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How to respond to Mars exploration vs feed the hungry?
June 13, 2014 3:30 AM   Subscribe

Today, I was enthusing about a photograph from the surface of Mars, and a friend responded along the following lines: "I find it hard to get excited about it when there are so many starving people here on Earth. We should fix our own problems before exploring other planets." How could I have responded?

I understand her perspective, but couldn't articulate the value of what's being done re Mars exploration. What are some examples of non-fighty, constructive ways I could have responded? Or is there really no justification for Mars exploration when the money could be spent on more directly relieving human suffering on Earth?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Religion & Philosophy (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a zero sum game. And, even if it is, projects like sending things to Mars, especially people things, can teach us a whole lot about sustaining people on limited resources. There's also arguments to be made that money invested into NASA actually puts more money back into the economy than it consumes. If all that isn't enough, then you can agree with them, but point out that NASA's budget is less than 1 percent of the money the US spends, and perhaps cuts should be made elsewhere before calling out Mars exploration for sucking up all the capital.
posted by runcibleshaw at 3:41 AM on June 13 [9 favorites]

If another asteroid like the one that killed the dinosaurs shows up, we want to have:
- the technology (sophisticated spacecraft, automated probes, ability to monitor and report back from a very long way away, ability to take and analyse samples) to enable us to figure out if we can divert or destroy it in time,
or, failing that,
- colonies on other planets so the human race can continue even if Earth is devastated.
We will have neither of those things if we don't fund research and test our breakthroughs with actual spacecraft and probes.

Here's an article on technology we use today that was first developed by NASA:
Stand-outs that might interest your friend:
water purification
enriched baby food
weather forecasting
earthquake prediction
sewage treatment
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:43 AM on June 13 [6 favorites]

exploring other planets and fixing our own problems are not necessarily mutually exclusive; decades ago, getting out into space and taking pictures of our planet from afar (re)inforced the viewpoint of our planet's fragility and how important it is to strive for preserving our planet, etc.
posted by wallawallasweet at 3:44 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

That Santa Ana College list is really weak, EndsOfInvention; no citations, and many demonstrably predating NASA space flight. Mars is a fun place to send robots to now and again, but there's no justification beyond nationalistic hubris to send meat there.

No matter what we do, there will always be hungry people to feed, so the original question should really be considered a passive-aggressive non-sequitur. Change the subject, and move on.
posted by scruss at 4:10 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]

The US Department of Defense spent ten times more air conditioning various buildings around the world than the entirety of the Curiosity Mars Rover mission ($20B versus $2B).

Also, this is a variation of the fallacy of relative privation.

If you want to go widescreen with it, you can also point out that there will always be problems of wealth distribution, poverty and inequality while we are a species that bases our society on the logically ludicrous idea that endless growth on a finite planet is possible.

Getting off the planet, in the medium to long term (300 - 500 years, for humans with 80-100 year lifespans) is literally our only long-term hope. Everything else is arguing over who gets to hold the last clean can of water.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:15 AM on June 13 [21 favorites]

Actually, with a bit of DuckDuckGoing, I see that figure has been called into question.

Nevertheless, NASA is a sliver of a slice of a crumb of world expenditure. And Curiosity did cost $2B.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:17 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

"I find it hard to get excited about it when there are so many starving people here on Earth. We should fix our own problems before exploring other planets." How could I have responded?

The nasa budget is half of 1% of the federal budget. I doubt it would make very much difference if we spent all of it on hunger programs.

This also assumes that money can somehow solve the hunger problem, which is by no means something that can be assumed. A lot of problems with hunger are more or less related to intractable issues like corrupt governments, violence, etc. Even simply airlifting in food can have unintended consequences like enriching local warlords or destroying the local food economy.

And this also assumes that we could somehow repurpose the sector of the economy currently dedicated to space exploration to providing food. I doubt that your average aeronautical engineer would have much to contribute in terms of agriculture.
posted by empath at 4:21 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]

In 1970, a nun in Gambia sent the director of NASA a letter asking him that exact question; why were we spending so much money going to the moon when there were starving people here on earth? This was his response.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:29 AM on June 13 [46 favorites]

I'd personally respond, "Okay, then." and just let the conversation awkwardly drop where your friend left it.

(Note: I dislike debate in friendly chat, especially when it's suddenly sprung upon me while I'm talking about something completely unrelated, and so I see this as a matter of etiquette. If a friend was excitedly talking about their new car or recent vacation, you wouldn't shit on that by lecturing them on how many starving people their purchase would have fed.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:30 AM on June 13 [19 favorites]

Ugh. This conversation. I've been there.

Although exploration of our solar system seems very sexy and fun from our vantage point, it is science, not the latest Jerry Bruckheimer thriller. Historically, much of the progress in feeding the poor hasn't come from ideologues or from sudden increases in charitable donations, it has come from technological advances like nitrogen fertilizers. I'll just quote directly from wikipedia now, emphasis my own:
Fertilizer generated from ammonia produced by the Haber process is estimated to be responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth's population.[6] It is estimated that half of the protein within human beings is made of nitrogen that was originally fixed by this process; the remainder was produced by nitrogen fixing bacteria and archaea.[7]
The chemical process that allows one whole third of the human population to eat was invented in 1909 by the Fritz Haber. This is the same guy who invented chemical weapons, by the way. How's that for your friend's little do-gooder narrative? The same guy who is responsible for the single greatest achievement in ending hunger is also the guy responsible for soldiers being gassed during WWI.

Science is not predictable, and we don't know where the next world-changing technology is going to come from. The challenge of sending missions to Mars may require research into, I don't know, genetically engineered algae or something, and a scientist somewhere, toiling away in his laboratory on the problem, may just happen to invent something that feeds all of Africa for 1% of the current cost. It is important that we keep funding research – currently we in the U.S. are slashing funding on everything, ask any PhD in a STEM field.

In sum, your friend doesn't know how to end world hunger, but there is very good reason to believe that the answer will come from scientific research. It's not as simple as sending NASA's entire budget to poor countries. Feeding the poor is more than a matter of charity, it is a logistical challenge, and one that may be solved accidentally through research that comes out of an ambitious space program.
posted by deathpanels at 4:30 AM on June 13 [15 favorites]

You could also explore the idea of why humans are drawn to wanting to relieve the suffering of others. Is it just to make the suffering go away? Or is it to let them lead flourishing lives - lives where they can think about things like exploring other planets, understanding the universe, and building new and amazing technology?

I guess it's similar to this spuriously attributed Churchill quote. We need food to stay alive. But not being hungry is not what it means to be alive.
posted by girlgenius at 4:33 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

You ignore it or delete the comment because the person who wrote it sounds like a self-righteous jackass.
posted by discopolo at 4:37 AM on June 13 [9 favorites]

Lately, I've been using this response: "The money spent on Mars exploration or any outer space exploration, is used to employ people to design, test, build, launch and maintain spacecraft. Nothing helps a homeless or starving person more than a job. As an added bonus these are jobs that are dedicated to keeping people alive in hostile situations, instead of thinking of new ways to kill people."

If you want to be more constructive, phrase it as a question i.e. "But doesn't NASA or whoever employee people to that work and doesn't that keep people off the streets and feed them?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:39 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

"Both things are equally important. So, how 'bout them Dawgs?"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:07 AM on June 13

Why can't we do both?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:10 AM on June 13

There's no good thoughtful way to respond to that. Why not? Because she wasn't trying to have an honest, thoughtful conversation about the issue.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:23 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]

If you want a snarky retort (which I think is perfectly appropriate here), you could ask her why she wears a watch or has a smartphone (or whatever) when there are starving people in the world.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:24 AM on June 13 [12 favorites]

Assuming that she is living in a typical first world manor, I'd ask her "how can you justify movie tickets, video games, vacation trip, sports, drinks in a bar, etc. when you could be giving all of those funds to the local food bank?"
posted by Sophont at 5:25 AM on June 13 [7 favorites]

Mars is a fun place to send robots to now and again, but there's no justification beyond nationalistic hubris to send meat there.

The original argument was to the OP enthusing over photographs from Mars, presumably from one of the rovers, not anything to do with manned exploration.

So little is spent on space it is patently absurd to tie that into starvation. Almost any other line item in the federal budget would contribute more to humanatarian aid if the funds were switched. She might as well ask why you don't send 10% of every sandwhich to eat to the poor.

Also, (very) long-term human survivial will depend on humanity establishing itself on multiple planets. So, you could argue space exploration is sort of an investment towards against future misery.
posted by spaltavian at 5:38 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

So, what's your timeline on "solving all problems"?
posted by Hatashran at 5:44 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]

My response: Don't trivialize the scope of human suffering, nor the advances required to solve them. As a species we are going to need to make huge advances to get to the point where we can solve problems like hunger, cancer, literacy, poverty, etc. The only way we have to make those advances without depriving the funding of other critical areas is through new knowledge, technology, and ideas on how our society could function. NASA makes them possible.

One good example is President Kennedy's moon speech. Not the one at Rice University, but the one to Congress the previous year. He laid out four objectives in that speech. The moon program was one, Rover/NERVA was another, space satellites in general another, and then specifically weather sats. Those last two are HUGE. One caused integrated chips to be developed, which basically made the widespread deployment of computers and the internet possible. The second stopped events like the 1938 hurricane from being repeated. We'd at least have a heads up that stormy weather was on the way... and he did that for the world, not just the US.

Huge advances. NASA. It works.
posted by jwells at 5:58 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

As a society we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:41 AM on June 13

The least fighty response is just to think "Well, bless your heart" and move on to something else. What they've said is just a fuck-you way of saying "I'm not terribly interested in space science."

If you're going to say anything, I'd explain why this line of thought is a fallacy or, if you know the person well enough, why it's at heart dishonest. Almost nobody sincerely believes that we should only do X after we've solved some set of the Most Serious Problems -- we know because almost nobody eschews various arts and entertainment in order to spend that time and those resources solving those Serious Problems. Whoever your friend is, it is virtually certain that their own behavior clearly proves that they do not sincerely hold this belief -- it's likely that they follow a sport, or enjoy cinema or television, or some other utterly unnecessary frivolity. And even if you class space exploration with art and entertainment, it's still cheap.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:51 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

I love and logically believe in space exploration and scientific studies, but sometimes it is painful to think about those numbers against hunger and poverty issues. Like, a friend will be talking about some environmental thing and I'm thinking "That $50,000 to save a bloody polar bear would have put nearly two hundred kids to school for a year in Cambodia" because I have just been looking at a list and trying to decide which kids would get scholarships and seeing a kid I know has dropped out again to work on the streets, and I'm stressed and sad about that compared to a polar bear I have never met.

I don't say this stuff aloud because my head mostly knows that we need to do all these things - the kids are going to school so they can grow up to be engineers and artists! but maybe your friend was worrying about something close to her heart and life and money can seem like a zero-sum game at times.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:56 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

I would do my best to simply ignore it and limit conversations on anything other than the most pedestrian of banalities with that person because I don't really have time for conversing with tedious people who have little to no sense of perspective.
posted by elizardbits at 7:39 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]

I'd say... "That's an interesting question. Are you familiar with Peter Singer?"

Oddly enough, something similar just happened on Mad Men. Everyone's watching the 1969 moon landing, everyone's rapt in front of the flickering blue light, and shortly after, Don calls his children.

Don: Isn't this something?
Sally: I guess.
Don: So you're unimpressed?
Sally: It's such a waste of money.
Don: You don't really think that, do you?
Sally: We'll be going there all the time while people go hungry down here.
Don: Don't be so cynical. You want your little brothers to talk that way?
posted by mochapickle at 8:20 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

Why is it that everyone wants to take NASA's budget to do other things with? There are so many other much more demonstrably useless parts of the government that use so much more funding.
posted by the jam at 8:22 AM on June 13 [7 favorites]

(Oh, I wanted to add: My point is, your friend isn't breaking any new philosophical ground. This may be a helpful first step for her to explore her perspective more fully.)
posted by mochapickle at 8:23 AM on June 13

When this conversation comes up, I find it useful to ask people what percentage of the federal budget they think NASA gets. They usually guess a hugely inflated number, and, seriously, if you think that NASA gets like 1/3 of the federal budget, it would make sense to be pissed about that money not going to help people more directly.

Thing is, NASA's slice of the pie is actually about 0.5%. After I correct that misconception, I list off some the things NASA is currently doing (ISS, Hubble, Kepler, Cassini, many Mars missions, New Horizons, MESSENGER, just to name a few), and try to impress upon them what a bargain they're getting for the approximately $10 of their federal income tax that goes to NASA. I also mention the technological advances that can be traced pretty directly back to NASA.

Finally, I encourage them to make a donation of $10 to hunger relief, or cancer research, or whatever cause they think is more deserving, because, as a society, we can do both.

(All figures from Wikipedia)
posted by BrashTech at 10:08 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

Earth-bound social problems are always a big deal, but "feed the hungry" as a specific argument is pretty bad. The classic problem of American agriculture is overproduction. We can turn out plenty of food to feed everyone (well, y'know, climate change notwithstanding... oh, hey, look, climate change, another great reason to continue NASA funding!). We just have to decide we're gonna distribute that food equitably.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:47 AM on June 13

Man does not live by bread alone.
posted by Soliloquy at 10:51 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

I just commented on this in the last paragraph of my reply in another ask. The short version: Hunger in developing nations is almost never about an absolute lack of resources. It is about political problems like civil war. In the US, it is also not about money per se. Hunger is not a problem fixable by throwing money at it. If it were, it would have long since been solved.

So there is no reason at all to think that if we chose to put off space flight until we had solved world hunger that it would in any way actually help solve world hunger. Thus that is worse than the throwing the baby out with the bath water. That is like throwing out an entirely different baby because of someone else's bath water. There is zero reason to believe these two things are really related in that way or relatable in that way.
posted by Michele in California at 10:59 AM on June 13

I have come to regard such formulations as religious, and, as such, based on a skewed perspective.

Humans like to think they are exceptional, but they are in many ways, just animals. Animals (and plants, and bacteria, and fungi) general try to occupy any niche seemingly available to them. Humans have acted the same way. As a group, they have never been content to stick it out at home. Why should the start now? Why should the human race be born and die on this planet? Inevitably, if humans stick it out at home, home will cease to be habitable for reasons that will have nothing to do with human activity.
posted by Good Brain at 1:51 PM on June 13

I'm on the side of space exploration, but I think it's a difficult question and I am by no means sure I'm right. I find a lot of the answers in this thread pretty flip. In particular, the claims that it's not a zero sum game or the claims that we can do both or the claims that her comment is a non sequitur are unconvincing. It is a zero sum game. Every tax dollar earned or dollar donated to charity can either go toward developing spacecraft or developing malaria treatment delivery techniques. You can't buy both for a dollar. Resources are limited and we're in a triage situation. Do people in this thread not think that there's a point at which space exploration could be consuming way too many of our resources? Would you be willing to lose and house and car and food for the sake of the space program? (There's plausibly a sense in which many people right now are doing just that.) There's got to be some limit. Why not think that spending billions goes massively beyond that limit? I do not think your friend will be convinced by the "do both" line of argument.

I also don't think she'll be impressed by the people here who think she's unimaginative or that she has a lack of etiquette. I presume you like your friend and that you're interested in the question in itself anyway.

There are two ways to go. First, you can try to argue that exploring space will yield more material gains than other possibilities for spending that dollar (or at least, it has a reasonable likelihood of doing so, and it makes sense for humanity to diversify its portfolio). You can argue that the space industry yields a lot of offshoot inventions like velcro and hires a lot of Americans, as others in this thread have said. I personally find these gains to be relatively trivial compared the the likely gains from reinvesting that money elsewhere, so I don't find that path too compelling. But it's not ignorable. You can also argue that space exploration is vital to the longterm success of humanity, because at some point we will likely be faced with the need to colonize other planets, and we need to get on this right now. This is the stuff of science fiction, so it's hard to appraise the suggestion fairly without letting imagination hijack your expected utility calculations. And it sounds especially crazy to people who aren't into sci-fi make-em-ups. But I do find it moderately compelling. Space colonization is one of the best hopes we have of staving off (unlikely) events of human extinction, and it makes sense to invest at least a little bit in an escape plan, even if that escape plan won't come to anything for centuries.

The second way to go is to argue that acquiring knowledge and scratching the exploratory itch are ends in themselves. That is, there is value in knowing stuff about what's out there for reasons that are entirely independent of any material gain and independent of the reduction of suffering. On this view, knowledge about what is out there is vital to human flourishing. So, a world in which we've eliminated suffering but have not explored space is less good that a world with suffering but without space exploration. The former would not be a world in which humanity has flourished. Different sorts of people have different sorts of reaction to this sort of claim. Test it out on your friend and see what she thinks.
posted by painquale at 6:42 AM on June 14

It is a zero sum game. Every tax dollar earned or dollar donated to charity can either go toward developing spacecraft or developing malaria treatment delivery techniques. You can't buy both for a dollar. Resources are limited and we're in a triage situation. Do people in this thread not think that there's a point at which space exploration could be consuming way too many of our resources? Would you be willing to lose and house and car and food for the sake of the space program?

The reason I do not think it is a zero sum game is because exploration and research introduce new solutions, sometimes to things they were not specifically looking to solve but, in the case of space exploration, dealing with food issues is absolutely one of the things they do. A quick google turns up these links about inventions that came out of the space race:
Yahoo Answers
tech article
more yahoo answers

The first one lists "freeze dried foods" as one of the inventions that came out of the space race. The third one lists "groceries that last" as one of the answers. The fourth one also lists "enriched baby foods." IIRC, I think we also got Tang out of it.

So, yes, going to space has real world impact on the ability to feed people and that impact is not all negative. It is not merely "we took money away from feeding people and, thus, food out of their mouths." It is also "we invented new ways to preserve foods, store foods, or enrich foods which we now largely take for granted but which helps keep people fed." My dad grew up on a farm with no refrigerator during The Great Depression, so I may be a bit more in touch than the average American with what life was like before we invented all kinds of modern techniques for preserving, storing and shipping foods and if you look at history the ability to effectively preserve and store foods is a major, major detriment to people starving.

I do agree with you that, yes, it is absolutely possible to overspend on the space program in a way that would be detrimental to society. But, no, it absolutely is not a zero sum game.
posted by Michele in California at 9:40 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]

I agree with pretty much all of that. But whether "it" is a zero sum game or not depends on the game in question. I took it that the claim that "it's not a zero sum game" is only a response to the questioner if the game where the participants of the game are NASA and other potential funding agencies. Every dollar spent on NASA is a dollar not spent elsewhere, so that game is zero sum. I was responding to people saying "why not do both?" by pointing out that pursuing one avenue of research means taking money away from other avenues.

I agree the game in which there is one player, humanity, and success in the game is determined by how well humanity does, is not a zero sum game. I also agree that it's possible that research into space exploration could turn out to be more beneficial to solving hunger problems than putting that same amount of money into research into food sciences. However, I think it's in general unlikely that we'll get better results on topic X by focusing on topic Y and hoping for side effects than we would if we dedicated our attention on topic X. Freeze dried foods are fine, but if we had diverted all the money from the space program into food preservation research, I think it's likely we'd have more food preservation technologies to show from it.
posted by painquale at 10:14 AM on June 14

Every dollar spent on NASA is a dollar not spent elsewhere, so that game is zero sum. I was responding to people saying "why not do both?" by pointing out that pursuing one avenue of research means taking money away from other avenues.

Just to be perfectly clear:

Yes, if you have x dollars, and you spend one of them on NASA, it can't be spent elsewhere. But you were not originally talking about spending that money on "research" to help feed people better. You were, as best I can tell, talking about just using NASA funds to buy food to feed people, basically. If, instead, you take a dollar away from actually feeding people and put it into research that can help us solve obstacles to feeding people, it stops being a "zero sum game" because the research can multiply the value of future food dollars so that same money feeds more people.

The reason I think it works to pursue space exploration is because we often do get better results for topic X by focusing on topic Y than we would if we focused exclusively on topic X. New and vastly superior solutions very frequently come from trying to solve something else entirely that seems totally unrelated. This is because of human psychology, where we tend to frame the problem a particular way and, thus, trying to solve X problem often traps us into thinking about it the same way. Einstein said “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So, it is not at all uncommon that X problem gets solved far more effectively when we stop trying to solve it and go work on Y instead and then realize it has applications with huge relevance for X. "Thinking outside the box" and all that. Plus, space exploration tends to be more inspiring than "feed starving people in Africa." Inspiration often translates to more dedication and better results.
posted by Michele in California at 10:38 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]

You were, as best I can tell, talking about just using NASA funds to buy food to feed people, basically.

I hope I didn't imply that, because that'd be a pretty terrible idea! Actually, I didn't even realize the discussion was about food when I wrote my post. The only example I gave was investing in malaria treatment delivery techniques, which doesn't really have anything to do with hunger. (I forgot that the poster's friend originally said "starving people" and I thought the question was more generally about helping the impoverished. That's probably what "helping starving people" and "fixing our own problems here are Earth" are elliptical for anyway.)

The reason I think it works to pursue space exploration is because we often do get better results for topic X by focusing on topic Y than we would if we focused exclusively on topic X.

That's true, and it's a good reason to be invested in a whole bunch of projects. But I don't think it's something we can bank on.

Something that gets left out of these debates are reasons for thinking that space exploration in particular is likely to give us good results in other fields. Would changing our focus to deep sea exploration be better or worse? Not all projects are as likely to have good side effects. The general principle about Xs and Ys that you give can be flipped: imagine someone who advocates spending all our space money on food sciences, arguing that we often get better results for topic X by focusing on topic Y because it helps us think outside of the box, so studying food sciences will paradoxically lead to better spaceships than if we had just studied spaceships. That argument seems unsound, but it has the same general form as the one that argues we get better food technology by studying spaceships than by studying food technologies.

So: why is space special? Satellites were obviously hugely important and help us do a ton of good in the world. But... what's next? I think we need to have some idea of what's coming next in order for us to bank on side effects. There are definitely a lot of possibilities. The prospect of terraforming other planets could lead to big advances in farming, for instance. But how likely is it that these advances would increase expected goodness than a huge influx of research into the food sciences? These are complicated issues that would demand a lot of investigation into topics that I'm entirely ignorant about... I have no idea what the answer is. But I don't think it's obviously going to fall on the pro space exploration side.
posted by painquale at 12:06 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]

Space is "special" because a) it is a particularly hostile environment which requires us to think very, very carefully about every detail of human biological needs to a degree that even underwater or antarctic exploration does not, thus it forces significant rigor, intellectually and otherwise, and b) for most people, it is inspiring in a way that earthbound exploration is not.

There are reasons why space exploration yields better results with food but food science does not lead to better spaceships.

But I will leave it at that because I think this verging into "debate" territory and that is not appropriate for AskMe.

posted by Michele in California at 1:14 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]

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