickly exhaust the carbon dioxide just to grow their bodies, and this would further thin the atmosphere (and, again, as a tangent, would make it harder to land craft on the planet). Of course, oxygen would be produced, and there is probably some equilibrium to be reached if an entire ecosystem could be generated to create an oxygen-carbon cycle, but having faith that we could balance an entire planet's ecosystem is truly laughable – we can't even do it with our own, and we already live here.
So let's say the plants somehow do live in the harsh Martian environment and propagate to a point that they strip the atmosphere of available carbon. You then have an atmosphere consisting of nearly entirely oxygen. I don't know if you know about oxygen, but, uhh... It kind of reacts to everything.
Mars is called the Red Planet for a reason. The iron that is abundant on its surface has captured all of the oxygen that was once in its atmosphere and has become iron oxide. Oxygen was likely the limiting factor in this (as evidenced by its near-complete absence from the Martian atmosphere), and any iron (or other mineral or metal that reacts with oxygen, which, again, is nearly everything) would react with the oxygen created by plants (or shipped there from Earth for colonists to consume).
This would mean the plants suck all of the carbon out of the atmosphere, only for any oxygen produced to become trapped in oxidized metals. And then, without a cycle of carbon being returned to the atmosphere, the plants soon suffocate and die, returning the little carbon in the atmosphere to solid form. And, again, with no carbon-oxygen cycle, the atmosphere further thins, etc.
And continuing the "oh my God space is so freakin' hostile to carbon-based life" examination, the lack of atmosphere means there is no shielding from solar radiation (and Mars additionally lacks a magnetosphere, which also shields carbon-based life from solar radiation here on Earth). Life would quickly be consumed by cancers and other genetic issues from the lack of atmospheric protection in such an environment. Not only would plants suffer from this, but human colonists would as well. If humans could somehow live in this world, genetic deformities at birth and miscarried pregnancies would be rampant. It would be impossible to carry a full-term pregnancy in the Martian atmosphere without living in complete cover deep underground – not just during the pregnancy, but at all times, due to the potential damage that solar radiation would do to human reproductive cells such as sperm and egg which would then later cause difficulties or even impossibilities in human reproduction.
I could keep theory-ing this out in a never-ending spiral of "Oh man this OTHER thing is a problem, too!" Furthermore, this spiraling out of problems is even more impressive for any other planetary body within travel range – our moon included, that bright beacon of potential colonization that taunts us from above on a clear night. But I will stop here for now. The Weinersmiths wrote a book that I haven't even read yet and given their prior work I assume it will cover everything in meticulous and hilarious detail. Go buy it and read it. Let me get on to the techno-eschatology of it all, instead.
First, a little aside about Dyson spheres. THEN we can get to techno-eschatology. The concept of the Dyson sphere really gets into the realm of rapturous techno-faith through a complete disregard for some of our most basic physical theories and knowledge of fundamental universal laws.
(And, of course, when I think I have come up with a new term like techno-eschatology, I always find someone beat me to it like a million times over. I don't even want to get into my process of reading All The Philosophy only to find out Everybody Already Thought Of Everything Long Ago. There is nothing new under the sun, I guess. I didn't even get to think up techno-theodicy! What I wouldn't give to be a philosophy PhD candidate in 1994 or something... But then I would have been trapped in a world of bureaucratic analytic philosophy or something, and that would truly be my very own special version of hell.)
Big Freakin' Spheres Surrounding Big Freakin' Explosions Out in Space
OK, so, Dyson spheres. In a nutshell, you build a sphere around a star and you capture most or all of the star's energy. I could explore the economic ideology underpinning the academics that lead to us thinking this should be considered a signature of advanced civilization, but I am already at 2,000 words or so and... I just... I just can't right now. Maybe one day, but let's be honest, you're not gonna read that shit, either.
So, we could build a big sphere around the sun and get a lot of energy. What would we do with that energy? What would we even need it for? Uhh, don't ask, we haven't thought of that yet, but more energy equals better, or so I have been told by the petroleum industry sales reps for the last hundred years and nothing bad came from that, so we should just do it.
A small problem arises when you consider the engineering of it, however. You see, the sun is 99.8% or so of the entire mass of the solar system. Jupiter is about two-thirds of the remaining mass of the solar system.
To create a sphere around the sun, we would need to harvest every bit of matter in the entire solar system, and even if we placed it directly against the surface of the sun, we would get a comparatively paper-thin membrane stretched across it. The sphere would heat immediately to the temperature of the sun, turn into plasma, and structurally fail. Immediately.
This isn't even an engineering problem, necessarily – it's just a matter of basic physics. Capturing the entire energy output of the sun requires storing the entire energy output of the sun somewhere. The initial transfer of all solar radiation to ANY amount of matter will result in that amount of energy being present in the matter.
To store an entire star's worth of energy? Well, you need... a star. And to utilize an entire star's output? You need something that consumes an entire star's worth of energy which matches at least the rate of output of the star, continuously. And that energy doesn't just disappear. It will enter into whatever effectively closed system it is used in, whether that be a planet or a spaceship or a paper-thin membrane stretched across the surface of a star. This is the law of conservation of energy, which has been understood since the mid-1800s.
We aren't talking about a problem of battery storage at this scale. The planets (and all other mass in the solar system) have become the batteries in this system.
Given this energy output, assuming we still somehow had planets to transfer it to, the planets become floating balls of plasma, immediately. Technically they are batteries, I guess... But they are batteries comprised of plasma, a state of matter beyond gas. They become mini-stars, and whatever engineering entertained this reality becomes plasma, as well.
Somehow, in our admiration for the tall tales of science fiction and the boundless and seductive hope of salvation they have provided us, we have come to completely ignore the universal laws of thermodynamics known about for hundreds of years. We have somehow reached institutional amnesia, where even solid scientific knowledge is now able to be discarded in favor of faith in techno-ideology regarding the future fate of not only a species of life but all species of life.
The concept of the Dyson sphere, which can be seen as a hopeful future technology believed in by many a pseudo-scientific futurist content creator on many sites and apps (Twitch, YouTube, TikTok, just go do a quick search for "Dyson sphere" and see the results), is yet another illustration of how faith in a techno-eschatology requires abandoning scientific principles and rationality in the name of science and rationality, no doubt due to their proximity to technological progress historically. One must have faith to believe in salvation through this form of material technological progress – otherwise, the ideas fall apart at the level of basic physics, of basic supply and demand in a finite system.
Techno-Theodicy and Techno-Eschatology, a Modern Metaphysics
One could lay out a convincing argument that the common thread running beneath the entirety of recorded human history is thematically similar to one of the Spanish conquistadors trying to find El Dorado. The threads tying faith and economic expansion are more intricate here, less intricate there, but certainly omnipresent, especially if one considers the following quote:
History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.
In researching this quote, which I had seen often attributed to Mark Twain but knew to be attributed to another author, I found an article written by Christine Lagarde for the IMF. Please review her qualifications on the IMF's website.
This is precisely the type of person leading the techno-eschatological ideology of today, one with high levels of organizational prestige and bona fides, a corollary of a high priest, and similarly with little concern for accuracy at a basic physical level in preference to messaging at a metaphysical one. While this case is one of simple attributional error, the serendipity sure is pleasing to my point, as this is a person who communicated for a living in a highly prestigious role at one of the most powerful economic organizations on this planet. A person who should concern themselves with the accuracy of statements, one who should be highly discerning between fact and fiction given their outsized influence on organizational behavior and the ideas underpinning its direction.
These are the same basic types of errors that occur in the technocrat's mind when they summon faith-based beliefs in a science fiction-informed view of human technological progress, one of space colonies and Dyson spheres, another class of person who should be highly discerning between fact and fiction.
This leads now to the parallels we can see throughout human history of how certain classes, castes, and organizationally supported members of communities – and their respective faith and metaphysics – guide the direction of economic and material flows:
From the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, harnessing the over-abundance of flood plains to produce caloric excesses to support empires that would create pyramids to serve as vessels for royalty to enter heaven through...
To Roman conquests and absorption of satellite colonies to support a war machine and a ruling class structure that eventually went mad at its highest levels while being ideologically defended by its polytheistic faith, festivals, tributes, and sacrifice systems...
To the Spanish conquistadors searching for gold in the name of God and crown, many dying on the fictional path toward, and of whom many committed genocide for, and when more realistic bounties of precious metals were found, created a hyperinflation that destroyed their economy...
To manifest destiny and the purge of native peoples in the name of God and the superiority of certain ethnic groups over others via economic and militaristic conquest, directly leading...
To our modern belief that if we just technology enough we can save ourselves, this thread persists. Whether in the name of any one god or another is irrelevant, as the common thread isn't necessarily religious, but is simply faith- and metaphysics-based. There is a tinge of Hegelian world-spirit running through it. It is a thread of ignoring basic features of reality, in most cases, one of limited resources – if only we go over there, we will find salvation, we will find unlimited wants satisfied by unlimited bounty, anywhere but here, now, in this sad, unenlightened, limited, constrained reality. We will invent any fiction necessary to avoid the reality of our situation. We will imagine any future where there is a heaven, no matter how much we have to ignore physics, whether the heaven is metaphysical or science fictional, and we will point toward our little star above and proclaim:
"Galileo, you are wrong, it is clear the Sun revolves around us and not the other way round – we have the holy texts interpreted by our high priests. You display a lack of conviction and faith. Recant, heathen."
And of course, Galileo recants. As Camus so poignantly illustrated, "Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question."
Disclaimer: I'm sure there are errors and inaccuracies above. That's OK, others have made more compelling and accurate critiques elsewhere. I will edit this as I notice the errors – this is what happens when you bang out 3500 words in short order. The overall point still resolutely stands, however, that silly and unrealistic metaphysics underpin our modern tech-centric ideologies.