Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tests of Survival

One of the common retorts to warnings of resource exhaustion and environmental catastrophe is that humanity has overcome similar problems in the past, and will continue to do so, primarily through innovating and exploring that is driven by the promise of great rewards for those doing both. This ignores the historical record of collapsing civilizations, the huge advantages accompanying our access to cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels, and the growing signs that we have merely postponed the worst consequences of our excesses, not eliminated them.

The bottom line is that every civilization – and every species – has lived or died based on its ability to solve two basic problems: matching resources with demand, and safely disposing of waste. It is far from a sure thing that our global civilization will solve these problems, though plenty of potential solutions are known. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future may, at some level, depend on your confidence that solutions will be implemented before resources run out and we are overwhelmed by our waste.

Given the stakes – entire species at risk – it is tempting to think that motivation won't be an issue. Those who acknowledge the stakes and are advocates of capitalism, even the distorted form currently dominating the world, expect that the price associated with demand exceeding supply will be enough of an incentive to spur discovery of new resources and innovative new ways of using the ones we have. This is certainly happening in the “green” industries, which are also taking on the waste issue by creating connections between waste and production, and increasingly altering the nature of ownership so that they can control everything but the use of the products, which is leased to their customers. To anyone who knows – or is – a true innovator, the majority of incentive to create comes from the innovation process itself; but true innovation is all-too-often a very minor part of industrial systems, where it is far cheaper to exploit workers and customers' ignorance than to provide quality, long-lasting products.

That so many people remain in ignorance or denial of the critical condition we're in by definition suppresses innovation. Not surprisingly, the people most responsible for disinformation are those whose personal power derives from the status quo, which in addition to causing the looming shortages and excess waste that is sabotaging Earth's life support systems, has no constructive alternatives to provide. Instead, all they can do is reap the profits of diminishing supply, and promising what they can't deliver (and convincing people that no one else can) while appearing to try by further exploiting the resources in decline.

Really sustainable solutions, because of the universal availability of resources and durability of products, will not ultimately lend themselves to profit-taking and power concentration. This is understandably unacceptable to those who have learned to value the maximizing of personal power. One tried-and-true alternative, which provided legitimately high rewards in the past, is to locate other sources of nonrenewable resources that can be controlled. Since such resources are limited or too dangerous to exploit here on Earth (whether people accept that fact or not), it is natural to try to find them on other worlds.

Various nations have space exploration programs, well-funded private groups not far behind. As noble as the search for scientific knowledge is, there is a strong component of the space community that has argued strongly and explicitly for the exploitation of other worlds. Now that NASA is terminating its Space Shuttle program and looking for a grander mission than remote observation and measurement, the space exploitation advocates (one of whom I used to be) see an opportunity to gain traction in the exploration and eventual settlement of Mars. I now find myself in the strange position of offering lackluster, if any, support for the idea, mainly because I fear that humanity hasn't learned the lesson of respect for other life that would keep us from spreading death and destruction as far as our technology can take us.

Not that long ago, I found people with attitudes like mine to be dangerously naive, idealistic, and maybe a bit crazy, mainly because I figured that our unique opportunity to transport life outside the death zone of our expanding Sun was worth the risk, and not likely to be available for much longer. Besides, I reasoned, we might still learn the life-respect lesson along the way. Now I figure that if we're bound to kill everything in our path anyway, it's probably good for the Universe if we stay right here and limit the damage. Of course, I hope that I'm proven wrong, but we should take the time to find out. A sustainable civilization is likely a good civilization, at least to those who value life and quality of life beyond our own experience.

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