The Star Trek Fallacy: Romanticizing Imperialism

Yves here. I must confess a considerable fondness for the original Star Trek, which I watched in its original broadcast. And while it seems terribly remote now, the 1960s were a time when so much seemed possible: reducing long-standing social injustice, creating more economic opportunity, using science for productive purposes, despite the glaring contrast with the underlying fear of nuclear combat and spectacle of the carnage of war on view in the nation’s living rooms nightly on TV. This article questions the subtext of Star Trek, that it’s possible to have peaceful, non-interventionist exploration, as a frame for examining US imperialism.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, the editor of LobeLog, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of several books, including Crusade 2.0. His latest one-man show, “Stuff,” premiers in New York this September. Originally published at TomDispatch

They were the “best and the brightest” but on a spaceship, not planet Earth, and they exemplified the liberal optimism of their era. The original Star Trek, whose three-year TV run began in 1966, featured a talented, multiethnic crew. The indomitable Captain Kirk had the can-do sex appeal of a Kennedy; his chief advisor, the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, offered the cool rationality of that “IBM machine with legs,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. And the USS Enterprise, on a mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” pursued a seemingly benign anthropological interest in seeking out, engaging with, and trying to understand the native populations of a fascinating variety of distant worlds.

The “prime directive,” designed to govern the conduct of Kirk and his crew on their episodic journey, required non-interference in the workings of alien civilizations. This approach mirrored the evolving anti-war sympathies of series creator Gene Roddenberry and many of the show’s scriptwriters. The Vietnam War, which raged through the years of its initial run, was then demonstrating to more and more Americans the folly of trying to re-engineer a society distant both geographically and culturally. The best and the brightest, on Earth as on the Enterprise, began to have second thoughts in the mid-1960s about such hubris.

Even as they deliberately linked violent terrestrial interventions with celestial ones, however, the makers of Star Trek never questioned the most basic premise of a series that would delight fans for decades, spawning endless TV and movie sequels. Might it not have been better for the universe as a whole if the Enterprise had never left Earth in the first place and if Earth hadn’t meddled in matters beyond its own solar system?

As our country contemplates future military interventions, as well as ambitious efforts to someday colonize other planets, Americans would be smart to address this fundamental question. Might our inexhaustible capacity for interfering in far-flung places be a sign not of a dynamic civilization, but of a fatal flaw — for the country, the international community, and the species as a whole?

The Orange Zone

The United States has never had much use for a precautionary prime directive. It has interfered with “alien” societies at a remarkable clip ever since the late nineteenth century. Indeed, such interference is inscribed in the genetic code of the country, for America is the product of the massive disruption and eradication of an already existing native population. Columbus also boldly went where no (European) man had gone before, and we recapitulate his voyage every time we send the Marines to a foreign shore or our drones into foreign air space. Native Americans didn’t need “discovering” or new infectious diseases any more than Iraqis needed lectures about democracy from neoconservatives.

Despite considerable evidence of just how malign our recent interventions have proven to be — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere — the U.S. government continues to contemplate military missions. Iran is, for the moment, off the hook, and so is Cuba. Washington has also repeatedly emphasized that North Korea is not in the crosshairs, though our aggressive military posture in East Asia might suggest otherwise, particularly to the paranoid leadership in Pyongyang.

But even the diplomacy-friendly Obama administration is still wedded to the use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, not to mention a new secret program in Syria. It has dispatched Special Forces to 150 countries. And it has conducted, along with its coalition allies, more than 5,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State. U.S. troops remain in significant numbers in Afghanistan (9,800) and Iraq (3,500). Hundreds of U.S. military bases, with around 150,000 service personnel deployed on them, gird the globe.

These military actions have remapped the world — and not in a good way. America’s post-9/11 invasions, attacks, and occupations have created a crescent of crisis that stretches from Afghanistan across the Middle East and into Africa. Fragile states, like Somalia and Yemen, have been thrown into desperate chaos. Syria and Iraq have become incubators for the most virulent strains of extremism. And authoritarian leaders in Egypt and the Gulf States are using this turmoil to justify their own iron-fist policies.

Even the recent refugee crisis, the most significant since the end of World War II, can be traced back to the Bush administration’s military responses to September 11th. For many years, Afghanistan was the leading exporter of refugees to the world, with Iraq a close second. Today, the leading source of refugees is Syria. Although the United States hasn’t invaded that country, it has meddled there nonetheless, initially to depose Bashar al-Assad and then to “degrade” the Islamic State and its affiliates. In the twenty-first century, America’s efforts to reengineer societies across the planet are ending up just as badly as its twentieth-century fiasco in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the impulse to “boldly go” is no longer restricted to neo-colonial interventionism or military adventurism. There is now growing enthusiasm for sending an expeditionary force beyond Earth. Several competing initiatives aim to begin the colonization of Mars, in part to provide humanity with an alternative should global warming make planet Earth inhospitable to human life. These extraterrestrial efforts reflect a growing anxiety that the end is nigh, at least for the home team.

Indeed, many writers (not to speak of scientists) have postulated that Earth is reaching a tipping point. Whether as a function of nuclear weapons, carbon emissions, or sheer reproductive fervor, humans seem to be approaching an important threshold in our life on the planet.

Let’s call it the Orange Zone, in honor of the erstwhile terrorism color index. For the last half-century or so, humans have had the capacity to blow up the planet with our nuclear toys. We have also been burning up fossil fuels at a remarkable and increasing rate in a burst of economic activity that has brought us to the brink of irreparably destroying the ecosystem. And we have reproduced so successfully that, like voracious locusts, we threaten to outstrip the planet’s capacity to feed us.

If we can figure out how to lower the threat alert and leave the Orange Zone, we will have passed the civilizational test. Once we put away our childish things — our nuclear weapons, our coal-fired power plants, our religious prohibitions against contraception — we can graduate to the next level of planetary consciousness. Otherwise, we flunk out. And there won’t be any make-up summer school credits available.

There may, in fact, be an even more fundamental test than the nuclear, carbon, or demographic challenges. And that’s the human propensity for intervention — across borders, over seas, and potentially even in outer space. That Star Trek urge “to boldly go,” obeying the prime directive or not, has gotten humanity into a heap of trouble. Establishing outposts in far-off lands is often considered the ultimate American insurance policy, but it’s precisely our predilection for getting mixed up in other people’s messes that has distracted us from fixing our own. The focus on setting up a colony on Mars, instead of getting serious about climate change on Earth, is the functional equivalent of devoting close to a trillion dollars a year to the U.S. military instead of using that money to fix all that is broken at home. Talk about an advanced case of attention-deficit disorder.

The Chinese Way

In the fifteenth century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He took a fleet on seven voyages throughout Asia, to the Middle East, and as far as Africa. He defeated marauding pirates in the vicinity of China and intervened militarily in far-off Ceylon. His huge treasure ships, each one six times larger than Columbus’s Santa Maria, brought back rare items, including a giraffe, for the Chinese emperor. As a diplomat, he established tributary relations with dozens of foreign lands, though not Europe, which was still too backward to attract Chinese interest. Zheng’s last journey, in the early 1430s, took place two decades before Christopher Columbus was even born.

Zheng He’s maritime explorations might have served as the basis for China’s colonial domination of significant parts of the world. But it was not to be. “Shortly after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the Chinese emperor forbade overseas travel and stopped all building and repair of oceangoing junks,” Louise Levathes has written in When China Ruled the Seas. “Disobedient merchants and seamen were killed, and within a hundred years the greatest navy the world had ever known willed itself into extinction.”

China didn’t entirely turn its back on colonialism. It maintained a tributary system in its Asian backyard. Nor did the Middle Kingdom immediately lose out to a rising Europe, for the Chinese would remain a dominant force for several more centuries. Still, the emperor’s decision to renounce Zheng He and his accomplishments is often identified as a key pivot point in modern history. China effectively decided not to go the way of the Enterprise. It would not “boldly go” into unexplored lands or establish a far-flung colonial empire. Nor did it develop the military means to police such domains.

By the nineteenth century, it would instead find itself subject to the predations of European colonial powers, which divided up the coastal areas of China as if they were a treasure chest for the taking. More than 100 years of humiliation ensued, followed by a succession of Chinese efforts to regain the wealth and power of dynasties past.

China today is not a military weakling. But it also doesn’t possess the kind of expeditionary power of the United States or even Russia. It has vast commercial interests around the world. But it does not style itself the world’s policeman. During its “soft rise,” China has focused largely on cultivating its own garden — transforming its enormous economy into a global powerhouse. Although it has certainly increased military spending over the last several decades, it does not want to get into the kind of arms race with the United States that doomed the Soviet Union. It has not generally shown itself interested in establishing neo-colonial relationships — it has extracted resources from Asia, Africa, and Latin America without installing client states, building military bases, or sending in the equivalent of the special forces — and even its semi-tributary relationship with North Korea generates considerable skepticism in Beijing.

As its economic growth declines from the stratospheric to the merely impressive, however, China may be facing another Zheng He moment. Dramatic economic growth has allowed for double-digit increases in military spending. China is currently modernizing its nuclear arsenal, acquiring more significant air and sea power, and flexing its muscles in territorial disputes with its neighbors. Can Beijing refocus on its economic project, ensuring environmentally sustainable growth at the expense of global ambitions? In other words, will China follow the self-destructive path of other superpowers or will it help lead the planet out of the dreaded Orange Zone?

China could go either way. Chinese hawks worry that if Beijing repeats the emperor’s rejection of Zheng He, foreign powers will again humiliate the Middle Kingdom. And indeed, Beijing certainly might feel the need to acquire even greater force projection capabilities if Washington doesn’t engage it in serious arms reduction efforts.

The Escape Clause

The multi-billionaire Elon Musk is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s a product of the age — he made his first millions with PayPal — and has transformed the electric car into a real contender in the marketplace. He is also betting big on solar energy through his SolarCity venture.

But he has even grander ambitions. Writes Sue Halpern in The New York Review of Books:

”While Musk is working to move people away from fossil fuels, betting that the transition to electric vehicles and solar energy will contain the worst effects of global climate change, he is hedging that bet with one that is even more wishful and quixotic. In the event that those terrestrial solutions don’t pan out and civilization is imperiled, Musk is positioning SpaceX to establish a human colony on Mars.”

SpaceX is Musk’s escape clause for the planet. At the moment, SpaceX rockets perform a glorified FedEx function by sending supplies to the International Space Station that NASA and four other international space agencies have been maintaining since 1998. But Musk wants to put people on Mars by 2026, approximately a decade ahead of NASA’s best-case scenario.

Meanwhile, the outfit MarsOne, started by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, is winnowing down 100 potential Mars colonists to a final group of 24. These intrepid proto-astronauts plan to shove off for Mars in 2026 as well — on a one-way journey to lay the groundwork for a human colony on the planet. Blue Origin, another private space exploration firm started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also aspires to “extend humankind beyond our planet.” The space race once pitted the Cold War superpowers against each other in an effort to prove their technological superiority. Today, the space race is not so much between countries as between the planet’s richest alpha males.

In his influential 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American character had been shaped by endlessly “available” lands in the West and the desire to colonize the entire continent. The closing of that frontier at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with the onset of the American empire and the spread of “American civilization” to purportedly less enlightened corners of the globe. The pent-up energy to “boldly go” had to go somewhere.

We are now witnessing another closing-of-the-frontier moment. There are no longer any unexplored pockets of the world. And the frontier ideology of spreading civilization — or is it mayhem? — has come up hard against the realities of present-day Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the post-Arab Spring political disappointments of Egypt and Libya. It is no surprise, then, that restless spirits like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have identified space as their “final frontier.”

Mars is not inhabited. We won’t be displacing any native populations, nor will we have to debate the finer points of the prime directive in the absence of foreign cultures to interfere with. But don’t be fooled by that. Our intervention on Mars will nonetheless share some of the defects of our terrestrial follies.

“Wherever we go, we’ll take ourselves with us,” environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker about the various developing plans to colonize Mars. “Either we’re capable of dealing with the challenges posed by our own intelligence or we’re not. Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those that survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.”

Perhaps the truly intelligent ones followed in the footsteps of the Chinese emperor: they stopped building ships.

The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence

In tandem with the push to colonize Mars, scientists are putting renewed efforts into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). A new project, Breakthrough Listen, just established with a $100 million budget, will rely on two large radio telescopes to target the nearest one million stars and the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way. In a reflection of the growing importance of crowdsourcing, three million people are using their combined computer resources to help analyze all the radio telescope data that is flowing in.

Chances are good — according to the Drake equation’s calculations of habitable planets in the universe — that somebody or something intelligent is indeed out there. But if we can hear them, they can probably hear us, too. And what extraterrestrial intelligence in its right mind would want to contact a species that seemingly worships Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Kardashian?

Whether there’s anything out there or not, trapped as we are in the Orange Zone, we are still heavily involved in the quixotic search for terrestrial intelligence. Scientists continue to await definitive evidence — Stephen Hawking, Toni Morrison, and Yo-Yo Ma aside — that human intelligence is not an oxymoron. After all, what we have traditionally defined as intelligence — a relentless pushing at borders both conceptual and territorial — has led us into the cul-de-sac of impending self-annihilation.

Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once argued that human intelligence is itself a lethal mutation that has put the species on a collision course with its own and possibly even the planet’s extinction. We and the planet were, it seems, better off when we were just hunters and gatherers, before someone had the bright idea to rip up the earth, plant seeds, and build cities.

To go boldly forward, humanity will have to redefine intelligent life. That doesn’t mean returning to a nomad’s existence of venison and berries. But it does require a different kind of intelligence to turn one’s back on the treasures that the modern-day equivalent of Zheng He’s ships promise to bring from all corners of the universe. It requires a different kind of intelligence to close one’s ears to the siren song of democracy promotion, terrorism suppression, and market-access preservation. And it requires a different kind of intelligence to focus one’s energies on conserving this planet instead of putting so much time and money into plans to befoul another one.

With each nuclear weapon, jet engine, and space rocket we deploy, we venture further into the Orange Zone, heading blindly, if not boldly, toward the point of no return. Like those would-be Mars explorers, whether we know it or not, we are all on a one-way trip into the unknown, except that our rocket ship is our planet, which we’re about to destroy in a suicide mission before it can ever arrive at a safe and secure place.

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    1. ambrit

      I just figured out how to find the article; click on the TomDispatch at the end of the bolded bio of the author.
      The Internet needs its’ own “Prime Directive.”

  1. Ditto

    There is a great deal of space (pun intended) between intervention , which is the American way, and isolation, which seems to be the other choice described in the article. Both isolation and intervention are dangerous options. The Klingons, Romulans, Borg and Founders would never have left the earth in isolation. The space in between is difficult to manage and maintain, e.g., diplomacy , since one can cross the line, but realistically that space is likely the only way to prevent becoming the oppressor and/or the oppressed.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I think Deep Space Nine did it best. Peacekeeping and exploration were presented as difficult options with consequences. On the flip side, DS9 presented the best Trek villains, the Dominion, who brought peace and prosperity and if you didn’t do what you were told you faced the Jem’Hadar. It’s not as easy as tuning in on a weekly basis or using flowery language. Unfortunately, it’s a choice between an easy path and a hard path. Easy is isolation and the Dominion (USA, USA, the SuperPac sugar daddies are essentially the Founders), but the hard path is acting while not violating virtue.

      I think the implication was that the Klingons and Federation were fighting because they represented the only existential threat to the other. Fear that either power wasn’t as secure as they hoped drove the conflict. Whether it was on purpose, Kirk wasn’t carting around refugees from Klingon invasions which means the Klingons weren’t unrelenting villains like Wal-Mart or as they called it in the show, the borg. The conflicts on the show revolved around the Klingons responding to the Federation growing on their border despite the vastness of space. They represented the Cold War mentality that existed. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a response to Kennedy’s bombastic rhetoric, arms build up, the Bay of Pigs, the embargo, sending advisers to Vietnam (I’m not a starry eyed admirer of JFK), and all those nuclear arms we parks across the Black Sea (that was Ike not Jack). The Soviets were forced to respond, and I think Gene Coon put this reality in the show.

      1. RepubAnon

        In the original Start Trek:
        The Federation was the US
        The Klingons were the Soviets
        The Romulans were the Chinese.

        It wasn’t particularly imperial, though – more Cold War Superpower sphere of influence.

        (Notice how the star ships in the original Star Trek were named after US aircraft carriers? Enterprise, Constellation…)

        1. ambrit

          During the naval wars between England and France, a captured enemy ship was folded into the English Navy under it’s original name. Thus, many RN ships sported French, or sometimes Spanish names. I was always hoping to hear of a Federation vessel with a Romulan or Klingon name.
          Too, to carry the analogy forward, the Romulans and Klingons are shown in the Star Trek Universe to have had exchanges of technology. It all shows how contemporary events influence story telling.

    2. flora

      Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the Ferengi . “They and their culture are characterized by a mercantile obsession with profit and trade, and their constant efforts to swindle unwary customers into unfair deals.” -Wikipedia.

      “The Ferengi were originally meant to replace the Klingons on Star Trek: The Next Generation as the Federation’s arch-rival[citation needed], but viewers could not see such comical looking creatures as posing any kind of consistent threat. ” -ibid

      The Star Trek writers were ahead of their time.

  2. ewmayer

    While I await for our featured guest poster’s tongue to be returned by the cat that seems to have made off with it [too lazy to go web-searching, I’m sure it’ll magically appear here in a few hours], I will say that I am somewhat dubious as to whether violating StarFleet’s highest law, the prime directive of non-interference, pretty much every single episode, qualifies as ‘non-interventionist’. Of course it was all in the name of spreading American, erm I mean Federation, values to every corner of the galaxy, so resistance is futile, you will be forcibly democratized, whether you want it or not.

    Of course Kirk was also doing lots of ‘personal interventionism’ when it came to the extraterrestrial hotties. Resistance is futile, my darling green-skinned babycakes, you will have your face sucked. And suddenly I’m picturing Kirk as a kind of warp-driven weaponized Pepe LePew … which means I should definitely get to bed, before I come up with some truly bizarre metaphor-mixing imagery.

      1. ewmayer

        She ees shy, is she not, mon petit amour? She keep me way-teeng on zee tender hooks of love more zan half zee day.

        [BTW, if you want to see the character who inspired Pepe, check out the 1938 movie Algiers with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. All zee, um, I mean the elements are there – love-stricken French type named Pepe, ‘come vees mee to zee Casbah,’ &c. (Though I think the skunk bit was based on the WW2-era American stereotype view of the French as being bath averse.)

    1. optimader

      Of course it was all in the name of spreading (Insert Cultural/State Entity) ,values to every corner of the galaxy, so resistance is futile, you will be forcibly democratized, whether you want it or not.

      Try Inserting: Constitution of Medina
      What happening now is nothing new or unique, just a different time and details.

      When it comes to EMusk, personally I really don’t get all the hate on him?

      With all the extraordinary resources squandered on mindless State Sponsored Violence and Mayhem, (and the USG has no monopoly on that), SpaceX, EMusk and whomever else is working toward going to Mars are truly flyshit in the pepper when it come to a prioritized list of things about which to have panty bunching issues.

      Musk’s endeavors are essentially nonviolent and innovative, not my cup of tea (going to Mars that is) but in the end he is gainfully investing in people in business enterprises competitive to the talent sucking MIC Vampire Squid which is actually a smotheringly big and unfair competitive handicap for the Private Sector in this Country, a topic which I don’t see much virtual ink outrage about.

      IMO, whomever wants to go to Mars can go with my blessings and hearty wish for all the best, I’d even wave a hanky if I had one.

  3. DJG

    The problem with the Drake equation is that all you have to do is put in one low value and the result is that the nearest technologically advanced civilization is hundreds of light years away. I happen to think that is the case: We are never going to make contact. So the brilliance of Star Trek was to examine local problems within a great story of a journey. And as things have deteriorated, science fiction has gotten darker and darker, which may be why Kirk and Spock and Bones seem almost like naifs now.

    The Kirk’s kiss with Uhura was revolutionary for the time. Although I’m not sure how much progress has been made since.

    1. washunate

      Reminds me of something I read a few years ago arguing that the final frontier for human exploration anytime in the remotely near future is the oceans, not deep space. The odds of the universe near us being full of intelligent, scientifically advanced civilizations strikes me as pretty low as well.

      Part of what was so fun about Star Trek was all the supporting developments operating (mostly) behind the scenes necessary to make the concept of visiting aliens everywhere work, like dilithium crystals, sub space communications, long range sensors, energy shields, a society without sovereign money, and so forth.

    2. craazyboy

      In real life, Gene Roddenberry was nailing Uhura on a regular basis between sets. What “more progress” do you want?

  4. washunate

    Loved the read. That Roddenberry captured so many tantalizing aspects of the potential and pitfalls of humanity made a remarkable impact on our culture.

    And the thing about culture is we can’t escape it. We are creatures of our environment, as the tag line of the show itself clearly demonstrates in hindsight – to boldly go where no man has gone before.

    But to me, imperialism isn’t exploration. It’s conquest, coercion, force. To say that any curiosity, any sense of adventure and the unknown, is inherently bad is to say that humanity itself is inherently bad. For the sake of the universe, we should probably nuke ourselves out of existence. There is no other rational conclusion from that line of reasoning. As the article makes abundantly clear, at a species level, there is no way to ‘stop building ships’.

    1. TG

      I would prefer the Borg to Neoliberalism. At least the Borg didn’t have a slave army of chronically malnourished children chained to the wall weaving carpets.

  5. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Space travel and the human mind.

    I think this is one conspicuous feature of the human mind – we can’t cope with all that space out there and not being able to go there.

    We need warp-drive or hyper-drive; otherwise, we feel we are been jailed here or something…and, maybe, in fact, we are.

    And if there are someone out there and we don’t know what they are doing, thinking and saying, it drives us crazy. So, we want to know.

    Maybe that’s the origin of the surveillance state…and that desire is in all of us humans.

  6. Vatch

    “As a diplomat, he established tributary relations with dozens of foreign lands, though not Europe, which was still too backward to attract Chinese interest.”

    Yes, in 1430, China was more advanced than Europe. However, I suspect the Chinese avoided establishing significant direct relations with European nations simply because of the great distances involved. The Suez canal did not yet exist, and sailing around Africa was perilous, resource intensive, and time consuming. Indirect Chinese relationships with Europe had existed for more than a millennium via the Silk Road and the seaborne spice trade, and that was likely sufficient for the Chinese.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Europe was not too backward to have a German priest-engineer who helped the Mongols with the state of the art catapult, or trebuchet, to finally capture the strategic fort of Xiangyang in norther Hebei. after years of siege. Once fallen, the South Song dynasty was vulnerable to naval attacks on the lower Yangtze, as at Xiangyang, the Mongols could launch warships that would sail down the Han River, to join the Yangtze near Wuhan, and on to Nanjing, Yangzhou and Hangzhou.

      In the first decade of the 1400s, defeated Mongols retreated from China and re-established themselves in Mongolia and the area around present day Xinjiang. Overland trade along the Silk Road would have been difficult.

      In fact, to duplicate the magnificient Yuan blue and white porcelain, the Ming Chinese needed to replenish previously imported (probably from Persia or the Middle East) cobalt pigments not available locally (at that time) – thus, the early Ming blue and white wares, from the reigns of Hongwu and Yongle were not best.

      There were herbs, certain timber and other products that prompted the Chinese to send their Treasure Boats southward and then, westward. The other explanation was that emperor Yongle usurped the dragon throne from his nephew who was rumored to have survived the fall of Nanjing (the capital, before Yongle moved it north to Beijing) and escaped south (or became a Buddhist monk).

      There were European priests (and many Nestorians, among others) at the Yuan court, so the Chinese should have been aware of Europe, the Vatican and the Byzantine empire. The Treasure Boats were shut down after the Yongle reign, as the Confucians objected to its draining the imperial treasury (not bringing back, for example, Mayan silver, Atzec gold, or slaves) and they also believed China was self-sufficient. Japan was becoming more active in the region and many Wako pirates raided the coastal areas of China. Soon, the Ming China closed almost all borders, relocated entire coast regions and turned pretty much completely inward.

      1. RBHoughton

        Thanks for that Beef.

        Zheng He’s voyages are misrepresented here at a time when we are trying to understand China better. The Yong Le Emperor, on the advice of his Taoist priests, had the eunuch search the world for the elixir of immortality very much as our own universities have been doing throughout my long lifetime. That was the primary mission. That was the reason he took back samples of the important vegetable and animal productions of the countries he visited.

        It was not like Spanish exploitation of the Americas or Portuguese exploitation of Asia. Both those countries commenced a torrent of gold and silver back to Europe, one from Peru and Mexico, the other from Japan. No such aspect of Zheng He’s voyages is recorded although he may have visited the gold mines at Soffala in today’s Mozambique.

        The tributary system mentioned in the article operated in the concentric defensive arrangements that China made – the national heartland, people who accepted Chinese culture around the heartland, natural frontiers around the country, tributary states reliant on Chinese trade beyond the frontiers.

        I think we knew more about China a century ago. We lost it in WWII and its aftermath when we became enamoured of Chiang Kai Shek and his gang. All that remains of our early scholarship are a few old books. I found everything written by Lattimore helpful and others may too.

  7. Nick

    My, what a pessimistic dreary read. That guy must be fun at parties….not.

    The fact is, we’re just entering the second decade of the 21st century, technological advancements continue to accelerate. The US will remain the preeminent hyperpower on the planet, and we will be going to Mars, the Moon, and build space stations over the coming decades. It’s happening.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      I am pleasantly surprised he says a lot of things many here have been saying.

      Things like we are a lethal mutation, something other than what is seen as intelligence, taking care of this planet rather than making Mars Earth II (as polluted, depleted, messed up or worse) etc.

    2. Praedor

      Not going to happen. We will deplete the necessary raw materials trying to just keep the heavy consumption going here so no one will have to give up their annual iPhone upgrades, or their McMansions, etc. There is no technological fix to global warming and there will not be enough done to hold it to a “mere” 2 degrees. The future of human society is the past: huts, dirt farming, hunter-gathering after a massive die-off after a massive collapse of the whole economic septic tank that makes it possible. You cannot rape and pillage a planet to obtain Nirvana on Mars.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        They are giving the car-free idea a one-day try in Europe.

        We need many more days like that…maybe we should try it for 365 days a year.

        That’s certainly braver than trying to flee to Mars.

      2. washunate

        I’m curious which resources you are worried about depleting to such an extent it becomes a construction bottleneck in building more space stations?

        If the environmental doom scenarios come to pass, it seems like there would be less depletion of raw materials, not more.

    3. Vatch

      I was going to comment on the very dangerous lack of a Martian magnetic field, but Engelvard Hinglefling beat me to it at 5:32 PM. Radiation on Mars will be much more intense than it is on Earth.

      1. Nick

        FYI I am not a scientist…but I am a well read sci-fi fan. We can build colonies under ground, that negates most of the radiation risk on the Moon or Mars (or elsewhere, such as an asteroid). Robots will build them, we’ll live in them. ;)

        1. Vatch

          I love science fiction, too, but I have to admit that some common science fiction features, such as faster than light travel, are more akin to magical fantasy than to anything scientific. Maybe someday, but not yet. As for underground living, we got a glimpse of that in George Lucas’s best movie, THX1138.

  8. mw

    In other words:

    ‘pity this busy monster, manunkind’

    pity this busy monster, manunkind,

    not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
    your victim (death and life safely beyond)

    plays with the bigness of his littleness
    — electrons deify one razorblade
    into a mountainrange; lenses extend
    unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
    returns on its unself.
    A world of made
    is not a world of born — pity poor flesh

    and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
    fine specimen of hypermagical

    ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

    a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
    of a good universe next door; let’s go

    E. E. Cummings

  9. thump

    I’ve been interested / horrified about how the imperial project has been romanticized (propagandized) in recent Japanese anime. They’re clearly trying to get the young, male population ready to serve overseas. Check out, for instance, the current show “Gate: Jieitai Kanochi nite, Kaku Tatakaeri.”

    1. RBHoughton

      Good point and one that is not being made in our media.

      It seems to be the acts of North Korea that legitimise Abe’s warmongering although I frankly suspect he acts for purely economic reasons. He will go to war for commercial benefit.

  10. shinola

    Ignoring the Trekkie nostalgia & getting to the meat of the matter:
    It is unlikely that we (humans) will figure out how to sustain ourselves on another planet in our own solar system for any significant length of time, much less travel to another solar system or galaxy, before we cause our own apocalypse on Earth. Our hubris leads us to think the extinction of humans means the end of the world. Wrong – the Earth apparently existed for quite a while before humans appeared & will continue to do so after we take ourselves (and a number of other species) out.

    As for American imperialism, it seems that we haven’t learned a damned thing from or since the Vietnam debacle. Ho Chi Minh was first & foremost a nationalist. He was not primarily fighting capitalism but trying to re-unite his own country. There was no way for the U.S. to “win” that war unless we were willing to decimate the population & permanently occupy the territory (ala Europeans vs. American natives).

    Our “leaders” seem to think that somehow “collateral damage” doesn’t matter. They are stuck in the “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality. It’s as if they never heard the term “blow back”.

    Didn’t work in Vietnam. Won’t work in the Mideast.

    “Tend to our own garden” indeed. Prolly ain’t gonna happen.

    1. Engelvard Hinglefling

      More like impossible. As in physically impossible. Mars is the only remotely colonizable planet in the solar system, and it’s a lost cause. Musk can nuke the icecaps it all he wants, and we can do all the stuff with machines that pump CO2 into the atmosphere. None of it matters, because Mars doesn’t have a strong magnetic field and solar winds will strip away anything we do.

    2. RBHoughton

      I too have been wondering about this Mars project. There are a great many admirable people – astronauts and scientists, an international group – whom we all respect and they are saying ‘go, go, go.’ It seems the money will somehow be made available.

      There appear to be two options – to shoot a dozen rockets into space with the parts and assemble this monster Mars ship in orbit or conceivably to build a permanent moon base for exploration of our system and source as much of the necessary parts there.

      The moon base seems slightly less challenging to my rudimentary understanding.

    3. washunate

      This post is primarily focused on the ethics of intervention, not the survival of the interventionists. That’s why the odds of encountering intelligent life matters a great deal, since (most of) the concern of imperialism is the oppression of the locals so encountered. Of course, somebody has to be the first local…

      But I’m intrigued by your suggestion that the deeper problem is the survivability of the imperialists. I agree it’s possible we commit species suicide, but that kind of doomsday scenario strikes me as rather improbable. And it’s certainly not caused by any historical case of imperialism. Even with the unprecedented slaughter of Amerindian peoples over the past half millennium, the total global population of our species has increased, not decreased, over that time period. Short of a purposeful all out nuclear war that causes the release of the spent fuel at our planet’s nuclear reactors, there’s really nothing within human control that can wipe us out globally. Even the worst bio weapons, climate change, and similar disasters will almost certainly kill significantly less than 100%.

      I think underestimating human adaptability is as big a problem as excessive hubris. People have been predicting food shortages for ages, yet arguably the biggest public health problem today in many parts of the industrialized world is too much food. The populations of many “starving” third world nations we envision in the U.S. have actually grown dramatically despite famine, war, pestilence, and disease. Perhaps no country captures that American image more clearly than Ethiopia – where more people live today than the UK.

  11. Praedor

    Musk, Branson, other dolts are free to fantasize all they want about colonizing Mars but it just isn’t going to be the way they imagine. Mars can certainly NOT be a safety valve for the Earth if we trash our homeworld. Colonists on Mars would be absolutely dependent on Earth for existence no matter how well they might grow tomatoes or beans in the peroxide soil of Mars. Biosphere I and II here on Earth were failures. There’s NO WAY they can get a nice stable environment going where they cannot open the windows to fix the atmospheric imbalances.

    Biggest issue is Mars has NO magnetic field. Anyone spending time there above ground WILL be pounded mercilessly with solar and cosmic radiation. The Earth’s magnetic field is the reason anything lives on the dry surface of the planet. No magnetic field, no complex life out of the water. No, there’s no replacement for Earth. If we make this place inhospitable to human life than that’s it. All a Mars colony could count on is a slow, lingering, cancer-filled death.

    Rich guys are just so fucking silly.

  12. Gaianne

    A nice article.

    The author is far to gentle on Elon Musk–who while obviously clever, is also obviously deranged. Grandiose? Yes. Desperate? Yes. But then again Musk is one of those people who makes their own reality. And it works, up to a point. Musk gets investors. People sign on for a one way trip that–were it to happen–would only mean miserable death. He’ll probably make money–which may be all that matters.

    It has been years since Biosphere II inadvertently proved humans have no idea how to make a functioning ecology, and further proved humans have no sustained attention for learning how to do so.

    Without that ability a colony on Mars is not possible. Everything humans need for survival would have to be created–food, oxygen, water (the much touted Martian water will prove to be undrinkable without distillation or similar processing)-in an environment that offers no means for doing so. Copious energy covers many deficits, but Mars does not offer copious energy, nor anything else.

    I have not mentioned the trip itself–a 200 day (minimum) journey in which you have to bring your own food, water, and air, as well as protection from hard radiation. None of these things are feasible: We no longer have the ability to travel to the Moon–a mere 3-day trip. Travel to Mars is more than sixty times more difficult.


    1. BC

      Precisely. Moon and Mars colonies are beyond delusional. We are trashing, depleting, and rendering increasingly uninhabitable much of Spaceship Earth.

  13. TG

    I also liked Star Trek, but one thing that always annoyed me was how militaristic/fascist it was. No I am not being silly. The de-facto governing structure in the series was StarFleet, they made policy and could start or end wars etc. seemingly without any civilian oversight. And whenever a few token civilian council members were brought onscreen, they were almost always presented as effete toga-wearing pansies with no understanding of reality who only got in the way of the noble StarFleet officers until they realized the error of their ways. It made for good drama, but perhaps a bad example.

    Really, we are going to let the Captain of a battleship decide whether or not humanity should declare war on an alien power all by himself? We’re going to let him be able to fire massively powerful weapons of mass destruction on his sole verbal command with no oversight or command and control system of locks? Really?

    But when you hear about how Hillary Clinton decided to take out Libya seemingly on her own snap initiative without seriously consulting anyone else (you know, like those losers in Congress, or – even more unthinkable – the public at large), isn’t this kind of the same thing?

    1. Praedor

      Careful there. If Hillary (via Obama) had gone to Congress to get permission to blow up Libya they would have jumped all over each other screaming “YES! And when you’re done there blow up Syria and Iran!”

      Be glad she kept it to just the one (secular and stable) country rather than to any others there. She left it to Obama to totally wreck the LAST secular stable state in the ME (Syria). Now we get what we have or, if Obama gets his way and ousts Assad, ANOTHER Iraq but with crazier jihadis in power. At least Iraq had level-headed Iran to keep it from falling ALL the way down to Saudi Arabian-style murder/chaos.

      1. TG

        I see your point. But still, Hillary DID NOT go to congress to get permission to bomb Libya, she just did it. Because the captain of a starship just bombs whatever she pleases! And if she had gone to congress, and they had kowtowed and simpered and said oh yes please bomb Libya, isn’t that my point that the executive warrior elite are seen as so much cooler than these boring old democratic fuddy-duddies?

        I still like Star Trek, but if I were writing a series about a future utopian human society sure I would make the starship captains cool and brave and smart and lose their shirts at critical moments the better to show off their abs, but I would also make the civilian elite a mix of FDR and Bismarck and Talleyrand and Polk combined squared on meth, and the StarFleet admirals would be in awe of them…

    2. LifelongLib

      In the original series, the focus of course was on the Enterprise and by extension Starfleet, but they were always portrayed as being under civilian control and often acting in support of civilian activities. IIRC the only war the Enterprise was involved in was the one with the Klingons over Organia (which the highly evolved Organians stopped cold). The other battles were local skirmishes against single alien ships that had attacked Federation outposts — and then the Federation sometimes found that it was in the wrong. Overall the original Star Trek was a far cry from the self-righteousness of the Next Generation and Voyager series. Like others here I thought Deep Space Nine was the best of the sequels.

  14. ekstase

    This is a great article.

    The original “Star Trek” was a combination of inspirational, hope-encouraging, and not. When you look now at the roles women played on that show, it can be cringe-inducing. And as others have observed, there seemed to be a repeated pattern of minority crew members being on the show once, going down to a planet, and not coming back.

    It did seem like the message of the show suggested that late 20th century people were idealistic, and should be, and that was the direction we were all moving in. And then came the eighties and beyond.
    Perhaps those aliens, as the show sometimes suggested, are not going to let us interact with them, until we are evolved enough. In spite of our hubris, we also have the capacity to imagine how we look to more evolved beings. Maybe that is a part of humanity also.

    (Also, Columbus was not the first European here.)

  15. Jesper

    Going to Mars and terraform it since the earth is terraformed into a wasteland? Might be easier to terraform the earth back again rather than going to another planet…

    Going to mars, the moon or whatever in outer space to mine for resources? Not sure about the economic argument for that, space travel is hugely costly in resources so the idea seems to have a negative rate of return for the foreseeable future.

    But back to the point of exploration/colonisation vs not: That discussion has taken place since Macchiavelli in ‘Discourses’ and probably before that. What should the elite do when the elite is inbred and focused on protecting its own interests? Establish colonies so that the new blood can grow and increase the power of the current elite or cull the new blood?
    Or maybe the Foundation trilogy describes it well? Will the ambitious people expand the empire or will the ambitious people try to grab power within the empire?

  16. Adam Eran

    Worth adding: The bulk of the New World genocide (estimated at 90% of a native population that may have exceeded Europe’s at the time) was apparently accomplished by diseases brought from the Old World, primarily Malaria and Yellow Fever, although Measles, etc. probably played a major role too.

    Also: the Chinese empire succumbed to the Europeans thanks to the sweet potato, a New World plant that eroded its soil.

    The “Columbian Exchange” meant more than people came to the New World. Unfamiliar diseases and invasive species, not just humans, did a lot of damage.

    …See 1491 and 1493 by Mann for the footnotes.

    1. Nick

      On the other hand, s. American crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, and corn, allowed massive population growth, conquering famines.

    2. blert

      China’s soil is self eroding — and never needed the sweet potato to prompt erosion.

      You must be hoaxing us.

      The primary source of environmental degradation in China has been the pervasive harvesting of trees and scrub for cooking fuel — going back about 8,000 years.

      Prior to that era, even the Gobi desert was so wet and warm that its climate approximated Iowa, as the fossil record attests.

      The rise of the Tibetan plateau abruptly changed all of that.

  17. blert

    Terraforming other planets (Mars) will never, ever, ever, happen.

    It’s an idea whose time has come and gone.

    Instead, the asteroids// dwarf planets will be coerced into artificial orbits — robotically — for a trivial fraction of the expense going to Mars must cost.

    Having never been molten — in the sense of Earth’s mantle — the primal distribution of the elements will exist even at the surface. This must mean that elements that are brutally difficult to find and extract here will be astonishingly common and cheap in space. Iridium immediately comes to mind. It’s so common in space it’s taken as the classic marker for meteorites. It’s so dense, that whatever Earth started with — sunk into the mantle.

    It’s also becoming plain that water ice is drastically more common in the asteroid belt than any sci fi author ever dared dream.

    The energy required to alter the orbit of a dwarf planet is modest enough that it pencils out. The Sun’s gravity field that far out is practically flat.

    And we now know how to get Mars and Venus to sling momentum in and out of such bodies. This momentum transfer trick was never mentioned in sci fi. But NASA has used it for every deep probe going back into the 1970s. It cuts the rocket effort something drastic.

    America has disrupted the world since the late 18th Century. French Revolution, anyone?

    As for empire, America sees itself as a global shepherd. It has NEVER followed the ancient model of empire. However, that has not stopped detractors from seeing America as a despotic international buffoon. ( With the KGB at the top of that list. )

    The essence of empire is strong-armed economics.

    Classical Rome prohibited viticulture outside of Italy. Britain had its trading bloc, France, too.

    America’s trading bloc is: everybody in on the same terms… which is no trading bloc at all. It’s the anti-trading bloc.

    THAT’S what an empire is. Empires also insist that the dominated adopt its imperal language, first at law, then in commerce, then everywhere.

    America is anti-Mercantilist, too, hence the US dollar as international money.

    Empires don’t establish independent militaries with viable forces. Yet America enables Britain to have state-of-the art strategic weapons. (Trident warheads)

    America is simply ‘off script’ across the board. It’s not an empire if the word is to have any meaning at all. America is working to a totally new script. There is simply no historical model for what America is and does.

    The last remaining empires are those of Russia and Red China. They absolutely fit the classic mold as described here. Yet no pundit beefs about them. Curious, no ?

    1. Lambert Strether

      I’ve never been comfortable with the shepherd metaphor. After all, the destiny of the sheep is to be sheered and slaughtered, is it not? The shepherd doesn’t watch over them for some spiritual purpose.

      1. ambrit

        The Shepherd metaphor is used extensively in the Bible. Since the Semites who wrote the Old Testament part were pastoralists, they knew intimately how that worked. It makes one wonder how much of that work is consciously ironic in intent. Similar points apply to the New Testament. Whoever re wrote the gospels were deep thinkers. Nothing is as it first seems. (It almost makes me want to believe in the Illuminati.)

    2. ambrit

      Not to quibble, but:
      Terraforming doesn’t have to cost an arm or a leg. The first example would be Jerry Pournelles “Big Rain” idea for Venus. The other idea is counterintuitive; adapt the colonists to the planet. Selecting for high altitude dwellers for a low pressure environment, as in the bottom of the Valles Marineris on Mars. There are more ideas, but that’s what Science Fiction is really all about; thought experiments dressed up with ‘entertainment value.’
      Your third point is valid, except for the time lag problem for telepresence control of some of those robot craft. The last leg of any asteroids’ journey to Earth will have to be done under human direct control. Nothing else can react to unknowns as fast as a human brain. (Not everything can be programmed for and predicted.)
      Points four and five are valid; so valid that they actually encourage human space flight. Not only are the resources there, and easily exploitable, with which to establish habitats, but if they are ubiquitous; so shall humans be.
      Points six and seven are fun exercises that science fiction writers have been having fun with. Clarke used gravity assist in “Rendezvous With Rama” in 1972. (The formal credit is given to Minovitch in 1961.)
      The French Revolution has certainly disrupted the world. Remember your local hereditary aristocrat? No? I thought as much.
      I liked the way you conflated ‘detractors’ of America with the KGB. (Nice work if you can get it.)
      “The essence of empire is strong armed economics.” That makes me wonder if perhaps you were trained as a Marxist.
      “America’s trading bloc is: everybody in on the same terms…” Boy! And what terms they are! Ask any of the real Banana Republics from Central America about that.
      Ever been in the cockpit of an international airliner in flight? If you were, you’d remember that the air crew all spoke English ‘officially.’ It’s some sort of international standard. I don’t know whether to blame this on England or America. Let’s just agree to blame it on the Anglo Saxon Imperium.
      Money? What’s the most counterfeitted bill worldwide? The American hundred dollar bill. One reason for the war against Iraq was that Saddams minions were turning out almost perfect copies of Americas’ hundred dollar bill by the bushel basket. I remember several serviceman were prosecuted for trying to bring them back home.
      Empires don’t establish viable foreign armies. Of course they don’t, but they do co-opt them and use them as auxiliaries. Look up “The Coalition of the Willing” for an example.
      I stand in awe of your blatant attempt at establishing ‘American Exceptionalism’ as a viable philosophy with your penultimate point: “There is simply no historical model for what America is and does.”
      As for your last point, well, all I can say is: “You don’t get around much, do you.”
      Lots of happy emoticons to you.

  18. different clue

    This article is another example of conflating EuroWestern Industrial Civilization and Explorationism with humanity in general.

    Millions of square miles of North and South Turtle Island were terraformed by the humans who lived here before the Columbian interchange. That was a display of intelligence right there. EuroWestern Industrial Explorationism is not the inevitable evolution of human intelligence. It was a particular outburst on the part of a particular group of people.

    And by the way, China’s current military investment and regional reach is not out of some “explorationist drive”. It is strictly to enforce the extraction of resources needed to feed China’s inherently unsustainable and terracidal/ecocidal/biocidal economic growth. China will therefor not cancel its military expansion plans.

  19. Russell Scott Day/Transcendia

    NSM 200 by Bernard Glassman gets put on my mind by the Pope’s visit. I’ve written I’d respect the Vatican when it put money in the space program so as to engineer terraforming of Mars and Venus, as its preached policies and GOP leadership all kneel and want us to all kneel.
    The human need for the Word from Authority leaves us with no hope but for the Good King.
    It was Roddenberry’s theory that the Good Captain would be a woman. He was not much interested in you if you were not a woman. He would have been right happy to worship Venus in ancient Greece.
    There are real lessons in all our experiments of leadership and governance, and we don’t like the results.
    Leaders who are brought up adopted by the great leaders are better than the simply ambitious.
    It is part of my Zelig life to have had dinner with Pilot, Gene Roddenberry, and have been also introduced to Rod Serling. Mr. Serling had a terrible experience regarding the responsibilities of the artist when one of his shows inspired the real use of a barometric bomb.
    I once spoke of a nation of airports and space ports with Greenpeace, which was a confusion for the crowd. We’d not know answers to the drama of our shared bottleneck were it not for the view back from outer space. The Good Captain does the bidding of the great leader who gives the right assignments to the Engineers. Churchill was not great for the bullshit fears of his abused army, but for asking for those docks.
    Determine what Institutions matter and give them an ideal to guide their mission. E. H. Karr? “Critique of Realism”.
    Turn to “Lessons of History”, by the Durants. Maybe paying attention and actually being willing to use the knowledge is the only hope. I myself am the old man enough, but no big hat says so.

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