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Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity by David Deudney
Quest Volume: 28 #3 (2021)
Dark Skies is not a historical work. Rather, it comes out of political theory and geopolitics and tries to predict the political and military outcomes of the expansion of human settlement into the solar system and beyond. It is relevant to historians insofar as they are interested in various historical actors named as advocates for what Deudney calls “space expansionism,” notably Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Wernher von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. It also may be relevant because most space historians are believers in the beneficent effects of human expansion into space. Like scholars in other specialized historical subdisciplines, space historians are a self-selected group who often grew up as enthusiasts for space exploration. It is rare that someone hostile to, or skeptical of, spaceflight would choose to write space history. While Deudney is not opposed to Earth-centered space programs, his Dark Skies condemns space colonization as a mortal threat to humanity, and thus provides a bracing challenge to some of the assumptions that many of us (including me) have often taken for granted.
Dark Skies is a profoundly techno-pessimist book. It takes a very negative view of the human race, perhaps rightly so, as likely to spread its violent and environmentally destructive ways into near-Earth and solar space. As the work is not history, I will not elaborate his often jargon-ridden, hard-to-read arguments in geopolitical theory, but in short, he sees space colonization at a dangerous threat because: (1) it can lead to the authoritarian or totalitarian domination of the Earth by orbital military infrastructures; (2) it will lead to space colonies independent from Earth that are prone to violence and inimical to freedom because of the profound challenge of survival in hostile environments; (3) it will lead to the ability to manipulate asteroid orbits, creating a potential planet-destroying superweapon; and (4) it may lead to the development of cyborgs or post-human super-intelligent species who will have no regard for the human race and are likely to wage war on us.
Deudney argues convincingly that almost all classic advocates of space expansionism, from Tsiolkovsky to O’Neill and beyond, are naïve about the likely political implications of space colonies, assuming that they will lead to a utopian future of freedom and wealth. Those advocates spent little time thinking about what it would be like to sustain societies in alien environments where survival is difficult at best. Humans are poorly adapted for long-term stays in deep space. Genetic and cybernetic engineering may be needed to create beings able to function in intensely radioactive, low-gravity environments. Space advocates also wish away the possibility of hostility and military action between Earth and its off-world colonies or among those offshoots, although those themes are staples of science fiction. (The Expanse TV series comes to mind; a devastating asteroid attack on Earth was a major plot point in the recently released season.)
Deudney does use the names of key space expansionists too loosely and without careful regard for the historical evidence of what they may or may not have argued. He contrasts “von Braun military space expansionism” with an Earth-friendly “Clarke-Sagan Whole Earth Security Program.” I am an unlikely candidate to defend Wernher von Braun; indeed, Deudney cites an article I published on how von Braun sold his early-1950s space station proposal with the argument that its nuclear missiles could dominate the Soviet Union—such a station might even carry out preemptive strikes! This inconvenient fact continues to be ignored by von Braun enthusiasts, notably in Huntsville, Alabama, where his Nazi issues are also swept under the rug. Yet Deudney projects a whole program for the military domination of space named after von Braun that bears no resemblance to what he advocated later in life, when civilian space programs were his central concern. Similarly, Deudney’s heroes, Clarke and Sagan, are used as the symbolic names for a circumscribed, Earth-centric, environmentalist space program that is not inconsistent with their values, yet they could be numbered in the ranks of the believers in the munificent effects of unlimited space expansion.
I will not attempt to comprehensively critique Deudney’s geopolitical arguments here, as they are often outside my areas of disciplinary expertise. I will recommend the book as a challenging exercise in contrarianism. While not easy reading or particularly well-written, it can force us to rethink our assumptions.
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Title: Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity
Author: David Deudney
Publisher: Oxford University Press
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