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

Why Progress Always Required Space Travel

When  I was a teenager I read The Club of Rome’s “Limits To Growth.” The Club ran consumption, pollution and population numbers thru some simple models to see what would happen. The model misses climate change, so we’re worse off than they expect (much worse off) and some other factors, but the stuff it models has been coming in approximately as expected.

The standard model of progress, often assailed by thinkers like John Michael Greer, assumes that there aren’t significant limits to growth that we can’t substitute out of. Run out of oil? Switch to solar? Run out lithium, figure out another way to make batteries? Run out of water, mass-desalinization? Run out of soil, make soil or grow plankton in water. Run out of fish? Fish farms.


But the people who created the model, who championed it, aren’t as optimistic and stupid as their opponents often indicate: the standard future model of people who believe in progress requires space exploitation precisely because we can’t assume we can always find a substitute on Earth for what we lack.

If you want, in other words, to keep GROWTH you must exploit space. Send out the space miners! Harvest solar above the atmosphere. Explore, exploit, grow!

You don’t necessarily have to colonize space in any meaningful way to do this, though the earlier imagineers thought we would: this can be done by robots and telepresence mostly, with a very few actual humans in space.

Note that this side-cuts most of the standard complaints about space colonization: other planets nearby all suck, and are worse for life than Earth (even shitty places on Earth like Antarctica) and space itself is full of deadly radiation and other problems we don’t know  how to fully mitigate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re just sending out robots to get stuff (lithium, say) and bring it back.

BUT none of this matters in a larger sense because the real problem isn’t running out of lithium or copper or helium or any other simple substance like that.

It’s destroying the biosphere, climate and ecosphere

Earth’s true wealth is an intricate web of life, from creatures simpler than bacteria all the way up to blue whales, including plants and fungi and insects and a wild variety of creatures we don’t understand or haven’t even discovered.

That, along with Earth’s climate, is what you can only get on Earth, at least within the solar system. That’s what we’re destroying.

So… space exploitation? Why not. It may help deal with some bottlenecks. But it still won’t let us continue GROWTH and the standard progress model, because the real limit to growth is simply that if we go past the Earth’s carrying capacity — which I will say, despite some disagreeing with me — we unequivocally have, we then start destroying that carrying capacity and all the things we must have that only Earth supplies.

Earth is the Jewel, the most important place in the universe for humans, right now. We cannot do without it and what is important about it is not copper or lithium, it is precisely climate and LIFE (ecosystems). Our destruction of those two things is what makes the standard model of progress impossible.

We’ve got a limited resource, created by processes of evolution which take millions of years to work. We are so ignorant we cannot even create a self-sustaining biosphere; we cannot fix what we are breaking.

Anyone and any system destroying the Earth’s climate and ecosphere is thus, then, doing the greatest wrong possible for the future of humanity, and of much life on Earth. Our mass genocide of other species is a slow form of strangling ourselves.

Space can help, but it won’t get us around the real issues. Only true respect for the genuine non-renewable resources we MUST have and which exist only on Earth can create a positive future for humanity and for all the species we have held hostage and not yet murdered, who are unfortunate enough to be trapped on Earth with us.

(Writers need dental care, so subscriptions and donations help.)


All the Futures that Will Not Happen


Commentary on Biden’s Speech


  1. Mark Pontin


    So, typo or mangled syntax in graf beginning “So… space exploitation? Why not.”

    You’ve got, “…the real limit to growth is simply that if we go past the Earth’s carrying capacity, which I will say, despite some disagreeing, with unequivocally have, we then start destroying that carrying capacity and all the things we must have that only Earth supplies.”

    I guess you mean something like, “…the real limit to growth is simply that if we go past the Earth’s carrying capacity — which I will say, despite some disagreeing with me — we unequivocally have, we then start destroying that carrying capacity and all the things we must have that only Earth supplies.”

  2. Ian Welsh

    Thanks Mark.

  3. Ché Pasa

    Post-WWII social imagineering sought mostly to build and sustain a kind of permanent global stability that had never previously existed except in Utopian fantasy.

    It wasn’t necessarily growth oriented. The Third World, the Poor World, needed to be brought up to at least minimal standards of health and happiness which required significant changes in agriculture and social, political, and economic relationships– like getting rid of imperialism and colonialism among many other changes — but securing a decent future for Third World populations did not require instituting consumer capitalism and everything that went with it. It did not require exploding populations. It did not require more than modestly greater exploitation of resources.

    First and Second World nations and their populations needed to control their avarice and greed, their over-exploitation of resources, their overweening consumer demands, and their tendency to
    impose on others, too often by force.

    So, what happened? Health care, nutrition and lifespans improved dramatically throughout the Third World leading to exploding populations — which was not the intended result or at least not the stated intent. As populations grew, economies grew, but generally not as fast as the populations did. Resource exploitation became the primary means of sustaining these enormous populations, resources that fed the giant maws of consumer capitalism in the First World. Finance capitalism then fed on that beast and is in the process of sucking it dry.

    Now it’s pretty obvious that none of this is sustainable much longer, and the “substitution” mantra is failing. Lifespans — except for the Overclass — are getting shorter, and by most measurements, living conditions are worsening, in some cases catastrophically, for ordinary people nearly everywhere.

    Nations are disintegrating more and more frequently. Anarchy, civil war, invasions, genocides, and economic and social collapse have become so routine they’re taken for granted. In many cases, the psychotic leaderships of nations precipitate collapse, and it happens over and over, predictably. We see the same patterns spreading and repeating.

    But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

    The post war social imagineering was essentially overwhelmed by military might. We could see it happening. What was intended for the Good of All was turned into very bloody and destructive business, intended (to the extent there was an intention) for the Good of A Few — the survivors. If there were any.

    The destruction and genocides of the many wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries are looked on as Good Things by many of those who came to rule over the past few generations.

    Those who want to see a better world and a better future for the rest of us have been reduced to little more than marginal cranks that no one pays attention to. The zeitgeist does not favor us.

    And yet we are right and most of those who rule us and control the narratives are deep in error.

  4. Alan Coovert

    Humans invented nuclear weapons and then invented the delivery systems for those weapons. The current delivery systems are submarines, jet aircraft and rockets. There are thousands of nuclear weapons ready to be deployed by the nine nations that have nuclear arsenals. These countries hold all mankind and most of our fellow creatures hostage with these weapons. It won’t matter if it is an accident or on purpose if one of these nuclear weapons gets detonated somewhere on the planet. We will all suffer. Humans need to figure how to dismantle these weapons, put down our guns and learn to get along with each other and our fellow creatures before we think about space travel. The evidence is that it seems unlikely that humanity can save itself.

  5. someofparts

    We should reverse history and oblige Abrahamic children to attend indian schools and learn those languages and values so as to wean our own children away from their own toxic legacy.

  6. mago

    Oh next I guess we’re supposed to be patient, kind and tolerant in our thoughts words and actions while recognizing the interconnectedness of all things, hmm? That might take some practice.
    Hey, someofparts, what’s that comment supposed to mean? I’m kinda dense.

  7. Willy

    When I was a kid I believed in a Star Trek future. Maybe not warp speed, but the spirit of the thing. Back then and amongst the science fiction set there was a fair amount of optimism about our collective ability to solve major problems and devise collectively beneficial solutions. We didn’t invite those dystopian wet blankets to our Comicons.

    I should’ve known better by 2000, when the technology existed for me to work from home but the PTB in my globalized corporation decided it was much better to devise the longest possible commutes for their unconnected people, before sending their jobs overseas and finally wrecking their once great company.

    Lately it seems the old dystopian wet blankets had been far better at predicting futures after all. But trying to remain somewhat optimistic, I remember what Klaatu said about ‘only at the precipice does humanity change’. How many people must fall into the boiling pit first, I dunno. But eventually the mob gets it and pillages downtown Rome for building materials for new projects, to mix metaphors badly.

    So in honor of Harry Bates, plus a couple other science fiction dystopians, for humanity’s future I boldly predict “The Day the Big Idiocracy Brother Stood Still”.

  8. Hugh

    Roughly speaking the CO2 carrying capacity of the planet is around 21 gigatons per year (put your caveats here). In 2019, humans were producing 33 gigatons, about a third from advanced countries and the other 2/3 from the rest of the world (which as near as I can tell includes China). CO2 contributions from the advanced countries (IEA terminology) have been declining slightly over the last 10 years while those of the rest of the world have been increasing more rapidly. I would note too that while overall CO2 from advanced countries did decline, the per capita contributions from these countries remain multiples (US 5-6 times) that of the rest of the world.

    I still use 2030 as the planet’s make or break date for climate change, realizing that we are already past some of the tipping points for it. The problem is I am not seeing a lot of hard and fast action in the here and now. I have heard some promises by 2050 or 2060 . . .But first that’s way too late and second, 30-40 years out politically is the same as saying, never. And there continues to be no planetary response. Getting some countries to make some promises means that there are a lot of countries that haven’t even done that.

  9. Plague Species

    Digital race horses for everyone. On the house. While we’re at it, let’s start treating the Might Mississip, or Big Muddy, like the Ganges and start dumping dead bodies it it. The river’
    s a toxic aesthetically repulsive cesspool anyway.

  10. Plague Species

    My real concern is, or my hope is that we don’t find a way to invade the myriad, infinite maybe, parallel universes with our noxious destructive ways. Everything we’ve figured out has been used to further destroy everything we touch. I beg, demand actually, the cosmologists and physicists, cease at once. Until we get THIS existence figured out and get it right, we need not explore let alone invade any other existences beyond this realm.

  11. gnokgnoh

    Che, you wrote, “social imagineering sought mostly to build and sustain a kind of a permanent global stability…it wasn’t necessarily growth oriented.” These are remarkable phrases.

    Capitalism and the U.S. and essentially all civilizations are growth-oriented. They grow, consume energy and resources, and then fade. Other triggers, of course, can accelerate the process or cause more rapid collapse. All organic and social systems are growth-oriented. The real trick, likely not possible, is to age gracefully, to decline slowly, and to learn how to manage resources in a way that preserves a balance. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of the Post WWII generation was access to incredible energy that sustained massive growth. It was not imagined or engineered, it just was. It also enabled the U.S. and earlier colonial empires to plunder the rest of the world.

    I would argue that global stability was essentially a faceoff of two superpowers with the U.S. becoming dominant. Not sure how social or imagined it was.

  12. gnokgnoh

    Hugh, yes. +100. Also, as Willy wrote, the doomsayers are proving correct. An Australian university tested the Meadows’ Limits to Growth analysis and concluded that they were incredibly accurate…minus the feedback loops from climate change. A lot of frantic scientists are virtually hysterical about reality that is proving their worst case models.

  13. Soredemos

    I’m extremely hesitant to call Greer a ‘thinker’. The man is one of two things: either a modern polymath with genuine wide-ranging and deep knowledge, or a loudmouth who loves to hear himself talk and who suffers from an extreme case of Dunning-Kruger. Based on having observed him for a long time, and on interacting directly with him briefly, I very much suspect it’s the latter.

    I’m not inclined to take any person who unironically calls themselves a Druid seriously.

  14. gnokgnoh

    Apologies to Che, getting oil, coal, and gas out of the ground required massive engineering, especially lately (fracking and tar sands), but not quite the same thing as imagineering. Great word.

  15. Probably every programmer in the world knows that the single best place to search for answers to technical questions is, which is part of a family of question/answer websites that share the same code base (evidently).

    It turns out there is one for politics, currently in beta.

    While the need for something like this, for reformers to easily share and essentially archive their knowledge in populists taking over both the Republican and Democratic parties, is something I’ve already thought about, I do have questions about the governance. The massive censorship and suppression going on is rearing it’s ugly head all over the place…. My assumption is that whoever runs will not be immune to corrupting influences, any more than the OPCW proved to be. I hope I’m wrong.

  16. tatere

    “Growth” can be reinterpreted as we like. We *can* improve life for all the people – keyword all – while respecting and living as if we were part of our world, not passengers in it just waiting to get to that Final Destination. Will we, well.

    We grew straight up for a while, now we can complexify. You hit the absolute truth of it. No matter where else humans or human descendants may go or live, there is always only one source of 100% genuine Earth life. Our crimes are horrendous.

    I know we used to think Earth was pretty vast and inexhaustible too, but the solar system is Extremely Large. It’ll take us quite a while to get near its limits. The goal should be to move everything that isn’t about living things off-world. But we have to live that long first.

  17. bruce wilder

    I do have questions. Not about the general thesis of the OP, but why humans are collectively so stupid. Even making allowance for our individual limitations, collectively we can be remarkably smart — we really can be. And, social achievements can support remarkable “individual” achievements: great food, great music, great art, technically sophisticated gadgets, tools, machines.

    And, yet, . . . there is this headlong onward plunge toward dystopia.

    Economics, the dismal science of scarcity, ought to be deeply familiar with the processes of production and their consequences, but it, collectively in the mainstream, economics is deeply mired in myth-making and deceptive techno-optimism.

    Lots of ordinary, conscientious people want to do something and all kinds of PR nonsense goes into confirming that they can, say, own a Prius and that will make a difference.

  18. Trinity


    hu·bris (hyo͞o′brĭs) also hy·bris (hī′-)
    Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance: “There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris” (McGeorge Bundy). [Greek, excessive pride, wanton violence; see ud- in Indo-European roots.]. American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

    Ian said: “Our mass genocide of other species is a slow form of strangling ourselves.”

    Well said.

    “Earth is the Jewel, the most important place in the universe for humans, right now.”

    It’s the only place and here’s why: we evolved here, we evolved to succeed and thrive in this exact environment. The Earth’s diverse environments shaped us, defined us as we are. We’ve learned that we share DNA with trees, bugs, and pretty much everything else with few exceptions, going back millions of years. We are literally of this earth, and no other.

    There is no alternative to this place. We’ve looked yet failed to find one, and even if we did find something similar there’s no guarantee we would survive, just as the vast majority of Native Americans did not survive illnesses that developed from conditions of overcrowding, poor nutrition, and filth.

    Which would you prefer be our future: a life that prevents overpopulation before it happens, promotes quality of life for all and husbands resources for future generations; or the one that evolved in filth and remains laser-focused on inequality, short-term thinking, and greed? I know which one I prefer.

    Plastics in the ocean, plastics in the air we breathe, plastics in the ground, plastics in fresh water, plastics in the atmosphere. This is the legacy we are leaving for the future. How long does it take plastic to break down? Google reports 20 to 500 years, depending on its composition and structure.

  19. Jason

    We can’t go anywhere without bringing a containerized version of earth’s atmosphere with us. Otherwise we die. We are meant to be here.

  20. Heitzso

    Climate change was in the model. It fell under “Pollution”.

    I studied the Limits to Growth models and the competing Hudson Institute (straight ruler) concepts for a VP of Coca-Cola Corporate in the early 70’s. I setup and ran the models (unfettered access to their research library and their computers). I read all of the technical books that fed into their models. And, since then, I’ve read all of the books published by that group, up to the last one they wrote (they were dying off, and their sense was the die was cast). The models were intended to be a way of studying feed back loops, a.k.a. dynamic systems, a.k.a. law of unintended consequences that, due to their nature, surprise us. As such, they are intended to work with large-concept elements such as land, water, pollution, etc. Climate change is a result of pollution. They did not attempt to split out the myriad possible forms for each major component in the model.

    Their results note not that climate change or pollution was inevitable, only that it is (now) impossible to fix any one component (food, water, energy, pollution) without causing problems elsewhere in the system. Though one element in their equations was the time required to implement change due to human/social nature.

    I believe (from memory, years since I read) their last assessment was that around 2015 (very roughly) the majority of scientists would be raising alarms and that around 2025 (again, very roughly) the general public would be asking for change. That politicians, i.e. our government leaders, were most likely to follow the curve rather than lead it (to stay in office). That when the broad general public were ready to change, that it still takes time for the change to be implemented and really absorbed into the fabric of our society by which time the change will be too late. Hence, their “many die” scenarios come to pass rather than one of the “we can all live comfortably, albeit with massive society changes” scenarios.

    One of their later side books, Grouping in the Dark, mentions an international conference at which some third world nation representatives facing wide spread poverty, disease, hunger, etc. noted that the broad premise of their models are written from the perspective of our first world countries, but that the severe problems likely for us in the first world (coming down the pike) are significant, now (written decade(s) ago), in their world. That’s come to mind recently with our covid crisis and our first world mentality that life was good and damn it, why did covid have to come along and ruin our restaurant/bar visits versus the years of pain and suffering in northern Syria (in particular) due to our illegally (by prior international law) engaging in war to topple a country’s leader (believe the phrase is regime change … mentioned in Dem debates and followed up with Hillary’s slap down, of course, since she’s guilty of war crimes by that law).

    Anyway, long note. Be glad to expound on any of this if requested.

  21. Synoia

    The future is not in Space. The energy requires to lift an adult human adds to the problem pf pollution, and does not subtract from it.

    If space settlement has a future, it will be a few teachers and many fetus lifted into space.

    4,578,o00 lb of kerosene for the Saturn Rocket.
    2,298 Short Tons of fuel, or 763 short tons per person.

    Even if we could increase the efficiency by a factor of 10, each adult boosted would consume 76 tone of kerosene (petroleum).

    This is to get get humans to the nearest body, which is the Moon. If we discuss a constructed space station, the material has to com from the moon, because the energy budget from the earth would be too expensive.

    The only other process involves magic, which is either non-existent, or in very short supply.

    The only solution to Human Overpopulation is a massive die-off.

    AKA Climate Change, which is now, today, upon us, and will continue to get worse.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén