All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2013:
Elysium, Earth; Elysium, Mars (Sept.)
The Futures We Love to Fear (Aug.)
Do I Really Exist? (May)
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)
Space and Sustainability:
Ecological Collapse versus Technological Growth
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
Space colonisation and interstellar travel are strongly overlapping subjects. Space and planetary colonisation within the Solar System lead naturally on to the rest of the Galaxy, given the undoubted fact that almost all the space and planets suitable for colonisation are found around stars other than the Sun. Conversely, interstellar travel is hardly conceivable without a pre-existing interplanetary industrial base to provide both the economic muscle for the vast energy expense of interstellar journeys and the capabilities to support human life during the voyage itself and at the destination. The idea of a magical propulsion system that allows a ship to flit, Star-Trek-like, in a matter of days from one to another of a galaxy of Earth-clone planets remains a fantasy.
The Institute for Interstellar Studies is therefore right to address the infrastructure buildup that must take place in our Solar System before any kind of realistic interstellar capability is achieved. It is right, too, to stress the benefits which this should offer to our planet of origin. (As explained by Chris Welch in this YouTube video, see particularly 5:01–6:32.)
Just as interstellar travel stretches the imagination in terms of the speeds, energies, distances and journey times involved, so too must it impact our sense of the social and economic changes that are required.
Reading recently a history, by geography professor Jared Diamond, of a number of past societies on Earth in which he discusses why some collapsed while others did not, I was strongly impressed with a sense of how totally dependent all historical societies have been on their pre-existing natural environment. They have lived, or died, at the mercy of the local soil quality, water supplies and stability of the climate.
When they cut down forests, introduced foreign species, converted land from one use to another, mined for coal and metals, built dams, reservoirs, power stations and cities, the perturbations which these activities produced on their local environment were in many cases sufficient to destroy their ability to feed themselves, leading to the downfall of civilisation at that location. In other cases external perturbations to the climate were sufficiently disruptive to have the same effect.
The lesson for our modern global civilisation is clear: we are not immune to the disasters of the past – the decline and fall of ancient Mesopotamia (the once-Fertile Crescent), or of the Maya, or of the Greenland Norse, or of the Easter Islanders. And of course the impression is widespread among the global public that our present society is unsustainable: that the still increasing human population will soon press its demands on Earth’s finite resources of fertile soil, forests, fisheries, pollution sinks and so on to the point that production of the essentials of food, clean water and energy will reach a point of irreversible collapse. Those of our descendants who survived that collapse would thereafter have to content themselves with a medieval, if not a stone age, standard of living.
The alternative to collapse
When we talk about space colonisation, in our own Solar System or in those of other stars, a radically different future for mankind is envisaged. It is perhaps not often appreciated just how revolutionary this really is. Marx and Engels and other political philosophers and revolutionaries merely plotted social change within the existing industrial and agricultural framework: space colonisation by contrast will necessitate a thorough overhaul of the fundamentals of that framework.
In order to sustain human life at any known location in the astronomical universe which is not on the surface of planet Earth, the process of industrialisation of our life support system – from our ancestral hunter-gatherer-beachcomber-scavenger lifestyle, to slash-and-burn agriculture, to settled village agriculture, via nomadic pastoralism in some places, through to modern agribusiness and factory farming – must be carried through to its logical conclusion. This means that that life-support system must become completely free of our historical dependence upon naturally occurring soil nutrients, rainfall, indigenous species, landscape, atmospheric composition, and even gravity. All of these factors – essential for food production, refreshment of air and water and recycling of wastes – must be manufactured from scratch out of extraterrestrial materials: the primordial rocks, metals and ices which we find on other worlds and asteroids.
Progress in one relevant technology, that of a bioprinter capable of printing raw meat, was reported on BBC news recently.
Both our current civilisation and all the societies that preceded it have been open to the exchange of both energy and matter with their local environment. A space civilisation, by contrast, must run sustainably without those exchanges of matter, enjoying only an inflow and balancing outflow of radiant energy. A starship or a colony in the extreme outer reaches of a planetary system would have to operate for long stretches of time without even any inflow of energy from outside. These requirements imply a fundamental change in the economic basis of human society.
Technology: problem or solution?
In his book, Jared Diamond quickly dismisses the value of technological innovation for our future sustenance, arguing that all technologies introduce unforeseen problems which are ultimately at least as great as their benefits, if not more so. Yet he claims to be “a cautious optimist”, basing this on the increasing diffusion of environmental thinking among the global public, the adoption of long-term planning, and the willingness to reconsider and if necessary to change deeply held core values in order to reduce the environmental impact per person to a manageable level. Though he does not explicitly say so or offer any further details, he appears to be aiming at the modern cultural adherence to economic growth, and suggesting that a reduction in the living standards of the richest parts of the world will be necessary for our collective long-term survival.
No doubt his reasons for optimism will all have a part to play. But is he right to dismiss technological innovation? By claiming that industrial technologies produce more problems than they are worth, he is missing an important reality: all technologies are sustainable at some appropriate scale of application, but differ between themselves as to what that scale is.
Consider the most fundamental technologies, those of energy production. It must be clear that the global populations and living standards that can be supported rise dramatically as the dominant energy technology changes from wood-burning, to coal, to oil and gas, to nuclear fission, and, looking into what is surely a technically feasible future, nuclear fusion and space solar power. The point is not, as Diamond would have it, that, say, nuclear fission draws down a non-renewable resource and produces problematic waste, but that in comparison with fossil fuels it draws down a smaller proportion of a greater resource and produces less problematic waste per watt produced.
Technologies sustainable on astronomical timescales, such as nuclear fusion, are permitted by the laws of physics, and within our engineering grasp. Air, water and foodstuffs can be recycled artificially. The technologies which Diamond finds so problematic should be regarded as intermediate steps in our transition from a pre-agricultural lifestyle to a space-capable technological one.
Decoupling: dangerous illusion or emerging reality?
One reviewer of Diamond’s book, University of British Columbia professor of ecological planning William Rees, wrote that Collapse is “a necessary antidote” to Julian Simon, Bjørn Lomborg and other optimistic proponents of growth and progress:
“Human behaviour towards the ecosphere has become dysfunctional and now arguably threatens our own long-term security. The real problem is that the modern world remains in the sway of a dangerously illusory cultural myth. Like Lomborg, most governments and international agencies seem to believe that the human enterprise is somehow ‘decoupling’ from the environment, and so is poised for unlimited expansion. Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, confronts this contradiction head-on.”
In reality, the book does nothing of the sort. Though it does not mention the process of decoupling as such, Diamond does in fact give examples of it beginning to occur in Australia’s main cities and in the wheat belt surrounding Perth. Furthermore, “unlimited expansion” is only possible in space, and Diamond does not mention human activities in space at all.
Nevertheless, Rees’s statement quoted here (sourced from Wikipedia) is an eloquent expression of the popularly accepted, common-sense, environmentally responsible attitude which assumes that space exploration will never amount to much, and that the future will, through either choice or catastrophe, be lived at a much more modest level than that of developed countries today.
A revolutionary future
The growth of increasingly sophisticated life support technologies in space for human habitation at increasingly remote locations – low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt… – will offer developers on Earth the tools to partly or completely decouple terrestrial agricultural production from the natural environment. If they take up those tools, the long-term prospect is therefore that populations comparable with or even greater than those of today will be sustainable on Earth at a First World standard of living on indefinite timescales, without the risk of precipitating ecological collapse.
Diamond states that this is not a credible prospect, because the total environmental impact of humanity on the environment would then have to increase by over an order of magnitude, once the rise in the standard of living of the less-developed parts of the world is factored in. But Gerard O’Neill argued in his classic book The High Frontier that it is precisely space technologies which will allow a rising standard of living at falling environmental impact. He focuses on space solar power, but controlled nuclear fusion and closed ecological life-support systems are two other near-future developments with both space and terrestrial applications.
The project of a sustainable future for everybody at a high standard of living is vastly more revolutionary than any political philosophy or environmentalist manifesto put forward to date, and we should not be coy about informing the public of this. As Mark Hempsell has pointed out, and as discussed further by Arthur Woods, the outcome of our current stage of social evolution will be either a stone age or a space age. We do not have the option of stabilising growth at its current level: we must continue to go forward, or else we will inevitably slip back.
We will surely put this message across with progressively greater clarity and convincing detail as the 21st century unfolds.
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Viking Penguin, 2005; 2nd edn Penguin, 2011).