Science, technology and space colonization were leading areas of focus and interest for author Isaac Asimov. Dr. Asimov was thoughtful and animated during his interview.
PHOTOS: STEVE KEULL
Isaac Asimov is one of the world's most famous science fiction authors. His I, Robot and Foundation books are regarded as classics in the field, and his short story "Nightfall" was once proclaimed—by its creator's colleagues—the greatest science fiction story of all time!
Dr. Asimov is also respected for his ability to write about science, technology, and space for the general public. He's composed over 100 such books, on every topic from photosynthesis to the collapsing-universe theory. And, in addition, the incredibly prolific author has penned mysteries, annotated guides to literature and the Bible, a two-volume autobiography (In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt), collections of limericks, and dozens of books about history. In fact, on the day that MOTHER EARTH NEWS visited Dr. Asimov in his New York City apartment, the writer received an advance copy of his217thpublished book!
Still, Asimov's name is not generally associated with alternative technology, self-sufficiency, ecology, or most other "MOTHER EARTH NEWS-type" topics ... so some of you may be wondering why we sought to run an Isaac Asimov interview. (Actually, the famed author seemed a bit puzzled by the idea himself. He responded to our initial invitation by gruffly suggesting that our magazine "berates technology" and would try to cure the miseries of the world "by lynching the nearest engineer!")
The truth is that the folks here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS realize it isn't necessary to agree with everything a person says in order to learn from that individual. On the contrary, it's often possible to profit more by listening to the opinions of a differently oriented thinker than by paying attention only to those of someone whose ideas exactly mirror our own! Furthermore, humanity's future will be inexorably linked with the problems and potentials of science and technology ... and we were sure that Asimov—whom astronomer Carl Sagan once called "the great explainer of our [technological] age"—would be bound to have some instructive and original thoughts about the role of science in this rapidly changing world.
Well, let us tell you right now that Dr. Asimov didn't disappoint us. Oh, it took a while to persuade him to agree to an interview—and he did seem less than enthusiastic when staff writer Pat Stone and photographer Steve Keull first arrived at his door last June—but, once everyone sat down to talk, the renowned writer treated MOTHER EARTH NEWS' emissaries to a very stimulating two-hour discussion.
What follows is the edited transcript of that conversation.
PLOWBOY: Dr. Asimov, in your science books and articles—be they concerned with black holes or biology—you always begin by tracing the development of humankind's knowledge in the subject area. Could you start this interview by giving us a bit of information about your own "historical development?"
ASIMOV: Gee, I don't know that there's anything particularly fascinating about my background. My family migrated from a small village in Russia to New York City when I was three years old. We lived in Brooklyn, my parents ran a candy store, and I worked in the store—whenever I could—during my childhood years.
Now my father thought that most of the publications he carried in his shop's newsstand were "junk", so he wouldn't let me read them. He did let me read science fiction, though. He couldn't speak English very well, you see ... and I think he felt that science fiction must have had something to do with science, and that it therefore would be good for me.
So at age nine I began reading science fiction. And, over the years, I became so interested in such stories that—by the time I reached 17 years of age—I started trying to write some of my own. My first few attempts were rejected by the magazines, but—after several months of trying—I did manage to sell some of my work.
I didn't think I could ever earn a living as a science fiction writer, however, so I continued my career. I went on to enter graduate school and began studying biochemistry—and eventually became an honest-to-God scientist. I also got married, served a stint in the Army, had two children, and all the while continued writing science fiction on the side.
PLOWBOY: When did you make the switch from writing mostly science fiction to producing science texts?
ASIMOV: That phase of my career started when I was teaching at Boston University's Medical School and was asked to help two of my co-workers write a biochemistry textbook. I agreed to give them a hand, and soon discovered that writing nonfiction was even more fun than writing fiction. I also found, however, that working with other people put limits on me, so I decided to go it on my own ... and learned that I greatly enjoyed writing about science when I could do it myself and in my own way.
Then, in 1957, Sputnik One was put into orbit, and many people felt that the United States educational system had been neglecting science. So, being reasonably patriotic, I felt I ought to write more books about science, and—roughly from that moment on—my literary output became largely nonfiction.
PLOWBOY: Do you still write science fiction?
ASIMOV: Some. Actually, I now write more mysteries. Still, to the end of my days I'll probably be known as a science fiction writer. And I have no objection to that. That's the field in which I made my reputation.
PLOWBOY: Can you give me a good definition of science fiction?
ASIMOV: Every science fiction writer defines it differently. For instance, John Campbell—the great, late editor—said that science fiction stories are those that science fiction editors buy.
PLOWBOY: But what is your own definition?
ASIMOV: I think science fiction is the very relevant branch of literature that deals with human response to changes in the level of science and technology. And such writing goes to the heart of matters that trouble us now, because the world is changing at whirlwind speed. Moreover, any person who is, let us say, between 15 and 30 years of age today is likely to live well into the twenty-first century. The world is going to be completely different then!
Now you may think that's a pretty obvious truth, but it isn't at all! Very few people realize that change is inevitable and that it will occur more and more rapidly as time goes on. So it's absolutely essential to consider the future in making our decisions ... and to face that future with daring and guts.
I believe no amount of reading in any field but science fiction is going to convince anyone of the inevitability of change. When a person reads science fiction, though, he or she starts out assuming—in the story at least—that the future will be different.
PLOWBOY: So science fiction helps one adjust to the fact that the world is going to be continually changing. But such writing doesn't usually try to give an accurate picture of what that world will be like, does it?
ASIMOV: I don't know of any science fiction writer who really attempts to be a prophet. Such authors accomplish their tasks not by being correct in their predictions, necessarily, but merely by hammering home—in story after story—the notion that life is going to be different.
PLOWBOY: And, as you see it, the keys to such world changes will be advances in science and technology.
ASIMOV: Science fiction always bases its future visions on changes in the levels of science and technology. And the reason for that consistency is simply that—in reality—all other changes throughout history have been irrelevant and trivial. For example, what difference did it make to the people of the ancient world that Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire? Obviously, that event made some difference to a lot of individuals. But if you look at humanity in general, you'll see that life went on pretty much as it had before the conquest.
On the other hand, consider the changes that were made in people's daily lives by the development of agriculture or the mariner's compass ... and by the invention of gunpowder or printing. Better yet, look at recent history and ask yourself, "What difference would it have made if Hitler had won World War II?" Of course, such a victory would have made a great difference to many people. It would have resulted in much horror, anguish, and pain. I myself would probably not have survived.
But Hitler would have died eventually, and the effects of his victory would gradually have washed out and become insignificant—in terms of real change—when compared to such advances as the actual working out of nuclear power, the advent of television, or the invention of the jet plane.
PLOWBOY: You truly feel that all the major changes in history have been caused by science and technology?
ASIMOV: Those that have proved permanent—the ones that affected every facet of life and made certain that mankind could never go back again—were always brought about by science and technology. In fact, the same twin "movers" were even behind the other "solely" historical changes. Why, for instance, did Martin Luther succeed, whereas other important rebels against the medieval church—like John Huss—fail? Well, Luther was successful because printing had been developed by the time he advanced his cause. So his good earthy writings were put into pamphlets and spread so far and wide that the church officials couldn't have stopped the Protestant Reformation even if they had burned Luther at the stake.
PLOWBOY: Today the world is changing faster than it has at any other time in history. Do you then feel that science—and scientists—are especially important now?
ASIMOV: I do think so, and as a result it's my opinion that anyone who can possibly introduce science to the nonscientist should do so. After all, we don't want scientists to become a priesthood. We don't want society's technological thinkers to know something that nobody else knows—to "bring down the law from Mt. Sinai"—because such a situation would lead to public fear of science and scientists. And fear, as you know, can be dangerous.
PLOWBOY: But scientific knowledge is becoming so incredibly vast and specialized these days that it's difficult for any individual to keep up with it all.
ASIMOV: Well, I don't expect everybody to be a scientist or to understand every new development. After all, there are very few Americans who know enough about football to be a referee or to call the plays ... but many, many people understand the sport well enough to follow the game. It's not important that the average citizen understand science so completely that he or she could actually become involved in research, but it is very important that people be able to "follow the game" well enough to have some intelligent opinions on policy.
Every subject of worldwide importance—each question upon which the life and death of humanity depends—involves science, and people are not going to be able to exercise their democratic right to direct government policy in such areas if they don't understand what the decisions are all about.
PLOWBOY: Are you implying that science and technology can solve all our problems?
ASIMOV: I think technology can save us, if it's used properly. I don't know for sure ... some of our problems may prove insoluble even for science and technology. But if those two tools fail us, nothing else will succeed.
Of course, the decisions that have to be made concerning the uses of science and technology are not easy ones. We must consider the dangers that go along with using specific technologies, and the dangers that could result from failure to use them. To give a specific example, let's suppose that nuclear fission power plants proliferate. If accidents worse than Three Mile Island occur, there could be many deaths. On the other hand, if we were to close down the nuclear power plants and then not succeed in finding adequate replacements for our energy needs, there could also be many deaths. And when a person dies, it makes little difference to that individual whether he or she dies at the hands of nuclear fission or of a nuclear fission power shortage.
We don't have to decide which course of action will destroy us all or save us all, because the questions that await us aren't that simple. Instead, we have to decide which course of action has the best chance of allowing us to progress from this year to next year—and from this century to the next—with a maximum of safety. Nowhere is there a black and white dichotomy. Nowhere are the choices simple and clear.
Indeed, we're not likely to survive without some damage, no matter what direction we take.
PLOWBOY: In your opinion, what are mankind's prospects for the near future?
ASIMOV: To tell the truth, I don't think the odds are very good that we can solve our immediate problems. I think the chances that civilization will survive more than another 30 years—that it will still be flourishing in 2010—are less than 50 percent.
PLOWBOY: What sort of disaster do you foresee?
ASIMOV: I imagine that as population continues to increase—and as the available resources decrease—there will be less energy and food, so we'll all enter a stage of scrounging. The average person's only concerns will be where he or she can get the next meal, the next cigarette, the next means of transportation. In such a universal scramble, the Earth will be just plain desolated, because everyone will be striving merely to survive regardless of the cost to the environment. Put it this way: If I have to choose between saving myself and saving a tree, I'm going to choose me.
Terrorism will also become a way of life in a world marked by severe shortages. Finally, some government will be bound to decide that the only way to get what its people need is to destroy another nation and take its goods ... by pushing the nuclear button.
And this absolute chaos is going to develop—even if nobody wants nuclear war and even if everybody sincerely wants peace and social justice—if the number of mouths to feed continues to grow. Nothing will be able to stand up against the pressure of the whole of humankind simply trying to stay alive!
PLOWBOY: How can we cope with this massive problem?
ASIMOV: I think we'll need some sort of world government. Yet we're not even beginning to move toward such unity today. On the contrary, as I look around the world, it seems to me that even our individual nations are becoming less powerful than before.
PLOWBOY: How can that be? The atomic bomb gives many such countries enough power to devastate the world.
ASIMOV: Yes, nations with nuclear bombs can destroy the world ... but they can't win any wars. We didn't use such explosives in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union isn't using them in Afghanistan, because the bombs are simply too powerful.
It may well be that—by creating a world in which terrorists can have almost all the advantages of advanced technology—science has now made any person capable of defying any government, and is thus helping to make governments feeble.
And, far from welcoming this weakening of government, I think we should realize that it's helping to destroy us. I would much rather see international cooperation become widespread enough to give us at least the equivalent of a world government.
A global ruling system could result in tyranny, of course. But a world dictatorship, no matter how distasteful, may be necessary if we're to face our problems and solve them. Conversely, the lack of a world government may mean global disorder and confusion ... and I don't think chaos can solve anything.
PLOWBOY: What events could possibly motivate the peoples of our divided world to pull together?
ASIMOV: Several human characteristics could become catalysts in establishing a world government. Perhaps the most basic is fear ... fear that the alternative to banding together could be total destruction. For example, it was such a fear that caused Great Britain and the United States to form an alliance with the Soviet Union, against Germany, during World War II.
Now I'm not asking that all nations love one another. All I hope for is that the different countries will cooperate. Of course, if nations work together long enough, people may eventually forget their hatred.
PLOWBOY: What else could lead separate countries to unite?
ASIMOV: We can always count on greed. It may well become necessary to build enormous structures—either on the surface of the Earth or in space—to supply the world with energy ... solar collectors, perhaps, so huge that no single country could manage to construct them on its own. And if it were to come about that feuding nations could get adequate energy supplies only by joining forces, they'd be likely to put aside their differences and cooperate out of greed.
Believe me, the obstacles that keep us from working together today are just going to melt away when energy sources are at stake! Look, for instance, at the Palestinian Liberation Organization. When Israel became a nation in 1948, nobody worried about the Palestinians. But in 1948 it had not yet been established that the Middle East is swimming on an ocean of oil. Now that fact is known ... and the PLO can get the support of almost every country in the world. This turnaround occurred, of course, despite the fact that Europe is Christian, while the Middle East is Muslim, and—for centuries—there has been a traditional conflict between adherents of the two religions.
There's also a third factor that may help bring the world together: pride. If we are faced with the need to build huge structures in space to collect energy, it could prove to be a sufficiently large and global challenge—since I honestly don't think that the United States or the Soviet Union could accomplish such a goal alone or even in combination—that all people would want to be involved with it. Nations would insist on not being cut out of the project.
And it's just possible that there might be sufficient pride in the undertaking to allow people to think of themselves as citizens of Earth rather than as members of this or that subsection. We live in an era when there is a great deal to be ashamed of and a great deal to be angry about, but not much to be proud of. It strikes me that the effort to truly develop space could give all people—and all nations—an opportunity to earn a little self-pride.
PLOWBOY: Trying to industrialize space would be a massive undertaking. What possible gains—other than pride and unity—could justify such an effort?
ASIMOV: Well, if people become sufficiently afraid of nuclear fission, and if coal turns out to be just as dangerous in a different way, and if oil begins to disappear, and if we don't manage to develop nuclear fusion or it doesn't turn out to be a cure-all, and if other forms of energy are just insufficient for our needs ... then people may turn to solar energy. But in order to run our industrial world, we'd have to produce solar electricity on a huge scale, and my feeling is that this cannot be accomplished on the surface of the Earth. For one thing, the development of terrestrial solar power would associate energy with geography, because certain areas get more sunshine than do others.
However, we could collect solar energy in nearby space. A wide bank of solar cells placed in synchronous orbit above Earth's equator could collect much more energy—and do so much more efficiently—than could collectors located on the planetary surface. The electricity formed in such space stations would then be converted to microwave radiation, beamed down to receiving stations, and reconverted to electricity. Such energy would ideally belong to the entire population of Earth instead of becoming the territorial possession of any one nation.
We could also set up orbiting industrial plants to make use of the vacuum, zero gravity, and high- and low-temperature characteristics of space. Risky work with hard radiation and genetics could be carried out "off planet," and we could spill pollution—such pollution as we can't avoid producing—into space, where the solar wind would sweep it beyond the asteroids.
There's yet another advantage to developing space. In order to get the job done—and to achieve global stability—we'd have to tax the richer nations more than they would get back and the poorer nations less than they would get back. Such an arrangement would correct a historical injustice, because the wealthy nations have—for along time now—been running international corporations in such a way that the richer lands benefit at the expense of the poorer ones.
PLOWBOY: So your solution to our present problems is based on humankind's continuing to expand its territories?
ASIMOV: Always, always. All through history, humanity has stretched its range, and it's still doing so today. One of our problems now, however, is that the rate of population increase has—at least temporarily—outpaced our possible range expansion. In fact, it's very easy to calculate that in a few thousand years—at our present rate of procreation—the weight of human flesh and blood would be equal to that of the entire universe!
PLOWBOY: Then wouldn't you say that we're at a bottleneck right now? Isn't it true that there's no possible way to expand into space quickly enough to alleviate the problems of Earth's population growth?
ASIMOV: That's right. In the next half-century we can put, at most, tens of thousands of people into space. But if we continue to multiply as we're doing now, we'll add billions of individuals to the planet's population. So we have to solve that problem right here on Earth.
PLOWBOY: Do you have any ideas as to how we might best deal with overpopulation?
ASIMOV: There are only two methods: We can either increase the death rate or decrease the birth rate. Unless we use our ingenuity to lower the world's birth rate, we'll face the fate of every species that outgrows its food supply and die off as a result of famine, disease, predation, and so on.
We must, therefore, lower the birth rate ... and I think the best means of doing so is through universal voluntary contraception. To me, the logical way to achieve that goal is to give women something to do besides having a lot of children. Most societies have never allowed women to do anything important other than bear offspring. After all, during most of history, death rates were high, infant mortality rates were tremendous, and life expectancy was low. So people had to produce a lot of children or the race would have died out.
Now, however, we've reversed the situation. The death rate is low, infant mortality is low, life expectancy is high, and we're going to destroy the Earth if we continue to reproduce at the present rate. So we should make it respectable for women not to have a lot of children.
Of course, my proposal is essentially the same as one of the key goals of the women's liberation movement. I've even been pronounced a radical feminist: not because I love women, although I do ... and not because I think women's liberation is just and fair and decent, although I do ... but because I believe we have to liberate women if the race is to survive.
PLOWBOY: But finding rewarding work for women would be easier in a prospering country like ours than in a poor land which isn't even able to keep many of its present work force employed.
ASIMOV: That is a problem. So what we have to do is go through a very difficult transition period in which we gradually distribute the food supply and goods of the world as evenly as possible. The prosperous nations will likely have to go through some hard times for the sake of the impoverished countries, an eventuality which will surely strike the people in the wealthy lands as unfair.
But then, every year when income tax comes due, I realize that I pay a lot of money to the government and get back very little in actual cash benefits ... whereas poor people pay virtually nothing to the government and get unemployment compensation and all sorts of welfare services. So I think, "My God, they take from me and give to them. It's so unfair." But no, it's not unfair! Because, you see, I'm getting the advantages of a stable society as a result of the exchange!
And if the poorer people of the world don't start getting some benefits from the more prosperous ones, I'm afraid we're going to lose the limited global stability that we have. They aren't going to starve quietly ... they're going to come and try to take our goods from us.
But the need to build up space—we've come back to space colonization again—could motivate us to begin such necessary sharing.
PLOWBOY: It seems evident that we must cut back on our population growth. Do you also feel we need to cut back on our use of energy?
ASIMOV: A lot of people think that the United States should reduce its energy consumption. "We used only half as much energy in the early sixties as we do now," they say, "and life wasn't so bad then." There's only one catch to that argument: Since the early sixties, the population of the Earth has gone up by over one billion, and much of our additional energy usage has allowed our nation—with five percent of the Earth's people—to export a great deal of food to the rest of the world. So anyone who wants us to cut our energy use in half should first make some of those one billion mouths disappear!
Now there are those who say that we can avoid the whole dilemma if we develop a more labor-intensive agriculture ... that is, have more people—and fewer machines—working on our farms. Well, I want to hear folks who say we need more agricultural laborers volunteer to become such workers. The truth of the matter, though, is that most people who move from the cities to the country these days are not likely to become agricultural workers. They're suburban and exurban middle class families who live in very comfortable houses.
And the individuals who say they are moving out to raise their own food and consume less of the world's resources are often the very ones who also, so to speak, bring their electric guitars with them ... and want to be sure there's a nice modern hospital located in a convenient nearby city.
Such people don't realize that technology is not something you can break up into little fragments. It's all of a piece.
PLOWBOY: Don't you feel that men and women can make use of modern technology and still try to live more self-reliant, less energy-wasteful, and more environmentally sound lifestyles?
ASIMOV: Yes, certainly we can all eliminate waste. As far as I know, there isn't anyone in the world who advocates using more energy than is absolutely necessary.
PLOWBOY: In other words, you feel it's overwhelmingly important that we control population growth ... and yet you almost casually take it for granted that we should reduce our wasteful energy and resource consumption. I could just as well counter your position by saying that nobody in his or her right mind could argue with limiting population, and—since it's been estimated that our country could cut its energy consumption almost in half simply by properly insulating buildings and establishing co-generation facilities in industrial plants—that we urgently need to address the issue of energy efficiency.
ASIMOV: Well, there's a difference between the two issues. There are, you see, no religious, moral, or social teachings that say using a lot of energy is a wonderful thing to do. Instead, when the price of energy goes up—or its availability goes down—almost everyone automatically makes a push for energy conservation. On the other hand, there is still much propaganda that advocates having children.
PLOWBOY: Would you also claim that it should be relatively easy to conserve our material resources ... since there's no religion preaching "Thou shalt not recycle"?
ASIMOV: That's exactly right. Now I admit that we've moved in the wrong direction by cultivating planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption. And it's going to be difficult to control waste as long as people see the ability to squander as a sign of status, and businesses feel that it's economically beneficial to make things that break down quickly.
PLOWBOY: How do we combat such practices?
ASIMOV: Well, you might argue that it's difficult to eliminate waste in a capitalist economy which is based on continually making unimportant product improvements in order to convince customers that one item is better than another. On the other hand, if we were to regulate such competition out of society, we could end up with the wastefulness of institutionalized inefficiency. So I'm not sure how best to deal with that problem.
PLOWBOY: Do you want to take a stab at suggesting a solution?
ASIMOV: I suppose we're going to have to indulge in peer group persuasion. How, for instance, can people be prevented from wearing eaglet feathers on their hats? The answer, of course, is to put so much concern for conservation into the public mind that anyone who does wear an eaglet feather becomes persona nongrata in respectable society. Perhaps the socially conscious minority can, in a similar manner, create a kind of spearhead movement for resource and energy conservation.
PLOWBOY: Dr. Asimov, your hope for the future is based on expansion into outer space. But do you feel that humankind could, instead, learn to be so truly efficient in, and conscious of, our use of energy and resources that we could stabilize our consumption—just as we need to stabilize our population—and survive perfectly well on Earth without having to expand into space? A lot of thinkers believe that we can do so.
ASIMOV: I suppose you could argue that if we develop nuclear fusion—or if we somehow stabilize our population and energy demands—we might be able to survive indefinitely without leaving the surface of the Earth. But my own feeling is that, even if we could manage it technologically and economically, human psychology would defeat the attempt. Earth would become a prison. There would be no unifying purpose to help us transcend the nation states ... people would forever feel themselves to be ethnic groups, language groups, and racial groups ... and we would be defeated eventually by our incessant quarreling.
I think that even if we didn't need space exploration to keep civilization alive for material reasons, we would need that expansion for—I almost hate to say the word—spiritual reasons!
PLOWBOY: So you consider expansion into nearby space to be essential.
ASIMOV: Yes. We've reached the stage where, if we don't transcend the Earth, we're going to destroy it. And I think that—over the next couple of centuries—it will be necessary for us to expand into the solar system generally. I don't see that goal as the end, either. Eventually we are going to make all of space our own!
PLOWBOY: How do you foresee the accomplishment of such a monumental goal?
ASIMOV: Well, the first steps have been easy ... it took only three days to reach the moon. By comparison, Columbus had to travel—out of contact with "civilization"—for weeks to reach the New World.
But going to Mars, our next logical objective, will mean a round trip of months or even years. And that may be more of a psychological problem than it is a technological challenge. After all, we on Earth are used to a huge world and—if you view the planet as a spaceship—we're used to living on the outside of the hull. All our life support systems are on the surface and held in place by gravity.
The people who run any space settlements that we establish, however, will soon become accustomed to living in an inside world. Superficially, their environments may be very earthlike ... because the settlements can be adjusted to have the appropriate gravitational effects, day and night lighting, and so on. Essentially, though, the space workers will be living "inside," be more aware of space, and be much more intimately concerned with the cycling of their resources—food, air, water, etc.—than we Earthlings are.
And the hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions, of people manning such settlements will—over the years—become as used to space travel as we are to going about in a plane or an automobile. Such men and women will be psychologically comfortable in an exploratory spaceship ... the vessel will be much more like the home they've lived in all their lives than Earth would be!
So I anticipate that our space settlers will be able to undertake long voyages which would be psychologically impossible for Earth dwellers. They will be able to establish settlements within asteroids. They'll be the footloose Vikings of the future. The rest of us will, indeed, be prisoners of Earth.
PLOWBOY: You envision settlements inside of asteroids?
ASIMOV: Yes, those pioneers could hollow out the mini-planets. The asteroids would—by the way—make for much better settlements than would the moon, because that satellite doesn't have certain lightweight elements ... including carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Lunar residents would therefore have to depend on the Earth for such basic substances, but settlers of the asteroids could have their own supplies and be truly independent of Earth.
Moreover, if such explorers developed nuclear fusion, they might even eventually become completely independent of the sun ... and be able to pilot their asteroids into outer space.
PLOWBOY: Why send an asteroid off into space?
ASIMOV: Ah, because then the travelers could explore the stars without ever leaving home. They wouldn't have to abandon the world they've lived in ... or have to say goodbye to their friends and relatives and all the old familiar places. Instead, the whole asteroid could just stop going around the sun and take off. Eventually—after a long, long time—the explorers' descendants might reach another planetary system.
PLOWBOY: But the nearest solar system is light years away.
ASIMOV: Granted, a huge time factor is involved in all this, so it's difficult for you and me to see how people could possibly undertake such a trip. But I can imagine speaking to an amoeba—if you'll allow me to imagine an amoeba capable of discussing the matter—and asking how it would like to be one of 50 trillion cells making up a multicellular organism such as a man ... a creation in which the individual amoeba didn't count at all. The tiny cell might be horrified at the suggestion. "What?!" it would say. "Give up my consciousness and individuality just to be part of a large group? Never, never, never!"
Yet as each of us—as the consciousness of our combined 50 trillion cells—knows, there are things we can do and pleasures we can experience that an individual cell can't even imagine. You or I can't help feeling that it's worthwhile for our cells to give up their independence and individuality for the sake of what we have.
Well, I feel a reverse development may someday occur on a grander scale. An individual asteroid settlement will decide not to be part of a large community of settlements, will prefer to go off by itself and become an "amoeba" again ... for the sake of eventually establishing a new planetary "individual" under completely new circumstances.
Of course, it's hard to see into the future with accuracy. It may be—in fact, it's almost inevitable—that once we start moving out into space, events will take a completely unexpected turn. Some new development will occur which will afterward appear so obvious that future generations will wonder why we didn't foresee it.
PLOWBOY: Dr. Asimov, I'd like for us to come back to Earth now, so I can ask you about one more issue. What do you think of man's relationship with nature? Do you see it as, say, a human using a tool, observing something pretty, or interacting with a symbiotic equal?
ASIMOV: Well, you're personifying nature, while I see nature as encompassing man. We've had an ecological balance on Earth, and we don't want our race to upset that balance. But it may be that—as a result of man's movement in space—we will eventually create an altered ecology that is even more to our liking!
Space settlements won't be made entirely of metal and glass and concrete. There will be areas given over to agriculture, to the raising of plants and small animals ... both those species that are useful and some others that aren't necessary but please us aesthetically. But we'll want to exclude disease germs, or plants and animals that we would consider harmful. So we'll try to form a kind of simplified ecology that includes only those "companions" that we find beneficial in some way.
PLOWBOY: I was really wondering what role you see for the natural world on Earth. Do you see that world as intrinsically important?
ASIMOV: It is important in that it's loaded with variety. Anything that's done to decrease that variety is likely to lessen the natural world's value and usefulness. On the other hand, ecological balances have shifted constantly through the history of life and have sometimes done so drastically. We can't suppose that there is some cosmic rule which says the ecology must exist forever as it exists now.
And, in fact, I look forward to a multiplicity of human habitats and a multiplicity of ecologies! Not only will we have the enormous lifework and interdependence of Earth's natural system—one that I would be reluctant to see us interfere with—but we would have other habitats, each with its own ecological lacework. The sum total may represent a new level of complication beyond that which we have now.
Space settlers may someday feel sorry for Earth residents, who have only one limited ecology and are so much at the mercy of their natural environment.
PLOWBOY: Those are interesting points. Still, it seems as if every time I ask you about Earth's environment, you end up talking about space again.
ASIMOV: I guess for me everything does come back to space. Maybe that's because I've been writing science fiction all these years ... but I definitely believe that humanity's destiny will be found in expansion beyond our planet's surface.
I told you before that I'm pessimistic about our short term future, and I am. But if we do manage to solve the immediate problems, to control population, to achieve some sort of international cooperation, and to move out into space, then after that I'm very optimistic. It may be shortsightedness on my part that I fail to see the obstacles behind those that now exist, or that I dismiss those future predicaments by saying, "Well, we'll be able to solve them."
And maybe I'm wrong. But it seems to me that if we can solve our immediate problems—those that will come up in the next three decades or so—and get out into space, we'll have relatively clear sailing from there on!