Fouling the nest.

Up until recently, a business could always find a haven from environmental regulations somewhere in the world.  Governments eager for growth would gladly allow a pit mine, smelter, blast furnace, or chemical plant.  But the leaders of nations today are more aware of the long-term costs of industrialization, and the whole world is waking up to the consequences of producing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

The technology that has become the lifeblood of our modern economy is beginning to threaten our existence.  Do we sacrifice the benefits of advanced technology to survive, accepting life without automobiles, computers, or  washing machines?  If making something means destroying something irreplaceable, what is the real cost of that product?  Currently, only a fraction of the world’s population enjoys the standard of living of the average American citizen.  Yet, we are producing greenhouse gases weighing billions of tons every year.  Energy consumption is nearly equal to the available supply.  What will happen as more and more of the world’s billions try to improve their standard of living?  Does raising the living standard of one person require the reduction in another persons?

If we treat our planet as a closed system, with finite resources, and limited ability to repair environmental damage, is there any hope for a peaceful future?  Greed and jealousy motivate people to take whatever they can, even if it belongs to someone else.  Will we let our cherished comforts be taken by someone else without a struggle, or will we fight tooth and nail to go on enjoying a shower every day?  Are we willing to sacrifice our solitary ride to work to allow someone in another country to survive?  Is there any alternative to treating our planet as a closed system?

Without the Sun, there would be practically no energy on Earth, because there would be no plants growing, no evaporation of water to make rain, nothing except heat from volcanoes and radiation.  So the Earth is not a closed system.  And the Earth exists in a neighborhood which is rich in material resources.  Everything from hydrogen, the lightest of all the elements, to uranium, one of the heaviest, exist in abundance in our Solar System.  There is unimaginable amounts of energy available, the constant output of the small star we call the Sun.

People perceive space exploration in many ways, perhaps as a search for knowledge of the origins of the Cosmos, or maybe as a quest for places to create colonies independent of Earth.  But one thing unites these perceptions;  the belief that they have nothing to do with everyday life, with the average person.  Nothing could be further from the truth, because space exploration is the only way that we are going to be able to continue the lifestyles we have come to take for granted.  It may take a few generations, but, eventually, all of humanity will sink back to primitive ways, as the resources needed for our advanced ways of life become prohibitively expensive.

In that same span of time, we can secure our future forever, by tapping into the resources all around us, and performing our industrial processes outside of the Earth’s environment.  Lifting our industries into space will only cost a fraction of the world’s annual income, while creating new wealth in excess of all that has ever existed.  People think of space travel as being hugely expensive, which it is, compared to travel on Earth.  But the actual costs are a tiny fraction of what is spent on the world’s military every year.  What is spent on cosmetics every year in the United States would finance the construction of a permanent base on the Earth’s moon in 20 years or less.

The solutions to the world’s problems do not exist in the world.  Only by going outside of our world can we solve our energy shortages, greenhouse gas production, and pollution problems.  We are fouling our nest, just as young animals do in nature.  But we must grow, as they do, and venture beyond our nest, into the outside.  Or we will die in our nest, destroyed by our own wastes.  Space exploration is not science fiction, it is not fantasy, it is here today, albeit in its infancy.  Lifting our industries into space will take many years, as we learn to move about easily in this new environment, and how to survive there.  But waiting to start will only make the starting less likely, as resources become even more precious.

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