The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How The Great Space Failure of the Seventies Doomed Industrial Society

The simplest fact about the Earth is that it has finite resources.

The simplest truth about this era is that we are burning through those resources faster than we can replace them: both renewable and non-renewable. This is deliberate: we chose planned obsolescence, for example, to juice profits without a corresponding increase in standard of living. We chose to subsidize suburbs and exurbs, which sped the destruction of the ecosphere. We destroyed the old transit networks of streetcars so GM and Ford could sell more cars, etc, etc…

Back in the 70s a series of books came out, starting with the Third Industrial Revolution. They explained how to move industry and energy generation off Earth.

I read it at the time, and was impressed and I’m given to understand it’s very influential in China, today: part of the blueprint of their plans for space.

We knew by the 70s that we were in trouble, the famous “Limits to Growth” had come out, there were widespread concerns about overpopulation and study of issues like energy ratios (how much energy it takes to produce a unit of energy. The lower that number, the more prosperous a society can be.)

But after the moon landing, the space budget was gutted and later so was research and development of technologies like solar power. The powers that be, and the population of the US at the time wanted the world to be as it had been, to hang on to the petrochemical economy, the cars, the suburbs with white picket fences and so on. They opposed change and wanted unearned wealth from asset price increases rather than earned money from real growth.

But the only way to save the old technological world was to change it, and the only way to overcome limited resources and to reduce pollution was to get the resources from space, and move the pollution off Earth. (Note that we’re not talking colonization of space: no huge habitats full of people. We’re talking using space for resources.)

If you wanted to “save” the old world, you had to go into space, big. Public investment on a massive scale was needed, while we still had the resources and while serious consequences of climate change and ecological collapse were still decades in the future.

But, well, most of the people voting and making decisions in the 70s and 80s knew they’d be dead before those consequences hit. It was easier, and, in the short run of a few decades, more profitable to do nothing. So instead of going big, they went small and thus didn’t do the one thing that could save their civilization from the limits of growth.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – May 26 2024


Continued Privatization


  1. GM

    Getting resources off space is thermodynamically an absurd proposition.

    How much energy does it take to bring a given unit of stuff from space to Earth? It’s simply prohibitive, and you are much better off mining low-grade ores on Earth and recycling.

    Also, there are no great energy sources in space to tap into. If there were huge extremely concentrated uranium and thorium deposits on nearby planets and moons, that’s about the only situation in which it might make some sense.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we should have ended investment into space tech the way we did, exactly the opposite. And everything else in your post is spot on.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Moving stuff to space is hard.

    Moving it to Earth is relatively easy.

  3. Jan Wiklund

    Chilean Cambridge economist José Gabriel Palma proposes that the neoliberal economics was launched by banks and the “oil-car-complex” as he calls it; the first to turn the productive economy into an extractive one, and the second to keep the power and not let another capitalist faction get it, which would have required government projects. See

    He doesn’t present any proof for that, however, it would have been great.

  4. marku52

    I don’t understand why births rocket up (in the LTG graph) while the world is collapsing. That one piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit,

    Actually, given miscarriages from the “vaccine” and male sperm count falling for decades now (endocrine disrupters and overall health) , it may be a real challenge to mate a fertile man and woman by 2040 or so.

  5. Chris West

    And there’s another childhood fantasy rearing its head and explaining a lot. Good luck getting fragile human meatbags working in outer space en masse at any length. It would take massive levels of cheap robotics to get space industrialization to actually work, and I don’t believe they could’ve done that in the late 1900s.

  6. Ian Welsh

    Ah, well no doubt you’re right, and I’m a fool and so was Stine.

  7. elkern

    I’d guess that Stine’s ideas weren’t so much rejected (after careful consideration) as ignored (for lack of imagination).

    The New Deal was running out of steam, as white Union workers were beguiled by Nixon’s Culture War BS, and other countries rebuilt industries destroyed by WWII. The Democratic Party was stuck playing defense, trying to placate its various factions with bigger pieces of the Pie – just as the Arab Oil Embargo made that pie much more expensive. Many factions – including some short-sighted environmentalists – felt that NASA was a waste of money that should be spent on “people down here”.

    And by 1975, the Powell Memo had unified the GOP behind the project that launched Reaganism. The power – the money – behind that movement came from old WASP business owners whose imagination was limited to tearing down the New Deal to improve their profit margins. They had no Bright Vision of The Future; like Magats, they desired a return to the imaginary glorious past of their youth. NASA was viewed as a Big Government boondoggle, but private space exploration – and exploitation – would have to wait until after they had smashed the Unions and the Environmental movement.

    The GOP won, but destroyed the USA in the process.

  8. StewartM

    What elkern said, and said very well.

    I would also echo Micheal Moore (I recall) and others who said that once US blue-collar workers ‘got it good’ with good-paying jobs, having vacation homes and sending their kids to college, they started to think that they too were rich and well-off and starting emotionally identifying with the uber-rich and the GOP. So yes, culture wars and race definitely played a part, but they were short-sighted economically too and thought that the movement conservative “us” included them too. In fact, racism in the US originally had an economic basis; poor whites were able to obtain a higher status than their European counterparts precisely because blacks were sunk into slavery and stuck doing the ‘shit work’.

    There was a lot of short-sightedness going around. Some environmentalists yearned for something like the de-industrialization of the US; what passed for ‘the left’ splintered into various interest groups, with those in the counterculture pretending that they could change the world by wearing sandals and eating unhomogenized peanut butter. By contrast, the movement conservatives had the vision (a horrible, anti-democratic, blinkered one but a vision nonetheless), the money, and a plan, and they executed it. The US was also unfortunate to be hit with two oil shocks in the 1970s, and it’s possible that without the second Reagan still might have not been elected and our future might have been a bit better.

  9. Mark Level

    I agree, what elkern and Stewart said.

    Also, after reading works like Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame” & others (actually way back in the day I started out with Lewis Mumford), I know that every techno-fix comes with an equivalent techno-curse & regression . . . That is simply the nature of the Tao.

    I will go as far as to quote the great musician David J of Bauhaus & Love & Rockets (who I once had a beer with after a L&R show as my friend knew David’s friend Alan Moore), “You can’t go against nature, that much is true. But tryin’ to go against nature is part of nature too.”

    Any work of technos or even Magick comes with a cost. Sometimes the cost is worth it in the short run. In the long run, it rarely if ever is, in my opinion. Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad. Despiritualizing & dominating nature is a form of madness.

  10. capelin

    And I’ll quote The Eagles – “there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here”.

  11. mago

    I didn’t know that sandals and homogenized peanut butter were a thing, but I’m open to learning new things.

  12. Revelo

    One reason birth rate might eventually skyrocket is that birth rate in modern society is mostly about desire for children as such, not desire for sex with children as unwanted byproduct or desire for children as cheap farm workers + private army of sons + retirement fund. Subcultures which value children for their own sake were possibly in the minority in the past. As we pass through the current sqeeze of mass childlessness, the only subcultures reproducing are those which value children for their own sake, so those subcultures will predominate in the future. Hence explosion in birth rate after current dip.

    Subculture means set of beliefs which can be passed down from parents to children. Some families or other groups within the larger society clearly put huge emphasis on birthing children, others not so much, others actively encourage low birth rate. Think various religious groups where the norm is 6+ children per mother, and majority of children reared in these religions remain in the religion, so culture is passed down from generation to generation.

    I absolutely do NOT believe desire for children is genetic and thus genetically passed from parents to children. Genetics can influence sex drive and impulse control, so some genetic subgroups might be more inclined to accidental pregnancies. But this is likely a negligible factor, and possibly even offset by higher death rate in these genetic subgroups.

  13. Richard Holsworth

    Shorter Jerry Pournelle on Stine: “It’s not rocket science.”
    Pournelle: “Harry Stine died convinced that it he had seen a reactionless drive, and that one could be built. What Harry had seen wasn’t on the bathroom scale, but on the floor, set to do horizontal motion, and he claimed that it pushed against his hand. He could feel the thrust. That’s impressive because G. Harry Stine was nothing like a fool, although I do believe he was more gullible than some with his education. He would have said “more open-minded,” and I won’t argue the point. I liked Harry.”

  14. Ian Welsh

    A reactionless drive was not required.

  15. Tom Murphy (physicist) has a Wikipedia bio under that name and (occupation), and has a freely downloadable textbook Energy and Human Amibitions on a Finite Planet: Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits. He also has a blog, “Do the Math”, and his most visited post there is

    He concludes that space as a source of resources, or a place for earthlings to live, just can’t be done – it was never a practical possibility. As someone who began reading science fiction novels by Robert A. Heinlein at the age of seven – long ago, before Albert Einstein had died – and still enjoys space opera movies even today, I was reluctant to accept this. However, he convinced me.

  16. Willy

    I remember this one:

    Doesn’t even seem to be mostly rare earth stuff, yet. I’d assume ore packets would be sent to lunar refineries with maglev launchers, and then into earth orbit using the same. Not sure how they get to the ground though. A space elevator? In space, human involvement could be minimal. Double that minimal if AI takes over the earth.

    It sure seems China will get there first. They did go from a janky-looking Soyuz knockoff to the sleek and modern Tiangong pretty quickly. It’s even expandable in ways that’ll look less like a floating junkyard. Maybe by then, the west’s industrial innovator industrialists will spend for tech espionage, just like the commies of old, and try to duplicate their own.

  17. Carborundum

    I guess my thought would be that if offshoring production to China is a bad idea, offshoring key commodities and high value production to someone up-gravity-well that doesn’t share the same biosphere is likely to be a *really* bad idea.

    I can definitely see a valid argument for constructing a parallel space-based economy to hedge species risk, but the potential for producing one that ended up being terrestrially integrated so as to raise total system prosperity seems a lot more challenging to me. I rather suspect that we would have ended up with an earlier version of the tech-bro phenomenon and attendant wealth concentration – not as virulent, to be sure, but similar (the capital costs, back then, would have been utterly staggering).

  18. Willy

    Space mineral industry power is like micro tech power. The organization that’ll do it well is gonna need very high concentrations of wealth and power. The clever little capitalist working out of his garage has no chance. The corrupt big neoliberal capitalist working out of Billionaires Row/Davos/Dubai/Les Airelles/Amsterdam has little incentive, because of all the vision, competence, and risk involved. That leaves a mixed economy superpower full of righteous pride, wealth, and deeply committed intellectual resources. (Our current USA ain’t it, no matter what your MAGA uncle says) Would the Chinese authorities lose control over their space overlords, the way that American authorities lost control over their own economic overlords?

  19. Stormcrow

    The first place to look, when you see a promising idea pancake, is in its assumptions.

    I read Stine’s book when it first came out.

    The piece of his thesis that utterly failed was a decrease, over the following several decades, in the cost required to put a kilogram of mass into low earth orbit.

    He projected a cost decrease of an order of magnitude over the Space Shuttle, in a work published in 1975. But this projection was made before we found out, the hard way, just how costly the Shuttle program really was. I’m not guessing about that assumption either. There’s a half decent PDF copy available at Anna’s Archive. The key graphic is on page 38 of the body text.

    The technology required to make this happen never materialized. Almost 50 years later, we’re still using chemically powered rockets of fairly conventional design to push mass into orbit.

    The only “practical” alternative I’ve ever heard of, Project Orion, is simply unusable as a surface to orbit heavy lift technology, if you want to keep on living on the planet you’re launching from.

  20. Ian Welsh

    Yeah, costs for lift didn’t go down because we didn’t invest seriously–we cut space budgets, which was my point. Chemical rockets are a stupid way to lift non-human cargo anyway. Gerald Bull’s idea for Project Babylon might have worked (but no one but the Iraqis would invest and that didn’t work out for him + he was a genius and maybe the only guy who could pull it off), mass drivers might have as well. (And yes, I’m aware of the issues at the other end, of slowing them down or catching them.)

    (Laser lift, as in Dean Ing’s “Future of Flight” might also have been possible, though I’m not sure. But the overall point is that in most cases you don’t want to be using rockets for lift.)

    Once you’ve got the infrastructure in space, you start mining in space, or in the case of powersats, beaming energy back down. Getting what you want back down to Earth, of course, is much more energy efficient.

    As with a lot of things, if you don’t seriously invest, progress is slow.

    This is the same issue we had with solar and other types of renewable energy, we stopped seriously investing for a couple decades. In fact, the people who finally drove costs for solar way down were the Chinese.

    (The way subsidies were done was always stupid. Start with a federal mandate for all federal buildings for solar would have been the way to go. Then change conforming mortgages to require renewable + force utilities to make the necessary changes. Easier if you don’t deregulate them, of course.)

    We didn’t believe in it, and that wasn’t primarily due to technical issues, it was a social/political choice.

    Space is dangerous for humans, but 3 or 6 month or one year shifts, very well paid, would have drawn plenty of workers. We know that fucks people up somewhat, but astronauts have done it so we also know it can be done. Full time human habitation isn’t possible in space right now (though we might have build underground complexes on the moon and kept some people there longer.)

    But I never suggested full time human habitation, one place where I disagree with Stine. We might be able to figure it out eventually, but, again, it’s not like we were seriously working on it.

    The larger point is simple: if you want to keep growth going, you need to find a source of resources off Earth, and a place to put the pollution. Perhaps it could have been done, perhaps it couldn’t, but it was the only way to keep the old world going. Those who wanted that, needed to at least try the play.

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