WE MUST FIND COLONIES-OR RETURN TO BARBARISM; Man Has Always Reached out for New Territories. Now the Need Is Greater Than Ever

Article excerpt

Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

THE FIRST proof that life exists outside our planet raises three questions.

First, are there places in the universe which could support human life?

Second, will it be possible to get to such places? Third, ought we to start thinking about colonising them?

We have to assume that the answer to the first question is Yes. The extent of the universe is almost infinitely large. Our estimates of its dimensions grow every time we expand our means of measuring them. In our Milky Way galaxy alone there are 200 billion solar systems.

The number of worlds must be so enormous and varied that it is inconceivable that our own particular life-support system is unique. The probability is that there are thousands, perhaps millions, of planets capable of supporting life. Among them there are certainly many larger and richer than Earth which could be settled.

It is theoretically possible for humans to travel at almost the speed of light and, given the slowdown in time which Einstein predicted accompanies such high speeds, to cover interstellar distances. Half a century ago, the Hungarian-born mathematician and computer pioneer John von Neumann worked out the theoretical technology we would need to colonise our galaxy: machines that can make copies of themselves. These would set out for habitable systems and on arrival `reproduce', enabling more ships to seek out more places to colonise.

The whole of history teaches that, in every important human enterprise, it is the first steps which are most difficult and take the most time. It required about 4,000 million years for human life to get going on Earth. As recently as 2,000 years ago we only occupied about a hundredth of its land surface.

Everything of most importance in the colonisation of the planet has occurred in the past 500 years, and all the key advances in technology in the past 200 years. The rate of acceleration in human power is breathtaking and its continuance inescapable. Our well-grounded confidence in human potential should make us optimistic about space colonisation.

As for the third question, should we start planning space colonies now, my answer is that we have no alternative. Throughout its existence, humanity has had to colonise and the terrestrial possibilities are running out fast.

There is no problem about growing enough food for the Earth to feed itself. Our agricultural productivity is so enormous that we could nourish a world population of ten billion - twice the present level - or even 20 billion. Nor are there any long-term shortages of raw materials. We have barely begun to scratch the Earth's surface.

The problem is living space, or rather our political perception of it.

Virtually every country considers itself overcrowded and wants to get rid of people rather than take them in. Potential colonists have fewer and fewer places they can legally enter, let alone settle.

This is a new and sinister epoch in human affairs. Europe, for instance, began to feel the pressures of population in the 11th century. The result was the First Crusade of 1096. Europeans began to push into the Near East because that was the only alternative their maritime technology offered.

Frustrated in Asia, they eventually developed transatlantic ships. First they colonised the Azores and the Canaries. Then, in the 1490s, they pushed across the ocean and landed settlers in the Caribbean and the American mainland.

Half a millennium ago, there were about two million indigenous Indians in what we now call Latin America. In a century the Spanish and Portuguese exported a quarter of a million settlers there. This set off a chain of demographic events which has now distributed more than 500 million people across that part of the world.

What would have happened to Britain if there hadn't been the escape valve of colonisation? In the first half of the 17th century, the population of England and Wales was less than four million, but it was already outstripping our available resources. …