Friday, April 20, 2007

Losing the Frontier

For the last couple of days all you hear about on the news is the Virginia Tech shootings. Before we knew that the person had pre-existing psychological issues, it seemed like an excellent example of something I’ve been worrying about on and off for a while.

There are no more frontiers left in our society. We have both poles and a few other areas that we’re poking around in, but we’re currently (wisely) trying to limit their exploitation. This has huge implications for a society. There have been very few societies that have been able to survive without a frontier. Moreover, none come to mind that enjoyed much in the way of growth or personal freedom.

Why is the lack of a frontier so important? It means that there are no more outside options. If you can’t make it or don’t fit, there’s only three things you can do. Accept a place in the lower rungs of society, try to over turn the whole thing, or become so frustrated that you do something incredibly destructive. The problem gets even worse when one considers the issue of religion. Consider the current American, and to a lesser extent Canadian, divide between the fundamentalist Christian rightwing wingnuts and the dogmatic pseudo-hippie-dippies on the left. A huge part of the problem is that both sides are essentially fascist. Both sides think the world will be better if everybody behaved according to the unquestionable views of the person doing the talking. So any meaningful compromise that might be reached will be viewed as selling out by both sides.

I’m convinced one of the reasons why we’ve enjoyed so much growth in the last 500 years is that there’s been an outside option. If you were really unhappy with the rules of the land, you could try and make your ideal society work someplace else. The “pilgrims” in the US are a classic example. Few resources were lost fighting pointless battles. If these puritans weren’t able to try and make a go of it in North America it likely would have been a civil war or uprising. Currently both sides (wingnuts vs hippie-dippies) are locked into what looks like its going to be a long and drawn out political fight that’s not going to solve anything. No matter what the outcome, win, lose or unlikely compromise, there is nowhere for the dissatisfied to go. So the fight will start again. If there were a frontier, one side could largely have its way and those that didn’t like could go and try the frontier. Colonization also served a lot of the same purpose for the colonizers, but not the colonized.

Now that most of the earth is populated and settled, there isn’t a place to try and make a go of it under different or no rules. This tends to be when societies and cultures collapse, when the outside option is gone. We seem to be going down that some route in North America.

I don’t see any near term way out. The only possible hope seems to be space exploration and colonization. The resources appear to be there to make possible. There are a number of problems that need to be overcome to make pay financially. But remember, North America wasn’t originally discovered or explored just for profit, but for glory too. Increased social stability at home was the real benefit.

We need to start viewing space exploration and colonization in the same way. The main benefit won’t be the resources we’re able to capture and exploit. The main benefit will be the return of an outside option.


Anonymous said...

i'm so happy you agree with me or it could be the other way around....about space trek here i come...funny thing about it (maybe not) the reasons you mentioned were the essentially the same for the character zephram cochrane (inventor of warp drive) to do what he outside option.

north america no doubt is on the losing end on this whole matter when compared to other areas in the world.

Don said...

Did you notice in Star Trek, the exploration had to start from systematic changes within first?
(bunch of commies)

In the short term, maybe the competitive nature will have to be more coupled with the cooperative nature of mankind.

We as a species seem to have always pushed ahead further with competition than cooperation, but there are societies that worked better working together as a unit (Japan comes to mind). Maybe it's time that that type of nationalism be extended beyond one culture. Maybe this will be the chance for that to occur.

What we need is a common enemy... where are you aliens?


economistatlarge said...

Maybe what we need to do is invent some aliens.

Star Trek always facinated me. Rodenbury and his followers have always managed to capture something fundamental to the human condition, granted its usually the warm fuzzy side. I've always kind of wondered if the sort of socialism that star trek shows is the necessary result of solving most of the scarcity problem.

Just a thought.