Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The light at the end of the Peak Oil tunnel

The doomer concept of a permanent powerdown (and mass die-off) is a rather hard sell to the peak oil uninitiated. Regardless of what the different types of peak-oilers think the effects of peak oil will be, we can mostly agree on the need for raising awareness of oil depletion and conservation. Telling people we need to permanently powerdown and eventually die-out is no sensible way to encourage positive steps towards a better future. This approach tends to alienate people, often having the opposite effect then that desired by us all, resulting in people stubbornly ignoring the need for change.

This is why highlighting the light at the end of the tunnel is necessary when raising awareness of peak oil, and why it’s important to keep an open mind about what the future may hold. If people believe that they are working towards a brighter future, they are far more likely to make the positive changes in their lives in order for that future to become a reality. Alternatively doomers would seem to prefer that the masses just give up and die, an attitude that will likely result in complacency, as is evident by many doomer attitudes on sites like

So what exactly is this light at the end of the peak oil tunnel?

The industrialisation of space. The promise of a new, virtually inexhaustible supply of resources free for the taking, offering endless energy, mineral and economic opportunities and an endless expanse in which to expand and to grow far into the future, while simultaneously reducing the damage done to the planet and restoring it’s former beauty.

But why bother with space, how is it even possible, and couldn’t the money be better spent?

The why, is simple. The reason to exploit space is that either we find new locations of resources (off-world), or we deplete all of the Earth’s finite resources and eventually face extinction. It really is that simple. The Earth only has finite resources. Even if we overcome the energy limitations of finite fossil fuels, there are plenty of other finite resources that humanity consumes. Eventually these finite resources will run out, and either we find more resources, or we shrivel up and die. But guess what? Surrounding the Earth and the inner solar system are vast quantities of everything we will ever need. It’s all made from the same stardust that the Earth and everything on it is made from. It’s only logical to use it rather then perish.

The how is more complex and will take several follow up articles to explain various aspects. But the important thing to note is that exploiting space isn’t an unrealistic proposition of building some magical Star Trek like technology and zipping off to distant planets. It’s merely a simple matter of continuing a process that began over 70 years ago with early chemical rocket technology. It’s about deciding that we are going to make it a priority, dedicating the necessary resources, and continuing the process one step at a time. More on how to industrialise space for our long-term benefit later…

The costs of developing space are undoubtedly as astronomical as the dream itself. However considering the long-term payoffs, and especially compared to other endeavours of the modern world, developing space is actually a bargain. As many people know, NASA is far from a cost effective space agency, but even NASA’s operations are cheap compared to other things the developed world wastes money on.

Lets compare some costs:

Costs of space (NASA and European projects, in year 2000 U.S. dollars):
A single shuttle launch is currently estimated at around $300 million, and a European Ariane 5G rocket launch at around $165 million. source
The International Space Station is estimated at around $100 billion, source and the Russian Mir space station cost $4.3 billion. source
The latest NASA Mars rovers cost around $600 million, and the European Beagle 2 Mars probe cost around $50 million. source
The Apollo moon landings cost $135 billion in 2005 dollars.

As we can see, space is considerably expensive. Arguably NASA could do things far more cheaply and is a poor fiscal performer compared to similar projects by other space agencies, but even considering NASA’s tendency for over budgeted projects, the costs of space development are still justifiable for an endeavour as noble as ensuring our collective future.

Now lets consider the costs of a few other aspects of the modern world:
According to a study by the NDIA, in 1992 drug abuse cost the U.S. an estimated $246 billion dollars, and the costs are increasing each year. source
Thanks to fast food culture, overweight and obesity medical expenses in the U.S. accounted for $92.6 billion dollars in 2003, and like drug abuse, is a problem increasing each year. source
And of course lets not forget war, the panicle of wasteful endeavours. According to this source, the Iraq war has currently cost U.S. tax payers over $200 billion. This site also has some interesting cost estimates for previous U.S. conflicts (adjusted to year 2000 dollars):

American Civil War -$62 Billion
Spanish American War -$5 Billion
World War One -$290 Billion
World War Two -$2,300 Billion
Korean Conflict -$111 Billion
Vietnam -$165 Billion

Perhaps we don’t have our priorities right? Surely working towards setting up countless future generations with access to virtually infinite resources should be important to people?

We mourn the deaths of the 18 humans that have died in space in the history of space flight, yet we willingly send millions more to their deaths in pointless things such as road accidents, drug and obesity epidemics, and wars. We gladly spend considerable sums of money on things that offer little long-term benefit to humanity, and many things that don’t offer any benefit at all, and yet many people consider space development to be a waste of money. This is very misguided thinking. The fact is, space development and progress represents the best possible investment humanity can be involved in. The potential benefits are massive, and far outweigh the costs. And above all else, space development is humanities only shot at true long-term sustainability. Space industrialisation is the light at the end of the peak oil tunnel, but only if we adopt the right attitude.


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