Illustration: a cannibal from /figure>
In Hollywood’s first attempt at warning us about runaway global warming and pollution, there was soylent green. In the underbelly of massive hive cities of Warhammer 40,000 that house billions of malnourished souls, and on distant battlefields across the galaxy, the hungry chow down on cubes of corpse starch. And even in the otherwise tame and funny sci-fi world of The Martian, astronauts discussed the possibility of using their bodies “for protein” should some orbital maneuvers stretch the food supplies for their rescue missions too thin. It seems like as we envision the worst scenarios while exploring space, writers and scientists conclude that when times get tough, someone’s liver is getting paired with a nice chianti.
So, when the UK tabloid Metro
talked to a pair of astrobiologists, they leaned very hard on a few takeaway lines about the fact that crops on off-world outposts can’t fail, otherwise the situation could get so dire that our explorers will resort to cannibalism. Knowing how a lot of similar interviews work, I think the scientists’ real goal was to impress on the reporters that creating a colony on another planet just so we can ignore global warming and the resulting change in climates is ridiculous, on par with venturing out to live in the Arctic among the polar bears instead of just cleaning your house. Their biggest concern was that outposts far enough away from Earth couldn’t support themselves after a crisis like crop failure.
Which is there the cannibalism comes in. Given the fact that any help would be years away and backup supplies are finite, some very grim plans would need to be made to ensure the survival of a base in deep space or anchored to a planet around another star. Those who die of infection or suffer mortal injuries, especially after months of malnutrition, would likely be the first in line to have their cadavers used for purposes other than scientific. Should the crisis keep going long enough in a big and distant enough colony, it’s possible some people may be outright hunted for food by desperate survivors, or we’d see the rise of a cannibalistic cult encouraging certain members of the population to sacrifice themselves to feed the others.
Certainly, this is some grimdark stuff, perfect fodder for sensational headlines. Sadly, it’s also not exactly unfounded because we have numerous analogs for similar situations right here on Earth during which starving, injured people driven mad with hunger ate the deceased, and as the bodies ran out, proceeded to turn on other survivors. We’re driven to explore and survive, and when our backs are against the wall, we’ll rationalize the seemingly unthinkable to make sure we live another day. As much as it pains me to say it, this is very much something we do need to consider when we send humans to alien worlds. What is the plan when crops fail, and help will take years to arrive?
This is why it was so chilling for Elon Musk, who ostensibly wants to spread humanity to Mars, err, excuse me,
transport an army of indentured servants to the red planet, mention so casually and callously that “a bunch of people will die” in the process. Because this is how they will die if we treat space exploration the same way we treat the release of a new game or app. They will not just from accidents or exposure. They’ll die of radiation-accelerated cancers, failing immune systems, and should a colony’s food supply fail, rescue missions may well find the survivors who huddle in the darkness over the bones of their former friends and colleagues, driven mad after watching enough of their peers starve to death.
Space exploration is fiendishly difficult and will not always offer a merciful, quick death. There’s going to be suffering, unspeakable acts in the name of survival for just another week, and even horrific acts of cruelty to justify those unspeakable acts later. We can’t completely prevent this from happening because it’s happened on Earth more times than we want to count or know. It will doubtlessly happen in space at some point. But by being prepared and by revising many of our currently simplistic and naïve exploration plans specifically to minimize the odds of it being necessary as much as logistically and materially possible, we can ensure that exploring space will be every bit the adventure we want and need it to be for humanity’s future.