By Wasif Abu Yusuf
You would think that discovering water supplies and alien life to potentially aid humanity is a noble cause in itself.
It’s difficult to buy this argument. Currently more than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Water scarcity can be a result of two mechanisms: physical (absolute) water scarcity and economic water scarcity — where physical water scarcity is a result of inadequate natural water resources to supply a region’s demand, and economic water scarcity is a result of poor management of the sufficient available water resources.
According to the UN Development Programme, the latter is found more often to be the cause of countries or regions experiencing water scarcity, as most countries or regions have enough water to meet household, industrial, agricultural, and environmental needs, but lack the means to provide it in an accessible manner. In fact, a quarter of the world’s population is affected by economic water scarcity. The total cost of the Mars Science Laboratory project alone was $2.5 billion which could go someway in directly resolving access to clean water on earth.
Add to this the challenge of the largest mass migration since World War II. It’s prompted many western states to close their borders to millions of desperate refugees, ironically labelling them as “illegal aliens” – yet the same governments are happy to make encounters of the third kind.
It’s a sobering thought. But surely it’s important to start the search for more resources since supplies will run scarce in the near future?
Let’s assume that sustaining the future of mankind is the primary consideration with any future mission to Mars. Even this hinges on a flawed premise. It relies on a dominant Capitalist narrative that says “there’s billions of us on a tiny planet with infinite needs – but our resources are finite. So to survive we must aggressively compete for resources or fund massive projects not just on Earth but in our solar system and beyond to increase our supply”. Well firstly, a philosophy that breeds darwinian attitudes doesn’t mix well with projects for collective welfare.
Alright, a simple critique of the premise goes to show that what is touted as “infinite needs” is actually “infinite wants”. In a consumer society, the endless regurgitation of facelift cars, phones and fashion cannot be considered as “needs”. They are part of an economic system that focuses on perpetual production and growth – it’s simply not sustainable. The world economy maybe generating record wealth with liberal democracies driving this, but half of the world’s population will not have had enough food today as they earn less then $2 a day – 80% of the world lives on less then $10 a day. World poverty has in fact accelerated under Capitalism.
But the initial premise also explains why effective resource allocation on Earth is not prioritised; if needs are considered infinite and cannot be satisfied, the natural progression would be to continuously grow the supply or find more – distribution of resources becomes an afterthought assuming it even makes the equation. The reality is that basic human needs are not infinite but limited, and that there is enough on the planet to satisfy everyone – the world already produces enough food for 10 billion people, one and half times the global population! So what does that tell us? Is the problem one of production or circulation?
It seems as if the problem is with how academia and society thinks more than anything else…
We have to ask, how do we perceive our existence on Earth or as part of the universe? And take it from there. Islam restricts the definition of needs to its appropriate place and doesn’t leave it open ended. The Prophet (saw) said:
“The Son of Adam has no better right than that he would have a house wherein he may live, a piece of clothing whereby he may hide his nakedness and a piece of bread and some water.” [Tirmidhi]
Its economic system states that since needs and resources are both limited, let’s focus on circulating wealth and resources.
Here, increasing the supply is actually a secondary function since man’s own instincts and desires lean towards ensuring growth when required. Under Capitalism, distribution is the secondary function and is mostly left to altruism alone. Well that has been a disaster.
Richard Robbins confirms this in his award winning book ‘Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism’ when he said “The emergence of Capitalism represents a culture that is in many ways is the most successful that has ever been deployed in terms of accommodating large numbers of individuals in relative and absolute comfort and luxury. It has not been as successful, however, in integrating all in equal measure, and its failure here remains one of its major problems.”
It’s amazing how even the most mundane or seemingly pragmatic political or economic actions are rooted in some sort of philosophical belief or ideology. What other motivations could the US government have to pump billions into projects such as this?
Ok, incorrect philosophical underpinnings aside, funding such programs in a capitalist state with a powerful military-industrial complex serves a number of functions. ‘Major announcements’ of discoveries have been made at regular intervals for the past 50 years, capturing the public’s imagination and forcing the taxpayer to keep subsidising high-technology industry – whether its for “defense” purposes to control the empire, to keep the capitalist economy going or purely narcissism.
No politician is going to say: “Alright, next year you’re going to lower your standard of living, because you have to subsidise IBM so that it can produce fifth generation computers.” If any politician ever started talking that way, people would say: “Okay, we want to start getting involved in social and economic policy-making too.”
Large private corporations are not going to pay the costs of research and development – why should they? They want the taxpayer to pay for them, by funding a NASA program, or the next model of fighter jet.
How do these projects serve the military or big business exactly? Most mega projects have been and will always be funded by the tax payer anyway.
In the 1980’s, there was a big new “fifth generation” computer project – this involved the development of new software, computers and so on – and the development of all of this was extremely expensive. So therefore it went straight back to the taxpayer to foot the bills again – that is what the Strategic Defense Initiative i.e. “Star Wars” was about. Star Wars is basically a technique for subsidising high-technology industry – fancy software, complicated computer systems, fifth generation computers, lasers, and so on. And if anything marketable comes out of all that, then the taxpayer will be put aside as usual, and it’ll go to the corporations to be patented and to make profits off it. It’s a “free market” system where big corporations often get to see the proverbial “invisible hand” and benefit from it.
In fact, the only parts of the US economy that are internationally competitive are the planned, subsidised parts – like capital intensive agriculture (which has a state-guaranteed market as a cushion in case there are excesses); or high technology industry (which is dependent on the Pentagon and NASA system); or pharmaceuticals (which is massively subsidised by publicly funded research). Those are parts of the US economy that are functioning well.
Yes, there have been budgetary hurdles and debates over necessary mission goals that limits missions to Mars – but a suspected water discovery coinciding with the release of Matt Damon’s movie ‘Martian’ won’t hurt public opinion to fund more extravagant campaigns.
The issue of defense is particularly interesting…
The US space exploration and its research have been the powerhouse for a number of developments within the military, this was summed up accurately in the first paragraph of the new national space policy:
’In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not.’
And the Vision for 2020, a 1996 report of the US Space Command, which coordinates the use of Army, Navy, and Air Force space forces, which was set up in 1985 to help institutionalize the use of space explicitly mentions the US wants to ‘control space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world’. It also mentions “US Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into war fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.” The report opens with the following: “Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests, by ruling the seas. Now it is time to rule space.”
So you see, there are a number of motives to promote a major space project; it could be a narcissistic pursuit of secular academics, a Capitalist ideological motive on how it solves a potential water crisis, a US military interest on how it seeks to fund its next generation systems and a corporate interest on how to monopolise new technology and benefit from public funded projects. The point is that outlining the motives clearly would not bode well with the public.
Considering all that’s been said, are we saying that a Khilafah State would have no room for extra-planetary exploration?
At the moment we find that major powers who have some elements of space capability view the whole affair from a purely national interest perspective, which implicitly means they believe that space is their right. This sense of entitlement has led the US to veto all attempts of a global agreement on space for exploration and peaceful uses only.
Similarly, China and Russia put their national interests first and have only taken part in international agreements to restrict the US. The current international framework was designed and set-up to protect the interests of nations such as the US, Britain, France, China and Russia after WW2 so a global consensus on space exploration has suffered as a result.
With Islam the perspective for space exploration is completely different and a future Khilafah State would pursue such a policy. Space represents an area which although no nation physically owns its use affects the whole world and needs them to come together to agree on its use and pool resources.
How would it work?
It’s similar to the use of the world’s oceans and common resources such as the Suez Canal and the Silk Road in the past. In the past we see that common resources were usually under the authority of locals or a dominant power who would charge a tax for its use which would then be used for its maintenance and development.
So the Uthmani’s would charge a tax for large areas of the Mediterranean in order for harbours and ports to be developed to facilitate trade. Space is again such an area which transcends national boundaries and needs the world to come together similar to issues such as Aids, global warming, terrorism, conflict diamonds etc.
The coming together on resources which are needed for the masses is something which has been present in Islamic jurisprudence throughout the Islamic history. In Islam, public property is commonly where permission has been given to the community to share the use of the asset. This is generally something which is considered a public utility where a community would disperse in search for it if it were not available or the uncountable stores of minerals and resources that prevent individuals from possession.
I’m not going to lie – it’s great to know that Islam has its own vision for the final frontier!
If things are left as they stand, space will go the same way as oil and gas have, where the global powers wrestle control of vital resources leading to further chaos and conflict as can be seen in Africa or the Middle East.
So a real alternative is needed. The Khilafah State will guarantee access to vital resources – it doesn’t view the world through a capitalist self-interest angle but rather it views the world as something which it will be accounted for, and the actions it undertook to ensure justice prevailed.
So the world needs to come together on common resources and this can be achieved if all nations view them as common assets which all can freely benefit from. Specifically in regards to space, all the world needs to come together as it’s beyond any one nation to develop. If any nation does try to gain a monopoly public opinion can be used to put an end to the belligerence.