Cosmic Patriotism

Is the salvation of humanity to be found in moving to Mars? Not very likely. Instead, we must focus our efforts on the possible, such as better care and protection of Earth, the only home we’re ever likely to have.

Is the salvation of humanity to be found in moving to Mars? Not very likely. Instead, we must focus our efforts on the possible, such as better care and protection of Earth, the only home we’re ever likely to have.

The UNESCO Earth Charter (2000) urged respect and care for the community of life: ecological integrity; social and economic justice, democracy, nonviolence and peace. Love for the Earth and its life is echoed as a theme in the Humanist Manifesto II, which emphasizes that human beings exist within nature and are parts of this Earth, which is “humanity’s only home.”

I was checking out something in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy when I first came across the phrase “cosmic patriotism.” Chesterton urged a loyalty to the world, a kind of primal loyalty to life on Earth — an attitude he thought to be more like patriotism than optimism. He said that we belong to the world before we can ask whether it is nice to belong. Loyalty to the Earth is a kind of cosmic patriotism: on Chesterton’s view, we need to love the world and recognize it as our home. Despite its evils, we live in a world that can make the soul “sing for joy.”

I found the notion of cosmic patriotism again in the work of feminist peace advocate Jane Addams (1860 – 1935). Addams understood cosmic patriotism to be an emerging attitude underpinning a global social ethic of peace: cosmopolitan humanitarianism would replace nationalism. Values of courage, self-sacrifice, and enthusiasm would be tied not to war but to spiritual internationalism and humanitarianism. Addams urged positive peace as a dynamic social process, one that she saw emerging from the poorer quarters of cosmopolitan cities such as Chicago, where she worked in the early twentieth century. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. In urban slums crowded with immigrants, environments included people from many parts of the world, living in close proximity and demonstrating kindness and unselfishness in their assistance to each other. Addams’ idea was that such practices offered resources for the nurturing of human wellbeing, the pursuit of peace, and real egalitarian democracy. Positive ideas for the intermingling of nations would emerge from the daily experience of crowded immigrant communities. Cosmic patriotism would be a pursuit of peace in this sense.

As cosmic patriots, we should be loyal to the planet that is our home. We should love it, seek to protect it, and not leave it because our activities threaten the lives of its peoples and species.

Cosmic patriotism can be given other interpretations, tied to earthly cooperation in a context of war. According to George Schultz, writing in 2009, Ronald Reagan once suggested to Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet Union and the United States would support each other if Earth were to be attacked by aliens. (Reagan was apparently a science fiction fan.) Gorbachev agreed that yes, cooperation between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. would occur under those circumstances. In the context of alien invasion, cosmic patriotism would be a fighting cooperative defense, a joint effort against a common alien enemy. In a contemporary echo of such sentiments, former Obama appointee Marik von Rennenkampff, writing in the Hill Times of June 15, 2021 suggested that President Biden should ask Russian leader Vladimir Putin about UFOs. Perhaps prospects of an attack would inspire cooperation? Reconciliation? Who knows?

In Walter Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, far-away worlds are envisaged as a safe retreat rather than the source of an ominous threat. In that narrative, civilization and learning devastated by a nuclear war in the twentieth century are followed by several thousand years of uneven recovery. Some remnants of the Catholic church and teachings have survived. In 3781, the world is again technologically advanced, only to face another nuclear war. The end of the novel sees monks fleeing Earth to join a colony near Alpha Centauri. The implication is that some human beings and some remnants of this faith will be preserved – but not on Earth. The loyalty shown in the departure is to humankind rather than to Earth itself.

Leaving the space theme, I return to Chesterton. We are of this Earth, and we owe everything to it. This is where we are born, where we develop, where we live, where we thrive or suffer, create or destroy. People talk about the survival of the planet and indeed much is at stake. But to me this is a misleading expression. The planet Earth will survive, hotter or colder, icebergs and glaciers disappeared or persisting. The pressing question is which species will continue to live and flourish on Earth, and whether human beings will be among them. And, if we are, under what conditions? What values and attitudes should be embraced and pursued by humanists today? Many questions arise here and I cannot pretend to answer them, but in the name of cosmic patriotism I urge that we reject one kind of response to our current perils. And that’s this one: ‘let’s get away from it all. Let’s establish a colony of human beings on Mars, so that we can continue there if Earth is so ruined that we can’t live there anymore.’

There are, I urge, many reasons for rejecting such a response. (The fact that Elon Musk is a primary proponent is only one of them.) If people could get to Mars, it would be at enormous cost. In addition to the stress of a journey at least nine months long, they would require protection from cosmic radiation and medical risks such as bone damage. On the way, and on Mars, food, oxygen, and water would have to be supplied to them – likely from Earth – and further vast resources would be required for that. The atmosphere on Mars is thin and primarily composed of carbon dioxide; there is not enough oxygen for human beings to breathe. Mars is cold, usually well below minus 5 Centigrade most of the time. If there were to be a community of people on Mars, it would face ethical and legal challenges, as described by Igo Levchenko, Shuyan Xu et al in a 2018 article in Global Challenges. (“Mars Colonization: Beyond Getting There”, October 25, 2018.) A novel approach is taken by Lenore Newman and Evan Fraser in their imaginative 2022 book Dinner on Mars. Newman and Fraser argue that exploring food production on Mars will yield valuable information and techniques for improving it on Earth, increasing efficiency while lessening pollution and waste. I wonder, though, whether this is the best route to such discoveries.

Talk of installing human beings on Mars leads me to return to Chesterton’s notion of loyalty to Earth. Conditions on Earth as we know it are jeopardized by climate change, pandemics, and an increased threat of nuclear war. Human beings – some of them at least – are struggling to meet these challenges to our shared life here. Ingenuity and persistent ongoing work are required, not to mention vast resources. It is Earth, not Mars, that is our natural home. “Human beings exist within nature,” as stated in the Humanist Manifesto. To be sure, there is nature on Mars; but that nature is not our nature, not where we can comfortably live, not where we have come to be. As cosmic patriots, we should be loyal to the planet that is our home. We should love it, seek to protect it and not leave it because our activities threaten the lives of its peoples and species. I believe that Ecohumanism should presume cosmic patriotism in this sense of that term.

This stance is expressed at a great level of generality. Readers will recognize that there are many difficulties, many perils to be faced and problems to be solved. I will describe here three of them: due to my own interests and abilities, these are theoretical and philosophical.

First is the issue of individual and collective responsibility, a challenge especially obvious in the context of environmental protection. It is easy to urge individuals to act: such urgings will be familiar. Reduce, re-use, re-cycle. Compost your organic garbage. Avoid single-use plastic. Get an electric car or, better still, an electric bike. Or, even better, a non-electric bike. Don’t waste food. Don’t buy new clothes you don’t need. More controversially: don’t fly anywhere. These are measures that individuals can take, to be sure, and I will not argue against them. But the onus of reform regarding environmental matters cannot be purely on individuals. It is easy to make people feel guilty if they fail on some detail — say by putting in the compost a commercial sticker that should not be there or driving an old car that is a gas guzzler. But for governments, such ease can amount to temptation. Individual acts cannot resolve structural problems that require action from governments, and these are many. Structural problems need to be addressed at a collective level: individuals acting as such cannot regulate new products, initiate cooperation between nations, shift resources to less developed countries, control patents, pass laws, or reform capitalism. Policy reforms are needed, and they need implementation, not just rhetoric.

Second is the issue of future people. How many will there be and how should we consider their interests? Much policy reflection is based on the calculation of consequences. In policy areas, a cost/benefit analysis is not a sufficient measure of ethical merit, but it is nearly always a necessary element. What are the likely benefits of a policy to people who will or may live in the future? How many will there be? What are the likely costs to them? But wait a minute. Who are these people? (They do not exist; they are in the future; we don’t know.) But we have to ask: costs to whom? Benefits to whom? Considering for the moment only human beings, perplexing questions loom. The short answer– all those likely to be affected by what we do. But affected for how long? When? We cannot ignore the needs and interests of future people, as they will need the Earth’s resources and environment and will have the capacity to enjoy and love nature as we do. But to take into account all future people until the ‘end of time’ (a problematic notion if you think about it) is not possible. When should we stop? Philosophers have agonized over this matter and technical solutions can be recommended in this context, hopefully to reduce the dimensions of the problem. We could restrict the context to reproductive decision-making and only consider those possible people whom we would create ourselves. We could refuse to go beyond contexts of reasonable predictability and only address likely (potential) people within a century or two. (Can we predict even that far?) We could discount future people entirely, on the grounds that they do not exist, so they cannot be harmed. All these approaches pose difficulties; none seems morally satisfactory.

Are humanists to be concerned only with the welfare of human beings? What about other sentient creatures – that would include many animals. To say the least, our treatment of animals is thoughtless, cruel, and selfish. For anyone concerned about this matter – as indeed we all should be – an important account is that of Martha Nussbaum in her new book Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility (2022). Nussbaum argues that we should not give absolute priority to human interests but should, rather, work for a “multispecies world in which all have opportunities for flourishing.” (191) Greed and pride stand in the way of the many shifts she recommends. Although there are difficult dilemmas, Nussbaum submits that it is not impossible to deliberate well and avoid continuing cruelty and devastation. She comments, “For millennia … much of humanity has been looking only at humanity, and never turning outward to look, really look, at the other sentient beings with whom we share this small and fragile planet.” This is changing, and should change further.

In loyalty to the Earth, to which we owe our existence and survival, I would urge that resources not be devoted to visions of travelling to Mars and attempting to establish a colony there. We have our own planet, one we have profoundly damaged, and we face pressing needs to restore and protect its atmosphere, temperature, resources, and safety so that we and our fellow creatures can continue to be its inhabitants. That’s what cosmic patriotism should mean – treasure and protect the Earth – and the Earth first.