the science of conquest

The Science of Conquest

A new space race has begun. Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have begun the process of privatizing the night sky. What comes next? Will humans colonize the solar system and beyond? In this third in a series of articles [Part 1, Part 2] Max Wilbert asks why this culture worships “progress.”


by Max Wilbert

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”

  – Frank Herbert

It began with wood and blood; trees and muscle power; the fire and the slave. This built the first megacities on Earth. The first civilizations grew: in Mesopotamia; along the Yangtze River and the Ganges; in the Andes; in Egypt; and elsewhere.

As they grew, they displaced other societies, tribes and nations who had existed for eons. By war or trade or marriage, assimilation or extermination, they grew, and as they grew, forests shrunk.

The limits of muscle and fire soon became apparent. By cutting down the forests, by plowing the earth and turning soil carbon into human carbon, they eroded the soil, they salinized the land, and what was a Fertile Crescent became dust. But these societies had created an ideology based on “more.” The result was war and a feverish search for new sources of energy and power.

The next frontier was to dig deeper, to find carbon that was buried deep under the soil in the crust of the planet itself. The burning of coal and oil was a revolution in energy. Suddenly mines could be pumped dry and shafts sunk deeper than ever before. Goods could be moved more quickly. Factories and war machines belched great clouds of smoke into the air, and the logging became industrial. The conversion of a living planet into a necropolis accelerated.

Coal and oil, when combined with the engineering necessary to create the engine, enabled expansion on a scale never before dreamed of. Soon nations had the power to move mountains, and they did. Coal and oil enabled the construction of the first large hydroelectric dams, and now the circulatory system of the planet was bound to civilization’s endeavors as well. And before long, the next boundary was breached: that of the atom itself.

This is the story of civilizations breaking the covenant humans had lived with for 200,000 years; the story of human beings constructing ideologies and megamachines that demand limitless power, and then pursuing that power to—quite literally—the end of the Earth.

Progress as Sort of God

There is a fundamental premise underlying not just capitalism, but all civilized societies: the premise is that “progress” in technological development is an inherent good; that any harm is overshadowed by this good; and that the pursuit of technological development and the power that results should be one of the primary goals of human society. Expansion is good. Growth is good.

This premise underlies not just capitalism, but civilization itself, and much of modern science.

This article is third in a series of essays responding to a scientific study published in the journal Scientific Reports back in May. The study models the future of global civilization, tracking population growth and deforestation, and finds that there is a 90 percent chance of civilization collapsing within the next 20-40 years. I discussed their collapse prediction in the first essay in this series.

The authors of the study theorize, as Salonika pointed out in the second essay, that the only way to avoid collapse is via expansion, especially expansion in energy generation, which they suppose would allow industrial civilization to surpass ecological limits and expand throughout the solar system. They write, “if the trajectory [of civilization’s technological development] has reached the Dyson limit we count it as a success [in our model], otherwise as failure.”

They are referring to a “Dyson Sphere” or “Dyson swarm,” a theoretical megamachine which would encompass a star and capture a large portion of its power output, which could then be used by a civilization.

The idea of a Dyson sphere has been around since the 1930’s, and has a rich life in science fiction. But it is not something to dismiss. Scientists have been working on the theoretical and technical foundation for space-based solar energy harvesting devices for many decades. More deeply, it is an idea that is deeply reflective of the ideology of civilization, which demands power in unlimited quantities. It is the same idea which has underlain civilization since the first slaves were shackled in rows and lashed and set to work building monumental architecture for the emperor. It is the same idea that drove the deforestation of the planet. It is the same idea that built the Grand Coulee Dam, and the Hoover Dam, and the Three Gorges Dam, and the Belo Monte Dam, and that will build the Batoka Gorge Dam unless we stop them. It is the same idea that has infected politicians and rulers and technocrats and theocrats and entire societies for thousands of years.

It is the idea that expansion is the highest good.

Exploitation as a Proxy for “Development”

It was not under capitalism but communism that Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev coined the eponymous Kardashev scale in in his 1964 book Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations. The scale he proposes “is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy they are able to use.”

The Kardashev scale ranks civilizations as Type I (a planetary civilization, which can use all the energy available on its planet of origin), Type II (which can use all the energy within a given star system), or Type III (galactic civilizations). In this scale, a Dyson sphere corresponds to a Type II civilization. Global civilization today, using Carl Sagan’s extrapolations, is approximately at Type 0.73.

In this scale, the more energy a society can appropriate for themselves, the more advanced they are.

  • Those who have slaves can appropriate more energy than those who do not.
  • Those who cut down the forest and burn it can appropriate more energy than those who do not.
  • Those who plow the grasslands under can appropriate more energy than those who do not.
  • Those who break the boundary of the atom will have more energy than those who do not.
  • And those who are willing to capture sunlight itself—through a Dyson sphere or other forms of technology—will have more energy than those who do not.

It goes without saying that striving for higher levels on the scale is the goal of most people in power. From the beginning, most western science has been underpinned by a philosophy that the more human beings can control nature, the better. From Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance thinkers to Francis Bacon and the Royal Society, scientists have willingly hitched themselves to tyrants and democracies alike to fund their unending curiosity, and in return they have delivered weapons, energy, and economic development.

Control and expand: this is the ideology of conquest.

The Study of Consequences

Legendary science fiction author Frank Herbert wrote in his classic Dune that “ecology is the study of consequences.” The term is appropriate, then, to describe the study of the consequences unleashed by the decisions made by civilizations up to this point.

We’ve already spoken of the forests that are now past tense and the Fertile Crescent that is fertile no more. Agriculture—not gardening, but totalitarian agriculture—is no more than organized appropriation of primary productivity, habitat, and soil fertility from non-human species to benefit a single species (humans).

Primary productivity, or photosynthesis, is the basis of terrestrial ecology—the basis of life on land. On average, in agricultural areas, 83% of primary productivity is extracted by humans, leaving 17% for the non-humans who remain. This is a consequence of civilized agriculture, just as global warming and ocean acidification are consequences of the choice to seek energy from coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

The Fermi Paradox and The Great Filter

We cannot speak of civilization, Dyson spheres, and ecology without discussing the Drake equation and the Fermi Paradox.

Astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake created the Drake equation in 1961 at the first scientific meeting on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. The equation estimates the probability that there are other intelligent life forms in the galaxy with whom we might communicate. The equation is a rough tool, more thought experiment than precise scientific measure, and plugging in different variables can give wildly different results. It’s all conjecture; life has only ever been observed on one planet.

The Drake Equation, however, does suggest that there could be as many as 15 million planets with intelligent life in the Milky Way alone; we just don’t know. This is where the Fermi Paradox comes in. The Fermi Paradox is a mystery posited by Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi: given these huge numbers, why have we found no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence? A 2015 study concluded that Kardashev Type-III civilizations are either very rare or do not exist in the local Universe.”

Why has SETI failed?

There are many possible explanations, many of them revolving around the idea that the formation of complex life-forms is actually extremely rare, and that life on Earth has passed through some sort of “Great Filter” to arrive at this. An alternative explanation is that societies that develop the ability to transmit radio waves and travel off their own planet tend to destroy their own ecological founds and collapse.

Each of these explanations is horrifying in its own way.

The Colonization of Space

Incidentally, rockets used in spaceflight destroy the ozone layer, release as much carbon dioxide in 2 minutes as a car would produce in two centuries, and are changing the composition of the upper atmosphere, releasing gasses and particles in areas they have never before naturally existed. And this process is accelerating as corporations such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic begin to colonize near-Earth orbit with thousands of satellites and increasing numbers of commercial craft.

It is expected that the number of rocket launches will increase by an order of magnitude within the next few years.

Another Path

Does it have to be like this?

Some would have us believe that science, technology, and progress are the only possibility—the only option that is thinkable. But is this true?

The science of conquest is not the only type of science. There is another; a science that is based on observation, thesis, and evidence, that is based on a peer-review that does not take place in university buildings, but rather in forests, in grasslands, along rivers, in the oceans.

This is the science of the Polynesian sailors, who set out across ten thousand miles of ocean on boats made of sustainably-harvested wood, who navigated the seas and found islands like a pin in the oceanic haystack without compasses, GPS satellites, or steel-hulled boats.

It is the science of the Kalapuya people, who practiced a scientific ecology through prescribed burning of their land, cultivating species beneficial to biodiversity and abundance not just for humans, but for all life, and thus gardened the entire landscape and created one of the most diverse habitats on Earth, and of the Klamath people, who use fire to geoengineer climate on a small scale by setting their hillsides alight when inversions cause the smoke to gather in their river valley, cooling the river and triggering the salmon runs.

It is the science of the Aborigines, who encoded language and culture in songlines and land, and created a continuous culture that has lasted at least 65,000 years. It is the science of those who remain, keeping these traditions alive, who often don’t use the term science, because it is too small a word for what they do.

There are other ways to live, ways that are no less complex or rewarding, no less respectful of human intellect, but which are build on relationship.

What future do we want? The dystopian future of science fiction? A world of control? A world of Dyson spheres and continental solar arrays? A world “red in tooth and claw,” where survival of the fittest means those who will extract more ruthlessly will gain power? Or do we want a world of connection and participation, a world of mutual aid, where we give back as much or more than we take?

I dream of a world where humans practice a different kind of science—not the science of conquest but the science of cooperation.


Max Wilbert is a writer, organizer, and wilderness guide. A third-generation dissident, he came of age in a family of anti-war and undoing racism activists in post-WTO Seattle. He is the editor-in-chief of the Deep Green Resistance News Service. His latest book is the forthcoming Bright Green Lies. His first book, an essay collection called We Choose to Speak, was released in 2018. He lives in Oregon.

5 thoughts on “The Science of Conquest”

  1. In 1993 I was working for Oracle on a short software development project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

    One evening while dining at a local restaurant I overheard a conversation between two men at a nearby table. They were both consultants with the Rand Corporation, and they were discussing a feasibility study they were conducting for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada.

    I invited myself to their table and joined their conversation. I began by questioning the use of nuclear fuel in general, because, among other problems, the half life of spent nuclear fuels is thousands of years. They replied that coal-fired energy plants cause sickness and death in the areas surrounding their locations. I responded that that may be true, but isn’t it better to have the people who actually benefit from the power suffer the effects rather than passing it on to future generations for eternity.

    Even if the storage works, I said, it will require monitoring and technical oversight forever. What if future generations decide they don’t want to live in a technological society. What if they want to adopt a life style that is based on living in harmony with nature. What gives us the right to force them to forever maintain the level of technology needed to prevent themselves from being poisoned by our waste?

    You can imagine the look of incredulity on their faces. They didn’t have an answer for this.

  2. If only everyone had the ability to look beyond our own individual existence and think of the future generations. Thanks Jim for sharing, and Max for the article.

  3. Derrick wrote “Imagine” 18 years after the incident I reported here. Having “imagined” my comments to those Rand guys all by myself, you can imagine how validated I felt when I discovered DGR!

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