All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2017:
Back to 2016:
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
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The fundamental concepts underlying modern industrial civilisation are growth and progress, which have emerged out of the Enlightenment model of society based on capitalist democracy, the tolerance of human diversity, pure science and applied technology. But growth, particularly of population size and industrial activity, is now beginning to run up against ecological limits imposed by Earth’s biosphere. There are therefore three possible broad alternative outcomes:
Which of these outcomes is realised would appear to be the most significant forthcoming development of the 21st century.
The first option, that of sustainability at our current level, is surely problematic, for several reasons. We have no historical example of a zero-growth industrial civilisation to emulate. The financial and political interests in favour of maintaining growth are deeply embedded in the functioning of society, such that their removal is hardly conceivable without violent upheaval followed by the imposition of a global tyranny. Thus while some have proposed that capitalist democracy should be replaced by a socialist form of society, a major period of armed conflict would be required to bring this about.
On a broader view, it may be doubted whether even a theoretically ideal, peaceful, socialist industrial civilisation on one planet would survive for long, due to natural causes. Possible stress factors include supervolcanic eruption, asteroid impact, and a return to ice age conditions. It is also possible that, without further growth, a unified global civilisation may decline and fall of its own accord, given the lack of independent neighbouring civilisations to either lend aid or provide competitive stimulus.
The second option, that of the decline and fall of the industrial state of mankind and reversion to an order of society typical of everywhere on Earth before about 1000 AD, would involve a catastrophic loss of life and property comparable with that produced by a major nuclear war, and cannot be contemplated without horror except by the most extreme of misanthropes.
The third option, of continued growth, presents the risk of over-stressing the terrestrial biosphere (or indeed the risk of over-stressing the political system with exaggerated fears such as those of anthropogenic climate change), but the reward of multiplying by orders of magnitude the wealth and capabilities of civilisation. It would appear to be the most peaceful option, given that it works with, not against, current economic and political trends.
A few years ago one could have expressed skepticism that the space agency mode of operation would ever open up the Solar System to mankind in this way. Recent developments have, however, demonstrated that progress does not depend on the space agency model alone, but on commercial initiatives. In 2012, in particular, SpaceX has demonstrated a cheaper method of accessing the International Space Station, and announced a collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace in a drive to open up a commercial market for its vehicles. Reaction Engines has conducted a so far successful test programme for its Sabre jet-rocket engine, which promises to lower the cost of access to space yet further. And a group of American businessmen have announced the creation of Planetary Resources, a commercial venture directed towards using the resources of near-Earth asteroids.
A logical sequence of steps towards growth in space should be clear. In order of appearence, these steps are:
Would a Solar System, multiglobal civilisation be sustainable? Two points to note here.
Firstly, the immense distances and high transport costs of moving around the Solar System imply a degree of diversification. Colonies on Venus, Mars, in the Asteroid Belt, orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, and further out in the Centaurs and the Kuiper Belt would be associated quite loosely, not dominated by one political centre.
Of course one could imagine a centre of power enforcing conformity through high-energy particle-beam weapons, computer viruses, or micro-spacecraft containing military nanorobots. So we have two alternative scenarios for the continued technologisation of society: new technologies (weapons or otherwise) lead to the destruction of society, or they lead to its further enrichment and diversification. While there will always be skeptics on this point, the trend to date has been the latter one. In fact one of the most significant events of the 20th century was the war that did not happen: despite a huge arms buildup, no nuclear weapon has been used against any military or civilian target since 1945.
It is therefore reasonable to expect that on balance the benefits of new technologies will continue to outweigh their dangers, and to approach the prospect of continued technological development, which is intrinsic to a spacefaring future, with optimism.
A widely diversified civilisation would appear to be intrinsically more secure than a unified one, in that natural disasters, military conflict or political or economic decline would affect only a fraction of the total. This recovers, on a Solar System scale, the pluralistic situation on Earth of more than a millennium ago, in which it was possible, for example, for Rome to decline and fall without affecting branches of civilisation in China or the Americas.
Secondly, while the human species is currently dependent upon Earth’s supporting biosphere, the kind of engineered habitats essential for Solar System colonisation break that dependence. Climate, agriculture and microbiology in a space or planetary colony need to be fully controlled by its human occupants, implying a high level of understanding of how to maintain comfortable habitats.
Given that the power sources of space solar power and artificial nuclear fusion reactors could supply energy to a Solar System civilisation over a timescale on the order of at least billions of years, one is justified in claiming that such a civilisation would itself be sustainable for as far into the future as we are currently able to look.
Back to: Basic Concepts
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