We tend to associate this time of year with endings. The year comes to an end, the longest night is upon us, darkness seems to obscure any ray of sunshine. Yet, we light candles to fight the darkness and to remind us of the sunny days to come, and winter solstice brings not only the longest night, but the start of ever longer days. So in so many ways this season is about beginnings! In its own very modest way ESPI wants to contribute to this sense of renewal. What we want to do is to start a new blog on space.
If you read this blog you should not expect that it will keep you up-to-date with what is going on in our very dynamic environment - this will not be the place where you learn about the breaking news, other sites are available for that. What this blog will do is to reflect on what is going on in space, it will try to give an input to making sense of it all. Many professions leave little time for contemplation and for digesting all the developments and new ideas. Space is no different, and one of the great attractions of the space field is exactly its dynamism. Yet, contemplation and digestion are important, if we want to make the best of our endeavours. The new blog hopes to stimulate this process.
Most blogs convey personal opinions, and so will this one. When I write I will not be expressing the official opinions of ESPI or its staff and stakeholders, it will be my personal opinions. And these opinions might sometimes amuse you, sometimes make you change your mind, sometimes confirm your existing opinion. But, sometimes my opinions will also irritate you, make you angry, make you disagree completely. I ask leave for that. The job of a think tank, and its director, is to stimulate debate, and it goes with this territory that sometimes raw nerves will be hit! Sometimes, horror of horrors, I might even be wrong. You be the judge!
Below you will find my first contribution:
Money and the Mind
Money is a means, not an end. Money may be an enabler of happiness, but is not itself happiness. These are obvious truths, but truths we often forget.
Happiness is an end, but happiness is not a binary concept: so many ideals of happiness exist. Because happiness, in whatever form, is difficult to grasp and defies easy measurement, society prefers to measure money and material goods. Immaterial things, such as intellectual property rights, are assigned a monetary value, and we measure progress in GDP terms.
We laud Bhutan’s happiness index, but we are reluctant to abandon GDP as the defining measure, possibly because we believe that by measuring the means, indirectly we measure also the ends. Much talk takes place on socio-economic benefits of societal investments, but in truth the talk is more on ‘economic’ than on ‘socio’. Yet many social benefits are more directly linked to the idea of happiness.
These dilemmas also affect space. In many sub-domains space has no difficulty showing impact in economic terms. The effects of telecoms and navigation are relatively easy to quantify, and space can also more generally demonstrate its innovation effects even if already here it becomes more difficult to put economic figures.
Earth Observation obviously has direct, measurable economic impact, but the heated discussions on the Stern Report, and lately during the COP 21, show that even when discussing benefits in purely economic terms there is ample room for dissent. The more fundamental question is, however, whether it is wise, or enough, to try to just measure the impact of Earth Observation in terms of the effect on finances. We cannot put an economic value on beauty, on the freshness of the morning breeze, or a price against the extinction of a species. Yet, these are things we care deeply about, and which must have significance in our societal decision making. Earth Observation is also an insurance policy against future avertable disasters, but, as a society, we are not good at appreciating the significance of avoidance. It was, in fact, curious that after the avian flu outbreak the WHO was criticized for having advocated too radical measures. Yet, exactly these measures might have saved us from a pandemic. The success of COP 21 is an encouraging sign that we might start to understand how important it is to invest in the health of our planet, and that the measure is not only economic. It did not come easy!
When we invest in space infrastructure in order to assist developing countries and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals the effect can to some extent be measured in economic terms. Yet, the GDP effects will for the largest part not be on our GDPs, so how do you measure in money the compliance with ethical obligations, how do you measure the effects of geopolitical disasters being avoided, how do you measure the effect of us understanding that a life is of equal value no matter where it is lived?
An important element of happiness is understanding (although admittedly it can also bring unhappiness). Our lives evolve around making sense of what is going on around us, deciphering our environment, be it human or natural. Curiosity is the greatest gift given to humankind. But the value of the learning experience and of the learning that makes us happy cannot be truly measured. The flight of spirit felt when reading Wordsworth, the satisfaction of having been accompanied by Newton through Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the awe we feel when we watch the starry universe and ponder its significance, these are feelings that cannot be reduced to any single measure, and least of all to an economic one.
The upshot of all this is that although we live in materialistic times we should be careful not to put everything in materialistic terms. When we ponder what we want to achieve as a society we must not think of bread alone! Within the space domain, space science (and exploration) often suffers from its benefits being measurable only imperfectly by economic means. Yet, space science addresses the big, eternal questions and our investment in space science is thus one in making us partake in the most profound knowledge. It seems to me that the richer we get materially the more we should invest in the immaterial!
Analysis of socio-economic benefits is necessary for guiding societal decision making, there is no doubt. But let us give more prominence to the social part of the equation, even if benefits to some extent can be described only by words and not measured numerically. After all, happiness is not a number!