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Cosmic Manifest Destiny

I read a very provocative interview of Elon Musk in Aeon Magazine in which he argues that we must put a million people on Mars if we were to ensure that humanity has a future. Whether you agree or disagree with that particular vision, it made me start to think about how powerful we are collectively when united to pursue something bigger than ourselves.

In an American context, this was most evident as a country in our period of Westward expansion and encapsulated by our sense of “manifest destiny.” This period of expansion was when the seeds of American hegemony were planted.

Most modern historians look at the US notion of manifest destiny with a very critical eye. After all, it is widely accepted that the concept is at the core of our imperialistic tendencies. It seems to justify a voracious need to expand, to dominate, to subjugate. It played a part in going to war with Mexico and it justified our treatment of the Native American population. Manifest destiny was about our right to control.

To some extent (even a large extent) they’re probably right. When applied in the context of imperialism, manifest destiny comes across as a terrible ideology. That only gets worse when notions of divine right or ideas of cultural or racial superiority are introduced to it. Manifest destiny is a dangerous tool.

Yet the idea of manifest destiny also helped bring Americans together. It argued for something bigger than the individual whereby each citizen felt a duty to help accomplish this mission. It helped fuel American ingenuity and optimism as we moved westward. At its best you could argue that manifest destiny helped drive the expansion of an enlightened government and system for living. Even if it was overly militaristic and dominating, manifest destiny may just have been the spearhead for creating “something better.” Would there be a Pax Americana without it?

Manifest destiny is a powerful concept. It can and has been abused, yet it can also help create a common language and vision. When manifest destiny is applied to advance the case of superiority or the right of one people over another it has destructive power. When it’s applied to unite people around a sense of collective will, however, it becomes a powerful force that can unleash enormous latent energy.

America has tapped out of its planetary manifest destiny. At least, I hope we think that. We already stretch from sea to shining sea and despite our recent decline, we’re still an uncontested military superpower. But the country has started thinking too small. We lack the vigor and pride that, right or wrong, manifest destiny encapsulated. We’re splintered and we’re stuck.

The problem gets worse if we think about humanity as one species. We’re woefully divided when it comes to pursuing and tackling big ideas. These ideas come in many forms, but I happen to think that Elon Musk’s overarching concept of one fragile species bound to one ephemeral world is a powerful one.

Is it so far fetched that our ultimate survival depends on being on multiple planets? Even if you don’t think that, what about global issues like pollution, clean water, or feeding the world as it gets more populated? We need more collective will because our problems are global now and Malthusian realities are a possible outcome. But where does that will come from?

If manifest destiny helped unleashed American expansion, why couldn’t a cosmic manifest destiny teach our entire world to dream bigger? It could be a sounding bell used to ring in a new renaissance marked by rapid technological advance and new planetary forms of cooperation. We could use it to move past “getting mine” to “preserving ours.”

If we extrapolate manifest destiny out to the cosmos then a lot of its bad elements fall away. Yes, in theory the subjugation and control aspects of manifest destiny could one day raise their ugly heads again. But I think existential us vs. them questions, like the humans and buggers of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, is a problem for the future. In the meantime, a collective sense of purpose could do so much good.

Manifest destiny as it arose in 1840s America was an oppositional idea. It was constructed as an us vs them dichotomy. At least in part it was about showing the Old World something new, something better. It was also oppositional in that it divided the country. One side argued for leading by democratic example, the other via more nationalistic and militaristic conquest.

In a cosmic sense there isn’t a “them” (yet). That means a cosmic manifest destiny would inherently be more ideological than militaristic. It’s about unleashing our energy towards discovery, exploration, and if we believe Elon–survival. But how do we transition to a mindset that fosters shared purpose without a straw man to unite against?

The starting point is simply to acknowledge that we are all human. We all want similar things for our families and our communities. Our similarities far outweigh our differences. Species-level thinking creates a powerful commonality no matter which perspective–religious, humanist, or scientific–you approach it from. Purpose can be born out of this similarity. I have faith that’s a good place to start.

But it isn’t enough. Or at least, it has never been enough before. It seems it isn’t that simple to find common ground in the absence of something stranger or bigger to bring us closer. Is being one species too abstract? Is the remote possibility of a black swan extinction level event a powerful enough rallying cry? It feels so distant, yet if it were ever to become real it would already be too late to rally.

It’s hard to think about cosmic purpose living in a city. The nearby lights are so bright that the stars literally disappear from sight. Why should we reach for the stars when our planet feels so central and we so large within it?

Or maybe its just that any large ambitions cause us to shrink from them because failure is such a real possibility. In that vein, it could be that thinking about cosmic purpose requires turning inward first.

If we do that, if we go down a layer of abstraction, then it does seem that the idea of cosmic manifest destiny shares similarities to our inward journey. We constantly seek to unify our different moving parts into something greater. We have all experienced our own genius, just as we have all been frustrated at the roadblocks we create for ourselves. Perhaps you, like me, have had militaristic internal battles to subjugate less desirable thoughts or characteristics. Maybe you have also been united to push yourself to expand into something new. Are you not driven by your own manifest destiny? Whatever the case, our internal struggles are both singularly unique and universally shared.

In the end maybe that’s the problem. We are organized into historical structures that have often been oppositional–religious groups, nation-states, etc. It feels like we’re lacking a dialog about what we all share and that lack of common ground hurts our ability to tackle global problems.

Maybe the idea of exploring new frontiers is the catalyst that can usher us to a new culturally enlightened, global cooperation. But if not, then at least we’d be off planet.

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Last modified: January 31, 2015