Paper Review: Toward an Ecological and Cosmonautical Philosophy

What has become of our dreams of space travel? Not long ago, merely a few decades, humanity took its first few steps in space. There was great hope for humanity to become a space-faring species. We would enjoy a family weekend and the best views of Earth from the moon, take a hike on Europa, skydive in the clouds of Venus, and eventually explore the depths of the Kuiper belt and beyond.

Yet, not much seems to remain. We have become a rather inwards focused species. A number of reasons seem to suggest themselves: the end of the cold war and America’s competition with the Soviet Union; a backlash against any form of colonization in the wake of the disasters of European colonialism; and a weakening faith in the ability for technology to be a force of good in light of the environmental crisis.

In light of these cultural shifts it is no wonder that our dreams have dampened. However, we might wonder, is this the correct response? Joseph Kirby thinks not.

***The original paper can be found here.***

My father sent me this paper to read years ago, and something about its spirit and attitude struck me and remained. I thought it would be a fun paper to share with you.

Kirby’s main thesis in his paper is that, far from retreating from a space program, we ought to be pursuing it. Instead of taking the view that humanity’s development of technology is a terrible thing for life, we need to see it as part of the unfolding process of life. In fact, his claim is stronger; not only should we view it as part of the process, but as a necessary part of the strengthening and flourishing of life. This follows the philosophy of Krafft Ehricke. Many of the argument Kirby (and I) will describe are reiterations of Ehricke’s position.

This can initially seem far fetched–pollution, for one, has had terrible effects on Earth’s biosphere. Kirby doesn’t deny this at all, but instead encourages us to consider what he takes to be a parallel case: the development of photosynthesis. He writes

Prior to photosynthesis, life was dependent upon chemical energy scrounged from geothermal sources on the ocean floor; with photosynthesis, it became capable of producing its own chemical energy from the energy of the sun, giving rise to the potential for a tremendous growth in organizational complexity. By harnessing a more generic source of energy, life grew over the barrier that had previously limited its expansion and came to exist throughout the oceans. Eventually, photosynthesis made it possible for life to encompass the entire planet, to become the biosphere that we now experience as the extent of the living world. (p. 5)

We see that the development of photosynthesis allowed life to extend itself from a narrow domain to broader one. This didn’t only allow life to extend further spatially, but also allowed for the rich constellation of life forms we see around us today. Thus, if we take a deep ecology perspective — one that values Life for its own sake — then photosynthesis was quite the boon. However, this is not the full story. In life, and for Life, nothing is one-sided: there are always tradeoffs.

Besides granting life a vast and important new power, however, the advent of photosynthesis also constituted a terrible crisis. The waste product of photosynthesis, oxygen, was toxic to the anaerobic life that had predominated up to that point. While giving life the potential for much greater complexity, photosynthesis also produced a pollutant that threatened life’s very existence. Ehricke describes primordial life as having had only three options in response to this crisis: either “give up and perish, regress to a minimal state of existence, or advance and grow” (Ehricke 2008, 253). Needless to say, life took the third path, which led to what Ehricke describes as the transition from the “First Earth” to the “Second Earth,” from the initial emergence of life as anaerobic bacteria subsisting on geothermal energy, to the development and growth of a biosphere that could exploit the energy of the sun to cover the entire Earth with ever more complicated forms. (p. 5)

In order to move from the stage where Life inhabited only a very narrow terrain it had to go through a crisis: a crisis of invention. We can now see the kind of parallel that Ehricke and Kirby are trying to draw. Just as Life went through a pollution crisis when a new kind of technology (photosynthesis) entered the scene, so too Life is going through a crisis today as human technology is growing and developing.

In the case of photosynthesis, we all observe firsthand the benefit — all the life around us! In the case of human technology, however, the outlook might seem bleak. What can Life gain?

Ehricke has what I think is a beautiful vision for how humanity, through our technology, can contribute to the future of Life. As Kirby writes:

Ehricke saw life as an exponentially expanding process that grew over all environments within its reach. Technology gave life the capacity to grow over the barrier of the atmosphere and infuse the matter in the Solar System as it had once infused the matter of the oceans and the land. Humanity was the medium through which this expansion became possible, and therefore bore responsibility for its success or failure. Furthermore, the only realistic way for a technological human civilization to come into harmony with the biosphere of the Earth was to expand beyond it, allowing for the Earth to be transformed into a garden at the center of an expanding technological ecosystem. (p. 4)

Far from being a cancer, or even a blemish, of Life, technology, just like its predecessor photosynthesis, can allow life to extend past its present limits. Indeed, if we think in terms of the far future — one in which the sun expands to a dangerous size and wreaks havoc on the Earth — not only can technology allow life to flourish, it may actually be the one thing that allows it to survive. This positive vision of the role of technology for life reminds me of the forceful arguments made by James Lovelock in A Rough Ride to the Future , though Lovelock focuses more on the key role humanity would (likely) have to play if Life were to survive past the death of our sun. However, there is clearly a parallel: technology has much to contribute to life.

Kirby isn’t naïve about how poorly humanity has been doing in (what he takes to be) its duties towards Life

The human task, in the context of this great crisis, is two-fold: balance within the biosphere, and expansion beyond it. Failure in either task – and we have certainly been failing for the last few decades – may indeed result in the fulfillment of some of the dreadful prophecies that are obtaining ever more prominence in our collective consciousness. (p. 12)

However, instead of succumbing to the pessimism of the post-modern attitude towards human technology, one which sees it as an evil, Kirby argues that we should strive to embrace the positive role we could play in Life’s flourishing. Indeed, he claims that “this represents the only sensible way to protect the long term integrity of the biosphere of Earth in the context of a technological civilization” (p. 3).

I really like this paper. It frames a very contemporary issue in a positive, long-term way that inspires instead of shames. I recommend reading the actual paper itself — it is well written and has a lot of nice insights. Though I don’t agree with everything (I don’t take the moral weight of the ideas as seriously and genuinely as Kirby) I think this paper offers a refreshing way to think of the Anthropoecene.

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