Issue 34, 1 September 2008 -- 39th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. "The real problem is human overpopulation" -- Letter from Ray Wright
  2. "Carrying capacity depends on technological level" -- Response from Stephen Ashworth

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(1) "The real problem is human overpopulation"

Letter from Ray Wright


I was pleased to see that your contact in the Pentagon thought it at least worth his time to read my remarks and reply to them. This is a short response, as I'll be out of touch for a week and I wouldn't want you to think me indifferent to the debate in which I seem to have got involved.

I agree most wholeheartedly with one of Coyote Smith's remarks, which is: "The real problem is human overpopulation." I would be interested to know whether he agrees with my rather gloomy prognostication that the time to create the capability of journeying between planets and even between stars is right now. I foresee a future in which the world economy goes into permanent reverse, caused by population pressure on biological and mineral resources. The price of basic foodstuffs is rising sharply. I would assert that it is because the world is running out of agriculturally productive space for the human population it has to support. (How can it not, sooner or later?) Peak oil may have already occurred and there is some evidence that the same may be true of coal. Added to that, if the more pessimistic climate prediction models are correct, rising temperatures will cause further stress, thus higher costs, in various ways. The great Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said: "The Earth is the cradle of Mankind, but man cannot stay in the cradle for ever." One might go on to say that this is because if we foul our cradle and exhaust its ability to support us then we, as a race, will die in it.

If, on the other hand, human interplanetary flight and the foundation of viable indefinitely self-sustaining extra-terrestrial colonies, independent of Earth, becomes feasible before the whole business of spaceflight becomes an impossibly expensive irrelevance in a world of steadily increasing hardship for all, then we will, at least, have the satisfaction than the human race will continue, even if those who are left behind are doomed.

Clean energy will solve none of these problems, and my concern about space-based power stations is that they are going to be so fiendishly expensive to construct that no nation will ever be able to afford even a small one. For clean power in a world where we may need to use energy to turn some of the carbon dioxide we have spewed into the atmosphere back into hydrocarbons, I would recommend nuclear power, both fission, which we have now, and fusion, which we hope to have later. Coyote didn't mention it, but maybe he's not keen on nuclear power. I am. As an industrial process it can made as safe as the amount of effort put into guaranteeing that safety. Nobody wants another Chernobyl, of course, but that is a matter for the UN and the IAEA, I guess. Nuclear power stations emit no carbon dioxide, are relatively cheap to construct, and there is little danger of running out of fuel in the foreseeable future, given that there are vast stores of U-238 and plutonium.

A mixture of nuclear power, solar and wind power should see the developed world through its power requirements but, of course, cannot help in the face of the vastly rising environmental pollution problems brought about by the exploding human population. I fear that spaceflight is going to become both an impossible dream and a distant memory in a few more years time. The next Moon landings may also be the last.

Best wishes,


Dr. R.D. Wright
2 August 2008

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(2) "Carrying capacity depends on technological level"

Response from Stephen Ashworth


Many thanks for your continued contribution to this debate!

My own view, for what it is worth, is that human overpopulation is not a problem. Consider what Helen Sharman has to say about the view from space:

=== Quote from Helen Sharman ===

Overall, the impression you get of the Earth's land-surface is that much of it remains unused. Vast areas are the reddish-brown of desert; even those countries you know to be heavily populated appear to have large areas that have not been developed. [...] The space perspective makes you realize just how much we depend on water and how there are vast areas of the world without it. In these places there are few signs of people or agriculture.
     There are immense areas of the world that no one knows about, no one relates to. We sometimes think of the whole planet as our world, but the reality is that we are thinking only of the bit we know.

=== (Helen Sharman, Seize the Moment, p.133-134) ===

Helen is of course talking about the land surface. Two-thirds of the globe are ocean, and minimally populated. Yet, given the technologies described by Marshall Savage (floating cities in the tropics built like sea shells out of the calcium carbonate dissolved in seawater, and powered by the temperature differential between surface and deep waters, or indeed directly by sunlight) the deep oceans could also support multi-billion human populations.

If we're going to colonise the Moon and Mars, terrestrial deserts (on land and ocean) should be easy by comparison.

So in answer to your "rather gloomy prognostication", I would like to make three key points.

Firstly, we habitually think of the Industrial Revolution as something that happened in the past, in the 18th century. But it only started in the 18th century. It is still continuing. New technologies are appearing all the time, e.g. the computer revolution of the past half-century (which itself is still at an early stage of development), and now the beginnings of space tourism.

The carrying capacity of a planet for a population depends on the technological level of that population. While the economy and technological level continue to grow, it is premature to assign any limit to the total sustainable population possible -- especially in view of the well-known tendencies for increasingly wealthy middle-class societies to reduce their population growth and to demand cleaner living conditions.

In other words, the current period of growth is not totally wild, but has a clear end-point in which population levels off at two to three times the number of today, energy consumption levels off at say ten to twenty times the level of today, and after much painful trial and error a new balance between civilisation and nature is reached.

Yes, the world economy could go into permanent reverse, as you suggest. But this would not be fundamentally caused by our pressure on resources, but rather by bad decision making following on from some ideological panic such as the current global warming flap, or by a catastrophic breakdown of international relations leading to a 1960s-style nuclear war, or something like a possible future nanotech war (but large-scale war is rendered increasingly unlikely as global economic links proliferate). And of course there's always the possibility of an asteroid impact (tho we will soon be armed against that one) or a supervolcano outburst or some natural disaster of that sort (tho the more severe a natural disaster, the less often it is encountered, and the more likely that we have a few centuries in hand before having to deal with something civilisation-threatening).

You say that peak oil and peak coal may already have occurred. You will be aware that there is an opposing view -- see, for example, Larry Solomon (reprinted in CCNet 113/2008 -- 14 July 2008):

=== Quote from Larry Solomon ===

Take oil, the scarcest of the major energy commodities. In the Americas, proven oil reserves have increased from 170 billion barrels to 180 billion barrels over the last two decades, according to the 2008 Statistical World Review from British Petroleum. In Europe and Eurasia, proven oil reserves almost doubled, from 76 billion barrels to 144. Africa's proven oil reserves did double, from 58 billion barrels to 117. Even the Asia Pacific region, where China and India are reputed to be sucking up everything in sight, has increased its proven reserves. And the Middle East, the gas tank of the world, shows no sign of slowing down -- its reserves soared by almost 200 billion barrels, from a whopping 567 billion barrels to a super-whopping 756.
     Bottom line for the world: an incredible 36% increase in oil reserves during the two decades that saw the greatest globalization-spurred oil consumption in the history of mankind. And that doesn't include the 152 billion barrels in proven oil reserves obtainable from Canada's tar sands. Is there any reason to doubt that the next two decades won't build on the steady growth of the last two?
     These oil reserves aren't the end of it. These figures -- for the year ending December 2006 -- represent oil that's not only known to be available, but also economic at 2006 prices using 2006 technology. Since prices have soared in the last year, and technology has improved too, BP's annual assessment for the 2007 year will show greater proven oil reserves still.

=== (The Financial Post, 12 July 2008) ===

Obviously, one day there will be no more oil left to burn. But the point seems to be, so far as I can see, that there is plenty to tide us over to the point where we can begin burning hydrogen nuclei (either directly, or, through sunlight, indirectly). That should secure our energy future for a trillion years or so.

I'm sure that eventually we'll master artificial nuclear fusion. We'll need it, of course, for any large scale industrial activities beyond the asteroid belt, where sunlight is relatively diffuse and harder to collect, and certainly for any flights beyond, say, Neptune.

(I had a look at Neptune the other night -- it's just visible in good binoculars, low in the south around 11 pm, and is passing through a group of faint stars in Capricornus which place a box around it and make it easy to find.)

My second point arises from your view that, if space colonisation becomes possible, we will have the satisfaction that the human race will continue, "even if those who are left behind are doomed".

My stock answer to this is to say: when British explorers colonised the globe, were those left behind in the UK doomed? Quite the opposite: Britain was immensely enriched by becoming the metropolis of an empire on which the sun never set.

Environmentalists of a darker shade of green like to accuse space advocates of being escapist, of having an attitude of trashing Earth and then moving on to new pastures, to trash them in turn (I have in mind an article in The Guardian by George Monbiot a few years ago, which condemned space tourism in these terms, as well as the popular novel Stark by comedian Ben Elton). This to my mind is a vile perversion of the optimistic view of the human future, and one we should firmly set right at every opportunity.

The purpose of going into space is not to escape a world drowning in a sea of pollution, or to spread the cancer of human destruction and folly further afield. It is rather to enrich everybody, on Earth and in space, by expanding the empire of life into the Solar System and ultimately the Galaxy.

The purpose of going into space is to create Metropolitan Earth, hub of a Solar System empire.

Obviously, astroelectric (space-based solar) power is a key part of this optimistic vision of the future, whether for use on Earth, or on the Moon or elsewhere.

Finally, then, you reiterate your skepticism about the economics of astroelectric power for use on Earth. Obviously, these are hard to pin down, as a useful and practical astroelectric system will depend upon things which are still at a very early stage of development, namely:

The basic reason for my optimism that all these can be made economic is that they are all fundamentally familiar processes. The development required is a question of organisation and design, not one of creating fundamentally new technologies.

Two-stage reusable aeroplane/spaceplane access to orbit has been technically feasible ever since about the 1970s, and an SSTO spaceplane using Reaction Engines' Sabre engine is on the verge of feasibility. The other things are all familiar chemistry and manufacturing processes from the 20th century or earlier, only adapted to lunar or micro-gravity, and to dusty vacuum environments. We don't need to develop anything that's fantastically super-strong (like cables for a space elevator) or super-hot (like a fusion reactor) or otherwise science-fictiony.

Drawing power from sunlight has of course been done in space ever since the 1960s, and microwave power transmission is also very familiar -- these just need to be scaled up, and the history of technology has lots of examples of things being scaled up, as for example in the fantastic explosion in the size of Atlantic liners from say Cunard's Britannia, which took Charles Dickens to America, to the Queen Elizabeth, or more recently the explosion in the memory and processing power of PCs.

So I would counter your gloomy view of the future on Earth with an optimistic one drawing on the historical analogy with the past half-millennium. Oceanic, intercontinental exploration of the fifteenth and subsequent centuries has made us incomparably wealthier in every way than the peoples of medieval Britain and Europe and their contemporaries around the world. But the processes of industrialisation and globalisation are only half-complete.

To complete this stage of our evolution, and to avoid the risk of backsliding to a renewed medieval level of civilisation, we need to carry industrialisation and population growth out into the Solar System.

The population problem which you raised is in my view twofold: stabilising human population on Earth, and starting population growth off it. These will not be done by political planning -- they are evolutionary, system-level processes. We may be able to help in small ways -- mainly by calming ideological movements which attempt to control them thru violence -- but they are fundamentally functions of the organic growth or decline of the overall living system, and cannot be controlled by any one part of that system.

All the technologies I have mentioned in the context of astropower are crucial for expanding into space, which is why they are well worth developing even if ultimately astropower for use on Earth loses out to artificial nuclear fusion or to some other form of renewable energy.

The first step in that direction (for those of us on this side of the Atlantic) is to lobby our space ministers in the run-up to the November ESA space ministers meeting to try to get them to move ESA away from science/spinoff/prestige projects -- such as its proposed 1960s-revisited astronaut capsule -- to developing technologies that will actually be useful in the future, starting with support for the fledgling reusable spaceplane industry!

I hope that we can all agree on that, whether or not our prognostications for the longer-term future of civilisation are good or bad!

Best wishes,

26 August 2008

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