© Laurence B. Winn
Feb 1, 1999 (Updated 07/22/16)
Frontier theory predicts that some of us, very likely you, will have to work harder for less this year. It predicts that your chances of being murdered in your home or on the street are greater this year than last, and will be still greater the year after that. It foresees that you will soon lose another increment of freedom to the necessity of regulation and security. It anticipates that a new or newly virulent disease will threaten your health. It expects that the air you breathe and the water you drink will be more toxic than they have been. Frontier theory foretells that, however bad you think you have it, your children will have it worse.
Frontier theory also teaches that the worst outcomes are avoidable. In fact, a sort of paradise can arise from sweat and moon dust. If you’d just like to buy a little time, keep this in mind: At great effort and cost, we might might extend the narrow window of opportunity which we are about to miss. But if that’s all we do, nothing changes; we stay the course to apocalypse.
The opportunity of the day is the chance to build a frontier in space. It's not a simple thing. You can't just throw your junk in a wagon and head west. You can't just convince some ditsy queen to lend you a couple of boats for a trip across the Ocean Sea. (Not that exploration is ever easy, or that financing it is ever less than an act of courage and vision.) To make a start on the colonization of space will require a broad consensus, a couple of decades, and an expenditure on the scale of the US defense budget (I estimate $3 trillion over 15 years). Even if we have the will, it is not at all clear that we have the time.
Academics and science fiction writers (who tend to be academics) speculate that civilizations, of which there may have been many in this galaxy alone, live or die depending on whether they destroy themselves before they can deploy their populations into space. According to this theory, there is a moment in the history of a culture when it has the technology to do either. Miss the moment, and enclosure (a more general form of isolated confined-environment syndrome) automatically brings down the hammer on the side of extinction, just as it does with other beasts who cannot disperse. We are traversing that moment.
I have a favorite video, a made-for-TV, late-night movie called Plymouth in which a teenage citizen of a lunar colony tells his friend, who wants to leave, "I love it up here. What I got back on earth? A lousy job, four walls, a TV. Forget that! Here you make history every time an airlock opens. That's what I call living."
Exactly. For the individual, the ordinary mortal who is just so much stardust, a frontier is an opportunity to make a difference.
Even before the high frontier exists, it presents individuals with the opportunity to contribute in ways only they can imagine. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or a national leader. If, by a rare stroke of great good luck, you are an artist or a composer, here is a mission for your art. Nothing will fix poverty, war, and disease like defeating enclosure, the root of it all.
Whatever it is you do for fun and profit, you can think about how you might want do it in an isolated, necessarily self-sufficient, small-village environment.
You will need to generate electrical power, recycle water, dispose of, or reuse, solid waste. These are all things we need to do, and need to do better, on Earth.
Preventing and treating disease will use different strategies, not so dependent on massive pharmaceutical manufacturing operations. Imports will be impossibly expensive.
If you are a grower, you might want to experiment with controlled environment agriculture (greenhouse hydroponics or aquaponics) to bring local produce to market out of season. If nothing else, that will increase your personal self-sufficiency, but you may also profit by it.
If you love nature, you're in luck. Real space colonies will be delicately balanced ecosystems (like Biosphere 2), not orbiting inner cities like Deep Space Nine. By thinking like a space colony engineer, an earthbound interior designer can create spaces that damp out noise, absorb toxins from the air, make oxygen, and calm the nerves.
Teachers advocating space-themed education usually find themselves alone in their school districts. Lonely though it may be, this is an opportunity to excel.
Examples of projects:
Biology: growing plants in a "space colony"
Scientific synthesis: creating designer aliens
Creative writing: science fiction
Play. Wear Starfleet uniforms to a Renaissance Faire.
Next time you do a campout, make it an “away mission” on an alien world.
Buy your kid a model rocket.
Cast your dollar vote. There's nothing like it to get the attention of those grand and inspired leaders who would rush to the vanguard for the purpose of leading, though they know not where. If it's a space flick, see it. If it's a book about space, buy it. Skip football and watch Star Trek instead. Send your kids to Space Camp.
Why are we doing this again?
We are doing this because our children are bombarded daily with news of famine, plagues, wars, riots, ecological ruin, and insane acts of individual malice. They are assured of a declining standard of living and restricted choices in return for more effort and greater sacrifice. They are fully aware that our social tinkering is a flop and our system of justice is a joke. And when the authors of this breathtaking blueprint ask that their laws be obeyed, their values cherished, their institutions perpetuated, and their persons respected, is it any wonder that the boys in the 'hood say “WHAT?”
We, the grownups, had better give our kids something to look forward to. It had better offer more, not less. It had better promise adventure. It had better guarantee excitement. And it had better do it within the framework of the values we claim to cherish, because if it doesn't, our children will surely seek those things outside that framework, and at our expense. A frontier is what they need. The only credible frontier is straight up. And if high frontiersmanship sounds difficult, dangerous, and expensive, that's too bad. As Captain Kirk used to say in such circumstances, "That’s the deal, if you want a piece of the action."