How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Population Boom

Paul Raven @ 31-05-2011

Via MetaFilter, Foreign Policy points out that worrying about the environmental and economic effects of an increasing world population is a displacement activity that helps us Western developed-nation types avoid the real source of the shortages problems to come… namely ourselves.

Yes, threats to global sustainability are clear and present dangers. But the 10,760-fold increase in aluminum production reported by environmentalist Clive Ponting, or the 380-fold increase in oil production, or even the 24-fold increase in global GDP over the course of the last century isn’t driven by population growth. It is growing consumption per person that is the problem. And that, of course, is not the fault of Africans. The blame lies with wealthy countries that do nearly all of the consuming. The poorest 650 million people on the planet live on about 1 percent of the income of the richest 650 million. Each year, we add 1 percent or more to the incomes of those richest people – GDP per capita growth rates in wealthy countries are at least that high.  And that 1 percent growth has the same impact on global consumption as would doubling the number of people living on the income of that bottom 650 million of the world’s population. So, those people sitting in rich countries pontificating on unsustainable global populations might want to start off with the bit of that population they see in the mirror every morning.

And from the same MeFi post, the wonderfully-monikered Rick Bookstaber suggests that the consumption-per-person problem might be about to hit a paradigm shift:

The real paradigm shift, or more like a paradigm drift, because it is slowly enveloping us, is that we are moving toward preferences and lifestyle where we will simply consume less. A lot less. Like improvements in efficiency, changes in tastes and preferences are nothing new, but this time is different.

I have already discussed this in previous posts on life in the experience machine and the world of smaller scale. In The Accidental Egalitarian I make the point that with the increased focus on technology – where we spend more and more of our time on our cell phone, doing emails, watching DVDs and surfing the web – there is less of a difference between how the super rich and the reasonably well off spend their time hour by hour during their typical days. The point of that post is that in practical terms the income gap is not as large as it might seem; that several orders of magnitude differences in income don’t make all that much difference in what these people do with their time. The point here is a corollary: those activities do not require much in the way of material consumption, and therefore not much in terms of commodities.

In The Technology-Driven Consumption Trap I argue that in the not-so-distant future the main items we will demand, beyond food, clothing and shelter, are “game systems” that approach the level of Nozick’s experience machine, allowing us to have the experience of being anyone we want, wherever we want (even in a world we have designed), accompanied by whomever we want, all in Realicta Immersion 3-D® with full sensory feedback.

Our demand for housing and transportation, two of the biggest commodity hogs, will be lower. McMansions will be totally passe. It should already be dawning on people that most all of our non-sleeping hours at home are spent in the kitchen and its adjacent family room. Living rooms and dining rooms are relics. When people internalize the fact that they spend most of their non-sleeping, non-bathroom, non-eating time in a ten by twelve foot space with their various experience machine prototypes, large homes will, by and large, go the way of cars with fins and chrome.

A rather market-Panglossian view of things, perhaps (especially coming from a guy who works for the Financial Stability Oversight Council at Washington – optimism must be more vital than oxygen in that office, I’m thinking), but I wouldn’t want to entirely discount the forces and pressures Bookstaber is talking about there, either. Perhaps the shift to a predominantly digital economy will change the way we define wealth… though as we continue down the path of urbanisation, excess living space is surely always going to remain a display for conspicuous consumption? (Insert Soylent Green reference here.)

Trust and utility

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2011

This Freeman Dyson article/review at the New York Review Of Books has many interesting points in it, and the new James Gleick book it discusses sounds like a title I’ll need to get my hands on at some point (his biography of Richard Feynman is a fascinating work). But there was a pair of sentences that really just leapt out at me, and I offer them here without further comment (but with a little emphasis):

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.

Space colonisation logistics

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2011

Man, space really is back on the menu all of a sudden – an odd reaction, perhaps, considering that the Shuttle has now flown its last. But then again, the commercial space sector is making positive noises, and perhaps the general global sense of gloominess is pushing us to think beyond the confines of Mudball the First…

Psychology aside, if you’re planning to move up and out, you need a battleplan. Over at Lightspeed Magazine, Nicholas Wethington sets out a basic sequence: [Moon -> Mars -> Asteroids -> “Icies”]. Personally I’d have suggested [Orbitals -> Lagrange -> Moon / Asteroids -> Mars -> Outer System], though the Moon does have the advantage of all that radiation-absorbing regolith lying around.

Wethington wisely points out that water is one of your main essentials, wherever you want to go. Fortunately, it turns out that there’s a whole lot more water out there than we initially thought:

The numbers get to be striking, as Hauke Hussmann and colleagues show in a 2006 paper in Icarus. Start with Galileo, the mission to Jupiter that brought home how much we needed to modify our view of the giant planet’s moons. Galileo discovered secondary induced magnetic fields in the vicinity of Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, offering strong observational evidence for subsurface oceans on all three. The fields are thought to be generated by ions contained in the liquid water layer underneath the icy outer shells. Europa has, of course, become a prime target for future study re astrobiology thanks to the prospect of water combined with a possibly thin ice layer.

The Hussmann paper goes on to calculate interior structure models for medium-sized icy bodies in the outer Solar System, assuming thermal equilibrium between radiogenic heat produced by the core and the loss of heat through the ice shell. Now we really start expanding the picture: The paper shows that subsurface oceans are feasible not just on the now obvious case of Europa, but also on Rhea, Titania, Oberon, Triton and Pluto. A case can also be made for the Trans-Neptunian Objects 2003 UB313 , Sedna and 2004 DW.

Add that to the asteroids and comets, and there’s plenty of options… though none of them are exactly convenient to us at first.

Once we’re out there grabbing iceballs and digging resources out of odd-shaped rocks, we’ll need to stay in touch with one another – how else are we gonna broker the sale of our freshly-mined metals? Luckily Google’s Vint Cerf is on the case, ignoring the more mundane issue of address space on the terrestrial intertubes in favour of thinking about an interPlanetary internet [via SlashDot]:

We recognized as far back as 1998 that the traditional Internet design had implicit in it the assumption that there was good connectivity, and relatively low latency, whereas in a space environment, when you are talking at interplanetary distances, you have speed-of-light delays and those can be minutes to days. We need this new Bundle Protocol to overcome the latencies and all the disconnects that occur in space, from celestial motion [and from] orbiting satellites.

The Bundle Protocols are running onboard the International Space Station. They are running in a number of locations around the United States in the NASA labs and in academic environments. There’s a thing called the Bundle Bone, which is like the IPv6 backbone, that is linking a lot of these research activities to one another.


So during 2011, our initiative is to “space qualify” the interplanetary protocols in order to standardize them and make them available to all the space-faring countries. If they chose to adopt them, then potentially every spacecraft launched from that time on will be interwoven from a communications point of view. But perhaps more important, when the spacecraft have finished their primary missions, if they are still functionally operable — they have power, computer, communications — they can become nodes in an interplanetary backbone. So what can happen over time, is that we can literally grow an interplanetary network that can support both man and robotic exploration.

Obsolete sats as network nodes… an encouragingly frugal solution. And talking of frugal, if you’re planning to be in the first wave of outward migrations, you might want to snap up some cheap kit. Two used Soviet space-suits, one (presumably) careful owner each

To infinity, and beyond! More inspirational space stuff

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

Yesterday’s scale-of-space post gathered comments pretty quickly, at least in part due to my own failure to define my terms properly… but it’s a reminder that space still stirs up the imagination like little else, whether one’s imaginings be favourable or dismissive.

And so, here’s some more imagination fuel! As mentioned before, space seems to be clambering back onto the futurist Zeitgeist train of late – a response to the grim economic certainties of the foreseeable future (such as it is)? We all need something to reach for in our dreams, I guess… and if you’re gonna reach, why not stretch to your utmost? The Technology Applications Assessment Team of NASA’S Johnson Space Centre aren’t limiting themselves to anything less than affordable and achievable concepts for manned deep-space missions [via MetaFilter]:

… six technology applications that they are focusing on: satellite servicing, ISRU on the Moon, a SBSP demo, solar electric propulsion vehicle, propellant depots, and the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).


The Nautilus-X MMSEV is intended as a reusable in-space vehicle for cis-lunar and deep space missions. It would offer a sizable volume to sustain a crew of six and hold enough supplies to sustain a two year mission.

Radiation mitigation strategies, such as creating safe zones with water and H2-slush tanks, are being investigated. It is “capable of utilizing variety of Mission-Specific Propulsion Units [integrated in LEO, semi-autonomously]”.

Most strikingly, it would include a ring centrifuge to provide partial gravity for maintaining crew health.

Caveat: “affordable” is a very relative term:

Estimated cost and time: “$3.7 B DCT & Implementation 64 months”

Ouch. Still, pipedreams they may be, but every human achievement was an act of the imagination first, right? But uninformed imagination is just, well, making stuff up… so get yourself over to Centauri Dreams and check out a suggested reading list for people interested in the possibilities of interstellar travel.

Last but not least, and in the name of providing at least one answer to the “sure, we could go there, but what’s the point?” retort, Brian Wang of Next Big Future has excerpts from (and a link to) a speculative PDF report on human population curves after escaping the hard resource limits of Gaia:

NASA studies (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) confirmed that it was technically possible to build large vista space habitats in free space, essentially anywhere in the solar system (out to the asteroid belt if only solar power were used) with up to about 4 million people in each. In O’Neill’s habitat model the space citizens would live on the inside surfaces of radiation shielded spheres, cylinders, or torus’s which would be rotated to provide Earth normal gravity. The prohibitive Earth launch costs for these massive structures could be off set by using lunar and asteroid materials. Construction of (Glaser, 1974) space solar power satellites by the space colonists would make the project economically viable. Economic break even for the O’Neill-Glaser model was calculated to be about 35 years after which very large profits would be incurred. The result would have been a solar powered Earth and millions of people living in space by the beginning of the twenty first century.

Recently the O’Neill-Glaser model was recalculated (Detweiler and Curreri, 2008) to find the financially optimum habitat size. For simplicity only the habitat size was changed and the financial costs of money and energy updated, while keeping the original 1975 technological assumptions. In order to make the model financially viable the workers must live in space, space resources must be utilized and the community must build Space Solar Power Satellites, SSPS. A net present value plot showing the original calculations (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) building 10,000 person torus habitats compared to calculations for the habitat size that optimizes costs. Starting the program with smaller habitats (64 – 2000 persons) results in peak costs that are reduced by about 75 percent and one third reduction in time for financial break even (year 25 for the optimized model).

Wildly speculative? Sure it is. So was putting a man into orbit, and not all that long ago.

Wet moon would make a great launchpad

Paul Raven @ 22-10-2010

A new analysis of NASA data to be published today has something interesting and unexpected to say about the Moon [via MetaFilter]:

“It’s really wet,” said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.

The presence of water doesn’t make it more likely that there ever was life on the moon, as the location studied is among the coldest in the solar system. But the large quantity boosts the case for a manned lunar base from which to launch other interplanetary adventures. Water is crucial because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, are key ingredients for rocket fuel. Oxygen can also be extracted from water to make breathable air.

I’ll bet there’s more than a few handfuls of far-sighted space-business types adding that data to their long-term planning dossiers. Orbitals first, lunar base second, and from there the solar system’s your oyster…

… or alternatively, the world’s super-rich can decamp to the water-rich Moon while the rest of us fight over the limited amount of it available to us down at this end of the gravity well. There’s at least one novel in that idea, I reckon.

Next Page »