Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why Space Matters

Why does space matter?

I'm lucky in that I was born in the united States. Our family has multiple cars, a house to our selves, more food than we should eat. Our standard of living by any real measure is better than any group in history. The United States has about 5% of the world population and consumes about 30% of its resources. Personally our family is probably above average in resource consumption even for US citizens. So I'm going to ask and answer a series of questions.

1)Are citizens of China, or Sub Saharan Africa inherently inferior to my family?
NO they are not,I believe all humans are born with certain inherent value.

2)Do they have a right to aspire to what I have.
Yes they do.

3)Do we think that global terrestrial resource production can be increased 6 fold from what it is now?
No I don't think that is reasonable outcome.

4)Is there any process where U.S citizens will voluntarily reduce there standard of living by a factor of 6. No I don't think that will happen.

5)Do we the U.S have the right to use force to prevent others from having what we have?
No we do not.

6)Will some combination of conservation and increased production create a factor of 6 when adjusted for the ongoing population growth in the world?
This is the option that all the traditional "Greens" or environmentalists are betting on. They naturally feel that if we just cut back a little bit everything will be better. I just don't see it. It is such a violation of natural human striving tendencies I can't see getting to a factor of 6.

So unless you want to change the answer to one of the 6 questions above "we" the population of the world are in a no win scenario. Some things like good batteries and low cost fusion power could help significantly, but its not enough. Just imagine how much steel it would take to give every family on earth 2 cars? (Recent studies have shown that mass transit when fully accounted over the life cycle of the system are just as resource intensive as a small Car. )

Where will the additional resources come from?
Where can we do dirty industrial process where we don't soil the environment?
Where can we find unlimited energy?
Unlimited expansion space?
Unlimited metals?
Unlimited Organics?
(Don't nit pick Unlimited in this context means several orders of magnitude more than we have now)

The only two answers are a 6 fold reduction in earth's population or expansion into space.

We are spending trillions on the assumed option in question 6 and simple math shows its not possible. Where are the trillions helping us expand in a way that can work?

Just something to think about....


David said...

I certainly agree that the Earth cannot sustain any real population growth simply because it cannot sustain a equally high standard of living for all that exist today.

Massive population reduction and reductions in standards of living are one solution that if we do not act soon will be forced on us as a race. I am not chicken little here - this will be the case. Alternatively, we move the shop.

At this stage only the first scenario is possible as the investment in space is next to nothing. The general voting population do not support it.

Paul, one of the reasons I am such a supporter of what your doing and I am so interested is that you and your fellow group in new space are giving me hope. Otherwise, approximately 50 years down the track the bulk of all major resources will be running out. Hence we are going to be in a very direr situation.

Real change wil not happen for some time as the people are not really suffering as yet. As bad as it is for some during this economic downturn its going to be far worse in the future when the resource shocks hit us. Currently there is no real pressure on governments to do any thing.

Shame it will take such a long time to get started and then time to have a solution. I cannot see how we can avoid our children paying big time because of our lack of fortitude and just get in and invest big time in space technologies.

Ben Reytblat said...

Hi, Paul,

This is probably the most succinct and compelling statement of the problem and the possible solution that I have ever heard.

Any time you want to run for president, please let me know. I'll vote for you in a NY minute.

David Masten said...

Your answer to 3) is wrong. See Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource

Of course, people finding ways to get resources from space may well be part of how we continue the exponential economic growth trend.

Paul Breed said...

Dave, To date you are correct, but the NIMBY people in the U.S. have increasingly outsourced all that nasty resource extraction to other countries where $$ was more important than environment. As the standard of living increases in other places they will then have the luxury of worrying more about the environment. This will have a retarding effect on the increase. Just try to get permission to drill for oil off the CA coast! When the entire world population has the same luxury expectations as the fruits and nuts in CA, it will be difficult.

Anonymous said...


But why is the government relevant in all of this? I don't understand while there is such an obsession with NASA still to this date. Not that you are suggesting it, but a lot of people even in the new commercial space business seem to still pay way too much attention to NASA. Let the market do it.


Paul Breed said...

The Market always wins. I'm not arguing for more government involvement, I'm arguing for more involvement. IE. The People think that a little bit of conservation can solve the problems and private companies like Toyota spend billions on the marginally green prius because the masses want to feel good, how about some public discussion beyond the people that have already consumed the space koolaid? What private companies are spending on space is a pittance compared to wind mills, solar panels and electric cars (That should read coal powered cars, but that's a different pet peeve of mine.) I realize that a windmill will have an ROI that is finitely measurable and realizable in the next few years and space projects are decades away. Things like the hydrogen fuel cell cars, yeah the emit water, but where did the hydrogen come from?

Gaetano Marano said...

I hope that Barack Obama and his W.H. experts will NOT believe in what the Augustine Commission will say them, since...
first of all, the AG hasn't really examined ALL proposals it has received
I've sent them over a dozen emails and links without receive just ONE answer or feedback!
that, despite, I've two blogs that talks about Space from four years and are regularly visited weekly by space agencies and aerospace companies, I've contributed to several space and science forums and blogs with (at least) 8000 posts (so far) in four years, I've developed and published dozens suggestions about Space, ESAS and Constellation and, despite, the rocket that will (likely) be used, could be one of which I've designed and published the concept 3.5 years ago:
I'm not alone in saying that, since, on the HSF Facebook Wall page, other have claimed to have send documents and suggestions NEVER taken in consideration by the HSF Committee!
since I've not received any answer to my email to the HSF, I've posted many ideas, opinions and links on the HSF Facebook Wall page
well, the (unknown) moderator of the HSF page, has FIRST warned me to send my ideas ONLY through the HSF-email/BLACK-HOLE, then, he has BLOCKED my comment privileges
but, before and after that, the HSF moderator HASN'T blocked the guys that posted LOTS of propaganda for the Ares-1/5 and (try to imagine...) ..."Direct"... (from the homonymous LOBBY)
ALL the (7-8) "options" proposed by the AC's "experts" (but, which kind of "experts" are they, if not able to know EXACTLY the right choice?) are WRONG and PRETTY SIMILAR, that, since, the AC looks DEEPLY INFLUENCED by LOBBIES and, with their conclusion, they JUST want to demonstrate that NASA, contractors and companies need MUCH MORE MONEY (maybe, also the $35 Bn to develop the Ares-1) if the US President did not want to be the one that allowed NASA and USA to be surpassed by China, Russia and India in the new (commercial) "moon-race" (that, however, could happen anyway...)
there are SEVERAL OTHER options that can be taken in consideration to come back to the Moon or go to Mars, but the AC hasn't discussed proposed them, while, they have discussed and taken in consideration old/wrong designs like the Shuttle-C, crazy and expensive technologies like the "orbital refuel" and things like the RESIZED-Ares-5 called "Direct"... (from the homonymous LOBBY)
in fact, it's NOT TRUE that $81 Bn in the next ten years are "not enough" to accomplish ALL the orbital and Moon mission planned and it's NOT TRUE that NASA absolutely needs three more billion$ per years to accomplish these missions
clearly, if NASA will receive more funds will be a very good news (hoping they'll not burn them like the $9 Bn spent in last four years for nothing...) but, $81 Bn (or a slightly higher) budget could be enough just IF the right choices are made and no one further cent is burned in crazy and bad things!

Unknown said...

Are you arguing that expansion into space could defuse the population explosion? Even with space elevators, lifting 6 million people a year into space would be quite a feat.

Re: 3) and David Masten: Technology and economics and people may find ways to get ever more 'value' from some resources, but with energy, physics imposes hard limits on efficiency, and we need energy for everything.

I think many greens realise that small efficiencies won't add up to a solution, but are frightened of scaring people into giving up if they let slip the extent of change really required.

Some people are honest about the scale of the problem (e.g. and Saul Griffith), but few people of any sort seem to be really facing up to the population explosion and saying anything sensible about it.

Personally, I think the world is going to run into some painful limits to growth within my lifetime. I hope we can handle them gracefully enough to continue growing our capabilities. To me, getting into space and having the sense to save some resources for later are both important parts of not going backwards.

(Electric cars may be coal cars for now, but they are still more efficient than petrol cars, and they are easier to turn into nuclear and wind and solar cars in the future.)

Charles Grimm said...

The rise in earth's population is leveling out, max is predicted at around 10 gigafolks, then dropping to 6 gigafolks later this century. As wealth and education increase, population will decline further. Every developed country is below ZPG except 1- the USA, maintaining positive growth via immigration directly and indirectly through higher birth rates of immigrants. Population growth in the 3rd world is slowing as well. That said, we will still need more resources to continue to advance. We still need a frontier to expand through. Emperor Hadrian built a wall at the height of Rome's power, when expansion stopped, Rome declined into oblivion. When we stop expanding, we will do the same. Space will allow us to expand for a very long time.

Anonymous said...

Thomas, he didn't say anything about lifting people directly into space as a solution, but rather that space is just loaded with resources to harvest that would make life better back on Earth. AI/robotics will probably evolve to the point where having people in space for extracting resources would be idiotic anyway. I've always been ambivalent about manned spaceflight.

heroineworshipper said...

Although nothing promising has materialized regarding maintaining the standard of living from space, space should still have gotten the $3 billion instead of more cars, but you knew this was coming a year ago.

At any time, the human population is as big as the natural resources can support within a certain amount of pain. The population just stops growing if the resources run out. The issue is how many people want to reproduce & how much pain do they want to endure.

Ambivalent Engineer said...


I enjoy reading of your progress and I agree that space is an important and exciting exploration direction. I think you may have a little more time than you suspect, however.

French people live a pretty good life on 5-6 tonnes CO2/person/year, which is the lowest of the G8. The U.S. is at about 20 tonnes CO2/person/year, which is about the highest of the G8. The French low consumption is possible because their electric sector doesn't emit significant CO2 or burn significant fuel and has stable prices (it's 85% nuclear and 10% hydro). So as gas prices have gone up (mostly taxes, but large increases in crude costs too), folks have switched to electrified mass transit. Their TGVs carry about the same traffic as their domestic airlines.

The U.S. is a lot more spread out, as are China, India, and Russia. It will take faster, nicer trains or higher fuel prices to get folks to move to electrified transport, but I'd say it's inevitable.

That 5 tonnes CO2/year/person measures how much we dig up as well as how much we spit out. If all 6 billion folks were doing that, we'd have global emissions of 30 billion tonnes/year, which is about what we dig up and burn now. The reality isn't quite so easy, of course, since that 8 gigatons/year of carbon would be predominantly in liquid form instead of solid form as it is now. In all seriousness, however, coal-to-liquids is totally practical for uses other than auto fuel, because those other uses can accomodate higher prices with smaller impact.

So, I'd argue that the entire world can enjoy at least the French standard of living with no increase in at least the carbon resource utilization rates. Obviously consumption of metals, wood, food and so forth would increase as well, but for many metals (steel, aluminum) the basic ores are not in any short supply. Some alloying elements would have supply issues (Nickel). Wood doesn't look so great. Food can be done if the folks who are newly living at French standards also use French levels of fertilizer.

On that last point, here's a disturbing thought that happily leads to some low-hanging fruit: more than half of the nitrogen in food consumed in the U.S. is fixed into the food chain via ammonia synthesis from natural gas. Happily, this is a process which can be driven by electricity alone (no carbon in ammonia).