Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Will humankind ever colonise space?

Of course! I've bought my share in a Mars colonisation company already.   1 vote - 4 %
We'll be lucky if by 2100 we can colonise small islands using balsa wood rafts.   5 votes - 20 %
Not if the ETs see us coming -- our solar system's probably a quarantined zone.   3 votes - 12 %
Maybe L5 colonies, probably not as far as the outer planets.   1 vote - 4 %
Probably, but only so that the ultra-rich can escape the mess we've made down here.   2 votes - 8 %
(re)Terraform Earth First.   4 votes - 16 %
Sorry, I'm a lot more worried about the US colonising Iraq and Iran.   3 votes - 12 %
Probably... There goes the neighbourhood.   6 votes - 24 %
25 Total Votes
What I am afraid most is that we will suck all the fuels on Earth in the next 50 years, and then the won't be enough energy to lift up a few rockets from the ground, even if we would desperately wish to do that for a few fit rich.

Star Trek?! It was a nice dream...

by das monde on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 02:25:08 AM EST
This is a side remark perhaps, but I start to like Japanese chronology. The punctuations by emperor accents seem arbitrary. But that gives a proper feeling that thing start and end. It makes it easier to notice how things change, to good or to bad, or just to something different. Compared to that, the practical Western chronology gives a strong illusion of always leaping forward, and allows great ignorance of changes, easy excuses like "war always was normal", and short historical memory.
by das monde on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 02:37:24 AM EST
What do you think the future looks like?

I think it looks like a rising tide of technology that expands capabilities toward limits set by fundamental physical law -- thermodynamics, strength of chemical bonds, and so on.

I think that this process will blow away the resource limits that almost everyone in this conversation imagines, and that (yes), these advances will enable cheap access to space, abundant solar energy, etc., etc. That is, all that stuff that becomes easy if you get really good at making things. Physics seems to say that we're very bad at this today.

And no, this won't solve all our problems. Expanded capabilities will instead create a vast tangle of unexpected problems that sensible people won't discuss  until it is very late in the game, for fear of being called Utopians or Cassandras (on alternate days).

Two queries, for perspective:

If we were near the limits of material technology, how could it be that the biological world produces gigatons per year of cheap, atomically precise structures, while modern industry spends billions of dollars on semiconductor fabs that spit out mere tons of chips per year, and these covered with big, blobby structures containing millions of atoms apiece?

If we were near the limits of information technology, how could it be that brains (based on <1000 Hz devices) are smart, while current computers (based on >1,000,000,000 Hz devices) are stupid?

Note that neither molecular technologies nor information technologies are resource intensive, and that both are moving fast. I think that the real limits to growth aren't where most people imagine. For better, or for worse.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 05:08:13 AM EST
You know the answer as well as I.  Biologic systems are complex, emergent, and non-linear.  Electronic devices are simple, dependent, and linear.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 12:23:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You state a good reason why it many biological systems are difficult to mimic (in the sense of designing new ones, rather than merely fiddling with ones that exist).

But does this mean that technology has reached its limits? Certainly not in a physical sense. Regarding design capabilities and the issues you raise --

  1. Hard problems have again and again been solved through the growth of scientific knowledge.

  2. Evolution demonstrates that hard problems can be solved with no knowledge at all, given enough persistence. (Evolution with a result in mind and with higher-level representations of subsystems can be much faster than the biological way accomplished.)

  3. Although intelligence is far from understood, manufacturing -- even at the molecular scale -- is in a different category. The problem here is a need for tool development and filling in details, not a need for new basic concepts.

I conclude that one or more huge transformations in technology can be expected. I strongly suspect that they will occur in the early (not mid or late) 21st century.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 06:49:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've long been worried about the apocalypse myself.  Not so much a rational worry, prompted by what I see in the papers and whatnot, but a deep-seated, gut-level sort of unease whenever I think about the future.

Although I've long been a fan of sci-fi stuff myself, and do happen to believe rather strongly that the colonization of space would be a good in and of itself, I've never really reconciled that belief with my gut-level fear of the apocalypse.  That is, I've never been able to really believe that that sort of thing could save modern society from collapse.

The big problem really is the unsustainability of the global capitalist system.  It just seems like it's headed off the cliff, and I'm really not sure if there's anything that can stop it.  Even if we'd been aggressively building space infrastructure for the past thirty years, I have trouble believing that what we could bring in would be enough.  Not that there isn't enough out there to supply our needs for a while.  There's all the energy we could ever need within easy reach, and a damn lot of raw materials not too far away.

But I also have trouble agreeing with the OP's idea that if we reduced, reused, and recycled enough, we could maintain at least some of the "good" things from modern life - like electric trains, computers, telephones, medicine, etc.  Say nobody had a car, nobody lived in single-family homes, nobody lived a long ways away from their place of work, and people somehow didn't accumulate "stuff."  Producing and maintaining a sort of bare minimum pseudo-modern society may well require too much energy and material to maintain given the resources remaining, even presuming no population growth.  Such a system would be vastly preferable to a post-apocalyptic world of biker gangs roving a blasted wasteland, I will not argue.  It wold likely be preferable to modern society.  But sustainable is another issue.

Furthermore, it's really hard to imagine a transition to such a moderate-consumption society and a more or less steady-state economy without also imagining the hard and violent crash of the current system.  People just don't like cutting back, and historically, they haven't done so without a fight.

One last thing.  It's a bit misleading to talk about Star Trek as a future of SUV's and mini-malls in space, as the whole future world of wonder and happiness of that fantasy was predicated upon a brutal apocalyptic collapse of global civilization.  From that experience, people became cooperative and non-materialistic, and from there, they went on to space.  None of the series really showed much at all of settled life on a Federation planet, let alone Earth -- probably because to do so, and stay true to the vision of the show and the supporting material written for it, would be incredibly subversive.

by Zwackus on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 05:38:07 AM EST
The future will look like "Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon. Well, not really, but when I read it a couple of years ago what unnerved me was the description of America that he gave. Replace airplanes with SUV's and he nailed it.
by det on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 05:41:14 AM EST
Just one comment on population growth - it aint.

That is, the explosive population growth of the 20th century is no more. According to the latest UN predictions population will peak at 7-8 billion in 2050 and fall to 6-7 billion in 2100.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 06:53:24 AM EST
Some interesting points.

Apocalypse Mythology has been part of the Western mindset since Christian times. It would be interesting to see what an absence of Apocalypse Mythology would look like. Especially given that Dubya's biggest achievement has been to poison the zeitgeist with an apparently bottomless pit of anxiety, hatred and paranoia. If we're not scared of the terrorists, we're scared of him. Something about this isn't how it should be. It feels like a win win for the bad guys.

So although we all do it, Doom Porn is just as crazy in its way as the shiny middle class suburban space frontier.

In terms of resources, with the possible exception of water, we're much better off than we think we are. Huge inefficiencies and a culture of waste mean that resource cutbacks are very possible. There would be major dislocation, but not necessarily major damage. Cities are full of people who waste two to four hours every day moving from one place to another and back again in outsized heavy metal boxes. Like many traditions this is clearly pointless and stupid. And like many other traditions it offers plenty of scope for resource savings by taking a more thoughtful approach to what's needed, instead of ploughing the same old groove forever.

What's really missing isn't stuff, or innovation, it's political intelligence and inspired and integrated social management. Socially, humans are't terribly bright. Humans who Get It usually seem to be in the top 10% or so of the intelligence spread. That means anywhere between 60% and 90%, depending, don't have the foresight to make intelligent long-term choices. Those are the ones who are also easy meat for demagogues and charlatans.

Unlike the resource issue, which is fixable, poor intelligence isn't. Education can help a lot, but there's still a point beyond which people are handicappred by a predictive horizon that clouds into grey before it should. If they can't see the issues they can't deal with them.

Dealing with that handicap is probably the single biggest challenge there is. I have no idea what a solution would look like.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 09:13:23 AM EST
Of course you can chalk it up to stupidity, but generally people are not stupid (in my experience) in one-to-one situations. Most people can understand most things if presented in an interesting and understandable way.

But yes, it is about political intelligence. But politics are about power. Why are there inefficiences? Not because people have not pointed them out but because it would hurt the one in charge of that particular ineffiency more to correct it then to let it be.

Maybe, just maybe, we can someday strangle the last king by some proper material and get rid of the stupifying power-structures. Then surely we can get to some nice society with efficient power useage and no waste. Unfortunately I think those in power will rather see it all crash and burn then give up on their power.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 04:46:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I oscillate between the doom porn stuff ThatBritGuy mentions and something rather more hopeful.

On the whole, whilst I do think that the situation of our civilisation is a little too close for comfort to the Easter Island analogy Jared Diamond uses in 'Collapse', I spend more days in an optimistic frame of mind than I do anticipating a Mad Max-esque apocalyptic wasteland. Partly this is because, like technopolitical, I have a gut-feeling (I'm not sufficiently close to the cutting edge for it to be more than that) that there is a strong pipeline of advances in materials science that will synergise with the emergence of ubiquitous, distributed computing networks and which will have a subtly profound effect over the next two or three decades on the way that our civilisation does things on a day-to-day basis; and partly because I have a healthy respect for the basic durability of the societies (complex and interdependant as they are) that we have made.

Luckily for us, the step change I mention seems likely to kick in at around the same time that the world community takes peak oil on board and starts to get serious about climate change - so there's a middling fair chance that we'll 'spend' the benefits of this transformation on adaptation/ mitigation of our energy usage patterns, rather than on suborbital flights to Cape Town for stag parties or similar.

Turning to the shiny future of Gernsbackian rockets and manly men solving problems with sliderules and superior firepower that DeAnander alludes to - I don't think that'll come to pass. Space seems to be pretty bloody unpleasant for a standard 'spam in a can' human. The high frontier will be colonised by our probes I think - why mine the asteroid belt in person if you can do it by directing a swarm of mining robots over an internet link?


-- #include witty_sig.h

by silburnl on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 12:32:09 PM EST
I don't see space colonization because there's no upside to it. If you want to live in outer space, or on Mars or something, why not just move to the middle of the Sahara desert, or Antartica, or Greenland? There are plenty of miserable places to live on Earth, so why go to Mars to be miserable?

Besides, all these the doom and gloom projections are way over the top. Plenty of people will die in plenty of big disasters--just like always, and mostly in the Third World. And some of us, mostly in the West, will have very nice futures with all sorts of new toys and food and futuristic stuff.

by asdf on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 03:46:37 PM EST
Space-wise, I think the goal should be exloration, not colonization or exploitation.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 04:52:17 PM EST
crosslink to my comment on Jerome's latest

I wanted to drop this meme in both this thread and Jerome's latest (Total Executive):  if innovation is our only way out of this fix, we may be in real trouble --  'cos innovation is just not what it used to be...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 09:05:23 PM EST
What do you think the future looks like?

I think Dune captured the feeling of an after technology future. Not in the sense that they did not use technology but that the technology was static, only for the uber-wealthy and geared military usages. And it was a world perceived as static in the social structure and technology. The emperors shift but the throne remains.

And this is what I see when I try to peer into the future. Ecosystems that can not take any more abuse, energy getting more expensive when oil and gas peaks, world wide transports slowing down, global change in weather patterns and ecosystems due to CO2.

Food crisis in poor parts of the world, as their food is transported to the rich (they had to kinds of salmon at my shop the other week: one from the Pacific Ocean and one from Norway, but the one from Norway was probably brought up on fishprotein form the Pacific). More wars over resorces. Starting as small wars, they might stay that way, but they might also expand into huge wars (remember world war one) and then we might all be dead from the nuclear bombs. But as I have a positive outlook on things I will assume that the world does not end in nuclear holocaust.

In the world rich enough to be represented on this site there will be no Mad Max style collapse , but slide towards a very strict partition into the uberwealthy with most of the technological gadgets of today, but not much progress or change in the gadgets. Their military class with todays weapons and some that are now in the labs (especially towards crowd control weaponry). A small technical service class that can make and repair the gadgets and weapons. And then the rest of us as manual labour, on the fields (mostly), in the mines and in some factories.

And I am quite young so I will get the chance to see if I am right in my lifetime. Did you all know that peak fish (in the maximum extraction sense) was in 2004?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 05:48:41 AM EST
I'm going to have to start writing cheerier visions just to offset you and DeA.

I don't agree that this is a necessary outcome. It's a possible one but I think we can do much, much better. Take a look at how appallingly wasteful everything we do currently is.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 05:56:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would be interested in a diary about peak fish.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 06:11:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
start here

75 percent of the big fish populations worldwide are "fished out".

when I was a teenager, I can remember, I read cheery books on deep-sea fishing asserting confidently that the oceans were an infinite reservoir of protein, and if we just ramped up our fishing efforts with the latest technology, hunger would become a thing of the past.  [infinite, oh gawd there's that word again.  "Djou keep using that worrd.  I do not tink it means, what djou tink it means."  IMHO any planner or economist who uses the word "infinite" should have his/her mouth washed out with pine tar soap.]

thanks to deep sea fishing with "efficient" technologies (that throw aside up to 50 percent of the biotic tonnage stripmined from the sea as "bycatch," mangled and dying), we have introduced hunger to Southern Hemi coastal villages with millenium-old fisheries, as vandalism of the marine food chain has devastated coastal as well as deep sea stocks.

the sentence I want to highlight in the article cited above is this one:  Today a 70 pound swordfish-which is too young to have even reproduced-is considered "a good sized fish" and can be legally landed in the US.

consider this sentence carefully.  we are catching top-of-food-chain species, long-lived species, so young that they have not had time to reproduce.  this is called extermination, not harvesting or even rational predation.  in a more agrarian metaphor it is eating the seed corn;  in my favourite analogy it is chopping down the orchard to get at the apples.  it is eating the future in one greedy gulp.  when you devour your food source before it has time to reproduce, this gives a whole new meaning to the word "stupid."

this is what I call looting.  smashing whatever gets in the way to grab what's grabbable and run, the hell with the consequences.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 05:26:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

And thanks for this diary, too.

I'm glad I waited till I was home from work to read it, because I kept saying "yes!" out loud, and my coworkers would have thought I was nuts.

when you devour your food source before it has time to reproduce, this gives a whole new meaning to the word "stupid."

There, I just did it again.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:00:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
my coworkers would have thought I was nuts.

And we can't have that, can we?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:54:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Now that you mention it, it's probably too late.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 05:02:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See? This is what happens when you go on holiday, you miss one of those rare occasions when DeAnander actually posts a diary instead of a comment. And what a diary!

Can it be recycled to the top of the front page again, for the weekend?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 12:20:29 PM EST

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