Saturday, November 21, 2009

Socialism in the Space Age (2007)

The Pathfinders Column from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone over the age of forty-five will remember very clearly two things from their school days. One was the moon landings. The other was the clear and certain knowledge that whatever it was that killed off the dinosaurs would remain eternally one of life’s unanswerable mysteries.

When in 1980 the geologists Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered a thin layer of iridium stretching from Italy to Colorado, dated to a period corresponding to the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago, they knew something pretty severe must have happened. Iridium lies deep in the core of the Earth, and is only found on the surface as a result of asteroid strikes. This one, they reasoned, must have been a humdinger, but where was the crater? Something that big couldn’t just erode away. Eventually, it was found, under the sea, off the coast of Mexico, a hole so big it must have taken a meteorite roughly the size of Brighton to create it, about 23 square miles.

Recently on a socialist discussion list, someone referred to the ‘failed experiment’ that was the dinosaurs. Failed perhaps in the sense that they are dead and we are not, but let homo sapiens survive and prosper as a race eight hundred times longer than we have so far managed before we can claim to equal their success. And the chances are, on current performance, we won’t get anywhere near.

The power-elites in capitalism are as keenly aware as benighted commoners just how vulnerable the Earth is to a giant meteor strike, and while the next close pass by a large lump of rock is still thirty years away, are even now debating what to do about it. For, even if the impossible happened and the capitalists worked out some ingenious way to stop destroying the planet themselves, there’s no accounting for the vagaries of chance in outer space.

October 4 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik 1, the first venture of humanity into space. A few more efforts, a dead dog, some nasty accidents and a few dead astronauts later, the world was dazzled by the budget-busting glory of the Kennedy administration in putting a man on the moon, putting one over on the Russians, and fixing the global gaze skyward instead of at Vietnam. Previous generations had lived through the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the steam age and the Tupperware age, but anybody alive in 1968 and watching the silver men on screen pogoing in slo-mo on the surface of the moon would have sworn they were living in the space age. The future was bright. Humanity was on the threshold of the stars.

But what a disappointment it all turned out to be. For once, the geometric acceleration of science seemed to falter. After the Apollo missions, there was no more. The moon was forgotten. Mars remained beyond reach. The engineers all retired, and took their knowledge with them. The stars seemed further away then ever, twinkling in cold amusement at humanity’s punctured hubris.

Sure, the world sent out a lot of probes, some of which didn’t crash, malfunction or get lost, and many fascinating pictures and much interesting knowledge was gained. But the two Big Questions remained unanswered. First: Is there anybody out there? And second: Even if there isn’t, can we get off this rock before it blows?

Capitalism invests in space research the same way it gambles on the rest of science, by backing every horse in the race, sure at least that one of them will come in eventually, bringing with it untold new knowledge and wisdom (aka big bucks and even bigger bucks). It isn’t really interested in existential anxieties about being alone in the universe, but when it comes to advanced communications and especially the military capability of peering into everybody else’s back yard, then filling the orbital paths with beeping space junk seems a superb notion. More ambitiously, the possibility of colonising other planets offers an unparalleled alibi for recklessly destroying your own. Space Capitalism: a sort of galactic venereal disease.

Meanwhile, George Bush’s Kennedy-like attempt to swivel the eyes of America away from Iraq and up to Mars is unlikely to outlive his incumbency. The cost of a manned mission is just too ludicrous, the risk (in lives but, more to the point, in credibility) not worth the gamble, and the scientific returns probably insignificant, given no conclusive sign so far of any organic material on that almost certainly dead planet.

Some scientists, playing a dubious numbers game, have famously calculated that the probability of there not being intelligent life out there, given the billions of galaxies, is virtually zero. Others have responded by calculating the probability of us ever having contact with any of these lifeforms, given the brain-shreddingly large space-time distances involved, as being also virtually zero. Capitalist Earth, being uncontrollably in the grip of a mindless and suicidal orgy of self-destruction, would love to find some comfort and company out there, feeling as it does that the prospects of life down here are diminishing like sand through an hourglass.

But what of a socialist Earth? Suppose that humanity has a moment of sanity and takes its affairs in order by abolishing capitalism before it’s too late, what then? Obviously expeditions to Enceladus would be somewhat down the priority list at first, as issues like food, water and shelter took the lead. But would a socialist world eventually develop a space programme? Perhaps so, if by then the depradations of capitalism had reduced the planet to an unsalvageable toxic tar-pit from which we had no choice but to escape. Hopefully though, we will have taken control of our common abode and our common responsibility much earlier than that. Then, living as free custodians of a newly green and pleasant planet, we may not feel such anxieties about our cosmic isolation, but in fact bask pleasurably in our unique biological identities and our uniquely fulfilling way of life. Children, though, will always gaze at the stars and wonder what is out there. Socialists may debate whether they could or should ever ‘export’ socialism to the cosmos. They might also, perhaps more pertinently, wonder when some of the cosmos is likely to pay a visit here. Among its other priorities, socialist Earth would be wise to remember what happened to the dinosaurs, and make contingency plans for the next Brighton rock.