In the episode titled “Encounter At Farpoint” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the protagonist Captain Jean Luc Picard and his starship, the USS Enterprise, encounter a god-like being named Q, who hails from the Q Continuum. The being, who presents as a middle-aged European-descended human (surprise, surprise) puts the entire human race on trial for its “savagery”—and it is the Enterprise’s crew whom Q calls forth for judgment.
Q hails from an alternate plane, which he seems to indicate is the energy source from which the whole universe derives its power. It follows, then, that Q possesses great power: he can instantly create alternate worlds, give people superpowers, transport himself and others wherever he pleases, and blow things up on a whim, to give a few examples.
For several episodes, viewers are left wondering: why would an all-powerful entity such as Q meddle in human affairs? Well, we soon learn that Q is concerned about the humanity’s potential to become as or more powerful than the Q Continuum itself through the United Federation of Planets — a successful, space-based “United Nations” capable of interstellar travel — which humanity founded.
In the Star Trek story, humans founded the United Federation of Planets. Despite the UFP operating under a strict set of principles, namely the Prime Directive—a policy of non-interference in the development and politics of young civilizations, the UFP is an inherently colonial enterprise. Like the United States off of which it seems to be modeled, the UFP espouses binding “universal” morals such as liberty, equality, justice, peace and cooperation—while it embarks on seemingly endless expansion. It is a political federation modeled on the US government, with its own legislative council, executive branch, and military-exploratory fleet of starships (“Starfleet”). All of the 150 plus member worlds are said to be semi-autonomous, but the Federation’s purpose is to grow itself for the sake of peaceful space exploration. The ostensibly innocuous motto of the Star Trek universe is “To seek out new life and new civilizations; To boldly go where no [one] has gone before.” Manifest Destiny, anyone? Fine, it is not quite so. The Federation does not forcibly assimilate non-aligned worlds.
And I am not seeking to deride the Federation’s structure per se. My argument here is two-fold.
Principally, although the human-led UFP has eliminated money and capitalism, the organization still relies on extractive economics to maintain its infrastructure—the mining, processing and welding of mineral ores and metals. This brings up important questions about mining and pollution: to what extent do the industries of this universe produce pollution? What degree of pollution is acceptable? Does the UFP condone mining on worlds that have life forms? If so, is that mining carried out democratically, with the consent of all affected communities? Or does the UFP only mine asteroids and planets devoid of life?
Another question concerns materials safety: are the metals and materials or (their production) utilized in the fictional Star Trek world toxic?
Secondly, the UFP’s endless expansion model paired with its desire to “seek out new life and new civilizations” is noble and natural at best, and deeply foolish at worst. As the innumerable jaunts of the many starships under the name USS Enterprise as well as USS Voyager can attest, the Milky Way Galaxy is vast, replete with massive threats and potent superpowers. For example, the Star Trek universe features the aforementioned God-like Q Continuum, the ruthless Changelings, the warrior-like Jem’Hadar and Klingons, and last but never least, the cybernetic, all-powerful Borg race, to name but a few. The Jem’Hadar inflicted monumental damage on the Federation through the devastating Dominion War. The Borg almost succeeded in wiping out Earth, the Federation’s headquarters, two times at incredible cost to Starfleet. Endless expansion leads to almost infinite chances for self-destruction through unlucky first contacts. Endless interstellar expansion for the sake of peaceful exploration inevitably leads to conflict, and conflict can quite swiftly lead to catastrophe (or cataclysm) for the supposed “good guys.”
The foolishness of limitless expansion is clear: eventually, your meta-civilization is going to butt heads with other ones, not all of which are likely to share your so-called “universal” morals. Another possibility: the UFP runs out of resources, forcing it to expand with force to keep up its industrial production.
All of this begs the question: how much growth is enough? Or rather, is there such thing as “sustainable growth” in space?
If I were the UFP, I would order an end to colonial expansion. Scientific exploration, on the other hand, might be feasible still. But one ship falling into the wrong omnipotent hands could be all it takes to erase hundreds of years of interstellar civilizational progress in one fell swoop.