ISRO’s successful soft landing of Chandrayaan is a joyous moment that can inspire us to dwell on a big question. As humans venture farther out into space, what dimensions of our behaviour will be at the fore? Will it be our capacity to be greedy and violent or our capacity for cooperation and non-violence that goes ‘spacewards’?
It has commonly been argued that human beings are not yet fit to venture out to space because we are still prone to petty disputes, wars and other insidious forms of violence. However, what lies beyond this subjective view?
Let’s explore this at two levels. One relates to the ongoing efforts to prevent space from becoming an arena of an arms race. The other to see what science fiction and ‘futures fiction’ tell us about how people are imagining the challenge and promise ahead.
While non-violence is not the absence of violence, there is merit in understanding how efforts are being made to prevent violence in space.
In the 1980s Ronald Reagan, as president of the US, triggered anxiety globally by planning a ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’, which would put weapons in space. This project, nicknamed ‘Star Wars’, happened close on the heels of George Lucas’s iconic film of the same name. Lucas’ fictional universe was dominated by a tyrannical Galactic Empire which had invented a ‘Death Star’— a weapon with a laser so powerful it could destroy an entire planet.
In real life the idea of weaponizing space is so obviously offensive that the first agreement between nations happened in 1967, two years before the Americans put a man on the moon. This agreement, called the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, was signed by the US, UK and the Soviet Union.
This treaty says that outer space is not subject to ‘national appropriation’ — either for use or for occupation. It also prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or in any other form in outer space.
But those who understand the fine print and monitor the developments in technology clearly feel that this treaty is inadequate. For example, the existing treaty leaves room for various kinds of weapons to be deployed in space. Thus, in December 2021 the United Nations General Assembly additionally adopted a resolution on ‘Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space’ by setting up norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour.
This resolution reaffirms the applicability of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, to activities in outer space. This allows all states to explore and use outer space without discrimination of any kind. But it also places responsibility on all states to “maintain outer space as a peaceful, safe, stable, secure and sustainable environment for the benefit of all….”
These are urgent concerns because now much of global infrastructure requires broadband which depends on satellites in space. If indeed mining on the moon soon becomes viable there is a risk of bitter competition between nations and private companies causing violent conflicts. It is no surprise then that a large volume of science fiction tends to depict future dystopias with rampant violence.
And yet, it was the prolific science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, who wrote way back in 1942: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
This idea was clearly evident in the Star Trek television series created by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s. The fictional realm of Star Trek was created at the height of the Cold War. In 1961 the Soviet Union had beaten the US by putting the first man in space. In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis brought the US and Soviet Union within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear war.
Roddenberry’s fictional world was based several centuries in the future, on the hopeful view that humans had finally learnt their lesson after surviving a third world war. The inter-galactic ‘Federation’, in which the Star Trek stories happen, is a world where there is no more racism, inequality and poverty. It is implied that this is what enabled humans to venture out into space and find other species — mostly in a spirit of friendship.
Even in Lucas’ Star Wars world the chief protagonists, the Jedi knights, are actually beings who are able to tap the power of spirit, known as ‘the force’, in ways that are more powerful than matter in the form of weapons.
Imagining a less violent, if not non-violent, future is an important first step to creating it. That is why strengthening and improving the UN treaties is important. Futures fiction that creates rich dramatic content without resorting to violence for excitement is important at another level.
How you view the future depends on your starting point.
If you see human beings as predominantly and unchangeably competitive and violent then even the most carefully drafted treaties, on how we should behave in space, will not save us from making a mess in outer space.
If you see human beings, collectively, evolving to higher levels of consciousness and thus growing in compassion — or at least a more refined sense of self-preservation — then indeed even the sky is not the limit.
Rajni Bakshi is the founder of YouTube channel Ahimsa Conversations