Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Space: The Final Window of Opportunity?

Bad meme. Bad, bad meme. We have only a few more decades. Then Earth becomes a stinking, overpopulated, overpolluted hell-hole from which humanity cannot escape, within which humanity may even extinguish itself. The narrative is usually softened with vaulting rhetoric about how the vast resources of space will save Earth.

The Window of Opportunity meme, though perhaps most strongly associated with Jerry Pournelle, traces goes back to Heinlein at least, and probably much earlier. Lots of SF has been predicated on global Malthusian crises; mix space access into that, and the hybrid scenario may sound apocalyptically compelling. However, it hardly comes across as a brilliant invention as memes go. quotes Pournelle:
This generation is crucial; we have the resources to get mankind off this planet. If we don't do it, we may soon be facing a world of 15 billion people and more, a world in which it's all we can do to stay alive; a world without the resources to go into space and get rich... I don't think it will come to that because the vision of the future is so clear to me. We need realize only one thing: we do not inhabit 'Only One Earth.' Mankind doesn't live on Earth. Man lives in a solar system... Given [a] basic space civilization ... we'll have accomplished one goal: no single accident, no war, no one insane action will finish us off." [from A Step Farther Out, 1979]

At, you will also find Rick Tumlinson construing "sustainable growth" as an oxymoron, where I understand the term to mean "economic growth that catches up to and paces population growth, under the assumption that populations will stabilize." And they probably will. More than a generation has passed since Pournelle declared the Last Chance Generation, and one of the big economic questions of our time, ironically, is "Will China get rich before it gets old?" I.e., will it hit population shrinkage, as we did here in Japan, at a high enough developmental plateau? At its current growth rates, one can safely answer: yes.

Japan offers some interesting earlier precedents for sustainability. Japan appeared to hit a resource-constrained plateau in the Tokugawa period [Jared Diamond's Collapse, for details], and responded intelligently and sustainably:
"The first national census, conducted around 1720, indicates a population of approximately 30 million people, which remained relatively constant throughout the entire two and a half centuries of the EdoPeriod." [See

Were those Japanese all living hand-to-mouth in subsistence farming? No. In the year 1800 Japan enjoyed the status of most urbanized nation in the world. And they achieved this level of social surplus largely without the benefit of technological advances from the West -- advances which, by way of Dutch traders at Dejima, they knew of, but generally didn't adopt out of concerns for destabilizing effects and unsustainable resource consumption. I wouldn't want to live under feudalism, but I doubt the necessity anyway.

So maybe all this blather about how it's inevitable that the Earth will become a stinking hell hole is just that: blather. If the population of Japan, stretched out over an archipelago and speaking many mutually unintelligible dialects, with a long history of bitter internal conflict, could persevere, could overcome resource crunches and reach a higher level of civilization than much of Europe at the time, why not all of Earth in our time?

You can see a lot of manifest-destiny propheteering at Oddly, the only quote that touched me at all now (where in my youth I'd have been thrilled by most of them) came from Konrad Lorenz:
"I am convinced that of all the people on the two sides of the great curtain, the space pilots are the least likely to hate each other. Like the late Erich von Holst, I believe that the tremendous and otherwise not quite explicable public interest in space flight arises from the subconscious realization that it helps to preserve peace. May it continue to do so!" [On Aggression, 1963]

Perhaps one could hear some echo of Lorenz from a speaker from one of the Big Bad Bloated Aerospace companies at ISDC '06. He commented on the value of Russians and Americans working together on ISS, and said something like "real love comes not when you're looking at each other, but when you're looking together toward a shared goal." A Hallmark Moment? Perhaps. However, he seemed to offer this sentiment in all sincerity, and I must admit that some of my antipathy toward the whole undeniably-flawed endeavor melted a little just then.

Pournelle seems to come from Heinlein -- that we achieve the most profound and thrilling human unity only when faced with a common enemy. War as a unifier exacts unsustainable costs, however, and only for a unity too artificial to survive long except through perpetual renewal of hostility. In war, even people who hate each other passionately will work hand-in-hand.

Oddly, perhaps we find can greater spiritual achievement in solving a hard (even somewhat arbitrary) problem together. Or perhaps I am very little like most people in this respect. Team sports held little appeal for me, in my youth and even now, though I have great respect for athletes; my parents both taught figure skating. Back in the 80s, I had roommates who were slightly aghast to see me pleased that Katerina Witt (from darkest East Germany) won the women's gold in figure skating at the Olympics, with the favored American taking only bronze. But I merely wanted what I thought best for skating, not for America's image of itself. And fair judging of innovative skating could only improve skating. Does it matter? Do the lessons travel? What does that figure skting do but collect together some rather silly and somewhat arbitrary athletic and esthetic problems, when you look at it coldly? Never mind: people love how those problems get solved, and the better skating gets, the more they love it. Sure, it's all still framed within competition, just a slightly unfortunate means to a good end, in my view. Perhaps attitudes towards space development could benefit more by seeing it as sport and art, with the emphasis on art, rather than as dominance display, or as species escape hatch for the lucky few, who, having escaped, might or might not be motivated to save the rest of us.


At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One Heinlein quote about humanity's going into space was something like, and I paraphrase here, "Well, we've about used this planet up. Time to move on!". The Frontier, you know. Always more land to the West.

At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Jan Ehrenz Phaire said...

Hi! Since you refuse to acknowledge requests on history and, I'll post one here on your blog. Please stop responding to "Jonathan". He is a known troll, and all you're doing is wasting your time and our bandwidth. Most of us have him killfiled, and the only time we have to suffer through his garbage is when someone like you replies.

Most of us appreciate your contributions, but if you continue to argue with someone who is clueless and is simply on a trolling spree, we are going to have to killfile you as well for our own sakes. Please, killfile him before it's too late!


At 5:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dream is to travel to Japan:) But I can see that there are too much people and without me;)

At 5:18 AM, Anonymous iserve pharmacy said...

What does that figure skting do but collect together some rather silly and somewhat arbitrary athletic and esthetic problems, when you look at it coldly?

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