Space Sociology: 10 Out Of 10 For Courage, Minus 1million For Pessimism

The events at the British Interplanetary Society headquarters in London are often very interesting, at times packed and seldom soporous: but I cannot recall of any, where the speakers would more or less consciously risk to stir a hostile crowd.

That’s what happened on the evening of Sep 8, when sociologists Peter Dickens and James Ormrod’s presentationHow Should we Humanise Outer Space?” turned into an open confrontation with shall I say quite sceptical people in attendance (one of them, myself). It might have been the unwise choice of mixing descriptive (“how things are”) and applied (“how things ought to be”) sociology, in front of an audience unfamiliar with that science. Or it might have been their obvious and declared socialistic worldview, with everything seen as a zero-sum game based on exploitation (opportunity gains? not even remotely considered; asteroid mining? no, thanks, otherwise people will not stop consuming; and don’t even think of going to orbit, your moment of fun will be based on the work of thousands of people none of whom will ever get the chance of going to orbit).

Or it might have been the speakers’ unrelenting pessimism about technology advances, associating for example plutonium for space-based RTGs to lung cancers on Earth and in general declaring that science and technology create more problems than they solve.

Another hypothesis: underlying it all, we have just witnessed that supreme act of courage, people in a BIS room speaking of manned spaceflight as “escapism”.

At the end it was like hearing the Pope tell teenagers that sex is the problem so let’s have less of it for a change. Is capitalism bad, and should social equality be our objective? Shall we try make that happen in space, and through the use of space-based resources? Those questions sound, and are, much more political than scientific. Perhaps the real questions should be, is sociology victim of its own hubris…is it creating more problems than it solves?