Humanity’s Dilemma before Abaddon’s Gate
*Note: This essay is excerpted from The Expanse and Philosophy.
James Holden, that hot-headed rogue, manages to convince an alien technology—Abaddon’s Gate, created by the protomolecule—that human beings are not a threat. It opens up 1,300 Einstein-Rosen bridges, providing humanity access to at least as many habitable worlds. Humanity faces a dilemma at the start of the fourth season of The Expanse. How should we proceed? Should we use the Ring System to explore and colonize the galaxy, even though trying to do so might kill us all?
Throughout the season, U.N. Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala and her political rival, Nancy Gao, debate this question. While Avasarala advocates a slow, cautious approach, Gao champions immediate and aggressive exploration and colonization.
Nancy Gao: “Whatever is out there, we’ll deal with it because that is the history of our species.”
Chrisjen Avasarala: “Right up to the moment that our species ceases to exist” (“Subduction”).
By the end of the season, Gao has won the debate. She replaces Avasarala as Secretary General and appears poised to begin what James Holden fears will be a “blood-soaked gold rush” (“Abaddon’s Gate”).
But we can ask, who should have won the debate?
Gao’s reasons for favoring a rapid and forceful approach to colonization are rooted in Earth’s dire circumstances. Centuries before the series begins, humans have damaged Earth’s ecosystem. As a result, about half of its 30 billion inhabitants live on Basic Assistance, a welfare program that provides just the minimum needed to survive. The only way to break free from Basic Assistance is to get a job or training, and competition for these escape routes is so fierce that only 1 in 6,000 people manages to do so. Nico (a man whom we briefly meet in “Cascade”) admits to Bobbie Draper that he has been waiting for a spot on the vocational training list for 35 years. Gao herself was able to escape Basic Assistance only because a well-connected family friend interceded, a fact that Avasarala gleefully threw in her face. As Gao put it, “the system is broken,” and the way to fix it is to allow Earth’s inhabitants to use the Ring System to explore the hundreds of new worlds available to them (“Oppressor”).
Yet the alien technology, the protomolecule, responsible for opening Abaddon’s Gate is dangerous. Experimentation with it caused the Eros Incident, which almost killed everyone on Earth. Even after the opening of Abaddon’s Gate, the protomolecule was on the verge of wiping out the entire solar system because it saw humanity as a threat. The protomolecule is dangerous, so we need to consider both the benefits and the costs of using the Ring System.
How effective is this response to Gao’s reasoning?
The answer depends. In part, we have to know whether Gao has managed to count the benefits correctly. Providing better opportunities for 15-billion people would be wonderful, of course. Yet, doing so pales in comparison with other benefits that utilizing the Ring System could have. Gao’s reasoning becomes much stronger if we consider the future, rather than just the present, effects of using the Ring System.
Looking at the other advantages means imagining the ends of our potential as a species.
Colonizing the System
The very first words of The Expanse appear on a title card: In the 23rd century, humans have colonized the solar system. In addition to the 30-billion humans on Earth, 1-billion people inhabit its moon, and another 10-billion live on its former colony, Mars. Furthermore, tens-of-millions of humans live in the Outer Planets, comprising asteroids between Mars and Jupiter and a number of the moons of the outer giant planets, like Ganymede.
Human colonization of the solar system is a shopworn trope in science fiction—so much so that we might not give it a second thought. Yet, that would be a mistake. Understating the overwhelming importance of expanding beyond our home planet is easy.
Start by considering Derek Parfit’s (1942-2017) famous thought experiment:
Compare three outcomes:
- A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.
- A nuclear war that kills 100%.
Obviously, (1) is the best outcome, and (3) is the worst outcome, with (2) sitting between them. However, as great philosophers often do, Parfit pushes past the obvious truth and discovers insights hiding just out of view.
Most people believe that the greater difference is between (1) and (2), but I believe that the difference between (2) and (3) is much greater. The Earth will remain habitable for at least another billion years. Civilization began only a few thousand years ago. If we do not destroy humankind, these few thousand years may be only a tiny fraction of the whole of civilized human history. The difference between (2) and (3) may thus be the difference between this tiny fraction and all of the rest of this history. If we compare this possible history to a day, what has occurred so far is only a fraction of a second. One of Parfit’s main insights is that the future has the potential to contain vastly more value than the present. (We’ll return to Parfit’s other main insight later in this chapter.)
Toby Ord, a philosopher at Oxford, expands on Parfit’s thinking. If all goes well, human history is just beginning. Humanity is about two-hundred-thousand years old. But the Earth will remain habitable for hundreds of millions more—enough time for millions of future generations; enough to end disease, poverty, and injustice forever; enough to create heights of flourishing unimaginable today. On this quite reasonable assumption about the habitability of Earth, our planet could support an upper bound of 1016 human lives of normal duration over a billion years. More than one-million times as many humans as exist today could exist in the future, and at least ten-thousand times as many humans as have ever existed.
Nevertheless, as good as this earthbound possible future would be, humanity has another possible future that is many, many orders of magnitude better. This possible future is one in which we expand far beyond the bounds of our solar system. Ord gives us a glimpse of this possible future: “if we could learn to reach out further into the cosmos, we could have more time yet: trillions of years, to explore billions of worlds. Such a lifespan places present-day humanity in its earliest infancy. A vast and extraordinary adulthood awaits.” Expanding beyond our solar system could allow humanity and its descendants somewhere between 1034 and 1071 lives of normal duration.
In other words, failing to colonize our solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and perhaps even the Virgo Supercluster could cost the future between 1018 and 1055 human lives.
These numbers are so immense as to defy understanding. Here is one provocative way of thinking about the matter. The worst disaster in human history so far has been World War II, which cost about 50-million human lives over six years. Sticking to conservative estimates, failing to colonize the Milky Way would be worse—one-hundred-trillion times worse. Put somewhat differently, the loss would be approximately equivalent to one World War II every second from 1200 BCE (at the time of the Late Bronze-Age Collapse, the writing of the Rigveda, and the zenith of the Shang Dynasty) to our own present day.
A moment ago, we noted that it is easy to understate the importance of humanity’s ability in The Expanse to travel across and colonize the solar system. Now we can see why. Moving beyond the confines of the Earth is the first step toward achieving humanity’s interstellar potential, what Max Tegmark has called our “unlimited cosmic endowment.”
Colonizing at the Speed of Light
Yet, once it becomes evident just how much is at stake, another point comes into view. It matters greatly, not only that humanity expands, but how quickly. On one self-consciously conservative estimate, every second that we delay colonization of the Virgo Supercluster is “a loss of potential equal to about 1014 potential human lives.” That is one-thousand times as many human lives as have existed until now.
The opening of the ring system is even more important than it might seem. About 130 years prior to the beginning of the series, humanity had barely begun to colonize our solar system. The settlement on Mars was dependent for resources on Earth, a planet that was struggling to provide its own inhabitants with the wherewithal for survival. The invention of the Epstein drive changed this situation radically. By allowing humans to move much more quickly throughout the solar system, the inhabitants of both Earth and Mars could begin to extract and utilize the resources of the asteroid belt and the moons of the giant planets beyond. The Epstein drive’s importance is made clear by the fact that during the first four seasons, the only substantial flashback we see is to Solomon Epstein’s invention of the drive named after him (“Paradigm Shift”). Improvements in the Epstein drive continued for more than a century, and the results rightly impress. As the series begins, the construction of the LDSS Nauvoo, a generation ship with the most sophisticated Epstein drive ever created, the G4000, is close to completion. The G4000 is so powerful that eight of them can accelerate a ship that is two-kilometers long and half a kilometer wide to over 10% of the speed of light. By way of contrast, the tallest building as of this writing, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is not even half the size of the Nauvoo. Moreover, the fastest humans have managed to travel in space is 0.0037 percent of the speed of light, just 1/27th of the speed of this generation ship.
Even so, the Nauvoo would have taken about 100 years to reach its goal, the Tau Ceti system, a mere 12 light-years away. The journey of the Nauvoo would have exposed its crew to a century’s worth of extrasolar risks, all of which it would have to endure without any possibility of help. Moreover, even if the inhabitants of the Nauvoo were lucky enough to avoid 100 years of extreme danger, Tau Ceti might not have a world habitable by human beings. The journey could easily have been a literal dead end for everyone involved. Now, consider the fact that the Milky Way’s diameter is between 170,000 and 200,000 light years. Hence, relying on Epstein drives to explore and colonize the galaxy would take hundreds of million—if not billions—of years and cost an unimaginable amount of future human lives.
In contrast, the Ring System presents humanity with over 1,300 portals to worlds that they know to be habitable. The system allows journeys that would take unnumbered generations millions or billions of years to be reduced to a matter of months. For example, a mundane research vessel like the Edward Israel traveled from Ceres Station, just beyond Mars, to the planet Ilus in a mere 18 months. Though we are not told how far Ilus is from our solar system, it could easily be tens-of-thousands of light years. Furthermore, though the Belter settlers on Ilus, such as Felicia, Jakob, and Lucia Mazur, were clearly on the bleeding edge of human expansion, the Ring System allowed them to remain connected with the rest of humanity. They arrived on Ilus with limited supplies, but they planned to extract lithium from the planet so that some of them could return through the ring to our solar system. Unlike the would-be colonists on the Nauvoo, these settlers didn’t have to do the impossible and plan for every contingency. To be sure, the Belters faced great dangers on Ilus—and not only from Royal Charter Energy’s goons. But colonizing the rest of the Milky Way galaxy via the rings would be many orders of magnitude less risky for individual settlers than doing so while relying on Epstein drives. More importantly, it would also be many orders of magnitude faster.
We can now return to the debate between Gao and Avasarala. Clearly, Gao underestimated the potential benefits of rapid expansion by means of the Ring System. Not only could doing so provide better opportunities for billions of humans today, it could make possible orders of magnitude more human lives in the future.
But the debate is not over. We have only looked at one side of the ledger.
The risks involved with using the Ring System are clear from the Eros Incident. Gao acknowledges this, but she maintains that, given the “unimaginable opportunities” provided by the Ring System, the “real danger of Eros is that we only react to it in fear.” Always ready with the pithy rejoinder, Avasarala retorts that the real danger of the Eros Incident was “that it was about to kill everybody on Earth” (“Oppressor”). She is concerned with the fates of the 40-or-so billion human beings alive at the time of The Expanse. In order for her response to Gao to convince us, Avasarala needs to expand her circle of moral concern beyond those alive today to those who will live in the future. Risking the lives of 4 x 1010 humans for the sake of the lives of as many as 1071 humans seems more than reasonable. At that level, the population of the solar system is a rounding error at more than 50 decimal places.
However, this line of thought is flawed. It involves comparing the gains for all humans who will ever live if we successfully colonize the galaxy with the losses for all humans who exist right now if we go extinct as a result of using the Ring System. This calculation ignores all the humans who would have existed if we either did not use the Ring System or were more cautious in its use, as Avasarala suggests. In other words, Avasarala’s response to Gao is most convincing when we think of using the Ring System as what philosophers call an “existential risk.”
Ord defines existential risk as “a risk that threatens the destruction of humanity’s long term potential.” If use of the Ring System kills the current generation of humans, 40-billion people die. As bad as that is, the result is actually much worse. It also prevents the existence of all future human beings.
Recall Parfit’s point: even if we remain earthbound, we might live here for another billion years during which time about 1016 humans can live sustainably. Yet, our comparison is not the number of humans on Earth, but the number in The Expanse. Humans have already begun interstellar travel and colonizing the galaxy. Even at radically subluminal speeds that will delay colonization of the galaxy by 10s- or 100s-of-millions of years, the potential number of human lives could come within several orders of magnitude of the potential number of humans if we did successfully use the Ring System.
Here, then, is Parfit’s second main insight (promised earlier): the value of preventing human extinction and thereby making the fulfillment of humanity’s long term potential more likely is much, much higher than it might seem. Given what is at stake, Avasarala’s response to Gao seems strongest when it is framed in terms of existential risk. As noted, the protomolecule has already come close to driving our species to extinction. More importantly, use of the Ring System is closely related to whatever killed its mysterious creators 2-billion years before the events of the series. Those creators were destroyed despite having advanced their technology to something indistinguishable from magic. It might not be possible to say with any precision just how hazardous use of the Ring System is, and we do not want to minimize the difficulty of making rational choices under conditions of ignorance. Despite the benefits the Ring System might offer, it does not seem like an existential risk worth taking. Our future, flawed as it is, is too good to endanger.
Therefore, Avasarala should have won the debate with Gao, and humanity should say “Thanks but no thanks” to using the Ring System—or at least use the system with far more caution than Gao advocates.
Or so says this philosopher.
Unfortunately, history has witnessed a long, sad tradition of philosophers playing the role of Cassandra, the mythological priestess of Apollo cursed to utter true prophecies that no one believed until it was too late. This tradition goes back at least as far as Socrates, who argued (correctly!), though to no avail, against the execution of the generals of the Battle of Arginusae and later of Leon of Salamis. Eventually execution came for Socrates too.
We have to wonder whether Avasarala and her cautious approach ever had a chance. The colonists on Ilus arrived by running the blockade maintained by the truce between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. That truce could not last forever; eventually one of the three powers in the solar system would break with the others and attempt to use the Ring System. Avasarala goes so far as to leak classified video from Ilus in order to frighten the electorate enough to side with her (“The One-Eyed Man”). Yet scare tactics like these will only work in the short run, if at all. Already hundreds of ships from Earth waited outside Abaddon’s Gate as the season began. With pirates like Marco Inaros picking them off, it seems likely that many of the would-be colonists would eventually prefer to take their chances running the blockade. While UN ships were willing to destroy Belters who tried to run the blockade, they probably wouldn’t have done so if the ships were full of their fellow citizens. Gao was probably more right than she knew when she said “Colonization of the Ring systems is inevitable” (“Subduction”).
While philosophers might imagine that truth will always win in the marketplace of ideas, after losing the election, Avasarala had no such illusions. She left the incoming Secretary General a remarkable message: “As for policy and the direction you’re taking Earth and all her peoples, well, we disagree. One of us is wrong. I think it’s you. But I hope it’s me” (“Cibola Burn”).
Actual Threats to Our Existence
Of course, The Expanse is a work of science fiction, and its success or failure rests primarily on whether it entertains us, not whether it tells us something significant about our own world. And we certainly do not face the threat of extinction because of accidental exposure to alien technology! However, we would do well to recognize the actual threats to our existence. One survey of risk experts concluded that there is a 19% chance of human extinction by the year 2100. Ord’s estimate is closer to 17%. Some of that risk is the result of familiar nightmares such as nuclear war and engineered pandemics, and some of that risk is a function of technology that is, for the moment, only the stuff of science fiction, such as molecular nanotech weapons and runaway artificial general intelligence. These technologies present humanity with a dilemma that is similar to the one presented by Abaddon’s Gate. Should we develop these technologies quickly even though they pose a significant risk of killing us all and extinguishing forever our vast potential? Can we resist developing them even if we recognize it is a manifestly bad idea to do so? We may soon see for ourselves. Like Avasarala, we can only hope that the pessimists are wrong.
Leonard Kahn is an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University New Orleans. He works on moral theory and applied ethics and often wishes he could swear as well as Chrisjen Avasarala.
 Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 453.
 Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (New York: Hachette
 Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority,” Global Policy 4 (2013), 15-31.
 Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (New York: Knopf),
 Nick Bostrom, “Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological
Development,” Utilitas 15 (2003), 308-314.
 Ord, 37.
 Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, “Global Catastrophic Risks Survey,” Technical Report
#2008-1, Future of Humanity Institute (2008), Oxford University, 1-5.
 Ord, 167.