Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Vision of the Future: Seven Earths

In a recent comment, one of the members of the studio audience, anton, wrote:

I would like to "enter" a widely accepted statistic into the discussion. It would take more than 7 planet earths to sustain a US American life style for all of our planets people.

In attempting to respond to this statistic, I tried to find out more precisely what it meant. My search of the internet found that it was, indeed, widely accepted. However, I could not find anybody who used this statistic to cite a source or to offer an explanation.

Clearly, it does not mean that we need seven times as much surface area. It’s not the case that 6/7 of the people are sitting in a holding area somewhere waiting for us to find some place to put them. In fact, people in the wealthier parts of the world use up less surface area per person than poorer people. That is to say, population densities are higher in Europe and Japan than in Africa and, yes, even China.

We also have enough food for everybody. In fact, people in the wealthier parts of the world could probably improve their standard of living by eating less food than by consuming more. Our problem here is not with the amount of food we have available, but its distribution. We are also starting to have a problem with people in the developed parts of the world removing food from the tables of the starving in order to create energy that then gets consumed in activities that are far less valuable than eating.

Water is a problem. Or, more precisely, clean water is a problem. The Defense Department predicts that future wars will be fought substantially over two things: water, and energy.

As it turns out, the problem that we have with respect to clean water is, ultimately, an energy problem. The sun is already involved in created buckets full of clean water every second. There is a very well understood process for making clean water involving evaporation and condensation. We just need to make more of it in the right places – and/or allow people to move to where it is easier to provide them with clean water.

It turns out, then, that the water problem is actually another manifestation of the energy problem.

Yet, in the area of energy, we have "seven earths" of energy available to us.

Wikipedia reports that our current energy consumption is about 140,000 terawatt hours.

The Defense Department is looking into a solar power satellite system that would produce about 950,000 terawatt hours of energy per year – coincidentally, about seven times as much energy as we are currently using. (See: Space‐Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security (PDF: 75pp))

The idea is that, if we can provide the world with a sufficient amount of energy, then we can avoid future wars (and the future threats to national security that wars provide). Of course, the Defense Department also recognizes that there would be certain secondary benefits if this energy were owned and operated by the United States, and for the United States to have the infrastructure built into its economy for manufacturing and maintaining such a system. But those are co-incidental concerns.

The fact remains, we have seven earths of energy available – and more. Trust me, this solar power project that the Defense Department is studying is not using up all of the solar power available. Not by a long shot. Ultimately, when we talk about the amount of energy we have available, we have countless orders of magnitude of energy available that we are not even starting to use.

We have a whole sun.

It would take a great deal of effort to harvest this energy, that's true. But, then, when I argued for a future in which the rest of the world has been raised to the standard of living of the United States, I did not expect that to happen by next Tuesday.

What about other resources, such as iron?

The asteroid belt contains several different types of asteroids. One type of asteroid that we know about are iron asteroids. These asteroids were once part of a body that was large enough to undergo separation, where the iron sank into the center of a molten core and rocky materials floated to the surface. When this body was pulverized in a collision of astronomical proportions, the core formed a set of asteroids that are made up almost entirely of pure iron.

One of those asteroids is 16Psyche. Astronomical studies of this asteroid suggest that it is a huge gravel heap of iron ore – much more pure than the iron that miners harvest from the surface of the Earth. It is not a solid body. It is a gaggle of rocks and sand held together by its own gravity, making it relatively easy to grab chunks and fly away with them.

Some of its rocks can be expected to contain higher concentrations of other heavy metals – gold, platinum, and uranium.

If we mine this asteroid at the same rate at which we mined iron ore on Earth in 2004, it would take millions of years to deplete this one source of iron. It would be a foolish waste of resources to take this ore and bring it down to Earth to be refined. It would be far more efficient to put it into a furnace in space, refine it there, and even do some preliminary shaping and molding. It turns out that metals refined in space are actually much better than metals refined in a gravity environment – since gravity causes separation of heavier elements from lighter elements that we can avoid in space. Where we do want to separate elements (as a way of removing impurities), we just give the molten bucket a spin and use centrifugal force for that purpose.

All of this mining and refining would be done in space, with zero impact on any living ecosystem. A multi-million year supply of iron, mined and refined with zero environmental impact on living ecosystems, even at seven times our current rate of production.

If we do start to worry about surface area, I would like to point out that a planet is an extremely inefficient way of creating living space. The earth contains a volume of 2000 cubic kilometers of materials for each square kilometer of surface living space.

However, if we take that same amount of material and re-engineer it for greater efficiency we can get a great deal more living space out of it. We do this by creating cylinders in space and setting them to spin in order to create artificial gravity (again, using centrifugal force). We trap the atmosphere inside, and we power the whole thing using solar power from a sun that never sets and is never hidden by clouds, whose full force shines on the solar power station that creates its power.

Most of the building material need not be anything special. The largest material need on such a station would be for shielding from cosmic rays. The only requirement that this shielding must meet is that it has mass. The slag from the mining and the refining process would work well in this role, so there would be no waste product.

Using this model, we will need only about 0.002 cubic kilometers of material to create each square kilometer of living area.

With the material in the asteroid belt we can create the surface area equivalent of 50,000 earths.

Another recent study tells us that, in the outer solar system, there are perhaps a quadrillion objects orbiting the sun outside of the orbit of Neptune. (See Discovery Hints at a Quadrillion Space Rocks Beyond Neptune.) This works out about 150,000 space rocks for every person on Earth today.

The idea that we should think in terms of planets at all is a prejudice that we need to seriously reconsider. Planets are an extremely inefficient way to support life – particularly human life. The idea that we might need seven extremely inefficient systems to support everybody at a particular standard of living carries with it a lot of assumptions that we actually should discard. Eliminating the planetary assumption, we can see that we actually have the resources of tens of thousands of earths without stepping foot out of the inner solar system – and millions of earths beyond that.

In my vision for the future, we will eventually put these resources to work.


Anonymous said...

There are a lot of problems with moving into space. Here on earth many of our environmental needs are raken care of for free by the biosphere. The biosphere was here when we came on the scene, we expended no capital to create it and it has proven resiliand in spite of the heavy load we put on it.

In space we would have to create artifical systems to do what the biosphere does for us. The capital costs would be HUGE and maintence would be substantial, Space colonies sould never be economically self-sustaining. I doubt they could even cover their maintenence costs.

Space is a dream. I once believed in that dream, but I have given up. Space will not save us. All we need from space is enough instruments up there that we can continue to look, dream, and learn. Well, that and the ability to build interceptors that can protect us from asteroid impacts.

Human happiness does not depend on going into space. Nor is continually increasing cosumption necessary to maximize human happiness. The causes of unhappiness have been known for contless centuries. Slow suffering from starvation or disease sucks. Systematic opression based on race or gender sucks. Being stuck where your talents are wasted sucks. Lonliness sucks. experienceing chronic pain as one ages sucks.

Creating a world where we could be fairly certain to geed adequate food and health care, develop our talents, be free of oppression, have fulfulling relationships in thriving communities, and live into old age without too much pain until we died quickly when everything wore out all at once would be enough. This would not take space habitats or increasing levels of consumption to achieve, though it might require a lot of high tech to keep all this going.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Alonzo, This post seriously bumped up my optimism :)

Yes, this is good while away but I think it's certainly possible.

It too think that all our problems are based on energy. If we have enough energy, we can easily create clean water from the sea. If we have abundant energy, we can easily fly to space.

Anon, you always cite costs about this and how prohibiting it would be, yet I'm certain that if US had spent all their Iraq war funds towards this project instead, they would have been so much closer to it.

Furthermore, just because something costs in the current evonomy, does not mean that in another economic system it would not be viable

Burt Likko said...

Nothing wrong with a bit of enlightened optimism -- it's a refreshing change after brooding on deep philosophy all the time. I suppose in your vision of this far-future society, Earth becomes a garden, used to create food for the teeming millions living in orbiting cylinders, and transported there through transportation and logistics systems far more sophisticated than what we can put together now. So let's make the vision as utopian as we can in terms of our ability to provide for our material needs.

One wonders -- in a world where resources are plentiful, what would there be to fight about? Religion? Would there be any limits to such a society that could cause conflict?

anton said...

When I used the quote which inspired this blog, I also had a question, namely, "What country would Haiti, Iceland, Ireland, etc. etc. exploit to achieve a similar life style?"

I agree that all types of things are possible, but the "seven earths" equation also takes into consideration the "will" of man. If a Bechnell corporation controls the water supply in a South American country and, reportedly got the government of the that country to pass laws that "does not permit private wells", the world may contain all of the water it needs, but control of that water is in the hands of a few and they aren't about to give it away.

If Monsanto develops seeds and doesn't permit farmers to use their own crops to continue to farm (Monsanto has since added a means of thwarting the seeds ability to reproduce) and has to continue to purchase those seeds from Monsanto, then the farmer in Haiti is at the mercy of Monsanto. Yes, Monsanto seeds are better. But many farmers are worse off than before Monsanto "helped" them. But I am certain that Monsanto continues to enjoy healthy profits.

And what do you think US America would charge for the iron that they manage to "harvest" from space?

If left to US America and other dominate world powers, there would continue to be shortages for most of this world's population. Can anybody remember that "while food was urgently required in other parts of the world", the US paid, and maybe continues to pay, farmers NOT to grow food in order to "sustain the price"!

And, getting personal for a minute, does anybody remember the price the Ukraine paid when Russia forcibly took the Ukraine's "food" while the rest of the world (thanks to trumped up reports from George Bernard Shaw)stood by and let 7 million Ukrainians starve to death? The rest of the world would prefer to blame it all on Stalin. If the world had cared, Stalin would not have had a chance. And now, people are starving in Africa.

George Bush said it all when he stated that the US would agree to "changes", as long as those changes didn't interfere with the American econmy or impose restraints on the American way of life!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Transplanted Lawyer

In my vision for this far future society, people in space grow their food locally, in agriculture pods that are climate controlled and pest free. so transportation costs are relatively cheep.

Transportation costs being what they are, I would expect high-mass goods to travel down to Earth rather than up, and I would expect low-mass durable goods to travel up (computer chips, pharmeceuticals) to travel up rather than down.

Even food might travel down rather than up, given the huge increase in productivity of a square kilometer of land in an agricultural pod compared to a square kilometer of farm land. (So, perhaps, Earth will have an opportunity to support more wilderness.)

The citizens of Earth are still going to have to take steps to maintain the planet. What I have written about is not an excuse for wonton waste. It is, instead, a response to the idea that all is hopeless.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I agree with the concerns that you put forth in your comment.

However, I do not see how these have anything to do with the "seven earths" statement. These are a problem even if there were 7000 earths - and were a problem 5,000 years ago when the human population was much less than it is now.

They are serious problems (and point to a number of important moral failings), but they are a different kind of problem and require a different kind of response.

anton said...

I certainly agree with your statement that "They are serious problems (and point to a number of important moral failings), but they are a different kind of problem and require a different kind of response." My concern is that while, certain forms of hypothesizing are mentally stimulating, reality has to spoil the intellectual party.

In the 1960s, Paul Krassner published the highly controversial magazine The Realist. He is still around. He is an Atheist. The thrust of his publication was to "acquaint others with the facts of life". He objected, for instance, if solutions neglected the obvious in order to "sound good". If more "intellectuals" grew cabbages, their solutions for our planet would undoubtably be different. And, yes, it is possible for the enlighted to weed a garden. They can think while they hoe!

When we direct our intellectual resources to the "far off future", we are unlikely to solve the problem of "who is going to take out the garbage?" For example, if we don't bother doing something about "global warming", "polution", etc., the chances for "biosphere pods" will remain a dream . . . something like when the Christians dream of heaven!

Tom said...

As you mention, there is a problem with waste and global warming, etc. Sadly, we do not demonstrate restraint and good judgment with the resources we have. When it is easy and we don't see the mess, then consumption becomes an easy means of living. We learn to expect and take for granted that we have powerful machines and that our garbage magically disintegrates once the trash man hauls it away. There needs to be an understanding of where energy is coming from, and at what expense to the planet and its people, and how we effect each other to really help end wars. Along with that, I think, comes a deeper understanding of what it is to be human and our relationship and responsibility to the rest of the world. With a little bit of restraint comes more of an appreciation for what this world is here and now and where it is going from the way we consume (and hopefully give back).

Additionally, as it has been mentioned, even if we could have nearly unlimited energy, the control of that energy, if in the hands of a few, will not end wars. There needs to be mechanisms for each person to be independently self-sufficient for me to share your optimism. Solar can provide that. Depending on where you live, wind and water could also be drawn upon.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anton, Tom

Again, I do not disagree with what you wrote.

I have traditionally used an analogy to walking. While walking, you certainly must pay attention to where you put your feet - particularly when walking on uncertain and uneven ground.

However, this does not preclude you from looking up every once in a while and taking a look at the horizon, so you can see where you want to go and get some idea on how to get there.

Consider this to be my post for looking up at the horizon. I will also continue to write posts that have more to do with where to put our feet.

anton said...

I have no trouble with your analogy or you continuing in that vein. Personally, I think it is as a thought provoker. As readers, we are provoked into thought, and while it appears that we are not taking the walk with, we are. During our walk, we may point out the puddles, not for you, because I believe you can see them, but for the other people who join us.

Unfortunately, I have been "plagued" by less intelligent uses of similar analogies over the past 60 years. Perhaps my current blog's "Grandfather says" entry addresses some of your concern . . . certainly not all of them. But I believe you will get the idea.
I totally agree with "forward thinking" to create solutions. I do, however, distinquish between "creating" solutions, and saying that "solutions" will be created. I would be more interested in hearing of someone "creating" solutions but I can appreciate the scarcity of such "news items". I certainly am not accusing you of "navel gazing" but a heck of a lot of our readers, especially Atheists, do exactly that. They don't even bother to see as far as their feet because they can activate their mouths without having to bother with their feet.