A recent article on Slate states, right in the title, that “We Need to Stop Talking About Space as a ‘Frontier’.”  As the article points out, “The language we use matters, especially when it’s deployed in the service of envisioning possible futures.”

And in this case, the word “frontier” is wrongly coloring our perception of space and the way we should treat it.

Custer attacking the frontierThis means I have to apologize to Gene Roddenberry… but I certainly don’t blame him for calling space “the final frontier.”  After all, Roddenberry was an American, whose history and upbringing included the thinking of the American West as a romantic and colorful frontier, an empty space waiting to be conquered.

But most of the people who taught him that didn’t dwell overmuch on the people who were already living on that land, the many who died of European diseases (or European guns), the violence, the genocide, the slavery, the unfair labor practices, the ravaged landscapes and the inconvenient animals wiped out of existence in order to put greenbacks on the European’s tables and cheap meal in their workers’ bellies.

“Frontier” also embodies the spirit of the powerful invader, who believes no one has the right to forbid them access to lands they’ve just discovered… including anyone who is already on that land.  Ask a Native American, for instance, and they’ll tell you: “Your ‘frontier’ has been my families’ home for centuries. Exactly who gave you permission to come in here, kill my family and chase me off?”  Of course, to the powerful invader, might makes right. As he treads on the bones of others, why should he care about issues like semantics?

Yes, “frontier” has horrible connotations.  It goes hand-in-hand with the phrase “might makes right”… the idea that if it’s there, we can just take it, and to hell with the consequences to others.  It’s a word for land-grabbers, bullies, rapists.  And in point of fact, there is no frontier—free and empty places waiting to be claimed and exploited for personal gain.  On Earth, there never was, and those who view any part of our world as a frontier are being racist, unthinking and cruel.  Earth never had empty spaces waiting to be forcibly occupied and owned by someone.  Earth is not a property to be lorded over and done with as we wish.  And if Earth, the planet on which we live, is not frontier waiting to become property, how can any place in space be frontier waiting to become our property?

The Slate article seeks a new word to describe the space we want to explore and occupy.  The author doesn’t seem to be able to think of a word… or maybe, they want someone else to invent a cool word that will describe space and how we treat it.  But there’s no need to invent a word; one immediately comes to mind.

Milky Way

Space is an Environment.

It is, in fact, THE Environment in which we all live.  It is vast beyond our ability to comprehend… a scale that pointedly does not take Earth’s denizens into account.  It is full of sub-environments, changing conditions and hostile natural forces, any number of which could wipe out any life it comes in contact with in an instant.

planet earth from space

This makes Earth an oasis, a local sub-environment, one of many and varied oases peppered throughout this vast Environment, and we happen to be one of the many life forms that have evolved to thrive on this particular oasis.  There may be other oases out there that we could live on… there may be oases out there that something else is currently living on, or lived on in the past… and there may not be, we don’t really know yet.

We can explore the Environment.  We will learn things about it along the way, and we may learn things that will teach us more about our oasis and how it functions.  In that way, we’ll expand our general knowledge, something we can share with each other.

There are resources in the Environment, outside of our oasis.  Most of those resources aren’t being used by anyone, but again, we really don’t know yet what resources are being used by something else.  And we really don’t have any more or less of a right to them than anything else.

space arkThere is lots of room for expansion in the Environment… but absolutely no guarantee that we can, in fact, expand beyond this oasis and thrive.  Most of the Environment is downright hostile to us.  Intelligence might allow us to figure out a way… but the uncontrolled elements of that vast Environment may eventually doom us to non-existence anyway.  Once more… we have no way to know.  But there’s nothing stopping us from trying; only the incredible difficulty and unlikelihood of succeeding.

The word “environment” embodies the knowledge of science and nature, the desire to experience it and learn what is learnable… but not to desecrate, strip-mine or destroy it for personal gain. If that’s not a noble-enough reason to explore new environments, I don’t know what is.

This way of thinking about space probably gives us the best and most accurate image of the universe and our place in it.  It will also serve us best in imagining our future activities in space: How we should treat the vast Environment; and how we should act when or if we discover others out in the Environment.  (It probably wouldn’t have hurt if we’d considered Earth this way, instead of seeing it as empty spaces to exploit.  Just saying.)

Read the Slate article.