The idea of living in outer space has been a subject of fascination for decades. However, as the space industry continues to expand, it raises ethical questions about the way we think about settling in space. Erika Nesvold’s book, “Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space,” addresses these questions in detail. The following review examines the key themes of the book and highlights the challenges faced by humans when considering space settlement.
The Limitations of a STEM Education
As an astrophysicist who has worked at NASA, Nesvold can easily calculate the technical aspects of space settlement, such as fuel requirements and life support. However, she realized that this was only part of the equation. Her extensive education had not trained her to address the ethical questions involved in building a just, equitable, sustainable, and lasting human society in space. To fill this gap, Nesvold interviewed ethicists, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, lawyers, economists, and policy experts and gathered their insights into the podcast “Making New Worlds,” which she then expanded upon in the book.
Key Questions about Space Settlement
The book is structured around a series of questions, each of which is a chapter heading. These questions include whether we should even settle in space, who gets to go, how we will distribute property rights and finite resources, and how we will protect the environment in space. The book also examines what will happen if someone breaks the rules or needs medical care and what will happen if they are the only one who can fix critical infrastructure. Underlying all these questions is the unaddressed issue of who gets to decide these things.
Fictional Vignettes: Lessons from History
Each chapter begins with three fictional vignettes, set in the past, present, and future, highlighting the different people leaving their homes, their motivations, and the circumstances surrounding their decisions. Nesvold uses these vignettes to remind readers that space settlement will involve and impact many individuals, not just the human species as a whole. She demonstrates that settling space is not just about building a utopia; it concerns the way we treat and interact with each other.
The Risks of Colonialism and Labor Exploitation
The most common metaphor used when discussing space settlement is that of European colonialism, with space as an empty canvas waiting for civilized people to build a utopia. Nesvold argues that this view is problematic because it is most compelling to Americans who advocate for settling in space, and it fails to acknowledge the negative outcomes of colonization, such as labor exploitation.
Nesvold demonstrates how space settlement can repeat the mistakes of colonialism, with labor exploitation being a key concern. She asks what happens if working conditions in space are terrible, and people are held hostage by employers who control their oxygen supply. She notes that it is not possible to live off the land or off the grid in space and that if we don’t address these issues now, we risk bringing war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice with us when we eventually settle in space.
Also Read: U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls for laying out AI regulation
A Call to Action
Despite the challenges and ethical dilemmas highlighted in the book, Nesvold is not pessimistic. She argues that if we want a civilization worth exporting to space, we must first eliminate war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice on Earth. Rather than waiting until we are ready to leave the planet, we must act now. If we want to build a sustainable, equitable, and just society in space, we must first create it on Earth.