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  • Writer's pictureAJ Poelarends

The Future is Here


We’re a restless species. Always curious, always on the move, eager to know what’s beyond the horizon. We’ve gone around the world, explored the most remote places, gone to the deepest trenches in the oceans, and the highest mountain peaks, flown planes to the edge of space, and even visited the moon. The “we” is mostly the people of European descent, shaped by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. There is something in our culture, something in our worldview, that makes us restless, unfulfilled at the place where we are, something that calls us to greener pastures, to adventure, onto “the open road.”


When the Patriarch Jacob meets the Pharaoh of Egypt, he calls himself a sojourner (Gen 47:7-11). His grandfather Abraham started the tradition of sojourning as he hit the road to travel from Harran to the promised land (Gen 11). Supposedly, he was happy in Harran, but God called him “to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1). It was not his restlessness that made him move, but a promise. A promise of a better future, even redemption, for the entire world.


Humans are about to embark on another adventure. This time it is not just to explore other worlds and planets, but to settle there. Curiously, this time the journey is as much driven by fear as it is by a longing for the open road, or open space in this case. Deeply embedded in the narrative for “making life multiplanetary” is the fear that humanity will not be able to survive on this earth. Just as the dinosaurs were wiped out after the impact of a massive asteroid, so humanity could be wiped out by various causes at any time in the future. Not only is NASA tracking thousands of NEOs (Near Earth Objects), some of them on potentially dangerous trajectories, but we have no idea what objects are lurking in outer space and whether there will be even time to issue a warning if one approaches Earth. Granted, the chances that Earth will be hit by a massive object that will wipe out all life on Earth is pretty small, but it is not zero. However, many other scenarios could potentially lead to the end of life on Earth as we know it.


In 1945, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and several scientists from the University of Chicago who were involved in the Manhattan Project created The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The weapon they developed ended World War II, but they became increasingly aware that the technology could be used with disastrous consequences, especially if it fell into the wrong hands or was used without prudence. In 1947 the idea of a Doomsday Clock was born. In an intuitive way, it expresses how close the world is to a global catastrophe caused by man-made technologies. It uses the imagery of the apocalypse (midnight) and the idiom of a nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey the threats to humanity and the planet. The initial position of the second hand was at seven minutes to midnight – not for any reason, it just looked right. The farthest it has been from midnight is 17 minutes, at the end of the Cold War (1991). Currently, it sits at 90 seconds to midnight, where it has been since Feb 2023. The war in Ukraine has highlighted an unstable political order that increasingly relies on the threat of nuclear weapons which increases the risk of nuclear escalation. Climate-related disasters are affecting millions of people. And nobody knows how the possible misuse of biotechnology and the development of other “disruptive technologies” like artificial intelligence will affect or perhaps endanger human life in the next decade. Faced with this reality, Elon Musk said “the dinosaurs died out because they didn't have spaceships. If humanity can't figure out how to get beyond this planet, it's ‘just a matter of time’ before some similar, species-destroying event occurs.”



Getting beyond Earth and hitting the interplanetary road is easier said than done. The moon is within reach, but not a place where you can set up a “spare” civilization. Even though the moon is within the Goldilocks zone, the zone around a star where the conditions are suitable for life to exist, the moon has no atmosphere and cannot easily sustain life. The Earth is in the heart of the Goldilocks zone, and the right distance allows for the right temperature for liquid water to exist. An habitable planet also needs the right chemical composition, possibly land features, and ideally, has a magnetic field to protect it from dangerous radiation from the Sun and galactic events. In our Solar system, Venus, Earth, and Mars are all in the habitable zone. However, Venus' high density allows it to crush anything on its surface within a matter of hours, and its toxic atmosphere makes it unfavorable for life. Mars is a different story as there is plenty of evidence that points toward a wet Martian history, including the discovery of dry river and lake beds, outcrops with clear erosion features, and the discovery of abundant subsurface ice. However, Mars, as we currently know it, is quite inhospitable to human life. Its surface is largely dry, its atmosphere is thin and highly toxic – and its temperature is on average -72F. In addition, it lacks a magnetic field which means that its surface gets bombarded by dangerous high-energy particles every time the Sun unleashes a flare. Nevertheless, the thought of “terraforming” Mars continues to speak to the imagination of countless believers in human spaceflight, even though the technology needed is not yet developed, and might never see the light of day.


Even if earthlings were able to establish an outpost on Mars, many questions remain. Despite NASA’s hopes to put humans on Mars in the 2030s, history shows that even the most ambitious and well-funded projects experienced significant delays. It is more likely that a privately funded initiatives, such as SpaceX or Blue Origin backed by multi-billionaires, are able to reach Mars first as they are willing to take larger risks for prestige and reward. Writing for Scientific American, Matthew Francis, a physicist turned science writer, however, posits that privately owned space colonies are more likely to be totalitarian nightmares than libertarian utopias:

“Promoted as a society unshackled from earthly laws, this town is in fact as unfree as possible. The company rules everything, owning not only the buildings but the water and air people need to survive. If a person took out a loan to pay for passage, the company effectively holds them in indentured servitude. Human rights are not a given, nor is bodily autonomy.”

This is clearly not in anyone’s best interest, but the scenario cannot be ruled out either, given the disdain for human rights and the enormous influence and power that these private companies have. A different scenario is explored by Marko Kovic, president of the nonprofit think tank ZIPAR and former president of the Swiss Skeptics Association for Critical Thinking. Kovic explores a scenario in which these Martian outposts, initially established and run by national governments on Earth, eventually desire autonomy from Earth. He speculates:

“In a controversial recent Martian referendum, the majority of the Martian inhabitants have expressed a wish for political autonomy: they don’t want to be outposts of faraway Earth countries any longer, but instead want to become a united and independent planet. Unsurprisingly, neither the US nor the Chinese governments have recognised the referendum. Whereas the US government is still deliberating on an appropriate course of action, China has already sent its warships to Mars to suppress the ‘insurgency’ with any means necessary, including an armed invasion both of the Chinese- and the US-controlled habitat.”

This sounds like a recipe for disaster, and given the fraught geo-political situation, there is no clear roadmap to address these governance challenges, despite the optimism of Kovac towards establishing a “pan-human federation” that allows for the rich flourishing of human ideals again. Konrad Szocik, author of “The Bioethics of Space Exploration” concludes that “the real goals in our non-ideal society will be political and military” and not so much rooted in curiosity or geared towards human survival.


The question we need to ask at this point is, should we even colonize space? If we can do it, should we do it? This is typically not a question asked by scientists and engineers, as the German-born American political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) aptly observes in her superb essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” 

“For the scientist, man is no more than an observer of the universe in its manifold manifestations. […] Had the scientist reflected upon the nature of the human sensory and mental apparatus, had he raised questions such as What is the nature of man and what should be his stature? What is the goal of science and why does man pursue knowledge? or even What is life and what distinguishes human from animal life?, he would never have arrived where modern science stands today. The answers to these questions would have acted as definitions and hence as limitations of his efforts.”

As Arendt argues, contemplating these kinds of questions is not something that scientists and engineers are wont to do, which precludes them from reflecting on limitations as well. Perhaps, as the philosopher Hannah Fenichel Pitkin has argued, many of our moral failings are not the result of malicious intent, but of simply not thinking about what we are doing. With advances in space exploration accelerating, however, philosophers and ethicists have started to pay attention to these kinds of questions. Do we have a moral duty to preserve humanity through colonization, is the outcome of colonization a good or bad thing, and what is the morality of sending humans into what is likely to be a hellish situation? Some argue that we have a moral obligation to pursue space settlement, as the existence of humankind is a precondition for morality— “if humankind went extinct, morality would die with us.” This way, the intrinsic value placed on intelligent life overrides the dangers of space exploration, an argument often found in utilitarian and deontological moral frameworks that emphasize the need to minimize existential risk. Others argue from a virtue ethics framework and challenge the supreme value of human existence, saying “ending our lives virtuously is more valuable than surviving even though humankind would cease to exist.”


Questions on what the limits of technology should be are not new. While technological advancements often improve the quality of human life on Earth, it is not always unambiguously the case. For instance, while many celebrate the development of the smartphone—and cannot imagine life without it—there is growing awareness of its harmful effects on children’s developing brains. One wonders therefore, if entrepreneurs, engineers, and policymakers had paid attention to the wisdom offered by Hannah Arendt and exercised discernment and wisdom in the development of the smartphone, would things have gone differently and would we have yielded to warnings and limitations sooner? No one knows, though the pattern is not very encouraging. Similar arguments could be made for the development of nuclear technologies, genetic editing, PFAS, micro and nano plastics, and finally AI. For many of these developments, the awareness of the harmful effects only emerged after the technology itself had matured to such a degree that life without it could not be imagined anymore. 


Although the focus was on making life easier and more convenient, many of these technologies have damaged the rich fabric of human life and experience. Often profit was the driver, not human flourishing, and wisdom and discernment were thrown overboard in the name of technological developments. Drawing inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s warnings, we should question in what ways establishing a permanent base on Mars would affect our understanding of ourselves. Does it expand our understanding of what it means to be human, or does it reduce it? Does it make the human experience richer or poorer? What is the end of exploration? Asking these kinds of questions could mean that we realize that we need to put limits on our endeavors. 


The question of whether it would expand or reduce our understanding of what it means to be human is an interesting one to explore a bit more. Within the Christian tradition, the biblical concept of shalom has been used to describe the fullness of what it means to be human. A classic definition can be found in Cornelius Plantinga’s book ‘Not the Way It is Supposed to Be’ where he writes:

“In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight--a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” 

Granted, this rich state of affairs will not be fully realized until the eschaton, but one can compare the state of affairs of humans living on Earth and humans living on Mars.

For example, if humans have to live on Mars in caves or in domes with an artificial climate, in a place that is not suited for human flourishing, are we even able to meet a basic floor of human well-being? Is human life able to survive the trip and flourish upon arrival, or do we step into a hell? Would an “industrial environment” provide the context for deep and lasting happiness and satisfaction? Is the new habitat able to provide all the necessary resources, or is a Mars colony still dependent on supplies from Earth, putting them in the position of a vulnerable vassal planet? Whose culture, language, education, and legal, social, political, and economic system will be adopted, and will it fare better than on earth, or is that an illusion? Will there be a place for virtues on Mars, or is it just pragmatism that is rewarded? In the grand scheme of space exploration, does human life have value? Is there a place for faith in something transcendent or just faith in progress? In other words, will human beings ever flourish, and experience real shalom on Mars, as we are experiencing a foretaste of it here on Earth? If not, we better rethink our plans, so that our “technical knowledge does not outrun moral wisdom.”


On a deeper level, I believe we need to question the narrative about the world. The story we tell ourselves in our Western culture is a story of awakening through scientific investigation. Facts are measurable, quantifiable, and objective. Values are not. History, according to conventional wisdom, reached its climax and turning point in the Enlightenment, in the discovery of objective facts about this world, which rendered invalid any claim of truth not based on these facts, which includes religious knowledge and ethical considerations. Anything post-Enlightenment, including the significant advancements in technology, science, and globalization, proceeds almost unquestioned, not limited by subjective values based on religious ideas. The era of space colonization is seen by many as the next logical step. However, the feeling of urgency to protect humanity and its progress is eerily reminiscent of the story of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). That ancient story, about the “search for purely human greatness absent from God” was the beginning of the “utopian humanistic dream” to which humanity has always subsequently aspired. The account of humanity trying to reach for the skies carries connotations of hubris and unquestioned human autonomy, of the disregard for limits, the dismissal of God himself, and a total lack of ethical reflection, that it’s painful to see the parallels with the situation we find ourselves in. Among other things, Genesis 11 teaches us that God is still sovereign, that in their greatness humans still have limits and should observe them, that utopian dreams are destined to fail absent from God, and that in judgment, there is still grace because the story is not finished yet. 


The Christian story is a better story than the “utopian humanistic dream.” It does more justice to our reality, and provides a better guide for how to live. The pivotal moment in that story is not an awakening of the mind to objective facts, but the resurrection of a body to a new life. This event defies all logic and worldly wisdom, it is so wonderful and weird, so surprising and out of the ordinary, so mysterious and yet so meaningful that it requires a complete re-defining of our reality. It subverts the ontological and epistemological foundations of modernity. It provides a whole new ethic, as the corruption of our hearts, the brokenness of our senses and imagination, and the curse of death, all with their origin in the fall, have been reversed, resulting in a new heart, new obedience, and hope for deep fellowship with the triune God – on this Earth. It allows us to lean into a new imagination, shaped by the resurrection. 


This new imagination allows us to conceive of a future, where despite our limits, our vulnerability, and our powerlessness to save ourselves, we can trust in a God who will bring his story to completion. We can work for a better Earth. We can take a stand against everything that reduces human flourishing, that corrupts this creation, that has disdain for the sacredness of life. Just as Abraham left his homeland and became a sojourner, not out of fear, or greed, or because of human hubris, but by trusting in the Lord, so we can trust that despite our failures to take care of this world, the God of heaven and Earth will not let his work, world, and story be derailed. We can pursue our deepest longings (even that of space exploration), as long as we recognize our limits and rightly order our desires. But in the end, the future is here.


References:

1. “Doomsday Clock FAQ.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/faq/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2024. 

2. “A Moment of Historic Danger: It Is Still 90 Seconds to Midnight.” Edited by John Mecklin, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 Jan. 2024, thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2024.

3. Krietzberg, Ian. “Why Elon Musk Feels the Need to Guide Humanity to Mars and Beyond.” TheStreet, www.thestreet.com/technology/elon-musk-spacex-starship-interplanetary-mars. Accessed 15 Mar. 2024. 

4. “What Happened to Venus?” NASA, NASA, 9 Apr. 2015, www.nasa.gov/image-article/what-happened-venus/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2024

5. Matthew R. Francis, “Musk and Bezos Offer Humanity a Grim Future in Space Colonies”, Scientific American, June 26, 2023, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/musk-and-bezos-offer-humanity-a-grim-future-in-space-colonies/. Accessed 16 Mar. 2024, italics added.

6. Marko Kovic, “Rules in space”, Aeon Magazine, 4 December 2018, https://aeon.co/essays/we-urgently-need-a-legal-framework-for-space-colonisation. Accessed 16 Mar. 2024.

7. Konrad Szocik, “Elon Musk, Mars, and bioethics: is sending astronauts into space ethical?”, 12 June 2023, https://blog.oup.com/2023/06/elon-musk-mars-and-bioethics-is-sending-astronauts-into-space-ethical. Accessed 23 Mar. 2024.

8. Hannah Arendt, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” The New Atlantis, Number 18, Fall 2007, pp. 43-55.

9. H. F. Pitkin, “JUSTICE: On Relating Private and Public,” Political Theory, Volume 9, Issue 3, 1981, pp. 327-352. 10. E.g., Szocik, Konrad, The Bioethics of Space Exploration, New York, Oxford Academic, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780197628478.001.0001, and Futures, Volume 110 (special volume), June 2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/futures/vol/110/suppl/C

11. Brian Patrick Green, “Self-preservation should be humankind’s first ethical priority and therefore rapid space settlement is necessary,” Futures, Volume 110, 2019, pp. 35-37, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.02.006, and Keith Abney, “Ethics of colonization: Arguments from existential risk,” Futures, Volume 110, 2019, pp. 60-63, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.02.014.

12. Koji Tachibana, “Virtue Ethics and the Value of Saving Humanity,” in: Szocik, K. (eds) Human Enhancements for Space Missions. Space and Society. Springer, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-42036-9_12

13. For a sobering account of smartphones and social media on the development of children and young adolescents, see Jonathan Haidt, “End the Phone-Based Childhood Now,” the Atlantic, March 13, 2024. Accessed 25 Mar 2024. online: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2024/03/teen-childhood-smartphone-use-mental-health-effects/677722/. Haidt describes the effects of smart-phones and social media on kids’ mental health, and associated effects such as fragmented attention, disrupted learning, addiction and social withdrawal, decay of wisdom, and the loss of meaning, and argues for urgent community action to combat this epidemic. 

14. “Notre Dame University: Inaugural Address of Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.,” https://president.nd.edu/homilies-writings-addresses/inaugural-address-of-rev-john-i-jenkins-c-s-c/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.

15. See N.T. Wright, “Wouldn’t You Love to Know? Towards a Christian View of Reality”, Grasping the Nettle: Glasgow, September 1, 2016. Online: https://ntwrightpage.com/2016/09/05/wouldnt-you-love-to-know-towards-a-christian-view-of-reality/. Accessed 26 Mar. 2024.

16. Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 2005, 103.

17. William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenant Theology, Paternoster Press, Milton Keynes, UK, 2013, 63.

18. Without going into too much detail, the confusion of the language forced people to spread over the earth, thereby aligning themselves again to the mandate given at creation “to fill the earth.” Initial resolution of the story is found in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) where God unifies the languages again, with final resolution to come in the joining of heaven and earth, when people from all nations, language and tongues will worship the Lamb on the throne (e.g., Rev. 4-5).

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