Extraterrestial Liberty, What is Freedom beyond the Earth’


Charles Cockell, Professor of Astrobiology , with his book Extra-terrestrial Liberty

In London, whilst the G8 innovation talks and anti-G8 protesters try to sort out life on earth, a small group of forward thinking scientists, artists, space experts, science fiction authors and academics met at the British Interplanetary Society to discuss ‘Extra-terrestrial Liberty: What is Freedom Beyond the Earth’.

 As far as anyone was aware this was the first conference of its kind in the world, billed as a joint UK Centre for Astrobiology/British Interplanetary Society meeting to explore the development of freedom in the extreme conditions of outer space.

The aim, in part, is the hope that our terrestrial mistakes in managing societies will not be repeated by future generations should they succeed in colonising other planets. Some of the people attending this conference are 100% certain that humans will colonise other planets, and these are not dreamers, they are the individuals with the technical knowhow to make it happen.

The idea for the conference came from Charles S Cockell, who is a Professor of Astrobiology and former NASA employee. After chancing on Rousseau’s book the social contract  he realised that no essays existed on the topic of political philosophy in future Extra-terrestrial societies so he wrote the essays himself which have now been published as a book.  

One of the speakers, John Cain, estimates space colonization within 200 yrs. “With drivers such as tourism and industry it is sure to happen” as he says “once the problems of radiation and weightlessness are under control “

Tony Milligan, an ethicist from Aberdeen University who also spoke at the conference told me “If you don’t put ethical boundaries in place then corporations will be running things.”  Although excited by the developments that people such as Richard Branson are enabling  “we don’t want him deciding what counts as Liberty in space.”

Science fiction author Stephen Baxter, was fascinating on the value of science fiction as thought experiments, which create arenas for debate. His talk encompassed examples of fictional utopias from the beginning of the genre right through to modern examples including some classic Star trek along the way. He spoke about how people test theories through fiction for what the challenges will be in extreme environments.

Annalee Beattie, an artist from Australia who has spent time in the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah spoke about liberty and creativity and mentioned an “artist’s tool kit for astronauts” that she is developing.

Ian Crawford, from Birkbeck University spoke about federalism. I particularly liked his conclusion which advised a federal government for earth and the solar system colonies, but warned against such a system for interstellar use due to the time delays imposed by the speed of light.

There were many other speakers, including Paul Rosenberg, who flew in from USA, and drew comparisons with the establishment of the American constitution and frontier living.

Unfortunately I did not attend all the talks but what I did hear was fascinating debate on the nature of humanity, societies, and hopes and dreams for the future. It was an amazing experience to hear ideas of future human life in space discussed by those who know so much about the practical issues of making it a reality.

As colonists in space will almost certainly be reliant on the state or corporations that run their settlements for oxygen the relationship between an individual’s Liberty and state control must be considered before colonisation commences.

 Judging by the amount of social discord on earth this week alone, humanity still has a long way to go before the establishment of utopia, but it was very uplifting, if a little intellectually intimidating,  to spend time at this conference. I also really felt that the discussion of liberty in colonies on other planets could also lead to interesting breakthroughs in the concept of liberty on this planet. 


Stephen Baxter, Science fiction Writer

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