Why Get Off This Rock (Part Two)



[This is the second part of my interview with Jeff Greason, fellow Heinlein child™ and space advocate. The first part (which gives his credentials) is here.]

I will note in passing that like me, Jeff is a “child of the lunar age.”  His date of birth is not on any public sites, but I remember we’ve talked about it and he’s some years younger than I, so he might have been born after the moon landing (or as Rep. Sheila Jackson, in a parallel universe all of her own, would have us believe, the Mars landing) . I remember watching the moon landing on TV at my aunt’s house (one of two privately owned TVs in the village) and thinking that living in space was just around the corner.  My six-year-old self, locked somewhere inside of me, still can’t believe I haven’t managed to even visit another planet by now.  Come on, I was supposed to be able to take my honeymoon on the moon.

On the serious side, I have a list of reasons why I believe we should go to space and stay this time.  I’ve given you some of them right here, in my first post on the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Conference (where I met Jeff most recently, in his role as chairman of the board of Tau Zero).  But mine are the opinions of a dreamer, a writer, someone who prizes the frontier for its freedom-bestowing abilities.

For Jeff, on the other hand, going to space is a more hands-on endeavor, and his reasons are more grounded and practical, and I think it would be interesting to listen to them.

Ever since I’ve been aware of your existence, you’ve been a devoted, not to say a single-minded advocate of space colonization. Would you mind telling people – more eloquently than I could – why “we must get off this rock?”

Like all truly fundamental questions, that ultimately is a question of values, so there are some people for whom no answer will suffice.   As has been said about jazz, “If you have to ask, you ain’t ever gonna understand”

There are many reasons which are true, but I find secondary, though others find them compelling.   For example, the industrial and economic development of space is going to require both machines and people – just as has been the case in all past economic development efforts.   And that economic development will drive some significant features of life on Earth.   For example, raising the standard of living of everyone on the planet to “first world” levels is going to require something like 30% increase in the energy use of human civilization, and space is about the only place to get that (if you didn’t know, the solar system has about a billion Earths’ worth of energy available).    Furthermore, there’s no avoiding the fact that if an unfriendly nation had a significant space presence and access to materials in space from Lunar or asteroidal sources, and the United States did not, we would no longer be able to effectively operate in space.   Therefore, only by ensuring that we maintain a lead in those capabilities can we maintain the current “global commons” of open access to space.  These are quite true, and urgent, and pragmatic reasons to desire a greater human presence in space.

There is the long-run argument, that there are indeed risks to the survival of the human species; planetary disasters, both natural and man-made, are possible.   A good argument can be made that all successful species spread to all available ecological niches, and human beings are unique in that we have used tools and technology to redefine what we can consider “habitable” – if you think things like clothing, agriculture, controlled fire, fishing and whaling boats aren’t “technology” then try living without them!  And it is our increased use of energy, to drive high-intensity agriculture, fertilizers, transportation of food and materials, heating and cooling, synthesis of metals and concrete,  and, most recently, global trade that has allowed us to greatly expand the human population and decrease dramatically both the fraction of that population, and even the absolute number of people who live in serious poverty.    If we want civilization to continue, we need to continue that expansion to new niches, and if we want to insulate ourselves against risks to the planet, we need that population to include as many planets – indeed, as many star systems – as possible.

I think that argument is true but it lacks urgency.   It’s like defending against an asteroid strike – it’s easy to see it’s a good idea, and that it would be cheap insurance, but after all, it might not strike for a thousand years, so that doesn’t strike people as urgent.   And the fact that it’s just as likely to happen next month as in a thousand years doesn’t move people, even though that’s quite true.

What motivates me is not so much the threat to human civilization, but to the KIND of civilization I want to live in – one that values human beings and human freedom.   It is common for people to treat those conditions as if that was the normal condition of humanity when very obviously, it is not now the norm everywhere on the planet, and, as recently as a few centuries ago, was not the norm anywhere on the planet.   Having a physical frontier – a place you can go, if you really, really want to — has been essential to the maintenance of that kind of civilization, for two reasons.  First is philosophical.    Why should you value freedom?   If someone else has something you want,  why not go and take it?   Yes, we all know that trade and civilization could not exist if there were no security of private property – but what’s that to you?   You have to understand – to believe — that you have something to gain from civilization – that you have a stake in it.   You have to understand that it is NOT a zero-sum game – that the pie can get bigger.  A quick study of history shows that it has been getting bigger, very fast, but people don’t study history.  They have to SEE it.   Well, when you can see new lands next door, new farms, new fields, new forests, it’s hard to convince people that they can’t better themselves if they want to put in the work.   Calls for socialism and collectivism find fewer ears.

Note that very few people ever actually do go to the frontier – but everyone benefits from it.   I don’t think you’ll ever see more than a tiny fraction of the population go to space – any more than you did from Europe to the New World.  But what a difference that made!

The other argument which I find persuasive is not so academic.   Have you ever put up with an abusive situation, or a bad boss, or just a terrible job that you hated?   Why?  Did you do that for the fun of it?  Probably not – you did it because you felt you had no choice.   I think that the amount of freedom in any society is governed by the question of “If you don’t like it, where are you going to go?”  If that question has a good answer, then people don’t put up with much abuse – and you get a more egalitarian society with greater human dignity.  If that answer has NO good answer, then there is always a plausible argument for why you should tolerate a little less freedom next year.  It’s been a century since we had a good answer to that question in the United States, and I think we’re showing the effects of that lack.   Meanwhile, we can see “good places to go” – oh yes, they need work.  But then much of the United States required vast civil engineering works to support significant populations as well.  I think these effects – the erosion of the underpinnings of a free society – are a clear and present danger, that they have been growing throughout my lifetime, and that we need a frontier ASAP.   I also think that, as with the New World, or the American West, that as soon as it is real and clear that we’re about to have one, we’ll start seeing the positive effects.

Now I will observe that there are people who do not view civilization as a boon, who genuinely wish we would operate at a lower level of technology and who are apparently undisturbed by the fact that billions of people would have to die for that to happen.  I think that’s repugnant.

When I have published about the necessity of going interstellar – of, in fact, possessing the universe in abundance, for the human race – I’ve been battered by objections, including that we shouldn’t go to space because we haven’t learned to take care of planet Earth. Care to respond?

Precisely the same argument can be made for why we should never have gone to Alaska, or California, or why we should have stayed in Europe, or never left Africa.   The way you learn how to “take care of what you have” is to increase the standard of living of your people – more energy, more materials, more transportation, more trade.   The poorest people in the Western world today live, in many ways, beyond the dreams of kings in centuries past.   We have gone from a world where the death of a significant fraction of your children, in your own lifetime, was virtually certain, to a world where that is nearly unthinkable.   By any objective measure, things are better now than they were thirty years ago, and I think you’ve been able to say that for about two centuries.  And it is the new lands that have lifted the old – in part due to new resources, but much more because of new trade, and new situations, which give rise to new ways of living, and new ideas, that transform the lives of those who never moved a mile from their birthplace.

In this case, the argument is truly silly, because environmental damage on Earth is dominated by the POORER countries.   The absolute best thing we can do for the Earth is to make everyone richer.   Doing that absolutely requires more energy, over and above the transition we’re going through in current sources – about 30% more could be useful right away.   And you don’t have to get into the argument over whether getting that from fossil fuels is a wise or unwise course of action — we are exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we are able to right now.  If we want more energy, we have to get it where it is – space – unless we discover a very cheap route to nuclear fusion.  And if someone believes that we need to reduce our fossil fuel use, that only makes the argument for space energy more urgent.

I once worked out that the Solar System’s carrying capacity is roughly a population of one trillion human beings, when fully developed, with each one having access to the energy resources hundreds or thousands of times greater than we have today.   If we want to live richer, more productive, happier lives right here on Earth, we should go get what is out there!

That’s without even noticing that in space, people are scarce – we don’t have any located with access to resources right now – so just as in past frontiers, going to space will require us to learn to work in ways that use people effectively – they’ll be valuable!  Which means they’ll be valued.   Or without noticing that the very first thing you do to reduce the cost of people in space is to start to close life support systems, reducing further and further that mass you have to import, which will drive precisely the kinds of technologies we need to reduce the environmental impact of people living on Earth.

People also say that there are environments that would be far easier to colonize – and almost as inhospitable – as Earth, so why not colonize those rather than go to space?

That’s actually a pretty good question.   When you start digging into the details, there’s a big missing piece, which is access to energy.   It is hard to overstate the role that energy plays in technological civilization – and by “technological” I’m including everything since the invention of agriculture.  After all, what is agriculture, but a method for capturing more solar energy in a useful form, which can be used to move force over distance (“do work”), first by humans, later by animals?

As soon as you go any substantial distance below the surface of the ocean, you lose sunlight.   It’s really, really hard to run a civilization without sunlight.   And you’ll notice that the few long-duration habitats there (submarines) either make short visits or use nuclear power.   Nuclear power is a very useful tool, and we should be using more of it in space than we do, but for various reasons, I think running a whole civilization, including agriculture, on that is relatively unlikely with anything like our current technology.   It’s true you have water in the oceans, and that used to be a good argument against space – but now that we know we can get water in pretty significant quantity on the Moon, on Near Earth Asteroids, and on Mars, all of which also have sunlight, I don’t see the attraction of the oceans.

Antarctica is an interesting case, however.   The night that lasts for months *is* a problem, a big problem, but not an insuperable one.   I looked at that once, and it wouldn’t be hard to make enough greenhouse space to grow extra crops in the “summer” and store them in “winter” – and even to, for example, make extra biomass that you could turn into alcohol and use for heat in the winter.  And there are local resources — for example, coal.   So Antarctica probably *could* be settled with our current technology.   So why don’t we?   Because people aren’t free.   By international agreement, no one is allowed to own anything in Antarctica.  You aren’t supposed to touch it, even.   It’s regarded as a scientific preserve.   I don’t think that will last forever, but it shows that you can take legal steps that make the economic development of someplace unattractive, and we must be ever-vigilant against doing anything like that in space.  That’s why the U.S. refusal to ratify the Moon Treaty in 1979 was so important, and why we must be mindful of the legal precedents we set.  Fortunately, the U.S. legal regime in space continues to be the best in the world.

There are also those who believe humanity should learn to restrain itself and live a “sustainable” existence on this planet. I suspect your response to this is the same as mine though perhaps more polite (mine involves middle fingers) but would you care to respond, anyway?

In the long run, a “sustainable” civilization is one based on solar energy.   We had such a civilization, by and large in the 1700s.    We can have a billion times that much solar energy by gathering it in space.  You can have a sustainable civilization of perhaps 800 million people living in what today we could consider abject poverty, or you can have a sustainable civilization of a trillion people per solar system rich beyond the dreams of avarice, spreading out over time to billions of other stars.  This seems to me an easy choice.  I think it would be unethical to consciously choose a path that would condemn our great grandchildren to eternal poverty.

Then there are those who say it is impossible to reach the stars on our current tech – true – and it might be impossible to reach them on any tech, and that we should stay put until the stars are reachable: IOW that it’s foolish to attempt to go or talk about going to space now, and we should wait for an easier time. Would you care to respond to those objections, as well?

Well, it clearly is not impossible to reach the stars — we can already see ways to do it.   Currently, those are very expensive – again, because it uses a lot of energy.   At Tau Zero Foundation, one of the things we are doing is looking for sources of private or public funding to develop technologies which might bring those energy costs down – some of the options are between ten and ten-thousand times less energy intensive than current technologies.   So there’s reason for optimism.   And as we start gathering large amounts of energy in space, to power the Earth with, energy will be more abundant.   So what seems prohibitively expensive today may not be so tomorrow.

But again, this rather misses the point.   Civilization and our economy are driven by the methods for collecting, storing, and using energy.   Interstellar travel is such a challenging concept that to seriously contemplate it, you have to look at big breakthroughs – how to cheaply gather more energy, how to transmit it over long distances, how to store it at light weight, how to use it to make thrust.   It’s the same problem.  You can never be certain, but if I were placing bets on where we might get a Big Breakthrough in these fundamental areas, I’d put some emphasis on interstellar technology.   Not just as an end in itself, but because it makes us think about the right questions.

[Sarah:] Thank you, Jeff.  I think possibly the most important point of these interviews is this: that the economy isn’t a finite pie, but the growth in human tech and the wealth and comfort derived therefrom are all dependent on energy.  And while energy itself is not a finite pie, to get at where it is virtually limitless we need to go to space.

On the other hand, virtually limitless energy would mean virtually limitless wealth for every man woman and child, and, as you put it, a valuing of humans themselves as the scarce resource they are.

We will continue to work for that future in space, where humans are free, valuable and valued.