We’ve talked about the physical, financial, and mathematical limits to growth on Earth. You simply cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet, as you may have noticed. Shit falls apart. But what if we could go, as Buzz Lightyear says, to infinity and beyond? There’s no limits to space, right?
Well, that’s sort of the problem. Space is so unlimited that this is, in itself, a limiting factor. Just consider the scale involved.
Imagine that the Earth is a grain of sand on the bridge of your nose. The moon is a speck of dust in the middle of your eyelash. The sun is a grapefruit a bus-length away (12 meters). Mars is generally further away, about three bus-lengths, though it sometimes swings as close as a truck. Then remember you’re on a grain of sand trying to fart your way off and you’ll understand the scale of the problem.
The real problem is that growth is so intrinsic to industrial civilization that we make no attempt to understand anything else at all. Apocalyptic or cyclical civilizations had no problem understanding the concept of ‘NO’, but our civilization is founded on the myth of infinite growth. We cannot understand the concept of limits at all, even after we’ve hit them.
The last time human went to the moon was in 1972, over 50 years ago. Since then we have literally been hanging out within the Earth’s magnetic field, never straying further than the distance from LA to San Francisco. We’re not even in ‘zero’ gravity, the ISS experiences 90% of the gravity on Earth. Astronauts experience weightlessness only because they’re in constant free fall. We’re still babies on an umblical cord, dreaming we’re flying while never leaving our mother’s womb.
Now consider the economics, by which I mean making do with scarce resources and not the imaginary incantations of blood-letting economists who still believe in infinite growth. Down here on Earth you can sustain a person with some economy (say $50,000 a year which is frankly balling out in Sri Lanka), but it costs 1000x that to sustain the same ass in space.
The cost of sustaining about 7 people on the ISS is $3–4 billion per year, or about $500 million per person. At this cost it would consume the entire GDP (🤮) of Earth to sustain just 200,000 people in space. And to sustain what? To shit in a vaccum cleaner and lose 1–2% of your bone mass every year? To spend $56 million to get a decent coffee? Space is a nice place to visit, but a terrible place to live.
Let’s say that we reduce costs of going to space by 10x by reusing rockets or whatever. Nevermind that we’re burning metric shit-tonnes of fossil fuels (or methane) to get there, it would still cost the entire GDP of the Earth to sustain just 2 million people up there. To get up to 20 million you’d need to reduce costs by 100x, with a space elevator or something. It actually doesn’t matter how much you reduce the cost, because it will always be a net loss. There’s nothing in space, by definition. You’ll always be spending more Earth resources to get little or no space resources out.
Sure there are asteroids full of gold and seas of natural gas on Titan. This is like when I bought a pool table for $100 when I was in university. I thought it was a great deal, until I found out how much it would cost to move and install it. I just left the damn thing where it was. Talking about all the resources in infinite space is like telling a drowning person that the ocean is full of oxygen. True, but not helpful. Even if there are reachable resources in space, it will always cost Earth resources (including time) to extract and transport them, making it a net loss.
This is one of the broader points about space. Going there is a debit, not a credit. Going to space is an exploratory activity, not an economic one. We always get far less out than we put in. Space colonization is not so much a solution to a resource-crunch as much as it is crunching harder. Just look at all the energy (and emissions) it takes to launch rockets. Unless we’re able to lasso Titan, we’re not going to see a net credit out of these expenses anytime soon. It’s exploration, not economics.
Just as people have looked around the top of Sagarmāthā or the bottom of the ocean, we have and may continue to look around the solar system, but we won’t stay there because it sucks even more than the most hostile places on Earth. We don’t have permanent settlements at mountain peaks or ocean bottoms, and space is orders of magnitude worse.
As Tom Murphy says, what we have with the space delusion is a case of the wrong narrative. As he says, “Just because we can point to a few special example accomplishments does not mean that such examples presage a new normal. A person can climb Mt. Everest, but it is not ever likely to become a commonplace activity. We need to separate the possible from the practical. The moon landings might then be viewed as a nifty stunt — a demonstration of capability — rather than a path to our future.”
We know that outer space is not our future because we stopped going there 50 years ago. We’re well into the years of Sci-Fi future now and it just didn’t happen. The fact is that we went to the moon multiple times and have had the capacity to go there for decades but we don’t because it fucking sucks. The moon is a cool place to say you’ve been, but a terrible place to be. It’s the same thing with Mars. An interesting place to explore, but it would be the worst place we’ve ever explored. The atmosphere is 95% CO₂, the pressure would boil our blood, the soil (regolith) is toxic, and it’s generally 2X away from the sun with no real energy sources of its own. Mars is a place to proudly land on and then promptly fuck off, not the future of human civilization. This is not a Martian problem. It’s a problem of humans not understanding what we are.
We Are The Earth
The soil on Earth is fertile because it’s literally shit, the waste product of countless microbes and worms and bugs. The oxygen we breathe is literally farts from microbes and plants. The fossil fuels we burn are solar batteries that they stored underground. We draw the line of ‘us’ around our bodies, but this is wildly illusory, as COVID-19 should have shown you. We are part of a great living soup. We are, in short, the Earth.
Saying that space is going to save ‘us’ is a fundamentally misunderstanding of what ‘us’ is. It’s a category error. We are technically just walking spaceships for microbes to walk around on land. Your body contains more microbial DNA than ‘you’ DNA. You are connected to the Earth via every breathe you take, every bite you eat, and all the energy you use. ‘We are the world’ is not just a song, it’s an accurate description of human nature. The human and nature are indivisible. We can’t leave nature in any coherent sense. You can’t run away from yourself. This spiritual misunderstanding of what we are is the mother of all fuck-ups.
The truth is that space should teach us this lesson more than anything else. As William Shatner said on his vanity flight to the edge of the atmosphere:
I continued my self-guided tour and turned my head to face the other direction, to stare into space. I love the mystery of the universe. I love all the questions that have come to us over thousands of years of exploration and hypotheses. Stars exploding years ago, their light traveling to us years later; black holes absorbing energy; satellites showing us entire galaxies in areas thought to be devoid of matter entirely… all of that has thrilled me for years… but when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.
I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.
Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I had expected to see was wrong.
It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.
The Earth is not a random place we are. It is not a rock that we’re just standing on. The Earth may have been a rock once, but over billions of years every inch of soil and cubic centimeter of air has been infused with life. Life has literally chewed this place up and ‘soiled’ it a million times. It has breathed it and excreted it. If you meet God, she’s probably be a microbe, and hand sanitizer is probably a venal sin. We are part of the living Earth and we cannot depart from it without fundamentally dying. Hence if we’re talking about life on another planet, we have to talk about life as it actually is, not the human-centric view of what it’s not.
Hence if you’re going to ‘colonize’ a planet you’d start with microbial colonies, not human. You’d start with the simplest elements of life, not the most complex (human settlements). What we are trying to do now is like raising a pyramid capstone first. Even if you raise it to the right height, it’ll just fall down. If you wanted to terraform Mars (honestly Venus is better), you’d start with microbes and give them some energy source because Mars is energy poor. Then you’d let them digest that planet over a few million years until they shat out some ‘earth’ and farted out an atmosphere. Then, if we’re around, you’d have a habitable home to move into.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that this has already happened, to us. It is entirely possible that an ‘advanced’ civilization existed on Venus, completely lost that planet to greenhouse gases, and managed to seed the next rock with enough microbes that the process restarted. I don’t think this is the most likely scenario, but you can’t prove that it didn’t happen. It’s certainly more plausible than us moving to Mars whole cloth. We may be part of a long-line of planet hoppers, hotboxing one and then moving on to the other, like total assholes. That part is certainly plausible.
The Bigger Problem With Growth
Let’s say that all of the above is false, that we can move to Mars in human form, and the only problem in 1972 was that Elon Musk was a baby. Let’s say that we deploy solar panels around the Earth, move heavy, polluting industry to space, and live on other planets. That is to say, our growth civilization continues apace and proves all the naysayers wrong. Even given this massive hypothetical, it still doesn’t work out.
Why? Because the problem of infinite growth on finite planets is no different from infinite growth on one planet. It’s just a timing difference. If you’ve got cancer in the lungs moving it to the colon doesn’t help. Unchecked growth anywhere is still cancer. To understand this you need to understand exponential growth, which I (via Murphy) go into at length here. For our immediate purposes, understand that 2% growth means doubling every six years (an exponential). Now imagine a bacterial colony doubling every ten minutes. As Murphy says:
The time is 11:30 PM: one-half hour before the end. The jar is one-eighth full. A thoughtful member of the culture projects the future and decides that more uninhabited resource-laden jars must be discovered in short order if the culture is to continue its trajectory. Imagine for a second the disbelief expressed by probably the vast majority of other inhabitants: the jar is far from full, and has served for 141 generations — a seeming eternity. Nonetheless, this explorer returns reporting three other equal-sized food-filled jars within easy reach. A hero’s welcome! How much longer will the culture be able to continue growing? What’s your answer?
The population doubles every ten minutes. If the original jar is filled at 12:00, the population doubles to fill the second jar by 12:10. Another doubling fills all four by 12:20. The celebration is short-lived.
As Murphy continues, “In relation to the bacteria parable, we’ve already done a fair bit of exploring. We have no more jars. One planet rhymes with jars, but it is hostile to human life, has no food, and is not within easy reach. We have no meaningful outlet. And even if we ignore the practical hardships, how much time would a second planet buy us anyway for uninterrupted growth? Another 35 years?”
Nevermind how shitty and hostile other planets are, there is nothing as shitty and hostile as a growth civilization, whatever planet it’s on. Indeed, we may have already smoked one planet, as you behold the uncleared bong hit that is Venus.
As Adam Sandler said as an Italian tour guide, “If you’re sad now, you might still feel sad there. You understand? That makes sense? Remember, you’re still going to be you on vacation. If you are sad where you are and then you get on a plane to Italy, the you in Italy will be the same sad you from before. Just in a new place. Does that make sense?”
The same thing is true for human going to Mars, or Venus, or whatever scenic but wildly inhospitable place we imagine going. If we carry this miserable growth civilization anywhere else we’re just going to get cancer in some other part of the planetary system. That’s all growth is. Luckily we most likely can’t colonize space, but it’s important to remember that we also shouldn’t. Not like this. We should get our shit together before we go dump our problems on other planets.
The fact is that space isn’t going to save us from ourselves. This is a category misunderstanding of what space is and, more importantly, what we are. We are just part of an ancient, living cybernetic system called the Earth, and not its pilots or masters. Until we understand who we are and where we come from, we won’t get very far.