Our Place in Space: The Wilderness

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, W is for…


All month long, I’ve been telling you about how, in the distant future, human civilization will spread out far and wide across the Solar System.  At the same time, I have rather casually been declaring various places in the Solar System should be off limits to humans.  I feel perfectly justified in doing that after reading a certain research paper titled “How much of the Solar System should we leave as wilderness?”

I’m not going to summarize that paper in its entirety.  If you want to learn more, you can check out the links in the “Want to Learn More?” section below.  The main point I want to talk about, based on what that “wilderness” paper said, is that the Solar System is absolutely ginormous.  You may think you understand how big the Solar System is.  However big you think it is, it’s probably bigger than that.

As a result, we can declare insanely large swaths of territory and resources “protected wilderness” without inconveniencing ourselves.  The paper advocates for establishing a one-eighth principle, meaning that our future space economy should be restricted to using only one-eighth of the resources in our Solar System.  The remaining seven-eighths would be off limits.  To quote from the paper:

We are required, as a point of social ethics, to accept reasonable constraints upon our self-interest in order to meet basic standards of justice between one another and (arguably) between ourselves and future generations.  This is a precondition of having any sort of stable and lasting human society.  However, we will take it that a livable ethic for society at large cannot ask for too much.  More precisely, a reasonable social ethic cannot ask for anything so demanding that it is impossible, inconsistent with what we know about human psychology, or otherwise so demanding that it belongs only in the domain of private sacrificial commitment of a sort associated with political and religious ideals.  The one-eighth restriction may seem to fall foul of this constraint.

Yes, the one-eighth principle sounds very demanding and restrictive at first glance.  But, as the authors of that paper go on to explain, the Solar System is really big.  Even if we make some highly optimistic assumptions about how fast the future space economy might grow, it would still take centuries to use up a full eighth of the Solar System.

This wilderness paper is now one of my all time favorite scientific research papers.  It does make some important warnings for the future, though, and if you’re a fan of the kind of futurism I’ve been touting in this Our Place in Space series, I’d encourage you to check out the links below.

In the meantime, I declare that the rings of Saturn should be off limits to mining operations.  Let’s preserve the natural beauty of those rings.  Parts of Mars should be off limits as well—if we find alien life on Mars, perhaps the whole planet should be off limits.  Same for many of the icy moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—especially Titan, Enceladus, and Ganymede—and most extra especially, Europa.  Seriously, nobody mess with Europa!

Want to Learn More?

Click here to read “How much of the Solar System should we leave as wilderness?”

Or click here to read an article from Live Science summarizing the paper’s main points in less technical language.

8 thoughts on “Our Place in Space: The Wilderness

  1. I don’t know. If there are other biospheres in the solar system, I’d definitely be onboard with leaving them alone, only studying them very carefully. But the rest? If we do find an economic incentive for space, it seems unlikely we’ll stop at 1/8th. Although it might be a very long time before we cross that threshold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The paper makes some interesting projections about how rapidly we might jump from using an eighth of the Solar System to using up the whole Solar System. It has to do with exponential growth. According to the paper, when future humans hit that one-eighth threshold, they should start figuring out what to do next, before an exponentially growing economy threatens to use up all the rest of the Solar System.

      There are some questionable assumptions being made in that paper, of course. Any time you’re projecting economic growth hundreds or thousands of years into the future, you’re going to have to make some questionable assumptions. But there’s some good food for thought in there, and the idea that an exponentially growing space economy could leap from using one-eighth of the Solar System to using up all of the Solar System doesn’t seem too far fetched to me.

      But that would be a problem for people in the very distant future. In the meantime, we can afford to declare all sorts of things protected wilderness without inconveniencing ourselves. That’s the part of the paper that really excites and pleases me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point. If we’ve hit an eighth, we’re probably well on our way to Dyson swarm territory. The question is how much we’d pay attention to past (possibly ancient by then) declarations of protected territories. Of course, at that point, the biosphere(s) are likely already in trouble.

        Liked by 1 person

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