We Will Be More Space-Dwellers than Planet-Dwellers

Ian O’Neill covers a high-minded conference discussion about the best protocols for potential encounters with alien species once our own ventures out into the stars. One idea that was new to me was that, though we may cross paths with other life forms, we may not need anything from them, or they from us. For example, O’Neill reports that Kelvin Long of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, says:

[B]y that stage in our evolution, Earth-analog planets would likely be less important to our survival — we would have become more space dwellers than planet-dwellers. Life-giving planets would therefore be more of scientific interest than somewhere for us to simply colonize.

“It is neither a case of moral respect or survival of the fittest but of the fact that we will have evolved as a society which does not need to compete (with indigenous lifeforms),” said Long.

Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar expressed a similar idea:

As for colonizing those worlds containing basic lifeforms, it is less likely that we’d want to hang around very long. “We live in the depths of a gravitational abyss,” said Obousy. Assuming our interstellar descendents has access to huge quantities of energy and resources, “I’m not convinced that we’ll want to go from one gravitational abyss to another gravitational abyss. I’m not convinced that settling on planets or even moons is going to be necessary.”

I find that fascinating. I’d love to see it played out in some quality science fiction. I’m of course aware that such fiction probably exists, but in my somewhat limited experience, planetless human beings are usually so because they are lost, or in some other desperate situation in which folks had no choice but to suddenly set themselves adrift in space. (Or in Richard Russo’s Ship of Fools, no one remembers why they are out in space after several generations.) They are not, in other words, boldly going because they have mastered material existence to such an extent that the “gravitational abyss” of planetary life is a hindrance or novelty. They’re, in one way or another, fucked.

But this idea upends the traditional “Terran” ideas of conquest, inhabitation, and exploitation of new environments. If we aren’t forced to create lives for ourselves on Earth-like (or terraformable) planets, and our existences are best lived in wholly artificial habitats in space, why go anywhere at all? Perhaps our needs would be limited to the rawest of raw materials, simply any matter that we can harvest and transform into anything we might need–like Star Trek’s replicators, but where there is no unreplicatable material like something so crucial as dilithium. Anything would presumably serve the purpose, such as asteroids or other “dead” bodies.

And if we meet fellow civilizations living within similar parameters, also not requiring any new planets to conquer or exploit, there’d presumably be nothing to fight over. Now, that’s where some sci-fi could get interesting. If everybody has what they need, what’s the conflict? Obviously, something would have to go very wrong.

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