The untamed mind set loose without being tempered by the needs of physical existence, which is life, cannot be sustained. Welcome to Spaceship Earth.
Imagine a space-going vessel, not something small containing only humans, but a vast one teeming with life. Imagine living in space, not just with other people, but with forests and lakes full of all manner of fish, flora, and fauna. For a species to establish a true space-faring civilization, it must survive its own technology and root that civilization in a healthy, viable environment. We will not be able to populate other star systems without taking nature with us. We need wolves and rabbits, deer and field mice, wild horses, bear and fowl. If we are to become such a spaceworthy species, we need to consciously define and claim a new ecological niche. There is more to the story.
To properly unite and re-unite, knowledge, technology, and wisdom we need to understand our place in nature. A species’ place in nature is its ecological niche, which is the way it fits into its environment: where and how it meets its needs and procreates. Our ecological niche was once entirely in the wilderness and we thrived there. We were a nomadic people who loved to travel and to explore. We had taken steps that gave us a new system in our brain, the neocortex or new mammal brain, the seat of human consciousness. We began to develop reasoning. Once that brain developed enough it would have to prove itself. As new capabilities manifested we were able to override our instincts and we gradually left our ecological niche. Today, as we begin to venture into outer space, our technology allows us to briefly overstep the boundaries of all of Earth’s ecological niches. The moon landing was a milestone: the time has come for human consciousness to prove itself. This is why we need to consciously define and claim a new ecological niche for ourselves.
We took steps that gave us a new system in our brain, the neocortex. The root of our custom of breaking bread with friends is also the root of our development as thinking beings. Many animals cooperate with others of their species for warmth, companionship, and mutual defense, but our primate ancestors cooperated in an unusual way. They began sharing food. The practice, once begun, spread like wildfire and was sustained. Sharing food set in motion a comprehensive chain of physical changes. It changed how we moved upon the ground: in order to carry food back to our tribe we began getting around on two legs instead of four. It was an awkward waddle at first, but over time the waddle disappeared as our hips moved further apart. Wider hips in turn allowed for a larger brain cage in our offspring, leading to a longer gestation period, and this in turn led to a longer childhood, a longer lifespan, and increased endurance. Walking on two legs also freed up our hands. Our hands and arms, no longer having to support the weight of the body in locomotion, became lighter and the movement of the hands became more refined. Tool usage led to a richer diet. Sophisticated usage of the hands and the new brain developed at the same time and much of the new mammal brain is devoted to the hands. However, there was a complication: the pelvic cage also shortened fore and aft, which helped our standing and walking upright. Unfortunately, this meant that as the size of the unborn child’s skull increased, the pelvic cage grew smaller. Together these changes led to the children being born more and more immature. Survival now demanded even more cooperation. Children had to be taken care of for a longer time: human children are often a year old when they learn to walk where colts, for example, can walk the day they are born.
We were a very successful nomadic species who loved to travel and to explore our wilderness home. We were, and still are, the foremost distance runner in nature. In the long run, we could outrun any other creature. With our new ability to reason, what we could not outrun we could outwit. We were nomadic, moving with the seasons to where the food was. Being an omnivore, we could eat most everything short of wood and rock. Our newfound endurance allowed us to go further in search of food, which expanded our range. Darwin wrote, “…variations, however slight, if they be in any degree profitable…will tend to the preservation of individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring” (Perry181). With such advantageous changes we were exquisitely equipped to live in the wilderness. Usually nature makes something new by changing something already in use, like developing lungs from gills. However, in developing our neocortex, instead of transforming the instinctive old mammal brain into a new system, nature added on the new mammal brain. As that system grew we began to override our instincts and to lose touch with them. This allowed our new brain a chance to learn to stand on its own. As new capabilities manifested themselves, we gradually left our ecological niche.
With our new brain and our intimate knowledge of the wilderness, we developed technology like food storage, clothing, and shelter, and we generated new knowledge like how to control fire. These allowed us to live within environments where we could not otherwise survive. In this way, we began overstepping some of the boundaries of our earlier ecological niche. Then, in a geological blink of an eye, we left behind our ecological niche almost completely.
When we began cultivating crops and living in one place all year around, we began the long journey toward creating vast cities. Over time many of us became afraid of the wilderness and lost touch with nature. In doing this, we lost several millennia’s worth of skills, knowledge, technology, and wisdom. Some looked back and thought we had been thrown out of the garden. Where once walked people who frequently befriended wolves and lived with them, now found people praying to keep the wolves from their door. Where once stood extremely capable humans, superbly adapted to a demanding but splendid wilderness environment, now stand uncertain human beings in unsuitable artificial environments. Millions of people live in slums unfit for human habitation and millions more have too little to eat. The world does not have to be that way.
Technology can shape people’s lives and it can shape people’s thinking. We can use this fact to get ourselves out of the deadly predicament we have placed ourselves in. We can stop dumping our trash on the land and in the oceans, and clean up the messes we have made. We can bring nature and farming into cities, making them into healthy living environments. We have the means to feed the world and can do this without killing off other species or destroying more of their habitats. Like Buckminster Fuller said, “It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry” (Seiden). Becoming spaceworthy is a way to do exactly that. Since we are headed into space, why not do it intelligently? Being Spaceworthy means surviving our own technology and that includes the technology of war. Why not use that impetus to explore as the means by which we end war between ourselves and heal the Earth? The likelihood of surviving our own technology increases if we turn our technology toward healing the Earth. The likelihood of preventing our own extinction increases greatly by bringing nature with us into space.
The survival of humanity is intimately tied to the Earth. The Scientific Revolution looked to nature as the root of knowledge. Francis Bacon, for example, stressed the direct observation of nature. He wrote, “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of Nature: beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything” (Perry 40). Some of us agreed and by using our reason to understand nature better we began to move away from unsupported beliefs. We acquired both factual knowledge and wisdom that led to some more sensible ways of governing ourselves and to amazing technological advances. Now we must look more deeply into nature, not just for knowledge, but for our place in it and for our survival.
Our species, with its new conscious capabilities, has to reintegrate itself into nature. We are destroying nature at a formidable rate and that rate is accelerating. Even before the Industrial Revolution whole forests had disappeared to build our tools, our ships, to make our homes and heat them. Now we cut them down for packaging, writing, hygiene, and to make room for more cattle. Somewhere along the line, nature became an obstacle. The “conquest of nature” became a slogan of progress that held little respect for nature. Only 23% of the original wilderness remains untouched (Vaughn). By killing that which supports us, we are no longer behaving like a successful species. As Pogo once noted, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” (Kelly). We are breaking the web of life on the Earth and that will ultimately do us in. We have two distinct paths before us: we can continue on our way, wasting resources, blithely damaging the living systems of the earth, or we can use our reasoning and act like adults. We must take the second path.
It is vital to understand that once our new brain developed enough it would have to prove itself, that is, we would have to consciously integrate ourselves back into nature. Defining and claiming a new ecological niche will not be easy, but we can do it in a way that goes along with our spirit of exploration by becoming spaceworthy.
To learn how to properly construct whole, healthy, viable ecosystems in space we must first build them down here on Earth, and to do that we must study the remaining wilderness. We must resolve to end the destruction of the wilderness, to begin restoring the damaged habitats, and to recreate lost ones to the best of our abilities. We can develop much of the prerequisite knowledge and technology for building such ecosystems in space by building some upon the oceans and in places like the Sahara desert. We can also clean the oceans while we build these floating islands and utilize the garbage that now swirls in giant eddies. In short, we can save the earth from our bad behavior by going into space as fully adult human beings.
However, regardless of whether we eventually populate other places among the stars, we need to find a better way to live here on Earth. Gaining the prerequisite knowledge and developing the technology is one thing, but we need the wisdom to solve the political problems as well. Some of what we are already doing is headed in the right direction, but some of the most powerful among us are pushing us in the wrong direction and deliberately blocking remedies to our problems. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, genocide, and war are things we can do without. We can rid ourselves from such invalid, non-scientific, self-serving philosophies like Social Darwinism. These, more than any technological problems, are what can prevent us from being successful. We need the wisdom to heal the rifts between us. We need to become whole, as individuals and as a species. We need to think for ourselves. We can begin paying attention to our instincts again, for example, sleeping when we are tired, eating what nourishes us, and moving away from sedentary lifestyles. Immanuel Kant alluded to this, writing, “If I have a book which provides meaning for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who will judge my diet for me and so on, then I do not need to exert myself” (Perry 52). Let us exert ourselves. If we put ourselves back in touch with our instincts, the new mammal brain can be thoroughly integrated with the old mammal brain. Together our reason and our instincts can put us back in touch with the Earth.
If we are to survive in the long run, we must find the wisdom to protect the wilderness, to regain the instinctive knowledge that allowed us to live in harmony with the other species, and use our technological wizardry to repair the ecological damage that we have done. May we reunite with the wild, and “go back to the garden,” bringing with us our know-how, our tools, and our wits. With our feet firmly planted upon the Earth may we successfully venture into space and become spaceworthy.
David James Salvia says he’s “a pretty good, medium-sized, not-exactly-young, anthropoidal, flesh colored, North American, carbon-based, semi-useful human being.” He resides in California.