How do we save the world from its environmental and resource crisis when even rocketry is too expensive and dirty to get us what we need?

First published at my old blog 17/01/07

As I’ve argued before, the solutions to most of the worlds problems including the climate crisis and the eventually inevitable shortages of finite resources such as minerals, lie in gaining access to both ‘clean’ energy and more resources. “Well obviously” you might say. With enough energy and minerals we can create the means to feed almost any population we have space for and in any case current food shortages are more a political/distribution problem than a shortage per se. Putting aside for a moment the political problems of how humanity *should* organise itself to distribute resources fairly (what ever you think that means) the problems of gaining access to physical minerals and sufficient energy are the main bottlenecks to be addressed over the next century. The kicker is that both have to be achieved without creating environmental impacts we cannot live with.

I think the argument that continuing our civilization’s current carbon based energy regime cannot meet the environmental restrictions even if (and it is a big if) we can wring another few decades or a century out of it by using forms such as oil shale, tar sand etc (see Bjorn Lomborg on how that can be done). It is equally clear that while the dire predictions of the Club of Rome have not come true as predicted, we must sooner or later face sever shortages of minerals – raising the price of some of them beyond what our societies energy regime can afford – eventually threatening even out globalised society with collapse (as laid out by Jarred Diamond in his seminal work ‘Collapse: How Societies choose to succeed or fail’).

If our society did collapse, we would have to expect this to occur globally as our now world spanning economy and political structures fight it out for the resources they need to sustain themselves just the same way the chiefs did on Easter Island or the Aztec Nobles and Kings did in Central America. The trouble would be that with this occurring globally we could expect the collapse to be world wide as well and our heirs to be unable to rebuild a society like ours for many centuries (if ever) because we had already exploited all the easily recovered mineral resources and they would lack the technology or global organisation or both, to go after the scraps we leave them. The scraps we are increasingly turning to now ourselves (as recommended by Lomborg). We therefore should equate such a potential collapse with near extinction of our species (& many others) for planning purposes. I believe we must plan to avoid it at all costs.

So we have a knotty problem, or at least a major crisis of how our society works and collapse within 100 years is a very real possibility, however high on the hog we may seem to be riding as the West sees it. Part of the solution will surely be utilizing every ‘alternative’ clean energy source we can. Part or it will be new technologies to replace minerals we lack with alternatives and better extraction to go after reserves no-one would have touched previously but this only buys us time as we tighten our belts and still consume more of the geological legacy the Earths past has left us – and which can never be replenished (except over Millions of years) and which we therefore CANNOT use *sustainably*.

This of course leads us back to my original assertion that we need resources beyond those of the Earth in order not to face near extinction. We also need energy to be sufficiently environmentally clean (including greenhouse neutral) plentiful and affordable to run our ongoing civilization on it. This will be hard enough if we keep the high standard of living for the current developed West only but China and India are determined that that will not be how it goes.

This chain of logic leads us inevitably to off world sources of energy and minerals such as the Asteroids and Gas Giants (See my resources section on how this can work – I may also post later on a more detailed plan). The problem comes when we realise that our only access to such resources is through the technology of rocketry and that it is just too expensive & dirty to supply what we need in the quantities we need it. One promising alternative remains however which may get the cost of raising a kilogram into orbit down by orders of magnitude – a Space Elevator. The engineering for this has been largely worked out by Bradley Edwards but we need breakthroughs in material science to make the tether required (basically we need much longer carbon nanotubes and better ways to weave them) and we need to develop the cars that can ride such a cable. Currently none of our governments are putting much behind the push for this other than funding Edwards’ research out of the voluminous mixed bag of NASA funding. There is a private company however-which has been formed to do it Liftport is integrating a program of nanotube ans cable manufacture as well as robotics research for the elevator cars. Someone has to do this so thank god someone is!

So whether you are a committed Green, a space advocate, an economist or an industrialist… or even just want your children to have a future; a Space Elevator therefore is not some fanciful geek project or just ‘one possibility we must consider’. It may very well be the one critical piece our civilization must produce in order to survive. If we were playing a simulator like Sid Meyer’s ‘Civilization’ we would be pouring our global resources into it because we would be thinking (as this blog is set up to do) on a longer scale than the lives of mere governments or human spans. I therefore call on all reading this to either get behind the push into space, the construction of the Space Elevator in particular – or else engage with me on how else our species can have a future. If you are at all unclear on how we can find what our species needs in our own solar system, or if you think that our problems are not so dire or that other solution hold the key then say so here – I would welcome it. Until you can make that case though we need you to start raising awareness in our electorates, our governments and in our business/investment sectors that the time has come to invest in our species future.

Build the Elevator – expand into space – secure the future

Can anything else be more worth doing?


~ by clauswitz on April 11, 2007.

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