Issue 35, 1 October 2008 -- 39th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Can space solar power help to prevent future resource wars? -- Letter from M. V. Smith
  2. More comment on population growth -- from Vincent Baritsch, Stephen Ashworth and Ray Wright

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(1) Can solar power from space help to prevent future resource wars?

Letter from M. V. "Coyote" Smith

M. V. Smith is the person who led the Pentagon's space-based solar power study last year.

(See "Space Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security", available here in pdf format.)

M. V. Smith's comments reflect his personal opinions and are not officially endorsed by the US Government, the Department of Defense, or any associated organization.


Another excellent emailing. Thanks!

I'd like to respond to Ray Wright in your next edition, if I may.

Ray, sadly I do agree with your "gloomy prognostication" if we fail to advance human spacefaring capabilities to transform our Earth into a truly open ecosystem that capitalizes on the vast resources of space and to extend human presence into our solar system and beyond.

While I agree with Stephen's point (backed up with superb quotes by Helen Sharman and Larry Solomon) about much of the unused vastness of Earth and untapped resources that can alleviate some of the overpopulation strain we see today, my concern lies elsewhere. I'm worried about the huge potential for major resource wars before we can convince people that living on the sides of mountains or in deserts is a good thing, or before we can tap other sources of safe, clean energy, or develop new food and water sources -- and spread them equitably.

Resource wars will resolve energy and food shortages, as well as give the environment a break from our consumption, but they will do so by dropping the population dramatically. I want to avoid that. The Cold War is over. We are breaking down into a multi-polar world with several emerging and competing powers. The last times we experienced a multi-power world was in the 1930s, and before that in the early teens of the last century. In other words, dangerous times are ahead.

For America, the second world war was triggered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which blocked our Navy long enough for the Japanese to seize the Southeast Asian oil reserves. As you know far better than I, Hitler's quest for energy took German forces into Africa and the Caucuses. In the end, we starved the German war machine of oil.

Today, a resurgent Russia has asserted its claim on the North Pole seabed because of its energy potential, and now has seized Georgia's oil fields, pipelines, and tanker ports. The "stan" states that border Russia are quaking in their boots. Energy. It is apparently worth fighting for.

Seeking to avoid such wars is how I got involved with space-based solar power. I am a huge fan of developing all forms of safe, clean energy -- including nuclear -- but the demand curves for energy are climbing while the readily available supplies are dropping. When combining this problem with carbon-based fuels becoming politically incorrect based on global warming fears, it appears difficult for us to avert major wars and/or an environmental catastrophe, but either calamity will successfully drop the population. What a miserable way to use the word "success", eh?

I've never heard anyone claim that space-based solar power will be the cheapest or the easiest method of generating electricity, but practically everyone agrees that we need many more energy sources.

Thanks for the chat.



[Editor's note: Taylor Dinerman is saying very much the same thing in a new article on the Space Review, but without such a useful sense of historical context. -- SA]

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(2) More comment on population growth

From Vincent Baritsch:


Happy to say that I agree with you on this one. I would add that to some extent it is actually the pressure from a growing population that makes technical development feasible. Otherwise who would be interested in change, status quo would be so much easier. In other words, if we really had the population decrease they promote, there would no longer be the resources to go into space and innovate.


Vincent Baritsch
2 Sept 2008

[Editor's note: Vincent later adds:

"The additional point which I think needs to be clearly stated (as it can sometimes be forgotten) is that technology makes life easier. This is important as it explains why improving technology in itself is a positive thing."

Yes, the extent to which technology has made life easier is very much forgotten. Never mind the car or the mobile phone: just think of the basics that we take for granted: the flush toilet and mains electricity.

I recently saw a stage play in Oxford (A Tender Mother by Kit Hyrst) which vividly recalled the insanitary, violent and frequently desperate conditions in London in the year 1743. Premature death from disease was common -- small wonder that premature death from a cruel penal system was also common, and the roads were lined with gibbets displaying hanged criminals.

Technological progress and social progress are intimately interlinked -- and surely that will continue to be true as we expand outwards into the Solar System.]


From Ray Wright:

Hi Stephen,

I have a guardedly optimistic view, in fact, of humanity's future. Also, I don't think that I am a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist. Having said that, you surely cannot deny that the Earth has a finite surface area, not all of which can be safely covered in city if humanity is to survive, long-term. There are, inescapably, limits to growth, of human population and the general economic system in which we live, some more happily than others. I am assuredly not alone in raising concerns about the viability of humanity and the apparent inability of the race as a whole, to consider what the limit on numbers and prosperity might be.

I think that our disagreement about the usefulness of solar power satellites has spilled over into something more general over which we have less disagreement, overall. I want to see cheap access to space, with the accent on exploration and colonisation. When I view the inexorable rise in the carbon dioxide concentration, and numerous other indication of long-term trouble in this great big spherical, and increasingly claustrophobic, shed that we have to live in, I worry that we are running out of time and money.

Ray Wright
2 Sept 2008

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