Mike Pepperday – Time to Go: Should we begin the great task of our species – colonising space?

We are accustomed to the concept of colonising the solar system and populating the universe. We think of it as a project for the distant future but perhaps we should be getting on with it. I offer three reasons, any of which might suffice, for us to begin space colonisation:

  • material necessity,
  • psychological need,
  • destiny.

First I argue that limited resources will not allow humans to live on Earth forever. Then I argue we lack purpose and must move on. Lastly I argue that space colonisation is an imperative of the universe itself.

Material necessity. Our technological culture uses the planet’s non-renewable raw materials and pollutes its ecosystems. Eventually capacities will run down. They may be running down already: our attempts to limit population and recycle resources indicate we are not as rich as we used to think. Total recycling is impossible so conservation postpones, rather than solves, the resources and pollution problems. At some stage we have to leave Earth if we are to maintain our technological civilisation.

We may have reached that stage. After hundreds of thousands of years of starvation, war and disease, modern “developed” societies reached the approximate human potential of health, comfort, security and liberty. This has been achieved for twenty percent of mankind for half a century and the Earth—land, sea and air—is indicating it can’t cope. Can it support this standard of living, expanded to the other eighty percent, for centuries?

Earth’s dwindling resources might be supplemented with imports of material and energy from space but one-way transfers would further stress the environment. Apparently, the surface of a planet is not a suitable habitat for a technological civilisation. Though some people will always live on Earth and some may live on other planet surfaces, if our species is to flourish and expand to trillions, it must mostly live in space. This would allow Earth to be renovated and restored.

If Earth-based economic resources have peaked and are running down, we should be treating them as investment capital. They should not be dissipated propping up a few more generations of Earth’s wealthy but should be invested in space colonisation which offers prosperity forever and hope of prosperity to everyone. If we have outgrown the planet our priority should be to leave it. Leaving will be expensive and if we wait till resources are exhausted we won’t be able to afford it.

In space, the supply of material and energy is infinite and artificial nuclear energy may be safely employed. The prospect is of boundless wealth. In space there are no limits to growth.

The outlay to establish the first space cities would be a substantial fraction of our civilisation’s current assets. It may exceed the expenditure on the twentieth century wars and arms races. The cost arises because the technology and biology have to be lifted against Earth’s gravity. Actual construction materials could mostly come from the moon. The mine on the moon might itself cost more than any previous construction project but the cost of launching material from the moon would be lower than from Earth. The first cities could be built at the “Lagrange points” (places where gravity balances out) synchronous with the moon’s orbit around the Earth. They would have to be wheel- or cylinder-shaped vessels rotating to simulate gravity. We should expect it to take a generation or two for the first colonies to become economically viable and possibly centuries before they become substantially independent of Earth-based infrastructure.

The difficulties of arranging for millions to migrate and live in space are daunting but have to be faced. In the end, there is no alternative. If humanity as a whole is maintaining its wealth or becoming wealthier, then we can afford to put it off but if we are now getting poorer in overall terms then we must start the departure. If we don’t act while we are rich, we won’t succeed. If we don’t succeed, the drawn-out death convulsions of our civilisation will not only reduce humans to wretchedness but will also destroy Earth’s ecology and exterminate many animals and plants. If we succeed, the biological potential is unlimited.

Psychological need. Material limits are not the only pressure. In addition to resource shortage and ecosystem stress, we face psychological pressure. Humans are not content just to be born, to exist, and to die. We differ from other social animals in that we seek some purpose to life other than status advancement and procreation.

What do people dream of? What engages them and demands commitment? The days of the explorers and frontier settlers are long gone. The various experimental utopias are now historical curiosities. The old universal incentives of serving gods and ensuring life after death have vanished. Government which relies on a minority coercing the majority is neither stable nor competitive. Tribalism is a dead end and the ideological alternatives of fascism and communism have been seen to fail. So secular democracy the only workable system of government. In it soldiering is in disrepute (there being no cultural threat to guard against) and nationalism conflicts with free trade. Static populations, economic stagnation and wealth itself have made “nation-building” sound quaint. There is nowhere to go.

Nowhere to go except to decay. The developed countries are marking time. Their development stopped over a generation ago. They have little potential for improvement and much potential for trouble: unemployment, depression, dysfunctional families, addiction, suicide, crime, political extremism, terrorism. What is there to look forward to? A better shopping experience? Exciting food and fashions? Fancier phones? Our societies live from year to year with no vision and no plan except to react to the next problem. We no longer expect children will live better than their parents. Despite an unprecedented range of entertainments, modern society is predictable and dull. Where is purpose, ambition, adventure and excitement? In commerce? In an occupation? There can be dignity in making a living but that which actually distinguishes humans from other creatures—wonder, exaltation, glory—has nothing to do with providing food and shelter. The only echo of that nowadays is in extreme sports.

But departure from Earth is more than a way to save us from boredom; it is the ultimate test of Darwinian fitness. Can the species bequeath its descendants the opportunity of worth-while lives, children without limit, and inexhaustible wealth and power? As a human enterprise, space colonisation would fuel dreams forever.

Destiny. Moving into space has implications transcending our resources, our dreams, our species. After four billion years of evolving life, this is the first chance to escape which Earth’s progeny have had; humans would not go alone: thousands, or millions, of other organisms would accompany us.

As far as we know it is also the universe’s first chance. Unless intelligent life arises elsewhere, it will be the universe’s only chance. In that case, if our technological culture is in decline, then this moment—a few decades—is the only opportunity the universe has to become conscious. A few decades among the unimaginable billions of past and future years. This may be a pivotal moment, not just for humanity and for Earth, but for the cosmos.

Although we evolved on Earth we do not necessarily belong to it. We can distinguish three great events, or advents, in our origins: time, life and mind. Fourteen billion years ago time began; matter and energy came into existence and the universe blazed and cooled, smelting chemical elements in accordance with the laws of physics. The second event occurred four billion years ago when circumstances on one planet gave rise to self-replicating carbon molecules. Life—complex, energy-driven interactions of the chemical elements—occupied and moulded the surface of the Earth. Recently—a mere million years ago—life gave rise to mind, a mysterious new power operating within the old laws of carbon life and of physics. With mind the universe began to understand itself and in the last two hundred years mind has become, via technology, a significant force on Earth’s surface.

Whether or not life and mind spread through the universe is up to us. It could be that intelligence has flowered and withered on other planets, perhaps with wistful inhabitants impotent before insoluble engineering problems. The technical feasibility of escaping the home planet depends on circumstances. Our departure is facilitated by the modest size of Earth, by its dense atmosphere, and by the lucky size and position of our moon which provides stable Lagrange points as stepping stones. We have no insurmountable physical obstacles.

If we fail it will be our own fault. The obstacle is politics. The start capital is far beyond private initiative. The USA, which might have the strength, appears to be getting poorer and to have lost interest in space. The United Nations has no relevant charter. It seems we would need a new supranational organisation with unprecedented authority. Humanity’s greatest task confronts us; if we live ten billion years and spread to the ends of creation, we will never face another mission so crucial. Yet—how many politicians have even heard of it?

The human species, carrier of the intelligence of the universe, may have already arrived at the fork in the road. We must pay a toll to take the high road but it leads to unbounded prosperity. The low road is easier but leads ultimately to oblivion. The danger is that by the time it becomes obvious that the shadows are deepening, turning around might be impossible.

The outlook for the Earth’s teeming humans is sombre: increasing social and material struggle in the wealthy countries and elsewhere billions in poverty. Is that also the long-term outlook? If it is, and if we don’t start our departure soon, we will condemn our species to acrimonious extinction—and to the bitter realisation that we had our chance and missed it and lost everything.

If we succeed in leaving we will have galaxies at our disposal and we will never die.

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13 Responses to Mike Pepperday – Time to Go: Should we begin the great task of our species – colonising space?

  1. Paul Frijters says:

    couple of points:

    1. Agreed that we as a species will try to colonise space. Given the distances, the format I favour is to send deep-frozen embryos into space together with AI computers/beings that can hold onto their programming for tens of thousands of years, the time needed to reach particular star systems where life might be possible. If suitable, the embryos are unfrozen and developed.
    2. Disagreed that there is a material need. I am both more optimistic about our recycling (with newer technologies, recycling becomes better) and at a fundamental level, we probably get more new molecules in (via asteroids) than that leave the earth (leaking atmosphere). In terms of energy sources we wont run out for at least 500 millions years or so (the sun).
    3. The time-frame we are looking at for space exploration is now measured in normal lifetimes, but rather geological ages, ie millions of years. In that context, the issue of who is ‘us’ becomes rather imprecise. ‘We’ at this moment, from a genetic point of view, are a cloud that is moving in many different directions. ‘Our’ cloud is only different from other clouds (other animals) in that we cannot interbreed. That distinction is likely to be blurred very quickly (it already is for other species), and even as an amalgamated cloud ‘we’ will keep moving.

    The notion that ‘we’ will live forever is thus a rather odd take on the notion of ‘we’. You might as well say that as long as a single banana leaf remains living on earth, ‘we’ are still alive because we share more than 50% genes with that leaf.

    Your fantasy is thus the usual religious fantasy of some purified notion of ‘me’ preserved and all-powerful forever, never changing but omnipotent. You are more like John Walker than you might have realised….what you do above in sci-fi, he does with poems… no offense meant to either one of you: dreams of eternal permanent life are too appealing to resist.

    • Hi Paul
      Identity ; ‘ me’ ‘is an illusion…
      Am told the best literal translation of the ancient term for God is ‘light’.

    • Alan says:

      Colonising the solar system would not involve time scales of millions of years. It would permit moving lots of industrial processing out of a gravity well that is also a rather fragile ecosystem and into orbital habitats.

      There is also a quite serious proposalBreakthrough Starshot that would have us looking at video from Alpha Centauri in perhaps 2060.

  2. Mike Pepperday says:

    Thanks Paul.

    Well I wouldn’t rule out the embryo scenario but that is for the stars, speculative and distant in time as in space. We don’t know if we will have that technology. I was talking of starting, of current technology, of earth orbit. Why do you think it was a fantasy?

    If the day comes that we have an AI that can raise children then the children themselves might be superfluous. Just the AI surviving independent of Earth would be the universe become conscious. It’s a possibility: instead of going as our carbon selves we send some silicon. Probably that is what the AI would prefer to do anyway. It’s far away and we might not be carbon; we might not be distinguishable from the AI.

    You might be right. After all, if Amundsen and Scott had just postponed their plans for fifty years, they could have driven to the south pole in a red Volkswagen with the heater on and the radio playing.

    I am sure there is room to improve recycling of Earth’s resources yet however good it is, it is never perfect so resources will run down. We won’t run out of molecules but they only become resources by nuclear alchemy (not the solar energy).

    The difference between a banana leaf and us is mind or consciousness. That was my point. In principle it doesn’t have anything to do with DNA.

    I have no time-frame of millions of years, only of decades, or at most a couple of centuries. In that time-frame the ecological prospects look grim. I don’t share your optimism. I often have the feeling that the baby boomers got the best of it. They got the best that human civilisation has ever produced and maybe the best it will ever be. The upward trend of the last few centuries peaked about 1970. It hasn’t risen since.

    I am struck by how we don’t know what we are doing. Our existence is purposeless. It wasn’t like that in the 1950s and 60s and I doubt it has ever been like that in human history. Probably in the 50s and 60s politicians whined about electricity prices and wanted to imprison ten year-olds without charge. But that wasn’t all they did; there were some who talked of going to the moon. Our civilisation has hit the End of History and is in a holding pattern. It is waiting. For what? For Kim JU to put a match to it? For another GFC? For sea level rise to create a billion refugees? I don’t know.

    • Hi Mike
      Some might say that; if we really had the technology and access to the kinds of immense very concentrated energy etc that you’d need to have -in order to really colonise space on a grand scale , that we probably would not really need to do it .

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Wow, this is quite a thread – especially the comments.

    Comment of the month with full access to the whole garage of imaginary vehicles for the next month goes to Paul

    “The notion that ‘we’ will live forever is thus a rather odd take on the notion of ‘we’”

    This is what #ClubPony has always been all about and yet it took my resignation to really get it going.

    That hymn by the way was my favourite in school.

    On reflection, I find it strange and ridiculous that Mike thinks we’re buggered ecologically. Of course, we may be, but that will be mostly self-correcting. The only real problems are the limitations of the earth as a sink (rather than running out of stuff). That’s a big problem and could degrade life on earth, but the idea that this makes life in an alien planet better than here seems to beggar belief.

    For me a more plausible scenario is that we need to head up into the heavens to escape human viciousness and oppression which is why the Mayflower left Portsmouth (or so the story goes). Then, maybe suitably chastened by our experience on earth, and trying to build ‘never again’ institutions as we did after WWII, perhaps we can have some decades or even a century or two of better prospects.

    But if you think the earth will be inhospitable to us after runaway climate change takes hold, Mars and (particularly) Venus would still be a lot worse.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      I will be holding my breath for those vehicles. They are, of course, space faring, I presume? I will pop by venus to roast some marshmallows and on the way back to toxic-ville (earth), I will pick up some toys from Mars to amuse Kim and the groper-in-chief. As the conscious asteroids float by (bit of a dull existence if you ask me), I will give them my best from ‘us’.

    • Nicholas
      We all should resign , more often.
      Perhaps we need more clubs to never be members of ?

    • David Walker says:

      But if you think the earth will be inhospitable to us after runaway climate change takes hold, Mars and (particularly) Venus would still be a lot worse.

      I’m struck by how few people make this observation. My reluctant conclusion has been that almost no-one understands the role that Earth’s radiation belts and relatively thick atmosphere play in protecting its inhabitants from harm.

      Ionising radiation and micrometeorites are bad; available oxygen is good, even if it’s warm.

  4. David Walker says:

    But if you think the earth will be inhospitable to us after runaway climate change takes hold, Mars and (particularly) Venus would still be a lot worse.

    I’m struck by how few people make this observation. My reluctant conclusion has been that almost no-one understands the role that Earth’s radiation belts and relatively thick atmosphere play in protecting its inhabitants from harm.

    Ionising radiation and micrometeorites are bad; available oxygen is good, even if it’s warm.

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