Greening the Heavens

Yoann Boyer/Cratère Commerson, Réunion, France

Theorists have been imagining a fully artificialized—that is, domesticated and urbanized—planet since the 1700s. This was a kernel ambition of the Enlightenment—to reach a state of planetary mastery in which all of the globe’s flows of matter and energy would be dammed and harnessed by systems of human design and purpose. It was only in the mid-1800s, however, that our ambitions started moving further afield. By the early 1900s, people had begun imagining a fully artificialized universe.

This is the legacy of the Enlightenment ambition of turning blind nature into a rational system. It motivated early utopian socialists, who in the early 1800s demanded a “beautification” of the entire “terrestrial globe” achieved by our compulsion “to appropriate matter in a thousand different ways.” Over 150 years subsequently, it similarly motivated the physicist Freeman Dyson when he predicted that spacefaring super-civilizations would achieve such mastery over their surrounding universe that “starlight, instead of shining wastefully all over the galaxy, would be carefully dammed and regulated” because the stars themselves would be artificially “grouped and organized.”

But the future has a long history. From the early Enlightenment to Dyson, it was by no means settled. Visions of the future establish what society is working toward. Differing visions reflect the differing values and goals of their beholders. Throughout the 20th century, the Western and Soviet projects played out their rivalry in a struggle to define its content in their competing visions in science fiction and in their great symbolic accomplishments, like the moon landing. Building a positive image of the future—one which captures imaginations—is the first step in actually shaping it.

In 1960, Dyson famously proposed the building of artificial spheres around stars—made up of orbiting swarms of solar panels—so as to totally harness the star’s energy output. There is no good reason for one drop of light to go to waste, and since the Enlightenment we have been trying to replace everything purposeless and uncultivated with grand systems of purposeful design. We have a direct through-line from Saint-Simonism to SETI and a direct thread from Charles Fourier talking in 1808 about a “fully cultivated” planet, to Nikolai Kardashev talking about the “urbanization” of the entire galaxy in the 1960s.

But as soon as we started spreading the scope of our ambitions into the local universe, the possibility arose of us spreading our bad habits with us. Already in 1888, Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu (brother of the noted French economist) wrote:

It has been long said that Europe is becoming too small; cramped up at home, it extends more and more into the four corners of the world. Today, it is the Earth itself, which we so easily traverse, which seems too limited for our voyagers and scientists, for our commercial or political ambitions. And, because of the way civilized peoples take possession of the globe, spreading out over the two hemispheres, subjugating barbarian peoples and still-vacant lands, we will soon regret that we do not have within our reach other planets where to transport our products and our competition.

Some would find a vision of the cosmic leakage of free markets and extractive colonialism disturbing. The notion of our ultimate future potential as a species has always been a space of contestation between Eastern and Western proclivities—between what later eventually developed into a split between Soviet-approved “prognostika” and the reviled Western “bourgeois futurology”—and it was none other than the father of Soviet futurism, Nikolai Fyodorov, who quickly reacted to Leroy-Beaulieu’s free market cosmos with revulsion.

Writing around the turn of the 1900s, Fyodorov argued that achieving an interplanetary empire-state mercantilism would be merely to “transfer to Heaven the imperfections of the Earth.” This contagion is the sick fantasy of all “millionaires and billionaires,” Fyodorov petitioned, “to spread our industry to other planets and worlds and infect them with our commercial gain.” The fear persists today: Bezos and his ambitions of orbital amusement parks would provoke Fyodorov no end. But this did not mean that Fyodorov didn’t want to go to space. He just believed that Western capitalism wasn’t the route to get there and would actually lead to extinction of the species. Instead, he dreamed of post-scarcity Enlightenments all throughout space.

Today, however, disillusionment reigns. Many think that spreading outward-bound would inevitably look more like Leroy-Beaulieu than Fyodorov.

For the contemporary cynic, a master of suspicion well-versed in strains of postmodern deconstruction that attack any pretension of progress or grand narrative, the Enlightenment ambition of transforming blind nature into rational system—and doing so at increasingly stupendous scales—collapses into an interplanetary pandemic of all-too-human failure, compounding the proximity of ‘colonization’ to ‘colonialism.’ But let’s not be masters of suspicion: intelligence has a track record of outpacing the errors of its past. That is to say, it has a track record of not respecting any track record. And the impersonal authority of reason, according to the Enlightenment vision of emancipation, rests in the fact that what is genuinely a legitimate reason for you is an equally legitimate reason for me—regardless of who we are and where we are from—which is exactly what insulates the authority of rationality against the corruptions and biases of more arbitrary and parochial avatars of power.

So, in this modern Enlightenment view, just as our society came to believe that uncritical filiation to the accidence of one’s particular bloodline or nation or race is an irrational chauvinism (and certainly no justification for pillaging other peoples) so too, in leaving behind attachment to the sheer accidence of our planetary cradle and spreading outward-bound into the local universe, civilizations like ours may just outpace the errors of their bloody, oppressive, war-like, selfish past so as to achieve incandescent Enlightenment-in-space.

Or maybe not. Here’s Dyson, again, in a letter in the Scientific American from 1964:

Intelligence may indeed be a benign influence, creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens and enabling them to share at leisure their accumulated wisdom. Or intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation, sweeping across a galaxy as irresistibly as it swept across our own planet.

Dyson calculates that such “technological cancer could spread over a whole galaxy in a few million years.” He later envisioned this as a “spread of insanity.” Some intelligences, when making the outward-bound step, will merely bring their own psychopathy and exploitations with them. “Some of us will shit on the morning star,” he mused. So, civilizational virtuosity also enables civilizational crimes. The same year as Dyson’s letter, his cosmologist colleague Fred Hoyle worried that if Homo sapiens doesn’t mature in the correct way as a technological civilization, we “could end up as a criminal species.”

This is the same Dyson who proposed that humanity make giant sun-sapping shells by ripping up planets in order to requisition their dark materials, and that this would be a commonplace feature of the “energy metabolism” of advanced super-civilizations.

Everything, of course, hinges upon that phrase “technological exploitation.” There are different ways of expanding manipulation of the environment all throughout the cosmos. The modern techno-industrial mindset tends to focus on just one path forward. It presumes that there will be a monotonic increase in invasiveness and disruptiveness of the kind seen in the technologies of the industrial era. The paradigm would be a kind of planetary-scale fracking, calling up all the negative aesthetics that this justifiably or unjustifiably brings. But there are other fashions, other futures. Post-industrial society has already introduced new trends in technology that counteract this invasive and disruptive trajectory. As our techniques become more advanced, they become more seamless, more indistinguishable from nature’s pre-existing materials. In synthetic biology and climate engineering, the barrier between what is considered ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is already collapsing.

In the same year as Dyson’s letter to the Scientific American, the Polish sci-fi genius Stanisław Lem wrote of intelligences that we may encounter in our cosmic explorations that we won’t even recognize as such because “man favors a heroic attack on the surrounding matter.” “But this is just a sign of our anthropocentrism,” Lem added. The future may not look like satanic mills in space, after all.

So, what of these other, benign forms of colonization—the ones outstripping the malignance of any colonial past so as to escape an undesirable future?

In 1972, eight years after Hoyle’s letter to the Scientific American, The New York Times published an article titled “Will Galaxy Reveal a Technological Cancer? A Physicist Wonders.” The physicist in question was Dyson, who was pondering alternatives to the “technological cancer”:

It seems to me entirely conceivable that a technological civilization which had not wished to go the route of heavy machinery might, in fact, have colonized the galaxy…Simply by growing trees on comets and feeding on the biological by-products of the growth of plants, that civilization could propagate from comet to comet, from star to star. If such a civilization does not already exist, perhaps we shall one day create it ourselves, and in this way achieve the greening of the galaxy.

He would return to this suggestion again in later writings, upscaling its scope to a “greening of the universe.” Instead of shitting on the morning star, we might compost the local cluster: our “descendants will perhaps learn to grow gardens in stellar winds and in supernova remnants.” We may ‘exploit’ the galaxy in the same way the horticulturist ‘exploits’ their green house: breeding exotic beauties throughout endless biospheres for the pursuit of aesthetics alone.

The word ‘exploitation’ carries the baggage of negative valence. But someone who breeds beautiful orchids is also “exploiting” nature. One could easily imagine a state of such technological aptitude wherein one’s tools are so seamless and uninvasive that Dyson’s galactic ‘greening’ would, for all intents and purposes, be the ultimate erasure of ‘wild’ nature in its entirety.

For the master of suspicion, the ways in which various historically and geographically-specific ideologies have clearly canalized our visions of Enlightenment-in-space may seem to delegitimize or cast doubt upon the entire ideal. For the cynic, such universalizing hope is revealed as just a congerie of very parochial and particular happenstances. The cynic’s skill, indeed, rests in reducing all guiding hopes for the future into mere artefacts of past ideologies; they do so by unveiling all seemingly legitimating reasons as nothing but historically contingent causes. But this does not get the picture whole. We pursue legitimating values fallibly, this much is true. But this fallibility—instead of debunking the entire endeavor—is precisely why we can say that our values are not done with us yet: the mess of history, it’s obsolescing ideologies and moral dead ends, is precisely the process of us correcting ourselves and therefore working out, more and more, what is truly valuable and how we can exert our will to achieve it. Looking at these contestations and fears does not contaminate our cosmic hopes by dragging them over the muck of our very terrestrial history, all it unveils is the messy process of our learning ever better how to get there.

Look to the example of ‘exploitation.’ The still-prevalent idea that ‘exploitation’ of nature is inherently destabilizing or, at least, unsustainable rests in a hasty induction based on prior experience and industrial history. But one could easily imaging a state of such technological aptitude where one’s tools are so seamless and uninvasive that Dyson’s galactic ‘greening’ would, to all intents and purposes, be the ultimate erasure of ‘wild’ nature in its entirety. It would be a totalizing spread of biotechnology: absolute exploitation. Such a civilization could well preserve and maintain various oases or refugia of ‘uncultivated’ nature for the purposes of sentimentality or conservationism, of course.

In the 1970s, the Scottish science writer Duncan Lunan speculated that a conservationist culture prevalent in some technologically advanced future civilization might want to conserve the planets in its home system (“not just for sentiment but as a reminder that uncontrolled expansion can’t be continued indefinitely” within a limited space). Yet, even in spite of their best wishes, the pressures of a “steadily expanding population” might “make dismantling the planets essential.” Certainly, in the original paper on the Dyson sphere, the background assumption for Dyson was that “Malthusian principles” will inevitably and eventually come into play: any maturing technological civilization will eventually bump up against planetary carrying capacity, thus spurring it to increase efficiency by damming up the otherwise wasted irradiance of its host star.

Thomas Malthus—the eighteenth-century cleric, often railed against, but rarely read—casts a long shadow. His pessimist provocation was fertile and innovative ground for later engineers and optimists. Responses to the provocation also further structure the distinction between Eastern and Western contestations—between Soviet and Anglophone contestations—over the shape of the future.

The Russians, from the very beginning, used Malthus as a foil in their predictions for the future of humanity. As early as the 1840s, Russian Prince Vladimir Odoevsky forecasted two starkly contrastive branching paths for human civilization. If we follow the extractive, utilitarian, ‘dismal science’ of the West, he supposed, we will eventually inevitably commit suicide as a species and (literally) blow up the entire world. His alternate future envisioned a resplendent “world enlightenment” centered in and emanating from the “Russian hemisphere.” (Of course). In this utopian future, Russia has become a global superpower and the West has regressed into a “savage” backwater. Cleverly, Odoevsky suggested a workaround for the problem of Malthusian limits to his Slavic post-scarcity utopia: unclaimed space for hydroponics and farming on the moon. He suggested turning lunar landscapes into agricultural expanses.

Around 60 years later, Russian cosmist philosophers such as Fyodorov took this much further. His protégé, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—pioneer of Soviet astronautics and inventor of the rocket equation—tried to calculate the total ratio of organic to inorganic matter in the universe. Why? He reasoned that a universe with more life in it was more valuable than a universe with less. So, he envisioned how we could artificially increase this ratio. He suggested we create miniature self-sustaining life-worlds out of requisitioned and hollowed-out asteroid bodies—little floating gardens, like terrarium biosphere spores—and use them to seed the entire universe. Later, in the 1960s, the American aerospace engineer Dandridge Cole noted that this kind of advance would grant our civilization the one defining feature of a living organism that it currently lacks: the ability for reproduction. He called this civilizational mitosis “Macro-Life.” Spaceships are sperm for the civilizational macro-organism. Indeed, Cole described our accelerating approach toward the climax represented by this kind of outward-bound explosion as a “cosmic orgasm.”

Tsiolkovsky’s mentor in cosmism, Fyodorov, was adamant that if it eventually became fully globalized, the Western industrialist approach—and its “passion for manufactured toys” and “luxuries”—would lead inevitably to “degeneration and extinction” for our species. Only pursuing interplanetary enlightenment, rather than preternaturally pleasurable trinkets, would prevent our species from becoming criminal, he reasoned. But Fyodorov wanted cosmic colonization not just for mere accumulation—population for population’s sake, as a mere heightening of a number. Fyodorov saw biological “procreation” itself as just a prolonging of nature’s pointless pain; because biological sex is merely blindly following—and surrendering to—something Darwinian rather than designed. It is “submission to blind evolution.”

Just as wasteful starlight must be dammed, Fyodorov thought biological sex must also be sequestered and its carnal energies rerouted to something more disinterested. The Marxist crystallographer J.D. Bernal, writing in the 1920s, suggested exactly this. He projected that as humanity progressed into posthumanity, sexuality would drift away from a biological drive of blind replication and eventually turn entirely into a form of pure creation. Sexual meiosis is one form of approaching immortality, but art, and technological submersion in the immortal collective, is another. And for Bernal, the latter is clearly far more rational. And so, Bernal supposed that posthumanity will eventually propagate itself not through biological reproduction, but through editing the very laws of nature themselves—through making nature itself into an artefact of its own creation. Self-interested sex will give way to disinterested art, which itself would eventually transform from mimesis into cosmogenesis itself; or, future romance becomes the budding of entirely new natures, once second-hand reproduction becomes first-hand production.

The orgasm of supercivilization, as a form of mitotic “Macro-Life,” would be a Dysonian greening of the galaxy in the sense of universal gardening: an astronomical horticulture, pursued purely for the purposes of beautification and artistry alone.

Here we run into the Fermi Paradox. The Paradox goes like this: given that inorganic matter blossomed into an outward-bound technological civilization on Earth, why does it not seem to have done so elsewhere? From extremophiles to exoplanets, evidence grows that we should actually be positive latecomers on the galactic scene. So, our more advanced elders should be out there. Why, then, do we not see vast Mona Lisas woven out of galactic filaments? Where are the artisanal stars? Where is the stellar horticulture?

This question was first asked in the 1950s at the very site of the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. The first solutions to the Paradox suggested that we do not see gardens of intelligence blossoming across the night sky because all technological civilizations eventually wipe themselves out in blazes of thermonuclear holocaust. German physicist Sebastian von Hoerner published one of the first academic papers on the topic in 1961. He ascribed a 60 percent probability of nuclear gigadeath culling a burgeoning technical civilization.

Across the Iron Curtain, a book on Dialectical Materialism & Modern Astronomy by a Kazakh professor balked at von Hoerner’s 60 percent likelihood, calling it the result of “German bourgeois” ideology because only for a Westerner could the animal laws of terrestrial capitalism be considered universal for reason in the cosmos.

One of the premier Soviet astrophysicists of the day, Iosif Shklovsky, chimed in a decade later, a few years after the first Soviet-American SETI conference in 1971, claiming that these popular catastrophic prognoses of Westerners were the result of capitalist ideology alone. They are all not taking into account “a communist transformation of society,” he declared, “which will remove the very possibility of such crisis situations.”

By this time, a plethora of other (non-catastrophist) answers to Fermi’s Paradox had already been produced. The master of Slavic sci-fi, Stanisław Lem, claimed in 1971 that we do not see artefacts of intelligent activity because they are “already everywhere.”

The idea was this: if the cardinal tendency of technologization is intensifying manipulation over one’s environment, then there will be a point of such mastery where there is little distinction between the intelligence and its environment. Its artificial systems will be so integrated with surrounding nature that they become indistinguishable. The artificialization of nature slides into the naturalization of artifice. Away goes the “heroic attack,” replaced with far more seamless forms of manipulation and control. And this might be one reason why we do not obviously see advanced extraterrestrial intelligences, Lem suggested. They become indistinct from surrounding cosmos.

In this future, the Satanic mills of industry are just a temporary, indeed primitive, phase of intelligence’s maturation: a true intelligence doesn’t need such crudities; it has much more seamless access to the engines of creation. Instead of dismantling natural systems, a truly advanced intelligence might begin to not look extrinsically much different from a “biosphere” traditionally conceived, or as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin envisioned it, a unified and intelligent “noosphere.” Might it not be far more energy efficient to work with nature’s preexisting complexities rather than against them? Why destroy an ecosystem when you can requisition it as your brain and body, a ramification of your own nervous system and production processes? Dyson himself spoke of his circumstellar spheres not as technological tumors or as big dumb industrial objects. He consistently spoke of them instead as “artificial biospheres.” The choice of “biosphere” is significant. Wouldn’t the spread of such an intelligence not look like a “technological cancer,” but a “greening of the galaxy”?

Lem casually played around with this thesis in a book of reviews of imaginary books. However, it is the brilliant Serbian astrophysicist Milan M. Ćirković who recently reinvigorated the idea. He calls it “post-postbiological evolution.” Futurists often talk of a future postbiological phase of evolution characterized by the phasing out of biological systems in place of machinic ones. Hardware, it is thought, will come to replace wetware. But this trend toward silicization may again reverse as technologies become more and more capable and seamlessly integrated with their environment. Ćirković writes:

The difference between conventionally ‘natural’ and conventionally ‘artificial’ has almost monotonously increased over the course of human history so far. At some point, these will begin to re-converge.

We see glimmerings of this re-integration already with synthetic biology, genome editing, geoengineering, and artificial intelligence, which already are starting to collapse the natural-artificial distinction, even in their currently primitive state. Dyson himself had referred to “gray” and “green” approaches to technologization. “Human technology is gray, God’s technology is green,” he joked. Why not steal God’s fire, then? Following this thread all the way through, Ćirković speculates about the possibility of “biocomputing so energy-efficient and widely distributed that it is literally woven into the biosphere of a planet including grass, marine flora, coral reefs, etc.”

Importantly, however, Ćirković points out that this is not at all to be “regarded as some simplistic ‘return to Mother Nature.’” Instead, it actually “represents the real ‘end of nature’” in the sense of any residual natural realm untouched by our intelligent designs or activity. It is total artificialization, but in a bio-ecological pattern. There would no longer be any autonomous world. None of the residual romanticism of Dyson’s 60s-era environmentalist rhetoric, then. The “greening of the galaxy” would be an omnidirectional shockwave of technological exploitation. It is a mere parochialism of our limited historical perspective that we inherently think that this would be bad or unpalatable.

Nikolai Fyodorov, as ever, had already anticipated these developments from as far back as the 1890s. He said the entire solar system “must be brought into the field of agriculture.” Not only will we turn the circumstellar deserts into our verdant field, but we will also make the entire system an extension of our nervous system. He wrote that “the present state of the solar system can be compared to an organism in which the nervous system has not yet fully developed and has not yet become differentiated from its muscular and other systems.” In other words, it is a substrate simply awaiting ingress of us as a brain or central-planning system:

Man’s economic needs require the organization of just such a regulatory apparatus, without which the solar system would remain a blind…entity. The problem consists, on the one hand, in elaborating the paths which would transmit to human consciousness everything going on in the solar system and, on the other, in establishing the conductors by means of which all that is happening in it…could become [rational] activity.

Artificializing nature again slides into the naturalization of artifice as we make the entirety of the solar system into a massively distributed nervous system. Fyodorov imagined using “the heavenly bodies” as the replacement for “sensory and motor nerves” in order to forge an outward “brain center” and, by the weaving together of such a distributed substrate, this would allow the otherwise “unconscious” and “blind” expanses of outer space to “achieve full self-consciousness and self-government.” Intelligent activity wouldn’t stick out against surrounding nature, surrounding nature would be intelligent activity. Of course, visionaries in our own time have written about the physical plausibility of reworking whole planets into vast computational “Jupiter-brains.”

Yet Fyodorov wasn’t alone in his prescience. The equally forward-thinking French author J.-H. Rosny aîné, at around the same time in 1889, speculated on similar post-postbiological futures. He said that one begins to “dream of an era in which mechanisms, properly speaking, will disappear from our apparatus, giving way to appropriations of lines of force.” Once this has happened, “[t]he Earth, stripped of mechanical devices, having disciplined all conductivities and resistances, will become the passive and unconscious reservoir of what humankind has acquired over the millennia.” By this, Rosny undoubtedly meant that the entire planet will basically become our central nervous system (it was common to refer to the nervous system at the time as an “unconscious reservoir” of instinct and memory). He goes on to predict something like utilizing the preexisting biosphere as a vast substrate for distributed computations and cogitations:

As a side-effect of vital development, metamorphoses inscribed in every atom by the phases of life, a scientific retention in the unconscious would also increase, after a fashion: a fixation of central memory on the surface of the habitat, doubling the power of the action of [the planet].

Living nature itself, rather than any crude “mechanism”, would be the medium. Yet, it is interesting that Rosny connects this trajectory to the kind of “unconscious,” or reflexive, functioning of much of the lower nervous system (rather than the much lauded central-planning portion). As is again brought to our attention by Ćirković, the sci-fi author Karl Schroeder has, much closer to our own time, suggested his own fascinating explanation for the Fermi Paradox in a 2002 novel titled Permanence:

What we found instead was that even though a species might remain starfaring for millions of years, consciousness does not seem to be required for toolmaking. In fact, consciousness appears to be a phase…We know that [consciousness] evolves to enable a species to deal with unforeseen situations. By definition, anything we’ve mastered becomes instinctive. Walking is not something we have to consciously think about, right? Well, what about physics, chemistry, social engineering? If we have to think about them, we haven’t mastered them—they are still troublesome to us. A species that succeeds in really mastering something like physics has no more need to be conscious of it. Quantum mechanics becomes an instinct, the way ballistics already is for us. Originally, we must have had to put a lot of thought into throwing things like rocks or spears. We eventually evolved to be able to throw without thinking—and that is a sign of things to come. Someday, we’ll become [able] to maintain a technological infrastructure without needing to think about it. Without need to think, at all…

So, a much more troubling spin on the post-postbiological future notion. Already in the 1970s, the astronomer Adrian Berry complained that pursuing “Rousseau-like dreams” of a “return to nature” would mean that “the human mind would stagnate” and, in the long-term, would “make us essentially un-human.” Perhaps human-like consciousness needs to define itself by its “heroic attack”? At around the same time as Berry’s green-fears, the molecular biologist Gunther Stent suggested that we don’t see the vast engineering projects of intergalactic super-civilizations because many of them follow this route of eventual “immersion” with nature. In comments that haven’t aged well, he classified the heroic subjugation of matter as the “Western” mindset and denigrated the desire for seamless integration as the “Eastern” one. He looked to the hippies and counterculture of the day and feared that they evidenced a beginning of the trend: the germ had caught globally, and our entire species was going in this direction, leading to an end to scientific progress and eternal stagnation. He prophesied beatnik LSD Armageddon.

Back in Russia, two Soviet philosophers in 1977 reported on this hypothesis of a loss of interest in technology. They said that some Western scientists predict “the possible rejection in the future of the ‘technological way’ of development, that is, our transformation into something like dolphins.” They concluded, however, that humans—or communists, at least—did not intend on becoming post-technological cetaceans anytime soon. The year prior, Iosif Shklovsky had similarly rallied the typical Soviet complaint against these ideas: such soothsaying visions of post-technological evolution, he claimed, only “reflect the crisis of bourgeois ideology in the advanced, highly developed capitalist countries.” However, he had elsewhere claimed that just such post-technical outcomes were a serious plausibility and that, though they technically entail some form of survival, they would be just as bad as thermonuclear extinction.

In 1961, the pioneer scientists of the early days of SETI had called themselves the “Order of the Dolphin.” This was due to the participation of John C. Lilly, the neuroscientist who popularized the idea of interspecies communication and studied dolphin intelligence. At the same time, Leo Szilard—who, along with Fermi, helped invent the atom bomb—published a fiction book entitled The Voice of the Dolphins. It tells an alternate history of the Cold War, recounting how Russia and America attempt to thaw relations by supporting a joint scientific research project: the Vienna Institute. The Institute, meant to focus on molecular biology, curiously publishes all of its first papers on the topic of dolphin intelligence. They have begun to discover, with the help of Lilly’s prior work, that cetacean “intelligence far surpassed that of man.” It is just that the dolphins simply happen to not at all care about the “heroic attack on the surrounding matter” or expanding their influence across the universe: they were happy with their “submerged mode of life.” They haven’t yet produced technological empires not because of “lack of intellectual capacity but rather [because of] lack of motivation.”

However, upon finding ways to motivate the dolphins to “perform intellectually strenuous tasks,” the scientists at the Institute motivate them to solve human problems. The dolphins start winning Nobel Prizes and making breakthroughs in all fields of knowledge. Eventually, they solve the question of world peace, ending the Cold War and achieving global disarmament. Not only this, they also crack famine and overpopulation: but this is not achieved by invasive industry, but rather by a form of seamless biotechnology. In keeping with the overpopulation worries of the 1960s, the dolphins isolate a “strain of commonly occurring algae” which can be grown anywhere, is nutritional, antibiotic, and regulates fertility.

Shklovsky is right that intelligence without motivation is as good as no intelligence at all. Why spend all that energy to maintain a brain if you’re not really using it? The untapped ingenuity of Szilard’s charming dolphins is as unconscionable as squandered sunlight. But contrary to the visions of some of these thinkers, it does not seem necessary at all that better integrating our technological means with surrounding nature will also entail losing our ambitious ends.

We merely need to balance the tightrope between oceanic immersion and desecrating the morning star. Perhaps then we can truly naturalize intelligent artifice. However, the fact that even our best minds have consistently collapsed such grand Enlightenment promises into fractionations between conflicting ideologies, always colored by the worries of the time, makes any grand synthesis of the one true future seem out of reach. Dialectical materialism did not prove the pathway to the stars, and not for lack of blind faith.

But let’s not be cynics: we build a future for ourselves by outpacing the errors of our errant past and refining the plausibility of our visions, so that one day our descendants may eventually achieve a horticulture of the heavens. And perhaps the inevitable coloring of our visions of the future by the worries and ideological conflicts of our own times is not such a problem if we can learn to swim comfortably in the postmodern uncertainty. Once more, acknowledging that we alone are in charge of our values is nothing other than taking accountability for them; and what’s more, recognizing the fallibility of our resulting beliefs and actions is no warrant for disillusionment, but the first step toward correcting them.

Thomas Moynihan is a researcher from the UK, currently working with Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. His book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Extinction is forthcoming with Urbanomic/MIT Press.