All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2014:
The SpaceShipTwo Crash (Nov.)
To the Rt Hon Greg Clark (Oct.)
A Four-Point Plan for ESA (April)
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)
A Four-Point Plan for ESA
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
Return of the limits to growth argument
A new paper by three researchers at the University of Maryland Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science made quite a splash when it was announced two weeks ago. It is mentioned in a 19 March news item on the university’s website, which includes a link to a PDF of the paper itself, and received an enthusiastic writeup by Nafeez Ahmed writing in the Guardian blog.
The paper is based on what it calls the HANDY (Human And Nature DYnamics) model, which purports to show how our civilisation could suffer collapse. From the abstract:
“There are widespread concerns that current trends in resource-use are unsustainable, but the possibilities of overshoot/collapse remain controversial. […] In this paper, we build a human population dynamics model by adding accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator-prey model of humans and nature. […] Mechanisms leading to two types of collapses are discussed. The new dynamics of this model can also reproduce the irreversible collapses found in history. Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at maximum carrying capacity, if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed equitably.”
But how does technological change affect the model? In section 3.1 the authors state: “It is frequently claimed that technological change can reduce resource depletion and therefore increase carrying capacity” – but go on to say that while technological development can raise the efficiency of resource use, it also tends to raise both per capita consumption and the overall scale of resource extraction, which justifies their assumptions that these two trends cancel each other out, and that natural resources can be regarded as a fixed quantity. They proceed to treat the carrying capacity of “nature” as a fixed value.
Since this is all they have to say about technology, it is clear that their reasoning applies only to societies which do not develop new technologies, and therefore not to modern civilisation. But they claim that ancient societies such as the Roman, Han, Mauryan, Gupta and Mesopotamian empires were “advanced, complex, and powerful” and “advanced, sophisticated, complex and creative” (p.3 of PDF), and then, without ever defining these terms, proceed to lump modern society in with the ancient ones and regard it as equally liable to collapse (i.e. collapse in population) and for the same reasons.
This flaw in their reasoning is so blatant that one wonders whether the paper would have been accepted for publication in its current form, had it not offered support for the popular modern myth that today’s civilisation is on the brink of collapse.
In reality, new technologies and economic growth create new resources. A thousand years ago the great oil and gas fields of Arabia, Texas and the North Sea were unknown. It took the industrial revolution to create the machinery necessary to discover and extract their fossil fuels on a large scale, bulk transport them to centres of population, refine them and distribute the products to vehicles and power stations which would themselves have been inconceivable a century or more earlier.
Meanwhile, in the early 1900s uranium and thorium were minor constituents of rock of no particular use to anybody, and again it took the development of quantum mechanics and the technologies of the atomic age to turn these obscure elements into a source of power. We were not merely improving the efficiency of an existing resource, but creating an entirely new one that had not existed before.
At present we do not have power stations that use nuclear fusion or space solar power. But if either of these much researched possibilities can be developed through to commercial viability, we again unlock a new energy resource orders of magnitude greater than any we had before.
The authors’ policy prescriptions imply bringing economic and technological growth to a halt, and the imposition of a global socialist political system. These are in themselves a recipe for collapse: without continuing our current way of life based on growth, the seven billion population of Earth cannot be maintained, and the global tyranny necessary to curtail growth and economic inequality would, judging by historical precedents such as the Soviet Union, be most unlikely to foster development of the next stages of technological growth leading to the opening up of new resources such as those we have just mentioned.
Nafeez Ahmed, who we mentioned above, is an energetic campaigner for an end to growth, capitalism and the present-day global system. His views are well expressed in his Guardian blog column, his book A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and an accompanying video which summarises the book.
While there is much in his writings to agree with, there is also much that is left unsaid. For example he begins with climate change. It is certainly true that graphs of estimated global mean temperature (e.g. at NASA and at the UK Met Office) show periods of global warming of half a degree or so from 1910 to 1940, and again from 1975 to 2000. It is also true that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, small increases in which (the NASA graph shows an increase from 285 ppm in 1950 to 390 ppm today) will cause small increases in average global temperature (between a degree and a degree and a half C per doubling of concentration), all other factors being equal (which in the real world they are not). These facts do not, however, add up to the global crisis which he and many others use to motivate their anti-growth campaign (see for example Matt Ridley’s latest column at the Wall Street Journal).
From Ahmed’s video and many similar sources, it can be seen that the environmentalist, anti-capitalist movement is essentially a political programme, one which is intended to destroy the wealth and privileges of modern industrial civilisation along with its prospects of future growth into the Solar System. In pursuit of reconnecting Man with Nature it would return the majority of mankind to the status of subsistence farmers, and in pursuit of equality it would replace the elitism of unequal material wealth with the elitism of unequal ideological conformity.
Replacing the limits to growth with the growth to limits
Why does the scenario of liberal democratic capitalist civilisation verging on collapse have such a powerful resonance with the public? It is surely because nobody can see the new technologies or the new resources they could unlock.
Space exploration and manned spaceflight are widely regarded as frivolous luxuries, and their connection with the natural resources of the Solar System beyond Earth simply does not exist for most people, as demonstrated for example in the Jeremy Paxman interview of Tim Peake referenced in AE issue 100.
Therefore those of us who look forward to an infinite human future in space need to press the urgent demand that our public space institutions, including the European Space Agency, must prioritise the steps needed to open up these resources.
A useful target to aim for was provided by Bob Parkinson in chapter 14 of his 1987 book Citizens of the Sky, discussed further by Mark Hempsell in an article in the July 1989 issue of Spaceflight. The Parkinson model of economic and technological growth produces a picture of vigorous industrial activity in the inner Solar System and out as far as Callisto around the year 2050.
In order to realise the levels of activity Parkinson envisaged, ESA must be urged to prioritise the following activities over the next twenty years:
Putting human access to space onto a secure economic footing requires a much larger market than the present extremely small traffic of 15 people/year. The ISS partners need to clearly state that by the time governments lose interest in maintaining the ISS, there needs to be sufficient commercial traffic, for tourism, research and manufacturing, to maintain and extend our currently precarious presence in low Earth orbit.
The Parkinson model projected that over 26,000 passengers/year would fly between Earth and low Earth orbit by the year 2050, 19,000 of whom would be space tourists, with 2,500 accommodated in orbital stations at any one time. These are useful order of magnitude projections to aim for, but require rapid growth in traffic from the present-day level, and correspondingly rapid falls in ticket prices. We should see 50 passengers/year by 2020 (still less than the historic maximum of 63, all government astronauts, in 1985), then 400/year by 2030, 3000/year by 2040, and so on, reaching perhaps 100,000/year by the centenary of Yury Gagarin’s flight, and levelling out near a million per year towards the end of the century.
At the same time, the Parkinson model for 2050 shows thousands of tonnes of raw materials being shipped annually between the near-Earth asteroids and the Earth-Moon system, and between the Moon and various Earth orbits. These include water for propellant manufacture and radiation shielding, and construction materials for a large-scale solar power satellite industry.
Kick-starting this sort of interplanetary trading system must be treated as a priority if we wish to demonstrate that the limits to growth are elastic. If we fail to make this demonstration, a large proportion of the public will continue to believe (if they think about it at all) that space industrialisation is a fantasy, if not indeed a moral abomination, and decline and fall is the only realistic option for the future of industrial civilisation. This will not necessarily translate into the sort of political decisions which prematurely close off space growth – but can we be sure it will not?
Readers are invited to express these views to their minister of space, their national astronauts and ESA officials, and to let me know of any responses received. Thank you!
Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas and Eugenia Kalnay, “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies”, Journal of Ecological Economics (forthcoming, 1 April 2014). The article states: “This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC grant NNX12AD03A.”
R. C. Parkinson, Citizens of the Sky (2100 Ltd, 1987).
Mark Hempsell, “Space Industrialisation: A New Perspective”, Spaceflight, July 1989, p.224-27.
“Space and Sustainability: Ecological Collapse versus Technological Growth”, AE issue 89, 1 Feb. 2013.