Esperanto: What’s the Big Idea behind the International Language?

Esperanto. What is it? Why am I learning it? Should you?

The Flag of Esperanto

Esperanto is a planned language developed by an amateur linguist in 1887. His goal was to create an easy to learn, universal second language.

The creator, L.L. Zamenhof was not alone in wanting to do this. The idea of a universal second language has been studied by linguist for centuries, pushed by idealist and desired by travelers, business people and diplomats. What sets Zamenhof’s language, Esperanto, off from the others is that its’ survived over 130 years of history and continues to have a large body of speakers worldwide. It has grown beyond the idea phase into a living language.

When I think of Esperanto, I divide the reasons for it into two categories, the big ideas and the little ones. The big ideas are why Zamenhof wrote the language and why so many people have learned it over the years. The little ideas are why you my want to learn the language. So let us begin:

The big idea

The construction of an international language is driven by three main motivations, convenience, fairness and understanding. All three are prevalent in Esperanto.

Convenience

The convenience of a single universal second language should be obvious, travelers, business people, and diplomats would have a single language to learn, instead of hundreds. Journals and news could be published in Esperanto and be instantly accessible around the globe to speakers of many languages.

International news in Esperanto is already a thing. Here are a few sources. 

To be truly convenient, this universal language must be simpler to learn than a natural language and Esperanto passes this test easily. Natural language learning is measured in years, Esperanto in months or in some cases weeks.

(Don’t be fooled by all the “learn Spanish in thirty days” courses out there. You might be able to have some really basic conversations at the end of that time, but real knowledge of Spanish takes on average two years of study.)

It’s fair.

But what does that have to do with fairness? Using any natural language as a second language, universal or otherwise, puts an enormous burden on nonnative speakers, who must spend years learning it. It also puts native speakers at a distinct advantage in any negotiations and just in life in general.

However if both parties learn the same second language, they have the same investment in time and are on much fairer footing with each other. If public services, like healthcare, government services, police, education, etc. are done in this universal language, all have equal access with our regard to linguistic abilities.

Understanding

Finally a universal second language could build a bridge between isolated linguistic communities. Eastern Europe of Zamenhof’s day was a mix of people who spoke different languages. His hometown of Bialystok was Polish, but filled with Russian, German and Jewish speakers.

In today’s world the problems are better in ways, worse in others. The internet and international news means that events are translated in a huge variety of languages in almost real time. But understanding often comes much slower. Facts translate easily, culture does not.

Just look at America’s convoluted relationship with the Middle East. The phrase “Allah Akbar” simple means “Praise be to God.” And yet images of Arabic men jumping up and down and yelling “Allah Akbar” have become iconic of radical terrorism and anti-American protests.

Many evangelic christian denominations say praise be to God. Many jump up and down and wave their hands during religious services.

What if both services appeared in the news with the caption “laudo estu al Dio?” (Esperanto for praise be to God) Would people realize those people over their aren’t doing anything that people over here do? Would it start to shift the narrative? I like to think so.

So Why Not?

Why aren’t we doing this?

The answers are many, and many are political. A lot of it comes down to two things, the myth that we already have a universal language and who that myth serves.

The myth is that we have a universal language: English. The reality is far different but I will address that in another blog, because it will take a lot of words.

Who benefits from this myth? Just about every English speaking country and many corporations. Both the US and the UK spend large sums of aid money on English education throughout the world because they know this is key to their national interests.

Africa is home to some of highest levels of language diversity on the globe. Thanks to a long history of colonialism, several of the commonly spoken languages that are used to bridge the gaps between linguistic groups are European languages, French, Portuguese and more recently English.

In modern times, American aid often comes with the English language. For example groups like the Peace Corp teaches practical agricultural skills but also sends many English teachers to impoverished areas. While the volunteers might be idealist, only wanting to help, those in Washington that pay for these programs often have a secondary motive, to keep Africa looking to the English speaking world for it’s future.

It is a great example of soft power, which are probably the future of global conflict. As a growing superpower and major oil importer, China would love to have a greater toe hold on African oil and mining wealth. How do they try to gain this foothold? In recent years Chinese foreign works have become vital to the industries in Africa. And Chinese language comes with them. As more and more Africans learn Chinese, they are more inclined to work with Chinese companies. And slowly the balance of power shifts.

Esperanto could serve to diffuse that conflict and reduce the soft power of corporations and governments alike. It would be a soft power revolution for Africans to have a unified second language that wasn’t beholden to any superpower. And that is the big idea of Esperanto.

Coming up next: The little idea. Or why you should learn Esperanto.

Convinced already? Check out Duolingo, the smartphone app that makes language learning easy.

Four Ways that Terraforming Could Save the Earth

Serious scientist mostly downplay the idea of terraforming another planet.

They have two reasons for this, but they seem to miss one important point. So I am going to tell you four ways that terraforming could benefit, or even save, the earth today.

But first, the two reasons that scientists downplay terraforming as a serious endeavor:

The timescale of terraforming is enormous. We can’t simply seed the entire surface of Mars with plants, come back in six weeks and find a livable planet. The best case for terraforming would be thousands of years. More likely it will take tens of thousands.

Looking beyond our solar system becomes a double edged sword. We might find planets out there that are ripe and ready for our kind of life, or at least closer to what we need then Mars or Venus. That could shorten the terraforming time considerably. But we have to get there and short of some sort of science fiction faster than light ship, it’s going to take thousands of years to make the voyage.

Meanwhile the problems that we face here on Earth are likely to come to a head within the next few years, or at most within the next couple of generations. Overpopulation, climate change and resource depletion are nearing the crisis point right now. So you can’t fix overpopulation by starting a colony on Mars because it will be thousands of years before Mars will be able to support the number of people you would need to send to make even a small dent in the world’s population.

The second problem with terraforming is the whole resource-to-benefits conundrum. Terraforming would require a huge outlay in resources with only distant benefits in return.

It goes like this, we’ve spotted oil on Titan (or at least hydrocarbons that are like oil). So why not go there and get it to renew our depleted fossil fuels?

The short answer is that it takes a massive amount of energy to build rockets and fly them deep into space to get there. And then another outlay in energy to fly the oil back to Earth. You end up spending more energy to get the oil than it provides.

The dynamic for dealing with overpopulation is even worse. Mars One is looking to send forty men and women to form a colony on Mars. Even if assume they have the technology and funding to go today, what is forty people to a population of more than seven billion? Not even a fraction of a percent.

The world adds an average of 250 new babies to the world’s population each minute. How many do we have to send to a new world to reverse that trend? What kind of infrastructure would we need before we could relieve overpopulation via space travel?

I could go on but the point remains. We can not fix the problems we face here on Earth by fleeing to a new planet. But there is still a strong case for actively pursuing terraforming.

How terraforming can benefit us right now

The point that most scientist and arm chair terraformers seem to miss is that the technological hurdles we face in terraforming dovetail with a lot of the problems we face on this planet. Developing the technology to terraform another planet may kill two birds with one stone, it will fix our problems here, too. Here are just four examples.

Climate Change

The average surface temperature of Mars is minus sixty degrees celsius. Venus runs a balmy 462 degrees celsius. To get a nice earth-like average of 16 degrees celsius would mean raising the temperature of Mars by some seventy six degrees. Or dropping Venus’s average temperature over 446 degrees.

Now maybe you can see why it takes thousands of years to terraform a planet. But lets say we start working on the technology today. What are the benefits for us right now?

The earth is warming. Even die hard climate change deniers accept this fact. (They argue that its not man made and is instead part of some natural cycle, but they don’t argue the basic math, we are getting warmer.) At the rate we are going our earth will be nearly 2 degrees warmer by 2050.

A) 2 degrees might not seem like much, but it will have major effects on climate and weather. Many of them we are already seeing.

B) compared to the 76 degree change we need to make Mars livable, it’s a drop in the bucket. So I propose our test run for terraforming another planet is to develop technology to lower our earth back 2 degrees to where it was.

We even have some of the technology we need. We can take carbon out of the atmosphere and bury it in the Earth in a process called carbon sequestration. Why aren’t investing heavily in this kind of research? It would get us out our current fix and lay the ground work for terraforming another planet at the same time.

Food

With our current technology it would take about six months to get to Mars. With the necessity of waiting for the planets to align, the round trip would take nearly two and half years. What are you going to eat that entire time? If we want to terraform the planet and that’s going to take thousands of years, what will the colonist eat? You can’t pack that many dried rations.

The answer is that we will need to create small, intensive hydroponics or something similar. Our space capsule must be able to produce a sustainable diet in a very small amount of space.

And honestly, we need that now. Our current agricultural practices are just not sustainable. There are three problems with it, it takes a massive toll on the environment, it is very land intensive (meaning it takes up a lot of space) and it won’t be able to feed our growing population for much longer.

There are two sacred cows in agribusiness that make our system so unsustainable. The first is — cows. I am not going to argue for militant veganism, but our desire to eat large quantities of meat isn’t sustainable and won’t work in space.

The other huge sacred cow is oil and petrochemicals. From herbicides and pesticides, the gas we put into tractors to plant and harvest crop and the gas we use to ship produce all over the world, every aspect of agriculture is touched by petrochemicals. Without them our system would collapse.

Imagine a city that could feed itself, leaving the surrounding land to return to nature.

What we need is a way to grow the bulk of our food in a small contained area close to where it is needed. That is a must for terraforming but would have far reaching benefits for earth right now. Imagine a world where cities can produce their own food and large swaths of farmland can be returned to their natural state. Imagine having a room in your house that grows all your produce and you only have to shop occasionally for luxury items.

Energy

The economic argument against terraforming goes like this; it takes a tremendous amount of energy and resources to terraform another planet, so you must first solve the issue of energy scarcity. But once you’ve created cheap, sustainable energy, you no longer have the same incentive to go to another planet in search of resources.

So? Solve the issue of energy scarcity? Yes! That’s exactly what we need to do.

In order to fly to Mars and back we need to be able to create energy in abundance, through some cheap, infinitely renewable source. In order to break our addiction to fossil fuels, we need to find a cheap and infinitely renewable energy source.

What that will that look like? Solar, wind, nuclear or something we haven’t dreamed up yet, I don’t know. But clearly it’s the next step in technological evolution and we should all be invested in making it. Whether we do it because we are running out of oil, because we want to go to another planet, or some other reason is irrelevant.

Society

Terraforming projects take thousands of years. What kind of society will we have in a thousand years?

Right now it’s hard to get through a single political upheaval without it feeling like the end of the world. And this historian warns that humans tend to go through destructive periods regularly. Can we humans create a society that is both stable and dynamic enough to last a thousand years?

I believe the answer is yes, and it’s something we must absolutely strive for. Really the biggest obstacle to terraforming another planet isn’t scientific or technological. Our scientist know what to do and could do most of it with technology we already possess. It’s political and cultural.

Like the other problems we’ve discussed, the issues are surprisingly similar to what we must face in terraforming. How do we share scarce resources fairly? How do we live and cooperate in small spaces? How do we learn to work together on projects that we will never see the end result of?

In the end tackling these problems will soon become imperative. So what are we waiting for?

You know who is really good at terraforming? The Galactic Consortium. Check out my ongoing sci-fi serial about their arrival over the skies of Earth.


Get the first episode free:

Amazon

Everywhere Else

Or get the Omnibus of Season One:

Amazon

Everywhere Else


Or check out season two:

Amazon

Everywhere Else