Keep (Known) Space Neutral
Why addressing suffering on Earth requires a hiatus on space exploration and colonization.
While science fiction fans might disagree, it seems highly unlikely that capitalist expansion into space, particularly in the form of large-scale colonization, will produce net positive effects on total suffering. By taking a position against space colonization, we can help prevent a wide-scale expansion of suffering into known space, and minimize s-risk. This paper does not address the possibility that there are other minds outside of Earth, though if we were to learn about them, we certainly would have an obligation to reduce their suffering. But, for our purposes, (known) space is morally neutral.
Over the last few years, interest in private space colonization has exploded in the US. From Elon Musk and SpaceX to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, private companies looking to profit from commercialized outer space are not only funded, but close to profitable.
However, this commercialization and colonization of space comes at a moral cost, not only to the humans who experience preventable suffering caused directly by capitalism, but also to the wild animals on Earth whose suffering goes unaddressed. And, space colonization creates a real possibility of a significant growth of suffering off-Earth.
Space colonization diminishes the capacity to reduce suffering on Earth
The primary effects of space colonization on Earth will be relatively immediate - space mining will bring resources back to Earth. There are already space mining companies developing and selling technology to extract resources from asteroids and other planets.
Of course, these companies gaining access to more resources means an expansion of their projects on Earth. Given that these companies contribute to human suffering via capitalism and oppressions that come out of capitalism, access to more resources likely extends the life of these companies, and of capitalism as a whole. Without the inevitable resource crisis that would happen were capitalism limited to Earth-based extraction, there are no major threats to capitalism (for the non-Marxists, this resource crisis can still be simply described: capitalism needs continuous growth to function. With limited resources, growth is limited. At some point, there won’t be more resources, and the crisis caused by this will be significant enough to cause global economic collapse.).
However, even more pressing is the fact that a capitalist state is unlikely to address wild animal suffering (WAS) on a broad scale. Significant reductions in WAS would likely involve systematic ecological research and management programs that are not profitable. The only entities in capitalist systems that have the capability to run such programs, governments and corporations, have no incentive to pursue strategies to reduce WAS. So, capitalism seems like a completely insufficient economic system for addressing WAS. And, even if addressing WAS was a priority of these entities, because consumerism and profit are also priorities, they will never address WAS as efficiently as some non-capitalist governments could. At best, capitalism will address these issues inefficiently. And even that seems unlikely, so capitalism must be rejected.
So, if humans were to pursue large space mining and colonization efforts, one immediate effect would be a diminished capacity to address suffering on Earth. Space colonization allows capitalism to be extended, delaying or removing the capacity to address WAS.
Space colonization increases suffering in known space
The largest risk of space colonization is of course, the risk of suffering leaving Earth. Earth can only support so many minds. Even if there are significantly more virtual minds in the near future, due to the inherent limits on resources on Earth there is likely a determinate maximum amount of suffering that can occur on Earth using those resources. While bringing new resources to Earth would obviously increase the capacity for suffering on Earth, inherent to space colonization is minds supported by resources outside of Earth. So, unless that space colonization has the immediate effect of decreasing suffering on Earth significantly, colonizing space will directly result in a significant increase in suffering.
The scope of this increase in suffering cannot be understated. For a very-similar-to-Earth planet colonized in space by organic minds, there is the potential to increase the known suffering in the universe by a factor of two. In the far future, this leads to the possibility of exponential expansion of suffering.
Of course, finding and colonizing a planet that is similar to Earth is a project that will not happen for hundreds or thousands of years. But the risks of suffering spreading to space are not limited to organic minds settling other planets - virtual minds, if they exist/will exist, require resources too, and it seems possible that the majority of minds in space would be virtual minds, at least in the near future. So any increase in access to resources seems likely to correlate with an increase in the number of virtual minds. If they are able to suffer, this directly results in an increase in suffering.
Space colonization under capitalism would be even more likely to result in an increase in suffering
A major factor in how much suffering will be produced by space colonization, and how quickly that increase in suffering will arise, is the way in which space colonization in undertaken. For-profit private space colonization (space colonization under capitalism), has significantly different motivations than public scientific space exploration. Private space exploration, because it is for-profit, will likely focus on tourism and resource extraction. Public space exploration might be focused more on research, which may have a lower impact on suffering. However, if that research is conducted by a great number of virtual minds, then there still is the potential for suffering to increase. And of course, publicly run space colonization is perfectly capable of resource extraction that extends suffering on Earth.
So, under capitalism, space colonization ends up focusing on profitable endeavors. Some of these endeavors directly increase suffering, such as resource extraction. All of them enable more suffering in the future simply through colonization increasing capacity for minds. And, because of the profit motive, space colonization is likely to occur more rapidly. The sooner we have widescale space colonization adding additional suffering minds to the universe, the more suffering we have over time.
Failed attempts to justify space colonization
The views expressed in this article are by no means popular opinion on human space exploration. There are several possible rebuttals to this argument, two of which I’ll address here.
Space colonization creates a capacity to reduce suffering on Earth due to new resource inputs
The thrust of this argument is that significant intervention in nature would require massive infrastructural changes on Earth that would require significantly more resources than currently available. This is a weak rebuttal—if this is the case, we can easily increase accessible resources by reducing human population to a massive degree, and making human society less resource intensive. The latter would also be a positive effect of collapsing capitalism, since resource use under capitalism / consumerism obviously has inefficient returns on utility (that is to say, more stuff doesn’t make you happier). Additionally, even if more resources were needed than available on Earth for the best welfare interventions into nature, those resources could be acquired by state-run public mining operations, and done with suffering reducing in mind, so as not to have a negative effect on utility. But those interventions are a long way off, and don't justify resource extraction in space today or tomorrow. This argument in no way justifies for-profit space colonization, and certainly doesn’t justify it in the near future.
Space colonization increases the likelihood of humanity’s survival
While this statement seems likely to be true, humanity surviving does not correlate to a net decrease in suffering. Say that for every X humans, we have Y other minds. So we colonize a new planet, settle with X humans, and produce or allow Y other suffering minds. Even if humanity is inclined to reduce suffering, wild animal suffering is difficult to prevent, and it seems unlikely that any significant increase in the number of human minds will result in a world with less suffering. It isn’t obvious that survival of humanity results in a reduction of suffering.
At a minimum, space colonization should not occur until after a collapse of global capitalism
The greatest suffering caused by space exploration and colonization will happen when for-profit, private companies are allowed to conduct it. Because their priority is profiting, without considering animal, virtual, or often human minds, their actions will usually not only fail to provide efficient returns on utility, but often will produce significant negative results.
For example, companies that sell cigarettes provide a service that provides at most a marginal increase in perceived utility only after someone has used cigarettes for a while, but generally has a net negative effect on utility for the smoker. Yet the company is not incentivized to consider the suffering of their own clients. For-profit space colonization only needs to benefit the owners and shareholders of space colonization companies, and since that pool of people is relatively small, it is an inefficient generator of utility.
My view is that space colonization should certainly not occur under private companies, and highly likely not occur under global capitalism. And, unless the relationship between humans and wild animals changes dramatically, space colonization should not occur at all.
Note on AI
It seems possible that the vast majority of minds in space will be virtual. If these virtual minds suffer, than the argument still has soundness - space exploration only increases the number of suffering minds.
Note on Existential Risk
It seems obvious that most major issues of utility in existential risk are avoided by avoiding space colonization all together. Any capacity for suffering that Earth has is multiplied significantly by space colonization, even if that suffering, in the far future, primarily takes the form of artificial intelligence. To me, existential risk isn't particularly risky (from an ethical perspective) unless humans are essential for managing suffering in ecosystems. If humans colonize space before addressing suffering on Earth, unified attempts to address suffering across the human sphere of influence seem less likely, due to the distances involved. So the impact of existential risks on suffering is low, and will likely remain low for a long time.