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Why the Idea of Galactic Wars Over Resources Make Little Sense

So I was involved in a Twitter convo some months ago regarding a Polygon piece on No Man’s Sky and how video games conceptualize space travel and exploration as basically resource consumption. Ben Kuchera’s central point was that:

"I personally really enjoy No Man’s Sky and will continue to, but it’s a bummer that the entire game is based around that unquestioned consumption on the part of the player. There is no way to create on these worlds, no way to look for balance or to react to each unique environment. For a game that’s supposed to be about the wonder of the infinite, it’s a shame that the only tools given to the player are those that let them take whatever they want."

My thinking in response to that was these tweets:

Thinking back on that last tweet drove me down a rabbit hole that I’ve now decided to drag all the rest of y’all into *cackles*.

My discussion above and the Polygon one about resource extraction and exploitation was based on our assumptions about how resource acquisition happens here on Earth and the wars, genocides, and slaveries it often incites. Most sci-fi plots that happen on Earth or in space work under the assumption that resources for building civilizations are limited, that groups of sentient beings compete for them, and that war is one of the likely outcomes of these competitions. One of my favorite shows, The Expanse, is wholly driven by the oppression, slavery, and war brought about by competition between Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planet’s Alliance over resources like water and oxygen. Elite: Dangerous, which includes a nearly 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way Galaxy, has its metagame driven by galactic empires competing over resources. You can think of many other examples, but basically resource competition is a mainstay in space sci-fi writing, video games, TV, and movies.

Thinking about Elite: Dangerous specifically in reference to my last tweet got me thinking about something. If, in the example of Elite: Dangerous, we have reliable and fast travel to the other ~400 billion stars in the galaxy and their planets, then why would galactic political units ever need compete with anyone else over resources? I’m working off the assumption that nothing exotic or rare like Element Zero or Deuterium is necessary for space travel/life and that there’s a decent mix of types of planets in each section of the galaxy. But seriously, if we have access to an estimated ~100 billion planets which potentially all have resources then why, like the the aliens in Independence Day, would we have to fight, let alone interact, with any other species or faction on a galactic scale? The only other explanation is that we conquer because we can.

This assumption that most galactic civilizations are going to be at war with other people somehow I suspect is driven by how we imagine our own history, particularly modern colonial history. When doing fieldwork at the Buffalo History Museum I saw an exhibit about the “frontier” aka Seneca homelands where they noted how settlers and Natives “competed” (read: settlers slaughtered Native communities) over land and resources. Now I’ve driven on the Interstate 90 and offshooting roads quite a few time and you can see on those rides that there’s TONS of land that isn’t being occupied by anyone. It’s clear that when various Indigenous nations signed treaties allowing Europeans to share occupation/use of space there was enough for everyone….that is if you were interested in sharing. White settlers, and Americans as their ideological descendents, did not believe in sharing space or responsible use of resources.

White settlers and colonizers in general often spin a narrative of “there wasn’t enough for all of us” to obscure the reality which is that European state making institutions are driven by expansive conceptions of sovereignty, which is a form of political control that grants the sovereign exclusive right to control a particular space. Mid to modern European history is driven by this form of ownership and state making. When British settlers showed up in North America, they brought that idea of ownership with them, and like all the colonizers before them, they claimed every piece of land they could whether they could use it or not. To obscure this greedy and genocidal land claim logic they both make up lies that there wasn’t enough for all of us AND that humans are basically wired that way, neither of which are true.

Back to my point about galactic wars over resources, what happens if we don’t assume that every galactic civilization is like white settlers back home? How would Bioware write humanity differently if they didn’t assume that humans would snatch up every planet they can get their hands on for the sake of it? And how could we develop conflict differently in sci-fi plots if we didn’t assume that nearly every civilization has the same drive for resources and expansion that Europeans on Earth do? What new game mechanics can we develop if we don’t center the story on obtaining resources and consuming them? These questions that can make for VERY interesting and different media only exist if we decolonize our ideas around resources and consumption.

What media have y’all seen, read, played that you think gets away from these harmful assumptions and imagines other kinds of galactic futures?

2 thoughts on “Why the Idea of Galactic Wars Over Resources Make Little Sense Leave a comment

  1. Great post, this is an interesting conversation and it does a good job at framing the question. I think it would be interesting to take a look at the space opera genre and how far its come with these questions since its inception. It used to be like you describe sci-fi at larger but I feel that more contemporary authors (like Hannu Rajaniemi, Anne Lackie or Peter Watts) look at the question differently: if we assume infinite resources, do the political/economic/social issues really disappear or are they rooted in problems deeper than resource allocation? Or rather, which disappear and which don’t.

    Like

  2. None of the conflicts listed is intergalactic. At most they are intragalactic, interstellar conflicts.
    Furthermore, if you’re imagining a scenario without colonies and resource acquisition, all you have is star trek. It’s been done.

    Like

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