This article is adapted from“Conscious Choice: The Origins of Slavery in America and Why it Matters Today and for Our Future in Outer Space” by Robert Zimmerman. You can purchase it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eBookIt.
The colonization of the solar system and the creation of new societies on new worlds is likely going to be the most fundamental problem dominating the rest of human history. If we go to Mars, to the asteroids, to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and then beyond to the stars, we shall, in each of these places, be building new societies as we spread life throughout the universe. In this effort, we are going to repeatedly be faced with the same problems faced by the British settlers who established colonies along the eastern coast of North America in the 1600s.
We should pay attention to the lessons they learned.
First, we must recognize that there are many factors, basic to human nature, that make for a healthy society and cannot be avoided. The lessons of the North American colonies illustrate those factors quite starkly, especially if we compare the very successful northern colonies with the failed southern colonies.
It is essential that a new space colony have a good and clear legal system that interferes with the freedom of individuals and families as little as possible. This does not mean that there should be no laws, but that laws at the time of founding should be clear and allow for the new citizens to maximize not only their own personal ambitions but their own personal wealth.
With this in mind, the laws must allow for private property that will encourage settlers to work hard for their own gain. This was a lesson learned in both Virginia and in New England in the first years of colonization. Both colonies at first pooled the ownership of all land and property into a single corporation for which everyone worked, and with all profits equally shared. In both Virginia and New England, this collectivist arrangement ended in unmitigated failure, leading to bankruptcy and starvation.
Only when each colony’s leaders allowed the settlers to own their own private plots where they could earn money for themselves did both colonies begin to prosper. At the same time, the laws that encourage private property must also encourage the arrival of as many small businesses as possible, owning small holdings and earning a smaller amount, rather than large corporate or government operations that control large chunks of property that optimize their profits to the utmost.
In comparing the British colonies, the need for small holdings becomes obvious. In Virginia, the initial goal was to maximize profit, so the initial private holdings were large. The result was a distorted social structure with power concentrated in the hands of only a few, while everyone else was poor or enslaved. In New England, the initial goal was to build small self-sufficient farms, not to export a crop for profit. The result was small, tight-knit communities of small farms owned by families raising children. Few were capable of exporting much from the colony, but the society was generally more sound and prosperous for most of its inhabitants.
Therefore, decentralize ownership as much as possible from the start. While initially, the difficulty of settlement on alien worlds might appear to favor larger owning entities, this is not written in stone. The Puritans proved that it is possible to begin a colony with power, ownership, and wealth decentralized. In space, this will also be doable if those building the colony have the courage to do so. Only later, when the colony is settled and more stable, should larger private holdings evolve, and only because of natural competition and free enterprise.
Keeping things small, to begin with, also recognizes the crucial fact that profit must not be the only goal of future space colonies. A focus on profit will force the new colonies to quickly find a single product that can be exported for profit, as was done with tobacco, rice, sugar, tea, and other single export colonies in the New World. The colony then becomes a company town, with power once again concentrated in the hands of a few, with everyone else either poor or enslaved. This, in turn, produces an unhealthy social order.
Instead of profit, future colonists must focus on the idea of building a new human community. This is what both the Pilgrims and Puritans did. Profit was the last thing on their mind. In fact, these religious colonists generally became poorer because of their immigration. But they came wanting to build a new world and to build it in such a way that it would become a society that future humans would want to emulate.
Building such a society requires some basic components. First, early colonists to new space colonies must go as families. Human societies do not fare well when the sex ratio is skewed or the family unit is broken. Thus, even if it is not possible to go as families, at a minimum, the settlers must go as a community of men and women, in equal ratios, so that families will naturally form and the children who will eventually be born in these new societies will have a stable family life in which to grow up.
Building a new human society also means the settlers must also go with the intent of raising healthy and well-adjusted children. Future space colonists must remember that they are not really exploring the unknown. What they are really doing is building new societies for their children and children’s children. Such an effort carries great responsibility, and if we shirk that responsibility, our descendants will curse our memory.
The Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers all came with their children central and paramount to their immigration. They wanted to create a society where those children would be raised as upright, god-fearing citizens morally bound to do the right thing. As such, they shaped their communities with these ideas in mind. Since these ideas actually form the foundation of any vibrant human society, no matter whom the god, the result was that the northern British colonies quickly became successful human communities, despite their newness and the fact that they sat on the edge of the wilderness.
Future colonists must take the same approach. They might be exploring a new world and going where no one has gone before, but their primary purpose must always be the creation of a new society designed well for the future generations who will follow.
This focus on children also makes it essential that the families of space colonists be long-lived and stable. As shown in Virginia, broken homes do not encourage the proper raising of children but instead cause their education and training in ethics and moral behavior to suffer. Long-lived marriages carry an additional benefit in that they also teach tolerance to the parents. No partnership is perfect. By committing to a permanent relationship, “for better or worse,” married couples learn to accept the differences that exist between individuals. This, in turn, helps them tolerate the differences and disagreements that exist with others outside that partnership.
Finally, and most importantly, the initial settlers and their leadership need to go carrying with them a personal moral commitment to do the right thing. This point, in a sense, a rephrasing of George Washington’s exhortation in his final address, is probably the most difficult to achieve.
The Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers did it, however. They used as their moral blueprint the Bible, and most especially the Old Testament. This document outlines some very basic concepts about family, the raising of children, right and wrong, and personal individual responsibility. And believe it or not, it also celebrates individual choice and the liberty to choose one’s beliefs for himself, teaching that, within a clearly defined moral code of right and wrong, each soul is free to choose, to grow, to rise, or fall based on its own effort. England’s first premise, decentralizing power and responsibility to the individual, was essentially an outgrowth of these Old Testament teachings, reinforced by the larger cultural teachings of Western civilization that included the Greeks, the Romans, and British culture.