All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2010:
Old-style posts with broken internal links:
Dear Mr Willetts… (June)
UK Space Agency (April)
Disappointed with Avatar (March)
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)
All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) A gloomy view of progress
In a recent (7 June) interview on the BBC website, Dr Spencer Wells talks about his new book Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization to BBC science journalist Paul Rincon. In the book, Dr Wells charts the “unforeseen costs” that can be traced back to the neolithic farming revolution some 10,000 years ago – including global warming, overpopulation, eugenics, and diseases like diabetes, obesity and mental illness.
Dr Spencer Wells is explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and director of the Genographic Project. He is a Rhodes professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, US.
As a professional researcher with a long-term view of the human situation, I would have expected him to take into account the logical possibility of human expansion into space. Yet although he talks about “finding a mythos for the modern age”, he makes no mention of space, unless his comment “we can’t rely on extracting additional resources and growing our way out” is a sideswipe at it.
On the evidence of this interview, Dr Wells regards modern civilisation as more of a net loss than a net gain for mankind – and note that his book is not subtitled: “The Unforeseen Costs and Benefits of Civilization”.
Yet he is exactly the kind of person the space community needs to convince of the boundless opportunities open to our species as we expand into space. I therefore wrote a letter to him, and e-mailed it to him at the address given for the Genographic Project on the National Geographic Society’s website (and copied to Paul Rincon).
The text of my letter follows. To date, I have not yet received a reply.
(2) Letter to Dr Spencer Wells
To: Dr Spencer Wells
Director, Genographic Project
National Geographic Society
Dear Dr Wells,
I was interested to read your interview with Paul Rincon on the BBC website today.
Although all the points you made were perfectly relevant to the broader theme of the human story, I noticed there was one major omission.
As you know, evolution sometimes produces an innovation whose full consequences take some time to appear. Thus for example complex eucaryotic cells evolved from simpler forms for reasons purely to do with single-celled life. Similarly, cyanobacteria released oxygen into the atmosphere simply in accordance with their day-to-day need to survive. Yet over a long period these activities unconsciously conspired to allow the appearance of an entirely new form of life, namely oxygen-breathing, land-dwelling, multicellular animals, including of course ourselves.
You may also be aware that the material and energy resources of the Solar System are sufficient to support very much larger populations of living creatures than is possible on Earth alone. But so far as we know they do not in fact support life, because of their haphazard distribution. Only on Earth have ices, rocks, metals, gravity and energy come together in suitable proportions to support life, and so only here has a complex biosphere been possible. While a subsurface biota on Mars or on some of the icy outer moons remains a tantalising possibility, this would still only give life access to a tiny fraction of the total resources of the Solar System.
Yet life has a long history of expanding to create and occupy all accessible ecological niches, and is thus ubiquitous on Earth, not just in what we regard as clement environments but in deep rock strata, at the frozen poles, at the ocean bottoms and in high-temperature springs. It would therefore be perfectly reasonable to expect life to develop entirely new forms which make a living by using extraterrestrial resources, if and when that becomes physically possible.
But if a significant fraction of the Solar System is to be colonised by living creatures, the facts of astronomy and physics mean that a technological species must evolve which has the power through space technologies to identify extraterrestrial resources and put them to creative use. Such a species would pass through a stage essentially identical to the current human predicament, suggesting that humanity could evolve further into a technological species with interplanetary, and ultimately interstellar, range.
In order for us to make full sense of our current situation, in addition to looking back at our past history we also need to look forward to possible outcomes over the next few thousand years. You have discussed many of the hitherto unforeseen consequences of our ancestors’ adoption of agriculture. But one of them is surely that, in starting to shape our surroundings into a controlled artificial environment, we are laying the groundwork for life in space. Genetic engineering, too, has applications in adapting our food crops and even ourselves to living in extraterrestrial colonies.
In the interview, you talked about “finding a mythos for the modern age”. The vision of human expansion into space has been established by many writers, including notably Gerard K. O’Neill and Carl Sagan – Sagan actually makes the point in his book Pale Blue Dot that we may ultimately recover our ancient nomadic lifestyle, but this time as spacefaring interstellar nomads.
I would suggest that the single most significant issue in our future development is whether we do in fact continue on a trajectory of economic growth and technological progress, or whether we now abort that trend. If we continue, then we will inevitably need to depart even further from our ancestral hunter / gatherer / scavenger / beachcomber lifestyle as we set up permanent extraterrestrial populations – a process analogous to our expansion out of Africa starting 60,000 years ago.
Stasis at the current level of social development is surely not an option: we must continue to grow into the Solar System, or go into decline, just as our ice-age ancestors were forced to plant crops or suffer from hunger.
Our concept of the meaning of the modern age must therefore also choose between interplanetary growth or terrestrial decline. I wonder whether this will be made clear in your new book?
Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society
8 June 2010
(3) Letter to Scientific American
The cover feature for the June 2010 issue of Scientific American is “12 Events That Will Change Everything”. The forthcoming events offered – ranked on a scale of almost certain to very unlikely to happen in the period from now to 2050 – are:
Spot the obvious omission? I did, and responded as follows.
Letter to the Editors
Strange that your cover image for “12 Events That Will Change Everything” was a view from low Earth orbit, and yet you did not consider the likely appearance of economic passenger access to space as worthy of inclusion. Especially as this is currently such a hot topic in America, with Obama’s new space policy causing furious debate as well as the success of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 rocket.
How might economic space access change everything? By extending the inspiring view of Earth from space from a tiny professional elite to first thousands, then millions of people. By replacing the currently fashionable gloom about the human future with consciousness of the limitless opportunities for extraterrestrial growth and progress open to us. By making space solar power for Earth economically viable – surely a more practical way of harnessing nuclear fusion than building reactors on Earth? And by accelerating the trend of globalization through the creation of a global class of successful business and political leaders with a vivid personal experience of the unity of planet Earth.
Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society
26 June 2010