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The Spacefaring Web 2.7: Revolutionary Patience
John Carter McKnight
April 17, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

16th Century Japan was a time something like ours in a way: as we see the prospect of a spacefaring civilization just out of reach, so they saw the future of a strong, united nation. Three great warriors each in turn attempted to realize that dream: Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. A folk verse, imagining each confronting a recalcitrant songbird, encapsulated their methods (this discussion is adapted from Dave Lowry, Moving Toward Stillness: Lessons in the Daily Life of the Martial Ways, pp.21-24).

The first of the warlords, Nobunaga, was direct, ruthless, without social skills or subtlety. Of him, the verse goes,

"If the hototogisu will not sing - kill it."

This is the crash-program approach we began with. The Industrial Age showed that this method can produce results - for a time. Sustainability is another matter: it's worth noting that Nobunaga was assassinated by one of his closest generals, out of fear of being purged.

The second contender, Hideyoshi, was a charismatic leader, a diplomat, flatterer and seducer. The space movement has been unusually short of this type, being overstocked with Nobunagas, but we have seen some. They are useful in building alliances and coalitions, or in rallying the troops for the big push, less so for sustained progress and meeting concrete objectives. Of Hideyoshi it was said,

"If the hototogisu will not sing - try to make it sing."

It was Tokugawa who united the country where the others failed, whose regime lasted for three hundred years. Tokugawa's verse holds,

"If the hototogisu will not sing - wait."

In Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, a must-read for any Martian, Terry Tempest Williams quotes the South African poet-activist Breyten Breytenbach (p.84):

"Alternatives must be kept alive. While learning the slow art of revolutionary patience."

She later (p. 182) defines the concept as

"caring enough to explain what is perceived at the time as madness and staying with an idea long enough, being rooted in a place deep enough, and telling the story widely enough to those who will listen, until it is recognized as wisdom."

Exactly this is the mission we in the space community are all charged with now.

Revolutionary patience begins with the realization that led many of us to being active in the space movement: we're not just going to be able to watch this on TV. We can't just pay our taxes and sit back and watch while governments, or today's industrial giants, go forth and build us a spacefaring civilization. That will only come to pass aided by our personal contributions. In that lost age of almost-there, it seemed that we needed to contribute whatever we had ready to hand for that big, immediate push. We took our energy and talents and gave freely of them. The veterans of Mercury and Apollo will certainly remember a similar phase of just jumping in and getting to work. But now we see we have both the time and the necessity to plan and prepare.

I'm one of a class, or a generation, of space advocates who came to the movement in the latter 1990s. Then, it seemed the clock was inexorably ticking off the last few remaining minutes. Pathfinder images were everywhere, having set internet records and blown the minds of marketers. The first Mars Society conference sizzled with the passionate intensity of the birth of a new religion. Tom Clancy spoke at the Rotary Rocket rollout. Surely we only had to storm the gates of Heaven.

It's been a long and complicated five years. Only one thing is truly clear: however certain our ultimate victory may be, it is not close at hand. I believe the likelihood of that victory has increased substantially over the past half-decade, at the price of postponing the date of its arrival. If I'm right, a genuine understanding of our times should encourage a radical rethinking of our priorities and methods across all fields of endeavor, from scientific research to entrepreneurial opportunities, privately-funded projects, lobbying and activism. This time, we build carefully, to last. Last time, during the Industrial Era's Space Age, we went for the quick victory at the price of sustainability. As a result, today there are children whose parents don't remember when we walked on the Moon. Given that legacy of the triumphalist, brute force approach, our being forced to turn to incrementalism should be a blessing in disguise. However, that sort of cautious, systematic approach is less gratifying, more challenging, and contrary to the spirit of our culture and our times.

A few years ago I saw the two approaches - Industrial Age more-of-the-same and Network Age revolutionary patience - confront each other in a strategy session on Mars exploration. As I remember it, Freeman Dyson explicitly wished for a slowdown, for the impossibility of another crash program. He wanted the time to lay a strong foundation, to build upon it carefully, from LEO industry out to L5, the Moon and Mars, in order to develop a spacefaring civilization that could endure. Dyson is not a young man: he was calling for an approach that would ensure that he, and maybe even the youngest in the room, would not live to see the fruits of a lifetime's labor. That's a hard discipline, almost a superhuman thing to endure, or to know how to instill.

We do know how to rouse the troops for the big push. If anything, the bloody, collectivist 20th Century taught us that. But revolutionary patience? Working today, and tomorrow, and a day at a time endlessly towards a goal we might never see? That we have precious few examples to guide us towards. We can talk of cathedral building, but it's really not a thing we know how to do. The scientists among us would seem to have it a bit easier: science is such an incremental accumulating of very small, inglorious bricks of effort. This is why the hacker ethic, of shared incessant tinkering, the engineering counterpart to the scientific method, embodies the values critically needed to build a spacefaring civilization. The rest of us - business people, project-focused engineers, activists, organizers and weekend warriors - have a lot to learn in order to contribute meaningfully to this long-term incremental undertaking.

Revolutionary patience isn't quitting and going back to our couches. It's asking not "what can I contribute today?" but "what can I contribute across a lifetime?" The answers may be quite different. We might have, and need, the time to study, to train, to practice; or we might conclude that our best sustained contribution may take a different form that what we would give to one great push.

There is a personal element to all this for me: as a result of this analysis, I have chosen to resign from the Board of Directors of the Space Frontier Foundation, and to step back from all active organizational involvement. In 1998 I left a lucrative job with a Beverly Hills law firm to contribute daily time and my organizational skills to that great push. Now, the necessity of building to last is impelling me to rebuild a career and a well-balanced life, while developing and honing the skills of writing, community design and urban planning where I can best make a needed, lasting contribution. For others, revolutionary patience might mark a turn from an aerospace industry job to a focus on volunteer activism, or from a research institute to a viable entrepreneurial niche, or back to school for an advanced degree. Or, continuing steady on, if we got it right the first time.

Particularly for those who are, or wish to be, leaders of the space movement, the need is critical to embrace revolutionary patience. At the most immediate level, we need to ensure our continued relevance, in order to not be left by the side of the road, exhausted by our untimely big push, or simply unable to keep up as things move on. We need to cultivate revolutionary patience to be around for the long haul, to provide continuity and the historical depth sometimes called wisdom. We need to set an example, to be a Freeman Dyson talking of decades and centuries when the postdoc young bucks strain to look past this year's budget. We need to learn to call forth revolutionary patience in followers and supporters; we must know that we cannot teach what we have not ourselves mastered. We have taken upon ourselves the task of contributing to the building of a spacefaring civilization. We owe it to all those who will share in the effort, and those who will live in that civilization that we build, to do it right.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

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