Thursday, November 08, 2007

Plundering the Moon

I have warned readers not to be so fixated on religious idiocy that they lose track of non-religious idiocy and thus give it a free pass. One such expression of lunacy (if one will pardon the pun) appeared in the Guardian on October 27. In an article called "Plundering the Moon", Andrew Smith wrote to express his misgivings over the possibility of humans actually mining the resources of the moon.

how extraordinary to think that the next giant leap for the environmental movement might be a campaign to stop state-sponsored mining companies chomping her up in glorious privacy, a quarter of a million miles from our ravaged home.

Some of the comments to the article are also interesting.

There seemed to be plenty of enthusiasm there for digging up the moon when we've finished plundering the Earth. It's a horrifying prospect.

If i had a way i would destroy all of mankind's ventures outside of the Earth, at least until he learns to appreciate and protect - this world. We should stay here until we prove ourselves worthy of existence by learning to live here peacefully with each other - in harmony with our environment.

These types of comments are not merely some mistaken apprehension of some set of complex facts. This is the personification of stupidity. This is like saying, “We are going to take away your food until you learn to survive without eating,” or, “We will not permit you to have any money until you learn to spend it wisely.”

First there is the unmitigated arrogance of these speakers, taking the attitude of a wise ‘father’ who needs to teach us unruly ‘children’ a lesson. The form of speech itself is demeaning, condescending, and arrogant.

Second, the speakers do not offer any solutions to the problems they lament over. They merely assert that the human race does not meet the standards they set to be worthy of survival.

However, let us assume that one of these individuals decides to actually think about solving some of the problems they speak about. What might we predict would occur to a person who has decided to take a different and more cooperative approach – one that asks, “Given that we have these problems, what is the best way to deal with them?”

It is almost too obvious to mention that one of the best ways to deal with the destruction of living ecosystems brought about through mining, manufacturing, and simply living on the Earth would be to move some of those activities to dead worlds in space – places where there is no living ecosystem to damage.

I want to stress this fact. The moon is dead. It is the very embodiment of sterile – lifeless, incapable of appreciating (and holding no entities capable of appreciating) anything that goes on in the living world. It has spent 3.9 billion years in a radiation bath without a magnetic field capable of protecting it from radiation, in capable of supporting an atmosphere, it has no life other than the life that humans bring with them.

On the other hand, there is no place on Earth where humanity can mine, refine, manufacture, or even live that is not cutting into a living eco-system. You can’t build a factory or a plant a crop, build a house or produce energy anywhere on earth that does not require the destruction of living things. You can do all of these things in space and the only living creatures who are impacted are those that we bring with us.

To somebody who thinks in terms of solving problems rather than lamenting how despicable they think human beings are, the moon and the other chunks of dead chunks of rock and ice that are floating around in space are exactly what we need to save the only living ecosystem we have so far discovered.

I can understand something of where some of these people might be coming from. I have looked outside my window after a fresh snow fall and seen a wide open field unblemished by human footprints – or any footprints for that matter. I have some sense of regret when that untrammeled piece of nature comes to bear the scars of a human trafficker. However, I do not allow that one desire to stop me from going to work – even when going to work requires that I be the first to cross that unblemished field of snow. However, when a person’s appreciation for aesthetic beauty is at the point where she is willing to starve herself and demand that those around her also starve – all out of a sense of disgust at disturbing nature – then that person’s desire has progressed into a neurosis.

I can also understand somebody who believes that space development has, at best, limited potential. The idea that we might harvest the bulk of our energy and minerals from the dead of space seems impractical. It is, at best, merely an excuse for refusing to solve the problems of earth. The situation here can be described as similar to that of a person who takes larger and larger doses of aspirin to deal with a toothache, without ever going to the dentist to get the real problem taken care of. Even with space resources available to us, we still need to deal with the problems that space development cannot solve.

I can agree with this – as far as it goes. However, it is not an argument against space development, and it has nothing to do with disturbing the pristine nature of a dead space rock. This is simply a question of what works and what does not work. As for me, I am willing to simply require that companies on earth pay the true costs of cutting deeper and deeper scars into the living ecosystems of Earth. Let those companies decide which option makes the most business sense – moving their operations to a place where there are no such costs, or redesigning their operations to minimize their impact. This hardly implies objection to space colonization. Instead, it implies letting the market decide, once all of the costs of different options have been captured.

It also means capturing the benefits - including those benefits that exist as 'public goods' - the type that create what economists call 'free rider problems'. One of these public goods that needs to be captured in evaluating space is the value of the survival of the human species (or its descendents).

Actually, I consider the Helium 3 option to be mostly science-fiction. It would be nice if it were to pan out, but I am not holding my breath. I am not as eager to buy into the belief that it will solve all of the world’s problems.

However, one thing about the value of space development, to the degree that the survival of the human species is at all important, we significantly improve our chances of survival to the degree that we have a space civilization capable of self-sufficiency. Diversity the number of places where humans live, and we increase the odds that humans (and any other species we care to take with us) will survive a catastrophic event on Earth itself.

Nothing can protect this value better than space development.

There is no escaping the fact that, at some point in our future, the only (descendents of) humans left alive – if there are descendents - will be those living in space, as the earth itself becomes a lifeless shell. are those that have moved off of the surface of the earth. The Earth will become a barren and lifeless planet itself. We might bring this upon ourselves through environmental damage or biological or nuclear warfare. We might simply be the victims of bad luck – a comet heading straight for us or some other natural disaster that sends humanity back to a stone age from which we will never again emerge. It might take until the sun boils away the ocean and destroys the Earth. However it happens, our future rests in space, not on this planet.

Staying on Earth is like a child staying in its mother’s womb. As the child grows, it must leave the womb, or the mother and the child will both die.

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