In the far future of 2003, the Earth is falling apart under the mismanagement of a global planned economy, suffering constant power cuts and famines – but there is hope in the stars, in the form of a libertarian Bernal Sphere called ‘Libra’.
This 40 minute short film, made in 1978 by a libertarian group named World Research, was intended both to promote the ideas of rotating space habitats put forth by Gerard K. O’Neill (who served as a technical consultant) and to function as unabashed libertarian propaganda. The story follows two visitors to the eponymous space colony; a businessman considering investing in a second colony, and a senator, Mr. Gordon, representing the straw-man socialist government in charge of Earth. The visuals are fairly good for the time, and the films serves as good introduction to the technical aspect concept of large rotating habitats in space.
Libra showcases some ideas for space development, such as on orbit manufacture, pretty well. It also features a home speaker system on the colony not unlike Amazon Alexa used exclusively for shopping, although in one scene it flaty refuses to recommend a product on the basis that this is the users ‘freecision’ and it can only give factual information. The same scene coins the term ‘freesponsibility’, hence the title of this post.
The film is quite dated, not just by the ropey special effects or the 70s fashions, but also by its focus on the political obsession of the time. Earth is subject to strict energy rationing – except of course for the agency who is in control of the rationing program, whose lights remain on at all times. Libra offers a solution by providing space-based solar energy, where giant solar panels in Earth orbit convert sunlight to microwaves and beam it to receivers on Earth. These facilities would be too large to be practically launched from Earth, so manufacturing them at Libra from materials mined on the Moon is cheaper. This was how O’Neill originally envisaged paying for his rotating habitats.
Whether this business model is even possible is controversial. Elon Musk, who is heavily invested in both spaceflight and solar energy and generally considered a savvy businessman, thinks its “the stupidest thing ever“. There have been suggested niche applications such as military bases or disaster sites, and perhaps the economics will shift in its favour once space resources are available to build the things, but it is far from the clear cut win that it was assumed to be by Gerard O’Neill and the makers of Libra.
The 70s was a time of fuel crises throughout the west, and the notorious three day week in the UK, which is very reminiscent of the electricity and heat rationing depicted in the film as a permanent global phenomenon. This didn’t continue much beyond the time the film was made though; the US changed its relationship with Arab countries to get the supply of oil flowing again, North Sea oil helped pull the UK out of its energy crisis, and France dived into nuclear energy to protect itself from such shocks in the future.
Likewise, overpopulation and mass famine which are alluded to in the film turned out to be false alarms as well. The Green Revolution averted the worst predictions from the 60s and 70s. Essentially, the creators of Libra offered up their political ideology as the one and only solution to problems of the day which, with the benefit of hindsight, were actually temporary and fixable within the existing political system (more or less).
And Everybody Clapped
The climax of the film features a televised debate between Senator Gordon and the stations leader Dr. Baker. After the senator offers some fairly weak arguments, Baker responds with a lengthy denunciation of the planned economy of Earth, during which Gordon sits there, does not interrupt once, and looks somewhat ashamed of himself. He is stunned into silence by the force of his opponents words.
This never happens in reality, but keeps happening in a certain type of polemic fiction. I recall The West Wing being especially egregious at it. There seem to be quite a lot of people who think debates ought to play out this way, and when you get two or more of them debating on, for instance, a US cable news channel, they tend to end up screaming at each other like crazy people. Those who have bought into this fantasy can get very upset when their opponents refuse to play their assigned role in it. How dare you argue back! You are supposed to wither before my amazing arguments!
What is notable though, is that the strawman enemy that Libra constructs, while exaggerated and lacking a proper advocate in the story, does have some element of truth to it. There really were degrowthers, rationers and overbearing planners in the 1970s, and there still are today. Even if their solution were not right, the makers of Libra had some correct observations about the problems of their day. I think this is true of a lot of people’s politics. A cynical take might be that the democratic landscape is dotted with terrible ideas on how to run a society, and your politics is mostly defined by which of these ideas you hate the most.
Who Turned Out The Lights?
Beginning with Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 Malthusian book The Population Bomb which predicted inevitable mass famine throughout the world by the 1980s, there was a growing movement in the 1970s that thought the Earth had reached its carrying capacity and future growth was impossible. At the time Western economies had begun to falter, and the Eastern bloc had entered a deep economic stagnation from which it would never recover – so this would’ve been an easy thing to believe.
At around this time the Club of Rome was founded and published its famous Limits to Growth report. India and China implemented draconian population control methods late in the decade. A sense that the world economy was finite, limited and zero-sum arose at arouond the same time as environmentalism entered public consciousness (the first Earth day was celebrated in 1970) and the two ideas became entwined and mutually reinforcing. This trend continues to this day, experiencing a resurgence as the issue of climate change has become more urgent. Greta Thunberg denounces ‘money and fairytales of eternal economic growth’ from the podium of the United Nations, and Sir David Attenborough (patron of the population control advocacy group Population Matters) is given an enourmous platform on Netflix to espouse his view that we have pressed up against the limits of our planet and must curtail both our population and our activities to minimise the damage. This is not at all a fringe idea.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book The Ministry For The Future he depicts a heroic global organisation of the same name who are required to represent the interests of future generations and thus overturn the effects of rapacious capitalism. They seem to be more or less the bad guys from Libra, but have become good guys because the author is a left-wing environmentalist. I haven’t yet finished this book though; I will write a review when I have as I think its a good counterpoint to this film. The book seems explicitly anti-growth; it makes the case that existing economic output can be enough for all if evenly distributed, and makes positive mention of the 2000 Watt Society, which as its name suggests advocates energy rationing.
Libra therefore serves better as a criticism than as a positive statement these days. There is a doom-laden anti-growth trend in the modern left, which worries me being someone who is on most issues classed as left wing. Modelling yourself as the hero of an Ayn Rand novel is bad, but surely modelling yourself as the villain of an Ayn Rand novel is worse.
There Is No Alternative
There really are valid concerns about growth – humanity does have a huge impact on the biosphere – but the idea that all economic growth is destructive does not hold up, because growth can be achieved by doing more with the same resources. In the 70s, the development that allowed this was not the O’Neill cylinder, nor was it libertarian politics – it was the microchip. The first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004 was released in 1971 and by the end of the decade, practical desktop microcomputers such as the Apple II and the Commodore PET were available. Driven by Moore’s Law, computers were able to generate exponential economic value without requiring exponential resource inputs. Its not clear what could do the same now – biotech perhaps – but it would be premature to announce that such intensive growth is at an end.
So Libra did manage to skewer its targets fairly well, to the extent that its criticism could still be applied to their modern day ideological descendants, but it lacked the self-examination necessary to consider that there could be any solution to the problems it pointed out other than its writers’ ideological and technological preference. They are hardly alone in this conceit of course; its all too common to claim ones pet policy is a matter of strict necessity rather than choice.
There is certainly a warning here for advocates of space settlement – its easy to trap oneself in wishful thinking, mentally closing business models based on incorrect assumptions because you just want things to happen. I hope that I can avoid that in my own work.