The Politics of Survival
(First published, Science & Public Policy, February 1987, this version, Asgard, March 2002; Appendix 1, “Incoming Asteroid!”, Springer, October 2013).
By Duncan Lunan
Phrases such as ‘Limits to Growth’ or ‘Alternatives to Growth’ imply objections to continuing economic development, and there are valid objections in regard to overpopulation, destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the environment. But any strategy we adopt to counter those dangers must also take account of the other threats to human survival: the man-made ones of weapons of mass destruction and of long-term genetic breakdown, and the external ones posed by giant meteor or comet impact, a change in the Sun or a nearby supernova, or by Contact with other intelligence. Big impacts, and probably supernova shockwaves, have brought about major changes on Earth in the past and will undoubtedly happen again in the future. To have a reasonable guarantee of surviving such catastrophes any future society will require extensive development of resources outside the Earth. Technological and industrial development in space, and self-supporting extraterrestrial settlements, must be regarded as essential to any policy for future development.
We therefore require a ‘Politics of Survival’, a series of practical programmes with the object of guaranteeing the survival of mankind against all foreseeable dangers: an objective which could be met within 300 years. Since continuing space development should be used to the full in solving terrestrial problems, two practical programmes are suggested: the first, an international effort to free the world from hunger within the next 20 years; the second, to remove all major raw materials gathering and industry from the Earth’s surface by the end of the 21st century. Ways are also suggested for extra-terrestrial settlement to help, psychologically and sociologically, to meet the dangers of warfare, overpopulation and genetic breakdown.
The philosophies of ‘Limits to Growth’1 and ‘Alternatives to Growth’ reflect a growing awareness of the dangers of population growth, uncontrolled industrial growth, and the uncritical use of the environment to supply raw materials and to absorb pollution. They were direct challenges to the assumptions made by “most decision makers on all levels… that past trends will continue and to rely on growth as a panacea”.2 In the interests of survival such assumptions should be challenged, even if on examination they proved to be correct. However the initial challenges were followed by the widespread acceptance of philosophies which were little more attractive and very little less dangerous. It was argued that with the right social policies and alternative technologies a stable culture could be created, regulating the numbers of mankind, living in harmony with the other inhabitants of the Earth’s ecosystem, and neither adding to nor subtracting from the available pool of natural resources. Within the confines of the planet, obviously, such accommodations do indeed have to be reached.
But it also came to be said, or implied, and widely believed, that the technological level of such a culture would be lower, and the range of its exploratory, scientific and industrial activities would be less, than those of the present ‘Developed World’. Such predictions have two major weaknesses:
1. Human nature being what it is, and natural phenomena being what they are, any stable culture – even a global one – will eventually be perturbed by social forces or natural changes drastic enough to upset the balance. The alternatives are then contraction, which if continued leads to extinction, or a new phrase of expansion leading back to the previous crisis level.
2. The findings of the Earth sciences, space research and solar physics now strongly reinforce the conclusion – previously obvious from first principles, but little heeded – that any purely Earth-based civilisation will be subject, sooner or later, to external natural forces strong enough to change its character utterly if not to destroy it altogether.
The objective of the ‘Politics of Survival’ is to formulate a series of practical programmes whose final aim, perhaps 300 years in the future, would be to guarantee the survival of mankind against any foreseeable catastrophe. To see clearly what has to be done, no qualification of the word ‘any’ can be permitted: the aim is to make sure that some self-supporting element of the human race will survive, in sufficient numbers and with the full resources of history at their disposal, so that what has been accomplished shall not be lost – even if Earth itself or even the Solar System did not remain able to support life.
To a great extent such a programme, encompassing almost all human activities, would have to proceed by persuasion rather than coercion. Its underlying principle would become ‘ that no individual interest, national, commercial, political, religious, military or scientific, should contribute to the potential extinction of mankind’. Such a ‘Politics of Survival’ would become the international morality of the 21st and 22nd centuries, and would be built up out of decisions on the applications of particular technologies – just as the 20th century had to arrive at a consensus on the uses of nuclear power, organ transplants and genetic engineering. Since we don’t know what the controversial technologies of the next two centuries will be, we can’t plan the route to ‘guaranteed survival’ in detail; but since it can be shown that space technology has to be incorporated, and since we already have a general idea of the resources available, hazards to be countered and techniques to be used, we can construct a generalised set of strategies which provide the Politics of Survival with a framework and a timescale.
Fig. 1 shows the beginning of a classification system for the dangers to be met and countered in accordance with such a philosophy. The eight headings on the top line represent categories of disaster which could, alone, bring about the annihilation of mankind. Those eight headings are the main subject-matter of this essay. It should be remembered that they are closely linked and could occur in synergistic combinations – i.e. that accidents in two or more categories, though not drastic enough to wipe out the race, could combine to bring about that effect. For example, even a limited nuclear war, in a context of overpopulation, a polluted environment or dependence on advanced medical technology, could have far worse effects than the mathematics of yield and fallout alone would predict. The second line of Fig. 1 shows examples, a far from exhaustive list, of sub-headings, two or more of which might act in concert to equal the annihilating outcome of a major disaster on line 1.
The eight headings of line 1 are (1) weapons of mass destruction, (2) overpopulation, (3) destruction of irreplaceable natural resources, (4) pollution of the environment, (5) long-term genetic breakdown, (6) large-scale impacts, (7) Sun change or nearby supernova, (8) Contact with other Intelligence (not necessarily with malevolent intent). The first five are dangers of our own making, the other three represent outside forces which could intervene drastically in human affairs.
Those three are normally overlooked in discussion of human survival, and if they are invoked, are usually dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘statistically remote’ by comparison with the more ‘immediate’ dangers posed under the other five headings. But another view of their immediacy and relevance can be taken. Unlike, say, pollution or overpopulation, which are cumulative over decades, they could strike without warning at any time, they threaten our extinction on a day to day basis, and cannot be prevented at the present state of our technology. Some time in the future, probably the near future relative to the timescale of biological evolution, the Earth will be struck by an asteroid – or the Solar System by supernova shockwaves – with sufficiently destructive effects to remove the higher life-forms including ourselves, unless we acquire the means to prevent it.
Thus any long-term plan to guarantee the survival of the human race must include the cancellation of headings (6), (7) and (8), and solutions to headings (1) to (5) must be selected accordingly. In plain words, the human race dare not adopt ‘alternatives to growth’ which ignore or preclude what Dr. Krafft Ehricke has called ‘the strategic approach to the Solar System’3 – i.e. survey and exploitation of interplanetary resources for the practical benefit of mankind. Such a conclusion is a major departure from most publicly discussed ‘alternative’ strategies and obviously requires detailed justification. Headings (6), (7) and (8) are therefore discussed below in ascending order of immediacy, as defined above.
Direct Contact with Other Intelligence (heading 8) is the hazard which might not exist in reality. We simply do not know whether or not we are alone in the Galaxy, and scientific opinion is divided. ASTRA’s “Man and the Stars” discussion project discussed the possibilities4 and although the technological background to that discussion is now out-of-date, the general rules established remain valid. It is not impossible that direct Contact with some highly advanced spacefaring culture might disrupt our own, even accidentally, to a point where self-supporting survival became impossible; or even that some destructive group might deliberately attempt the extirpation of the human race. No matter how advanced their technology, however, if our culture is spread through the cometary halo of the Solar System in self-supporting habitats, hunting down all of its elements would seem to be out of the question.5 So that is the level of advance at which the survival of the human race is guaranteed, and it’s this heading, even if included only for the sake of completeness, which sets the bottom line of the Politics of Survival framework in Fig. 2 (See next page).
Sun Change or Nearby Supernova (heading 7) groups together the dangers of which we have become aware through advances in stellar physics and related Earth-based studies. It is not yet clear just how much we are threatened by variations in our own Sun, but there is clear evidence – correlating tree ring studies, climatic studies, and visual observations since the invention of the telescope – that the ‘mini-ice ages’ of the last thousand years have coincided with periods of little or no sunspot activity, i.e. extended breaks in the regular 11-year sunspot cycle.6
Another cause for concern was the continued failure of research groups to detect the neutrino flux from the core of the Sun predicted by nuclear physics. The determination of the mass of the neutrino may resolve the problem, but it may also be that conditions in the solar core may not match the standard model, and just how serious for us the differences may be remains to be seen. One suggestion was that fusion reactions in the core of the Sun might be intermittent and give rise to ‘hiccups’ of violent solar activity – perhaps responsible for the ‘megadeaths’ in Earth’s history, when great numbers of species died out simultaneously.7
A quite opposite idea is that the outer layers of the Sun have been enriched by passing through an interstellar dust cloud, and our model of the core may therefore be inaccurate. If so, the absorbing effect of dust between us and the Sun might have started the present Ice Age cycle,8 but there would seem to be less of a direct extinction threat. (The indirect one comes under heading 6.)
Supernova explosions are estimated to occur in the Galaxy every 50 years or so on average, and at least three have been bright enough to be visible to the naked eye during the last 1000 years. At its peak output a star exploding as a supernova can emit as much energy as all the other stars of the Galaxy combined. Planets of any star for many light-years around would be subjected first to an intense radiation bombardment, later to magnetic disturbances and radioactive fallout from the shockwaves which once formed part of the mass of the exploding star. It was often suggested that some such event was responsible for the most famous ‘megadeath’, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and one scenario attributed it to a rare and very violent ‘Type 3’ supernova more than 3000 light-years away.9 Although the dinosaur extinction is now known to have been an impact event (heading 6, again), there is some evidence that supernovae may have caused other megadeaths. At present it seems that only one of the rarer, more violent, events could harm us under heading 7, because there are no supernova candidates in the immediate stellar vicinity; but even so, we don’t know just how much warning we would have. In the longer timescale of millions of years (the timescale of mankind on Earth thus far) only statistical chance determines when one of the more common, less violent supernovae will occur close enough to do serious damage.
A change in the Sun or a nearby supernova would force us to abandon the open surfaces of the Earth and any other inhabited worlds ‘for the duration of the emergency’ in order to survive. The technology required to keep large numbers of people alive underground or on the sea-bed for years or decades would be very high indeed, and on Earth fighting around the available shelters might well be so fierce that no-one would survive. Self-sustaining settlements in space, or on the Moon, Mars or the asteroids, will have to be fully shielded against the existing primary cosmic radiation and would therefore be virtually safe from the radiation flux of a supernova, though decontamination procedures would be needed for incoming personnel and materials during and after the supernova phase.
While the possible magnitude of change in our Sun is uncertain, the supernova event is only a matter of time. Some future society will experience it, and the prospects for a low-technology one on Earth’s open surface do not appeal. There is, however, a worse possibility, which is likely in the still shorter term.
Giant Meteor or Comet Impact (heading 6) is a danger which has become apparent over the last 30 years. In the early 1960’s it could still be argued that the craters on the Moon were volcanic in origin, since the Earth showed few signs of similar bombardment. The argument was weakened when the first successful Mars flyby showed a surface intermediate between ours and the Moon’s – cratered, but showing extensive weathering. From later Mars missions, the Moon landings and Mercury flybys, the mapping of Venus, and the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, we now know that the Solar System was subjected to an intense bombardment in the final stages of its formation, and many individual impacts have occurred since. By the mid-1970’s, over 200 impact features had been identified on Earth’s surface;10 then came the evidence of a really big impact, probably one of a series, coinciding with the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species. The growing evidence for waves of impacts suggests that in many of the ‘megadeaths’ comets rather than asteroids may have been responsible. A catastrophe of that kind would at least give decades or more of warning, as the skies filled with spectacular comets: but a single comet or asteroid approaching Earth at present might not be detected until scant minutes before impact – if at all.
The destructive effects of a big impact are proportional to the energy absorbed by the environment. On land, an impact equivalent to the formation of the Vredevort Ring in Africa would sterilise the continent affected, but other parts of the world would suffer relatively little harm apart from widespread earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The white-hot crater, initially penetrating through the crust of the Earth to the magma, would radiate much of the impact energy back into space. But in the sea, which offers a much larger target, the effects are much worse. Tsunamis up to thousands of feet high would circle the planet, sweeping most populated areas virtually without resistance. Vast volumes of water would be converted into superheated steam before the crater walls and the rising magma were quenched. Half the world, at least, would be ravaged by the resulting storms, while earthquakes and eruptions reduced the chances of survival even above wave height in the other hemisphere. Lastly, enough matter might be lifted into the atmosphere to black out the surface for years and cause a temporary Ice Age.
‘Vredevort events’ may not occur more than once in 200 million years. But it has been estimated that the Earth suffers blows violent enough to reverse the magnetic field, by the effect of shockwaves passing through the core, about every 170,000 years on average;11 and the association with impacts is strengthened by simultaneous ‘megadeaths’ in the seas as well as on land.12 Less violent impacts are still more frequent: there were at least three in the 20th century, two of them in the territory of the former Soviet Union, with results which would have been catastrophic in populated areas, and in 1972 a giant meteor flew through the atmosphere over the USA, miraculously not striking the ground.13 Upper estimates of its mass are around 4000 tons, giving it enough kinetic energy to devastate an entire state. But at that time even a small impact, with an energy release comparable to a nuclear weapon, posed a terrible danger to the human race because it could have led to war between the major powers. Almost unbelievably, the present leaderships of the USA and Russia now seem to be locked into a return to that state of affairs.
The danger cannot be met as popularly supposed, by intercepting the asteroid. A magnetic field reversal/megadeath event could be perpetrated by a body as small as 300 metres across,11 virtually undetectable by present-day methods and especially so when coming straight towards the Earth at tens of miles per second. Even if it was picked up radar at, say, the distance of the Moon, there would not be time to programme and aim a missile to intercept it. A direct hit would not significantly harm any but the smallest asteroids: published scenarios involve explosions beside the asteroid, so that vaporising material thrusts it off the colliding course,14 but the guidance requirements for close flybys are still more demanding and less likely to be met in time. Even fragmenting the asteroid provides little respite: splitting a billion-ton mass into a million fragments would reduce some of the worst overall effects, but a million thousand-ton impacts would still devastate the Earth’s surface.
In short, the only way to protect the Earth from big impacts is to maintain continuous radar mapping of the entire inner Solar System, to detect hazards in time to cancel them far from Earth. Merely shattering a big asteroid is still an inadequate answer, since it will add enormously to the number of smaller hazards to be traced, and is very much a risk if the deflection is to achieved at long distance using nuclear weapons. Below, Gordon Ross and I suggest a gentler method using solar sails, which is particularly suitable for deflecting comets.15 But in the long term, the most effective course would be to send an industrial task force to a threatening asteroid (or comet, if time allows) to process it entirely, launching the products on controlled trajectories to the various planets and leaving the residues (if any) to disperse as harmless dust.
In other words, to guarantee the survival of mankind against the impact threat we have to raise our technological level at least as far as the exploitation of the Asteroid Belt and the ‘earth-grazing’ asteroids. Since as already shown such an approach would also permit us to survive a change in the Sun or a supernova shockwave, that level of attainment must be an interim objective of the Politics of Survival.
It cannot be too strongly stressed that any alternative society that limits itself to Earth must face disaster or destruction from the natural forces discussed, sooner or later. The chance of a giant impact in any given year may be statistically remote, but that will be scant consolation in the year that it happens. All viable models for future societies must therefore include an ongoing space effort. But to ensure that some self-supporting group of humans will survive anything we can foresee is only a minimum objective of the Politics of Survival: a still more worthy aim would be to use the same development in space to help solve the terrestrial threats to survival, headings 1-5 of Fig. 1.
1. Weapons of Mass Destruction. There is of course no purely technological counter to a danger generated by human - no defence is 100% effective. Indeed, when I was writing then further technological breakthroughs were to be feared, since if the balance of power was seriously disrupted the logic of deterrence drove both sides towards an attempt at a pre-emptive first strike. Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to believe that the leader of the West would deliberately be driving us towards a resumption of that situation.
Nor can political, social or ideological answers be foreseen in detail at this stage; but in setting the objective of ‘guaranteed survival’ 300 years hence, we have to accept that the issues which divide the modern world will have changed, probably out of all recognition, in much less time than that. In a century from now we might hope that with intelligent planning, not merely deterrence but the institution of warfare itself may be a thing of the past.
[I put that in as a throwaway line, deliberately, because it is an option which the Politics of Survival offers and not a necessity for making the PoS happen. The Editor of Science and Public Policy latched on to it, however, and isolated that line in a box in large italics. It is an option, something which we could do if we choose.]
In that time, furthering the Politics of Survival, there should be settlements on the Moon, in free space, probably on Earth-grazing asteroids, the moons of Mars and even Mars itself. Such settlements should be self-supporting. As such, they will have much greater symbolic value than the research stations in Antarctica, to which they are so often compared at present.) It is an old argument that self-supporting extraterrestrial colonies would prevent humanity’s total extinction in war on Earth. But even more important from the philosophical viewpoint is that such colonies will have to work in cooperation, not competition, because under existing international agreements the resources and territory of the heavenly bodies are ‘the common heritage of mankind’. While disagreements are bound to arise, warfare between such settlements would be either impossible or suicidal. There have been societies on Earth in which warfare is unknown, but it has always been possible until now to deride them as primitive or irrational. When there are sophisticated offshoots of our own societies working together without the constant threat of war, they may provide models for less violent international relations on Earth.
2. Overpopulation. Here too there is no technological panacea and palliatives can only make the situation worse, by increasing the numbers who have to be convinced that they should not raise large families. The underlying social issues are often too complex to be settled by mere availability of birth-control methods. But even here space technology has a contributory rôle to play, by making education in farming methods, hygiene, medicine and birth control available to large numbers through communications satellite television.
It’s customary to reject outright the idea that interplanetary emigration is even a partial answer to population problems on Earth. However in the 1970’s Prof. Gerard O’Neill outlined an answer which in theory at least is feasible: the building of ‘Island Three’ space habitats, huge cylinders made of lunar materials and spun to generate the equivalent of Earth-surface gravity on their inner surfaces, which would become farmland and provide a reasonably close model of Earth-surface conditions. Each Island Three could house several million people, and in theory they could be built sufficiently rapidly to keep pace with Earth’s present population increase.16 O’Neill did not suggest that this is the best answer (what if nobody wants to go?) but he foresaw a less frenzied situation, where in a hundred years’ time the total population of the Earth-Moon system might be 8,000 million, half of them living in space settlements. Earth’s population would be lower than it is now, and stable, with most of the energy and raw materials for their needs coming from off-planet (see 3 & 4 below).
The difficulty is to see ‘how we get there from here’: the combined effort of all the spacefaring nations falls far short of the programme O’Neill envisages. However the gap can be bridged. One example is my own ‘Project Starseed’ concept, which would use nuclear waste disposal in space as its baseline. The fuel tanks of the boosters which deliver the waste to orbit would be used to build the ‘Starseeds’, which are mobile orbiting factories, and they in turn would build solar power satellites from lunar materials. Enough powersats could be built in ten years to meet the Earth’s energy needs in the 21st century. Revenues from the powersats would pay for the waste disposal programme, which would wind down after the first ten years and virtually cease over the next 10-20 as the ground-based power plants went out of service. As a by-product, however, during the ten years it would take to build enough Starseeds to build enough powersats to run the world, enough hull material could be produced to build 50 of the smaller ‘Island One’ space habitats, and enough ‘volatiles’ gathered to make six of them habitable.17 (For more details of the Starseed proposal, see Asgard, Christmas 1991.) In “Man and the Planets, the Resources of the Solar System”,5 we went on to argue in ASTRA that Island One habitats were the optimum size because they too could be mobile, and could spread through the Solar System to claim its resources of mankind – eventually, when they reached the cometary halo, becoming sufficiently scattered to defeat even the most improbable aspect of heading 8.
Life in space settlements will be more immediately purposeful, and the need for restraint and mutual cooperation will be more apparent, than in day-to-day life on Earth. Sagan has suggested that such settlements may provide new social models which will help to resolve tensions on Earth. At the other end of the social spectrum, Dyson has argued that ‘city-states’ in the outer Solar System will be needed as outlets for independent, innovative spirits, to escape the pressures towards conformity in a high-technology civilisation.18 The popularity of O’Neill’s ideas showed that there is a real need for such outlets, and Andy Nimmo suggested in “Man and the Planets” that in a world subject to overall population control, not having space habitats, or having them, would be the difference between living in a box and living in a box with the lid off.
3 & 4. Exhaustion of resources and pollution. Although they pose distinct threats to mankind these two headings can be taken together here because the same space technologies are relevant to solving both. These technologies are Earth Resources monitoring from orbit, and manufacturing in space (including energy generation). In both cases considerable work has already been done, but has tended towards small-scale, even exotic applications rather than global answers to problems.
The potential of orbital surveys for Earth resources management is enormous. There are applications in forestry, agriculture, mining and land use of all kinds, as well as in all branches of marine activity. Particular examples are in monitoring volcanic activity, earthquake threats, rainfall, snow, flooding, crop diseases, land spoilage and reclamation; in estimating fish stocks, plotting the availability of nutrients, reporting on ice build-up and on sea states in general; and in determining pollution of land, sea and air. It must be stressed that the breakthroughs were made on manned missions: instruments can enhance but not replace the imaginative performance of the eye and brain. This trend began in the earliest manned missions and continues with reports from astronauts and scientists of phenomena observed but not recorded. For instance, speaking at the 1985 Space Development Conference in Washington, Charles Walker described observations of 25 haze layers in the Earth’s atmosphere where the instruments recorded only four. Such reports lead to the development of more sensitive instruments, but the present volume of manned and unmanned observation is far below what would be needed for global resource management.
Relatively little thought has been given so far to the use of orbital survey data on such a scale. The potential exists for worldwide synoptic assessment of all kinds, and detailed assessments of the damage (and repairs) happening in the environment. The concept ‘Spaceship Earth’ could become literally true, with all the world’s cycles as closely monitored as those aboard a manned spacecraft. But such comprehensive coverage will be of little value if it merely calibrates a steady trend towards breakdown, or if it gives rise to one last gold-rush of resource grabbing which accelerates catastrophe.
Politics of Survival precepts will have to be compatible with the ideologies of the groups who are expected to put them into practise. With all the strains and conflicts of the modern world the earliest Politics of Survival objectives will therefore have to be simple ones, though the effects can be far-reaching nevertheless. One of the first such programmes, to tie together the data-gathering capability of orbital surveys with all related efforts at ground level into one overall effort, might be an international programme with the target of removing hunger from the world within the next twenty years.
For simplicity of objective in relation to sheer scope it beats Kennedy’s famous target (to put a man on the Moon within the decade) by several orders of magnitude, yet it is hard to see on what ideological grounds any group on Earth could object to it. In fact the programme should generate a ‘band-waggon’ effect in which groups not conspicuously concerned about human suffering at present, would cast around for ways to contribute to the programme and lay claim to some of the credit. One minor example would be that merely from identifying and naming major sources of atmospheric and oceanic pollution, there would be an implication that the sources concerned were contributing to the possible failure of the programme. By observation, the result of such publicity is often a voluntary cleanup accompanied by a loud affirmation of social responsibility. At any mention of such a programme, the usual objection is that it takes no account of human nature: but a well-thought out programme, whose steps can scarcely be opposed without apparently favouring starvation and poverty for others, can turn the most selfish of self-interests to its advantage. Self-interest is generally easier to work with than apathy.
Weather and crop monitoring on continental scales had already begun in the 1980’s, in hopes to evaluate and get ahead of the drought problem in Africa.19 Such monitoring ties in directly with proposals for world banks of supplies of food, equipment and medical supplies for early mobilisation before famines take hold. That leaves a long way to go before reaching a level at which crises can be avert and the spread of the deserts reversed (see ‘The Sahara Spearhead’ in the September issue), and a common complaint is that the resources needed will not be diverted from military spending. The answer is that ‘International Resources Liaison’ – the imaginary international organisation represented by the letters ‘IRL’ in Fig. 2 – could only operate by drawing on the military resources of governments around the world. No-one else has the ships, aircraft, ground transport, communications and personnel for the ‘ground truth’ studies which would be needed and the practical action to follow. Absurd as such an idea might have seemed in the 1960’s, the trend is now well established with the use of military ships and aircraft for conservationist purposes – as in fisheries protection – and humanitarian ones such as famine and disaster relief, and air-sea rescue. All these have been incorporated into the brief of the proposed European Rapid Reaction Force, and while many aspects of that are politically controversial, there’s no argument that some military force shouldn’t do them. There is a great deal more to be done along those lines – see ‘The Abolition of War’ in the June issue.
The ‘elimination of hunger’ programme deals only with the organic resources of the Earth, however – the food-producing capability of the land and oceans. Mineral and energy resources will likewise be delineated fully by the data-gathering net, but full exploitation of their potential would be disastrous – in immediate environmental effects and in the shortages to follow. The Politics of Survival should not merely prevent that, but relieve the present industrial burden on Earth’s resources and the environment. The objective, to be quantified in a second major programme starting in the early 21st century, should be to remove all major raw materials gathering, energy generation and industrial processing from the Earth’s surface during the next hundred years.
Fantastic though such a statement may look, the groundwork for the transition has already been done and detailed technical solutions have been proposed for many of the intermediate steps. The former USSR had an ongoing programme of research into manufacturing in space and the USA has worked on it intermittently; Europe and Japan have similar interest in it. The first products will be high-cost, low-mass supplies such as vaccines and electronic components, but once processing facilities exist in orbit, raw materials from the Moon become an attractive proposition because delivery can be made cheaper than from Earth, bringing costs down to the point where most industrial processes can be run profitably from orbit.20 Once again, the need at present is for a programme which bridges the gap between the exotic, limited applications and the large-scale operations which are needed; and once again, the Starseed proposal is one possible answer. The Starseeds would act as test-beds for the transfer of terrestrial industries into space, they and the lunar base would develop the delivery systems needed for raw materials, and the powersats can beam energy to orbiting powersats even more easily than to Earth.
That point takes us straight into the political issues of Developed World versus Developing, or (though the terminology does some violence to geography) the North-South conflict of interests.21 Environmentalists believe that the rest of the world cannot aspire to the present per capita energy use of the United States, without serious environmental effects.22 Even a complete switch away from burning fossil fuels and forests (which powersats would allow, even in the Developing World, by tie-ins with appropriate ground-based technology23), while reducing the feared build-up of carbon dioxide and its ‘greenhouse effect’, would still leave serious disturbances due to waste heat. It would be intolerable to suggest that the Developing World should cease its development and remain disadvantaged, in order to permit the present energy-extravagant lifestyle of the Developed World, and as a result some have jumped to the conclusion that the collapse of industrial civilisation is unavoidable. Once again, however, the choice is not simply between pollution and poverty, because development in space is an alternative. 60-70% of the USA’s energy use is industrial; it should be moved systematically into space.
But why should the Developing World opt for space development, and how can it be brought about in present circumstances? A partial answer lies in the vexed question of lunar and planetary resources, controversially described in United Nations treaties as ‘the common heritage of mankind’. As the Starseed programme (for example) aims to provide powersats for every nation on Earth, the Developing World should receive its full share of those benefits – but how is their stake in the programme to be acquired? One interesting suggestion by John Braithwaite (unpublished until the first version of this paper came out) was that the World Bank should advance credit to developing nations, based on the resources revealed by orbital surveys which they allow to remain unused. It is then easy to imagine the same system being used to secure the Developing World’s stake in space manufacturing and raw material supply from the Moon and the asteroids.
The detailed requirements for space industrialisation – lunar oxygen plants, solar-powered electromagnetic launchers, geosynchronous orbit power stations, processing facilities for lunar and asteroidal materials – have been studied not in government programmes but in private projects such as the Space Studies Institute in Princeton. The Lunar Polar Orbiter, to complete the lunar surveys begun in the Apollo programme, has now been improvised at with two spacecraft of relatively limited capacity and they have turned in intriguing but controversial results. In his closing speech at the 1985 Space Manufacturing Conference in Princeton, the late Prof. O’Neill called for just such a programme, to include a probe in solar orbit to search for Earth-grazing asteroids. That too is being improvised, under the auspices of the international Project Spaceguard (see below), but at a far less thorough level than Prof. O’Neill envisaged.
He also called for a small, high-performance re-entry vehicle for personnel transport to and from space stations. Research into such a vehicle was begun in the British space programme in the 1950’s and cancelled soon after 1960: it is ASTRA’s flagship, the Waverider, designed by the late Prof. Terence Nonweiler, of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, later Cranwell, Queen’s University Belfast, Glasgow University and lastly the University of Wellington in New Zealand. In the 1990’s Waverider studies have been conducted in the USA, Europe, Japan, China, the former USSR and elsewhere, but much of this renewed interest has been due to the efforts of ASTRA’s Waverider Aerodynamic Studies Project (WASP), headed by Gordon Ross.
From the Politics of Survival viewpoint, larger Waveriders (probably unmanned) could be crucial to space industrialisation, in political terms, because using them raw materials or finished products could be landed, from Moon-Earth transfer orbit, from the asteroids or from earth-orbiting factories, in any latitude and on conventional runways.24
Industrialisation of the Moon will lead on to the moons of Mars and to the Earth-grazing asteroids, in search of their known content of volatile elements which are needed for life-support but on the Moon are found only in Solar Wind deposits trapped by the soil. For more plentiful supplies of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and helium a space-faring habitat civilisation would inevitably be drawn to the giant planets, and so we move into a full ‘strategic’ development of the Solar System, countering all foreseeable threats to human survival – only one of which has still to be discussed.
Long-term Genetic Breakdown (heading no. 5) is a controversial subject and we cannot be drawn here into fine distinctions about desirable characteristics. The principal fear is that inherited conditions such as haemophilia might become so prevalent, in a high-technology civilisation, that the effect of any disaster might be magnified and too few unaffected individuals might survive to continue the race. For example the dentists’ expertise has virtually removed the pressures of natural selection against soft teeth. Space colonisation would help to counter the trend, partly by reducing the survival threat from any one disaster, but mostly because such disabilities would be more keenly felt in space and new attitudes of social responsibility would arise; these in turn would have an effect on Earth. While every effort must be made to avoid Earth becoming ‘a slum for unwanted genes’, it’s only dimly apparent at present what resources for improvement may become available through genetic engineering, and what the moral issues will be. It is however clear that expansion into space makes genetic breakdown no longer a threat to overall human survival.
The object of the Politics of Survival is to implement ‘the strategic approach to the Solar System’ and provide a broad enough base of space settlements, raw material and energy supplies to guarantee human survival against all foreseeable hazards. It is not intended that population and industrial growth should continue unchecked. For example, Prof. Freeman Dyson has foreseen a future in which, for purely Malthusian reasons, humanity tears up the planets and builds a shell around the Sun to maximise living space and available energy, while emigrant ships spread our intelligence ‘like a technological cancer through the Galaxy’. In the ASTRA discussions which led to “Man and the Planets”, the view emerged strongly that conservationist approaches would dominate long before such extremes were reached.5 It is certainly to be hoped that by the time its survival was assured, by the Politics of Survival route, the human race would have acquired new perspectives and more sophisticated objectives than those Dyson fears.
The first change in our perspectives to come from space research was the awareness of our own vulnerability, from the Apollo images of the fragile Earth seen from the distance of the Moon. The correct response to that realisation is a Politics of Survival programme, which does not remove that vulnerability but takes away its potential finality. Another major shift in perspective may come (removing all fear from heading 8) through peaceful Contact with Other Intelligence. At the very least, it would prove that high-technology cultures are not doomed to collapse and that space development is a route to survival. Arthur C. Clarke has suggested that expansion into space may be as significant as life’s evolution from the sea to dry land; when we can set our affairs in an interstellar perspective, we may begin to see the further choices between lines of development which lie ahead of us.
1. Donella R. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jörgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, “The Limits to Growth”, New American Library, 1972.
2. Mitchell Prize Contest Guidelines, ‘Alternatives to Growth’, New Internationalist, 1972.
3. K.A. Ehricke, ‘A Strategic Approach to Interplanetary Flight’, in Roadman, Strughold and Mitchell, eds., “Fourth International Symposium on Bioastronautics and the Exploration of Space”, Aerospace Medical Division (AFSC), Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, 1968.
4. Duncan Lunan, “Man and the Stars”, Souvenir Press, London, 1974. (“Interstellar Contact” in USA, Henry Regnery Co., 1975).
5. Duncan Lunan, “Man and the Planets”, Ashgrove Press, Bath, 1983.
6. (Anon), ‘Monitor’, New Scientist, vol. 70, no. 996, p.129 (15th April, 1976).
7. W. Fowler, Nature, vol. 238, p.24.
8. (Anon), ‘Solar Neutrino Problem May Be a Remnant of the Ice Age’, New Scientist, vol. 71, no. 1015, p.436 (1976).
9. V.A. Hughes, D. Routledge, ‘An Expanding Ring of Interstellar Gas with Centre Close to the Sun’, Astronomical Journal, 77, 210 (1973).
10. (Anon), ‘Another Giant Meteor Crater Identified’, Sky & Telescope, 50, 3, 156 (September 1975).
11. (Anon), ‘Earthquakes and the Earth’s Magnetism’, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 27, 2, 150 (February 1974).
12. Carl Sagan, “The Cosmic Connection”, Doubleday, 1973.
13. L.G. Jacchia, ‘A Meteorite that Missed the Earth’, Sky & Telescope, 48, 1, 4-9 (July 1974).
14. Sharon Brownlee, ‘Cycles of Extinction’, Discover, 5, 5, 22-32 (May 1984).
15. Duncan Lunan, 'Keep Watching the Skies!', Analog, October 1994; extended version, Asgard, May 1995.
16. G. K. O’Neill, “The High Frontier”, Jonathon Cape, 1977.
17. Duncan Lunan, ‘Project Starseed: an Integrated Programme for Nuclear Waste Disposal and Space Solar Energy’, JBIS, 36, 9, 426-432 (September 1983); reprinted Infinity, 1985; 'Project Starseed, or, Nuclear Waste Saves the World', Analog, CV, 2, 54-73 (February 1985); 'Project Starseed', revised version, Settlers Sentinel, 1987; ‘Project Starseed’, (fourth version), Asgard, Christmas 1991.
18. F.J. Dyson, ‘Human Consequences of the Exploration of Space’, in Eugene Rabinowitch & Richard S. Lewis, eds., “Men in Space”, Medical & Technical Publishing Co., Ltd., 1970.
19. John Tierney, “Drought in Africa: the Bigger Picture”, Science 85, 6, 3, 14 (April 1985).
20. J. von Puttkamer, ‘The Next 25 Years; Industrialisation of Space: Rationale for Planning’, L5 News, 15, 1-7 (November 1976).
21. Anthony Sampson, ed., “North-South: a Programme for Survival”, Pan Books, 1980.
22. Dave Dooling, ‘Outlook for Space’, Spaceflight, 18, 422-425 (1976).
23. J. Peter Vajk, “Doomsday Has Been Cancelled”, Peace Press, 1978.
24. Duncan Lunan, 'The Rôle of Nonweiler Waverider Spacecraft in Exploring and Developing the Solar System', L5 Society (Western Europe) Conference, 1977; reprinted (abridged) Asgard, 1978; (in full) Spacereport, 1981; (abridged) JBIS, 35, 1, 45-47 (January 1982); (in full, updated), ISTRA Journal, 1982.