New Frontiers

by Madsen Pirie

In 1893 the historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper in Chicago to the American Historical Association, a paper entitled “the significance of the frontier in American history.” It established what is now called the Turner thesis, the idea that American democracy was advanced as people moved Westward across the continent.  To cope with the challenges and dangers encountered at the frontier, where the early settlers had to tame a wilderness, they had to abandon many of the cultural beliefs and practices brought over from Europe and become practical, capable, and self-reliant, with a rugged individualism that characterized the early American pioneers. In taming the frontier, they became Americans, and arguably it is the American West, not the East, that has given rise to the cultural and character differences that separate Americans from Europeans.

It is significant that many democratic institutions developed in America, innovations such as ballot initiatives and recall petitions, originated in the frontier states as settlers moved West. The wills left by the early settlers record the contents of their libraries, and it is significant that something like 90% of the books were practical self-help and improvement books. It is a spirit that resonates today in a can-do attitude that cherishes the freedom to aspire.

The question arises as to whether, given that there is no longer a frontier to be tamed, those individualist and libertarian characteristics and attitudes will be softened by more settled lives, and whether individualism and love of personal freedom will become moderated by a more communal spirit. If people can no longer strike out on their own into the wilderness, perhaps more effort will go into learning to live with and co-operate with each other. The prospects for the character-improving effects of the frontier on individualism and liberty look bleak, given that the frontier is no more.

More accurately, one should say that the frontier is no more on Earth. To some people, space represents the next frontier, and the thought is that coping with its challenges could have similar effects on psychology that the American frontier had on the national character here on Earth.

Certainly, many science fiction writers have made heyday with the idea. Many of them have imagined a frontier spirit, a relatively uncontrolled environment, and the rugged individualism that characterized the early West. Famously, Robert Heinlein in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” gives us the lunar colony imbued with that spirit. The book is practically a hymn to individual liberty and a determination to break free from the petty bureaucracy and rules that bind, limit and constrict life in more settled, less adventurous places.

Isaac Asimov, in “Foundation,” gives us a group of scientists moved to a relatively barren world devoid of natural resources at the edge of the galaxy, and forced by their circumstances to innovate, to become resourceful and self-dependent. He supposes, in Turner’s footsteps, that character and culture are partly at least the product of external circumstances.

In Star Wars, set in a universe where humans are settled on maybe thousands of worlds, there is a frontier type ambience of lawlessness at the galactic rim, which sits apparently at ease alongside spaceships and robots. This is best expressed in the spinoff movie, “Solo: a Star Wars Movie,” where a total Wild West atmosphere pervades, and gamblers, crooks and heroes vie for power and attention. In these and similar stories, the authorities and the law seem far away, and it is up to individuals themselves to take matters into their own hands.

The obvious question to ask is “is this fantasy?” Will space ever be somewhere that ordinary people can strike out for an independent living as pioneers did in the old West? To some extent the answer to these questions is largely technological. If the economics ever becomes such that people of ordinary means can participate, then there is a possibility that some of these imagined settings could come about to an extent. It is technological progress that will determine the economics of space travel, and no-one ever got rich by betting against human creativity and ingenuity.

Pioneers may foster a spirit of rugged independence in colonies on the Moon and on Mars, but they need to be able to get there. Space transportation will have to be developed, using propulsion systems so far undreamed of. Perhaps people will develop Arthur C Clarke’s space elevator, taking people up to geostationary orbit for journeys beyond, using power from ground-based stations instead of having to carry fuel. Perhaps our successors will use quantum entanglement or create wormholes in order to reach places in a shorter time than light would take to travel between them. If such things do come out, then humanity could indeed become a spacefaring people spreading out to the planets of other stars.

In the back of the mind of many libertarians is the thought that it would be nice to find somewhere away from the rules of government, the taxes imposed to fund government programs, and the restrictions that governments want to burden other people with. People look at sea-steading with cities in the oceans out of reach of government jurisdictions, or leasing land from some government in order to establish a free enterprise zone, one that makes its own rules, sets its own taxes, and is allowed to go its own way.

Space is the ultimate, though. It is, in the words of Star Trek, “the final frontier.” Will any of this come about soon? A start could be made, with colonies established on the moon and on Mars. And perhaps the terraforming of Mars could begin, though of course there will be objections from ecologists who want outer space left as it is, and who regard human beings as a form of pollution.
And beyond that, there might well be a time when there are places out there where pioneering spirits can go, and where people fed up with the rules and regulations on Earth can, like Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory” to create free places beyond. It may be a dream, but it is people who dream things who change things.

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