Episode 21: Robert Zubrin
Dr. Robert Zubrin is the president of The Mars Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the exploration and colonization of Mars. He is also the author of several books including The Case for Mars and Merchants of Despair. We begin by discussing why space exploration and colonization is good but, as with my conversation with Chris McKay, Robert and I use space as an entry to discussing issues back on Earth. A major theme of this conversation is environmentalism, which Robert classifies as a form of anti-humanism, offering a strong anthropocentric response to the biocentrism of Jan Lundberg and David Korten. This flows into a conversation about how we define progress and where we find value, in which John Zerzan’s ideas make their inevitable cameo. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of Robert’s mixed feelings about the transhumanist ideas discussed by Max More.
I am wondering if Bob Zubrin has seen Gapminder. It’s quite an interesting resource for hardboiled optimism.
http://www.gapminder.org/world/ – 200 years of worldwide lifespan and income data. It is quite remarkable how clear the data are, with horrific world events being blips.
It’s the project of Hans Rosling. http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_at_state.html
My favorite Rosling bit was when he talked about starting as a professor, how he gave a little test to the board of prominent professors of medicine and they did worse than chance – in other words, worse than chimpanzees. From this, he said, “I knew I had a job.”
I sense terminological confusion in the conclusive discussion.
Dr. Zubrin acknowledges language as technology (really should be just tecnic).
If language is technology, then it follows that the sort of social systems you are talking about are technics (technologies) as well.
They are a subcategory, not a separate subject.
They are “stuff”.
Technics, both social and material, determine the character of mining work, which is not intrinsicly onerous. Machines can perform the most difficult or dangerous tasks, and union, community, or social actions or agreements can maximize benefits and minimize harm from the work that remains for people.
But, even given all of this, the foundation of “happiness” is in the basic needs. Anyone who doubts this has never been involuntarily without these basics without clear hope of gettibg them back again. The foundation providing for these needs is the material technics and technologies, not the social systems.
A genius without two rocks to bang together will not light a fire before a dunce with two rocks to bang together will (and did). An equitable system for distributing nothing is not superior to an exploitive systen for distributing something.
I have been enthralled by Mars since I read John Carter, Warlord of Mars, in junior high, so I am right on board with Dr. Zubrin. I agree that if we have more resources then maybe we will have less to fight about (and with a lower population there would be less pressure to fight for the goods). I think Dr. Zubrin is overly optimistic about the nature of human beings, though; we kill for all sorts of reasons and sometimes without reason. So I don’t think we will suddenly become peaceful by mining Mars, or knowing that all the resources in the solar system are ours for the taking.
I was surprised to hear him describe environmental concerns as “aesthetic,” as though everything in the world exists as decoration, like Audubon prints on the living room wall. It seems to me that we are more connected with our environment than that. And I doubt that you could find an environmentalist willing to sacrifice thousands of people “just” to save a goldfinch; that’s a straw man argument.
In the “outro,” Aengus and Micah discuss the strong human-centeredness of Dr. Zubrin’s remarks and float the idea that his cultural background informs his view. That might be true. You might ask him to comment.
Dr. Zubrin may be right there with Hamlet, and much of Western culture, when he said, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, …in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god…” It’s hard to argue with that, but keep in mind that at the end of the play damn near everybody ends up dead.
Zubrin and Wes Jackson should certainly talk. It does seem that Zubrin has forgotten that the biosphere is rife with amazing tech.
I thought he might be able to surmise that his problem with tampering with ourselves is that we’re playing with tech we don’t fully have control of and could destroy or cause terrible repercussions, etc etc. Since he didn’t, I really wonder what in his value set is inhibiting him.
I also found Micah’s comment interesting about the Genesis view that humanity has a manifest destiny to lord over the rest of the universe. Genesis actually calls men to rule, though many “believers'” view of rule is ironically a totalitarian exploitation. So i wonder, is this Micah’s view or his view on Genesis or his view on others’ view?
I thought this was a really great conversation. Zubrin implicitly got at something that I thought has been left out of many previous conversations and has had me talking back to my iphone repeatedly while listening.
One thing that’s regularly come up in the various conversations about happiness is the importance of a sense of purpose to human happiness. We’ve talked about this as belonging, as being connected to the spiritual. But another source of purpose that human beings seem to innately have is a sense of discovery. By nature we’re explorers and inventors. We may have gotten that way for evolutionary reasons (as Colin Camerer discussed), but it’s a deep part of who we are.
As Aaron Sorkin wrote on The West Wing in answer to the question why should we pay to go to Mars, “‘Cause it’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHGK96-WixU&t=0m25s
Scientific and technological exploration and improvement are not just ways of subjugating the natural world to human use or ensuring human survival, they’re also expressions of one of our innate ways of finding purpose in the world and hence happiness.