Will The English Reformation inform the colonisation of space?

Written by Ashwin Rattan Wednesday, 23 January 2013 20:29
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From James C. Bennett's report Something New Under The Sun.

Dyson, in his work Infinite in All Directions, viewed the problem of space settlement by calculating what it cost a typical family in various waves of colonization of North America to transplant themselves, in terms of fractions of an average years’ wages. 


The Pilgrim emigration, for example, cost substantially more than the Mormon emigration.  However, he calculated that the break point for an affordable middle-class colonization effort at $40,000 US in 1978 dollars (about $132,000 today). 


Historical economist James Belich’s groundbreaking study of the economics of 19th century colonization, Replenishing the Earth, (2010) demonstrated convincingly that the conventional historical understanding of colonization has been effectively upside down.  It has generally been assumed that colonization occurs primarily because some capital source, whether public or private, becomes aware of a resource in the target land, capitalizes colonization, and obtains a return relatively quickly in the form of export of some valuable commodity back to the metropolis.  The colonists themselves are relatively passive and fungible -- more can always be got.  


In fact, it has more usually been the opposite:  the colonization has typically initiated by the colonists for their own reasons, which were frequently non-material.  Much of the capital was raised by the colonists themselves, from middle-class colonists liquidating property in the old country to establish themselves in the new.  Most of the production was consumed locally rather than re-exported, typically for the first fifty years of the new settlement.   When it was finally exported, it was typically not exported back to the mother country, but rather further on to the new frontier of settlement.   For example, the timber of Michigan and Wisconsin was exported further west to Iowa and Nebraska before much was exported back to the East Coast.   Only in the final stage of settlement, after about a hundred years, did the colony begin to trade with the metropolis.  In this process, it was the external sources of capitalization that were fungible, as colonists were typically able to substitute one source for another at need.


Obviously, there are substantial differences between the colonists of the New World and prospective colonists of the Moon, Mars, or asteroids.   The colonists of Virginia and Massachusetts were going to a quite similar ecosystem farmable with techniques they already knew, and in which tools they already possessed.  Additionally, they found an existing aboriginal population whose economy could be tapped for needed resources.   We do not yet know for certain that humans can live on any of the prospective extraterrestrial destinations on a long-term basis, or conceive and bear children in their gravity conditions.  None of the destinations currently have a breathable atmosphere, and of course there are no local consumable crops, game animals, or aboriginal residents.


The Reformation in England ultimately produced the Pilgrims, who felt the English Reformation had not gone far enough, creating the settlement of Plymouth; the Catholics, who felt that it should not have happened at all, creating Maryland; and the Anglicans, who felt that the English Reformation was just right, settling Virginia.  The first two groups accepted hardships including a drastically reduced standard of living for quite a long time in return for the transcendent reward of pursuing their vision of true religion undisturbed, and in their own culture and language.  (The Pilgrims had been prosperous and tolerated in Holland; the Catholics would have been welcome in any Catholic country, as many were.) The Virginian colonists were driven by the ambitions of younger sons of gentry who aspired to the psychic reward of being estate owners, which their birth position denied them back in England. 


America brought prosperity, but only later.  For the short term, they pursued non-material rewards.  It is possible, and in fact, it is likely that the first generations of space colonists will emigrate from comfortable middle- or upper-middle-class lives in the developed world in pursuit of various transcendent visions, along with others who will go for advantage, or perhaps pure adventure.  America was built from all these types.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 January 2013 22:27

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