Cleaning Up Our Mess

NOTE: This is the fourth draft. It will likely go through at least one, perhaps two more drafts before it's finished. Enjoy.



Elon Musk gave his second presentation outlining SpaceX's plans for Mars a few days ago in Adelaide. Just after the talk he posted a couple of pictures of the Moon and Mars base concept artwork to Instagram. The first comment was, "why don't we clean up the mess we made here before we screw up another planet?" Sigh.

It's easy to be dimissive of comments like this which do little more than parrot well worn talking points objecting to space exploration that date back more than fifty years.

The traditional objection to man going to space has always been about money. The mantra has changed little in the past half century. How can we justify spending billions to go to the moon or mars when there are starving people on earth? Most of the people objecting, aren't objecting to spending many times more on their pets each year than was spent on the entire Apollo program. They are happy to approve an increase in the US 2017 defense budget large enough to provide the entire United States with free health care and eradicate poverty. Not the entire budget, just the increase. That's okay. We live in the Trump era. Calling people out for their hypocrocity these days has almost become quaint.

Up till this decade, space has been the exclusive domain of a handful of nation states. The monumental cost of the Apollo Program borne by the American taxpayer will likely never be repeated in the United States. It's possible that the Chinese may undertake something even more audacious than Apollo in the coming decade. But they would be competing not against other nation states, but with relatively small private companies like SpaceX and soon, Blue Origin. It's hard to wave the flag and stoke national fervor to go up against a South African geek immigrant and an online retail mogul. The nationalist ambitions of China require their equivilent of an epic adversary like the Soviet Union. Sadly, all they have is their biggest customer, the United States who is abandoning the world stage to focus on their obsession with politics and issues related to identity. The whole clash of civiliations thing just doesn't have the panache that it used to.

After Musk's presentation in 2016, when he first introduced his plans for Mars, the single biggest question that was on everyone's lips was how the hell is he going to pay for it? The presentation had come not long after two spectacular failures, a lauch failure and an explosion on the ground that had the media sharpening their pitch-forks and stocking up on tiki-torches to storm the castle and put an end to all this reusable rocket nonsense.

A New Cottage Industry

Musk bashing is an spring that never runs dry. Every time an editor is stumped for a story he knows he can always turn to a junior reporter and bark "give me a thousand words asking how Musk is going to pay for X," where X is SpaceX, Tesla, Hyperloop, Tunnels etc. And again, money has always the show stopper. Who in their right mind would support the expense of putting a million people on Mars? To what purpose? Where is the benifit? First, show me the money! On the face of it, the concept was not only nonsensical but almost insultingly absurd.

A year later in 2017, SpaceX had successfully landed more than a dozen first stage boosters and had re-flown a used booster that had flown earlier in the year. The company is on track have 15 successful launches in 2017, with another 30 scheduled for next year. To put that in context, this year SpaceX has launched as many rockets as Russia next year will fly half of all space launches worldwide. That still hasn't been enough for more than a few people in the industry, a large segment of the media, and many from the Conservative Right in Washington for whom bashing Elon Musk has become a cottage industry. Every mistep is pounced on with no mercy, while any success is always framed as a disaster that just hasn't happened yet. SpaceX has actually had roughly the same number of failures as any other commerical or government rocket program with they started out. Rocket science is hard, that's why they call it rocket science. Though the they are loath to admit it, the numbers don't lie. SpaceX is very quickly proving them wrong.

Was it all about the money?

In friday's presentation, there was no longer any mention of cooperation with national space agencies to help fund Musk's Mars ambitions. Musk is now planning on funding Mars by himself directly through profits from commercial launch services. As critics like to point out, it's true that the US government is SpaceX's biggest customer. But it's difficult to find fault with that when SpaceX's reusable rockets can put payloads into orbit at a fraction of the cost of old guard launch companies and government space agencies.

The traditional objection to the cost of space exploration, as proposed by Musk, is now gone. But it will come as no surprise that the people who objected to space exploration on the basis of cost, still don't and won't embrace it today. Their problem was how to pivot to a new objection. Luckily, the green movement had one ready to go, all wrapped up pretty and tied with a bow. The new mantra, as articulated in the Instagram comment, is that we have no right to deface and destroy the pristine beauty of the planet. We need to clean up the mess we made on earth before we can go anywhere else. It's sort of like your Mom sending you to your room until you put away your toys and make your bed.

This meme is already being rolled out from a number of different directions. There are the scientists who comprise a formidible lobby within NASA who are concerned that if Man contaminates Mars it will destroy the chances of finding evidence that there was at least microbial life on Mars sometime in the distant past. It's credible that they may try to block manned missions in the future. Yes, this is an understandable scientific concern. Does that justify keeping man sequestered on Earth because he spread life to other parts of the solar system?

The Fear

However I believe the true reason for not wanting to leave earth has little to do with concern for budgets, nature or our place in the universe. It's just plain old fear. The commenter is a Luddite. I use the term Luddite not in the sense of being backward, and I certainly am not championing the concept of the inevitibility of progress (we will revisit progress in a future post). Ludd and his followers were motivated by fear. Fear of loosing their livihoods, fear of uncertainty, fear of change, fear of a future where they had no place. This is the wellspring that those opposing space exploration, and more recently, colonization of other places in the solar system, originates.

This is not the same fear of the wandering neolithic bands of hunter-gatherers, who had good reason to be afraid of a lot of things. When something went bump in the night, it was likely something trying to eat them. But moving to a new place was not one of them. Fear of change, is the fear of the farmer, it is the golem of the agricultural revolution. On the Savannah, change was something that you took advantage of if it was a windfall even while you constantly prepared yourself for when any change revealed itself to be a danger. For the farmer, comfort came from certainty, from the rains coming at the same time every year, and the autumn frosts not to come before the harvest. Farmers had backed themselves into a corner by rooting themselves like a tree in one place. They staked out land with hedgerows, walls of stone and fences of wood and wire. They piled up possessions and built structures to hold them. If a strongman, warlord or king showed up demanding they pay taxes there was no where they could go without loosing their land which for them had become everything.

It is this mentality of fear that has driven most of us since we stopped our wandering and became sendantary. Fear of change, the ever present knawing of insecurity became the norm. When our massive cerebral cortex was combined with our innate ability to create and use tools our species was able to move from being in the middle of the food chain to the top. We became timid apex predators, who had the power and the skills, but not the inclination or the confidence. It was a gift that has never sat easily with us.

So, when Man embraced the agricultural revolution, they organically organized into heirarchies. With alpha individuals at the top and the rest below, willingly abdicating their birthright as a fellow apex predator for a life spent in the middle and becoming prey to those at the top.

You can hear the voice of the agricultural revolution every time your mother chided you for climbing a tree, every time a nun rapped your knuckles with a ruler in class, every time your boss barked at you for being late for work. Everything in society is designed to reinforce the message not to rock the boat, to go with the flow, play it safe, stick to the tried and true, to color between the lines. And in return, you would be safe, taken care of and everything would be okay.

But underneath it all, we are still wanderers, and there will always a few of us who eschew the comforts of hearth and home and an easy death in bed surrounded by those we love. Those people scare the crap out of everyone else. And that is where all the resistence to exploring space is coming from. It's that primal fear of coming down from the trees too soon and taking up the mantel of being at the top of the food chain.

Why we must

So far we have only provided an explanation for why we fear going into space. And this is important because the reason why we have to go into space is the same reason we came down from the trees and began wandering the earth in the first place. This provides us with the key to how we can solve the mess that we have made of our planet that began when we settled down and stopped our wandering and give an answer to the commenter on Instragram. I'm afraid she won't like the anser any better.

Yes Virginia, we have to go to Mars before cleaning up the mess we made here. It's not about what we should do, but it goes to the heart of our very nature. It's how we have always done things as a species and that will trump how we should do things every time. It's not intrinsicly good or bad, it's just the hand that we've been dealt by evolution.

Evolution shaped our species to fill a very specific ecological niche in the African Savannah. We were wanders. We followed the food. As hunters, the food moved, so we did too. As gatherers, we gathered all the food there was in a place and then moved on to where we could find more. The agricultural revolution put an end to all of that, and we settled down and stayed put. We didn't follow the food, we kept it with us. In evolutionary terms, this new sedentary life happened in a blink of an eye. You can take the girl out of the Savannah, but you can't take the Savannah out of the girl.

In one of the most beautiful passages ever written on the subject, Sagan wrote:

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas …”

– Carl Sagan, /Pale Blue Dot/

As beautifully poetic as that is, the reality of wandering is that you don't fix things where you are. When everything was used up, you moved on. On the Savannah this is actually a good thing. When neolithic man moved on, he helped spread seeds from the plants he ate, burnt scrub for campfires which helped retard the natural progression from grassland to savannah to forest. Moving on was part of the natural cycle.

But this system doesn't scale. Strip mining a hundred square kilometers for bauxite and then moving on does not reinforce an ecosystem. It does not give time for the earth to heal in human time scales. We are now hunting and gathering at geological scales which are part of cycles that require geological time scales to complete. That strip mine will eventually be wiped out by, any combination of erosion, volcanic or tectonic processes that won't complete until mankind is long dead or gone from this planet.

Part of the problem is just because we may want to stay in one place, doesn't mean that we always can. We migrate when we have no choice. And gradually the lines that mark property and settlements and states on parchment, on paper and in database tables are redrawn to reflect who has moved where and what named they have given and convince ourselves that those lines are actually real and have been there forever. That's all that sovereignty is, a collective fiction we concoct to justify what we do to people and places we move into.

The idea of staying where we are runs counter to our nature. The ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia were once fertile lands. That's why civilization started there. Today, these places are desolate, striped bare by hunter gatherers who still hadn't learned how to create stable agricultural systems that could support permanent settlements. We used up those places and moved on.

It was too late for the first wave of civilizations, but we eventually learned to cultivate plants and raise domesticated animals sustainability. We figured out how to live within the carrying capacity of an ecosystem without moving on. There are places in the Mediterranean, India and China that have been under continuous cultivation for thousands of years. But it doesn't scale. Man cut itself loose from her evolutionary, ecological niche and became free of the natural balances that kept our numbers in check. The only thing left reigning us in is total ecological collapse. Collapse is a brute force mechanism. It get's ugly, and get's ugly really fast.

Even collapse didn't keep us in check for long. After all, we're tool builders backed by an extremely flexible brain which can solve problems in-situ, in real time, or at least within a generation or two, without having to wait for our brains to evolve over hundreds of thousands of years. When man upgraded itself from being tool builders to machine builders, the temporary agricultural equilibrium we had established was shattered. All bets were off.

Industrialism wasn't a replay of the first agricultural civilizations. When Europeans maxed out the carrying capacity of their biome, they didn't abandon it, as had every early civilization from Luxor to Angkor before. Instead they colonized other lands and shipped resources back to the old country. European cities like London and Paris were literally shit holes, drowning in human and animal waste. They were disease ridden, rat infested, and stank to high heaven. Life for most people was short, uncomfortable and nasty. Industrialization wasn't that big an improvement in many respects. We just swapped mountains of horse manure in the streets with an industrial haze of wood and coal smoke. We later swapped that for the yellow petrochemical smog that still chokes cities today from Los Angeles to Beijing.

Colonies allowed civilizations to expand and move their agricultural and later heavy industry to other places which eventually also became overpopulated polluted nightmares as well. But back home, little by little, things began to get better. We figured out how to reliably manage sewage, pipe potable water, keep the vermin in check and along with it disease. They mitigated the risk of run away fires and all sorts of other things that we now take for granted, or at least think we should be taking for granted. Yes, we learned.

And, yes we did it by moving our mess to somewhere else and letting other people live the lives that we used to. But fast forward a hundred years and those colonies have largely been turned over to the people living in those places and now they are exploiting the few remaining places on the planet that haven't been trashed. So they are now the ones cleaning up their mess at home by passing it on to someone else. You can guess where I'm going with this. We're running out of places on earth to exploit in order to clean up the mess we make wherever we happen to be. The key phrase here is on earth.

We should care very much about not making a mess of Mars. Planets and moons are potential nests. We must learn to preserve and cherish their beauty and uniqueness if we want to someday call these places home. We need to stop the serial soiling of our own nests.

But should we show the same care for the scattered debris field in orbit between Mars and Jupiter or the trillions of comets lurking in the darkness of the Oort cloud, waiting to take their turn to begin the long fall towards the sun? Unless you believe that asteroids and comets should be left as pristine chunks of ice, metal and rock then we are free to exploit them and use the resources we find there instead of chewing up another planet and for that matter stop chewing up ours as well. It's not enough to go to Mars. We need to move our heavy industry to where the cheap energy, metals, and fuel will be in the future. And when the technology is mature enough, and it's economically feasible, that place will be in space.

Mankind can not become a sustainable enterprise until it can sustain itself within the limits of the resources it uses. The Asteriod Belt and the Oort cloud contain more resources than man will need for the forseeable future. No they are not infinite, but for us today, they might as well be.

Elon Musk has broken the ice and has given us a glimpse of a future where it is cost effective for mankind to build a civilization that encompasses the entire solar system. And while SpaceX has been in the new landing one rocket after another, Jeff Bezos has been quietly building a space launch company of his own called Blue Origin. The New Glenn launch platform will be at the same scale as SpaceX's BFR. But while SpaceX is focused on Mars, Blue Origin is looking closer to Earth. Bezos intends to industrialize space. Between SpaceX and Blue Origin we have the first concrete and economically feasible steps towards making man a multiplanetary species and eventually to clean up the mess we made here on earth.

We will go to Mars and all the moons and the Belt and we will use them and what we learn to clean up the mess we made here because it's the only way it will ever get done. And if we don't do it, we have no future on this planet or anywhere else as an technological industrial civilization and species.

What is both exciting and terrifying at the same time, is that it won't be long before we know if can pull this off or not. The window is not very great. We have perhaps fifty years. This isn't some number I've pulled out of my ass. We've pushed the carrying capacity of the planet to the point where it is now starting to push back, and will push back harder and harder over the next century. It's up to us and I mean that collectively as well as individually -- each and every one of us alive today. Because if we don't make this transition to becoming a multiplanetary species now while we are still rich and fat and still living in a pleasant climate with a population large enough to support the level of innovation that this will require, we never will.

In 1994, Carl Sagan wrote: "Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds promising untold opportunities—beckon." As I write this in 2017, it still might be a little early. But if we get off our asses and get to work, sometime in the next decade or two, it will be time.