• The Only Way Out Is UP

    by  • February 4, 2011 • The Big Deal • 9 Comments

    (see The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal for more of this series of essays)

    I’m a technological determinist. I think that we have the room to create the world we want, but it’s not going to be done by democratic processes alone. Civil society is a “do-ocracy“, always has been, and holds the fundamental keys to rebalancing the power problems which threaten our world.

    My feelings about the fate of the world make Derrick Jensen seem like the tooth fairy. But I’m damned if I’m going to kill a single person, except in self-defense in the case of a genocide. The circle can be squared, and I’m about to explain how.

    First, I need to lay some more of my cards on the table. People who know me well know my life is not like most people’s lives. Something happened to me in 2001, in Spring, during the Maha Kumbha Mela festival.

    I was meditating in Chicago, trying to position myself as if I was at the festival, in my mind. Something Happened and I became a function. A lot of what made me what I was until that point died, blotted out by an overwhelming sense of mission and purpose, and although I regrew a self and a personality over time, nothing before that point ever made sense again.

    I moved cross country not long after that experience, took a job writing software for the Dalai Lama’s former personal assistant, and never really looked back. All the stuff that I’ve done since then came out of that spiritual transformation, about which I cannot say more at this time.

    So I want to talk to you about the big picture. I do not do this very often, and don’t expect me to be making a habit of it!

    Firstly, our species and our planet are dying. Any extrapolation of current trends has us wiping out the ecosystem and ourselves within a few generations, at least to the point where we lose our culture and fall back into agrarian societies where everybody farms and few, if any, read. There are a few “hail mary pass” technologies (nanosolar, konarka) which could get us out of this mess, but they are balanced by a new generation of risks: self-replicating problems in bio- and nano-technology, and nuclear proliferation. The tech, without a firm hand directing its development along useful lines, will not save us.

    Who is strong enough to stamp down on Monsanto?

    So let us get to the crux of this: we are tearing ourselves to pieces because we failed to make the jump to space.

    All the cultural pieces for a successful change of state to that of a starfaring species assembled in the 20th century, and we blew it. Let me assemble some of the pieces for you.

    • we invented rockets
    • we figured out eugenics (and that it was a bad idea on the surface of earth, although generation ships would require it)
    • we figured out nuclear reactors
    • we figured out nuclear rocket motors
    • we assembled an enormous number of nuclear missiles
    • we pushed into orbit, and to the moon
    • we mapped planets around other stars
    • we raised entire generations of engineers on Star Trek

    And we failed to go. This is why we’re at each-other’s throats, fighting over the last scraps of oil and the ridiculous teachings of ancient holy books which treat some patch of dirt or other as sacred unto the ages. We failed to go.

    We failed to go.

    My Space Guru Jason Louv (a spacer and environmentalist) puts it very simply: “we put the plutonium in the wrong end of the rockets.”

    (In fact, his analysis goes substantially deeper than that and I encourage you to explore the cultural foundations of the atrophy of the space effort further.)

    If we’d built nuclear rocket engines, rather than nuclear warheads, we’d have at least probes on the way back from other stars by now.

    Instead, we took the nuclear power – the engineering, the money, the political will and the refined fuels – and we turned it into bombs to control the tiny amount of landmass that our planet represents. We have detonated 4000 or so nuclear bombs in testing. Imagine what that much nuclear contamination could have achieved in an Orion-class starship. What all sides spent on the cold war could easily have established us as a space-faring species.

    All the will and anger, all the territorial imperative, all the dominance programming that we’re unleashing on each other as our population grows towards a projected peak of around nine billion could have been channeled into interstellar territorial expansion largely freeing us from the instinct for war.

    No, I am not joking.

    Our top thinkers of the age backed Project Orion. But not only the nuclear scientists wanted us to go into space – some of our top thinkers on human potential and human liberty also wanted us to go. Timothy Leary, who did more to make westerners question their sense of what was real and what was good and just than anybody since Jesus promoted Space Migration, Intelligence Increase and Life Extension as our best scientific and technical agenda. Jack Parsons, who invented solid rocket fuel and gave his initials to Jet Propulsion Laboratory (“Jack Parson’s Labs”) stands as a unique political philosopher and technical innovator. Jack Parsons knew our destiny lay in space.

    Let me reinforce this point: we had the scientific, technical and financial power to make the jump into orbit, and we blew it. Men like Parsons and Leary were rendered powerless dreamers, rather than prophets of a new age, because the money went into weapons technology, and the will went into territorial disputes about different regimes for allocating scarcity rather than in uniting, as a species, as a world, and taking our show to the stars.

    This is what went wrong.

    Now what do we have to do to fix it?

    Firstly, let me point out two very simple, and very sensible laws.

    1. Thou shalt not release genetically engineered organisms into the biosphere, lest an accident foul the future with a self-replicating error.
    2. Space habitats including genetically engineered organisms must be positioned in orbits which will not allow them to fall into the biosphere.

    You park genetic engineering labs in orbit around, say, the moon and if something goes horribly wrong, scuttle the boat and leave it an orbiting husk, or let it crash into the surface in some safe location while the heat and the cold autoclave its contents clean. I don’t care what promises companies make about safety – BP made a lot of promises too, and look at the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, in all probability, we’re going to see a “genetic Chernobyl” and it might be much, much worse than anybody can currently imagine. It may be irreversible as a “globally invasive species” marches from the lab into every global ecosystem, wreaking destruction as it goes. We have no meaningful global lock on biotech, the tools get cheaper and cheaper with each passing year, and we’re playing Russian Roulette with the future of all life on earth.

    All it takes is one graduate student with an undiagnosed personality disorder.

    So let’s not do that down here on Earth: a moratorium on genetic engineering of organisms capable of replication in Biosphere One would protect us from our own foolishness – before we learn the hard way and, say, lose all marsupials in a plague. Or all primates. Including us.

    Secondly, let us consider the economics of space. But before that, we must consider the militarization of space. You don’t hear very much about this, other than a bunch of denials, but the bottom line is that unless you are willing to believe that the US space effort has not evolved since the Space Shuttle was developed in 1981, all the real research has been classified, given that there has been little or no public progress in access to space since then.

    We have no idea what military access to space looks like, but they were flying the SR71 Blackbird at Mach 4 or so at 100K feet in 1964, so it is hardly unreasonable – given the evolution of fighter aircraft in that period of time – that military space planes are quite impressive by now. Nothing exists in the public eye, but the shuttle is a 1980s vintage vehicle of considerably under-engineered lineage compared with the military vehicles we can logically infer the existence of.

    In short, it is very likely that at the heart of the military-industrial complex is the technology base we need to get into orbit cheaply and efficiently. We’re not starting the second push into space from scratch – we have the black budget space technology to help us – if we can get it declassified and opened up for general use.

    So back to the point about economics. In all probability space is heavily militarized already, with at least one space plane and one cargo lifter. Neither one is using rockets, because those are extremely visible from the ground and nobody has seen anything, so in all probability we’re looking at something which looks like a jet engine until it runs out of air, and a rocket thereafter. I don’t think we need to posit anything which isn’t a direct evolution of the SR71, HOTOL and similar high altitude runway take-off space vehicles. I can’t imagine what their “Space C130″ looks like. I bet it’s a beast.

    Conclusion: we don’t have to pay to develop the launch vehicles all over again. It’s already been done.

    So now we must consider the will, because we have the need (runaway development of biotechnology) and the capability (space technology from the black budget.)

    If we do not get the biotech off the planetary surface, we risk losing everything within one or two generations. “Bio-hackers” are literally going to risk the entire biosphere. Imagine all the horrors of the biolabs like Porton Down and Fort Detrick rebuilt by curious hackers using cheap gene-printers. How are we going to stop this happening? Who’s really managing global biodefense?

    Whoever it is, the strategy won’t survive a factor-100 reduction in the cost of biotech, and that’s a perfectly rational projection over the next 20 years if genetic engineering follows the cost-curve of technologies like PCR.

    So let me reprise here.

    We’ve spent the 20th century cowering under the rain of death, waiting for nuclear war to annihilate us all. The technical capability that could have been used to push us into orbit and then to the stars was squandered building nuclear missiles and arguing about how to divide up scarcity. Biotechnology research risks the rediscovery the secrets of the biowar labs in poorly-controlled bunkers operated by bored teenage sociopaths. Military space capability is likely well into science fiction territory, and if they’d just open it up a little, we could likely recoup much of the time lost since we failed to build upon our admittedly-precocious entry to space in the 1960s.

    Now let me tell you why we need to do this.

    Firstly, the ever-present biosphere risk of genetic engineering.

    Secondly, we are tearing each-other to pieces because, unconsciously, we know we’re out of territory to expand into. The genocidal impulses channeled by Hitler, Stalin and Mao are likely to continue re-appearing from time to time based on factors we do not understand and cannot control, but that are likely closely linked to scarcity consciousness and population pressure.

    Thirdly, because we can and it’s time to stop pretending that we cannot.

    I’ve given ten years to poverty. I’ve worked hard to understand it, understand how it kills, and to figure out one simple fact: for a few tens of dollars per household, we can provide a technology package which will stop most people from dying of poverty in most places. It’s the rocket stove, the biosand water filter, the composting (or other appropriate) toilet. Add some farming education and the absolute horror of poverty can be mostly halted for not a lot of money. I have no idea why the big Millennium Development Goals don’t focus on the global roll-out of these very simple, very, very effective technologies but perhaps it’s the blindness which goes with ignoring the critical role of technology in forming society. Technocrats do have something to offer here.

    One way or the other, I expect the “Ending Poverty with Open Hardware” strategy to roll out globally, piece meal and disorganized, bottom up and with no master plan, as intelligent kids in the global village look at Wikipedia on their cell phones and try to figure out how to stop being poor. And then find Appropedia, which will likely become a locus for a lot of that global appropriate technology / design science revolution roll out. I heartily suggest you support them. They’ve been very good to my Hexayurt Project and me personally over the years, and they’re well positioned to be a major global force in just a few years more as the poor of the world get online from their slums and villages.

    So we have a viable solution to poverty. We do: it’s not insoluble, it’s four or five basic technologies rolled out globally.

    We don’t have a global solution to climate and land use until we sort out energy, and that’s going to require either a new generation of solar panels (likely), an unprecedented push towards energy efficiency (possible), or something radical and unexpected (saltwater algae fuel crops?).

    So here’s what’s in the way: scarcity thinking and cold, dark, irrational fear. We have enough land, enough water and enough sunlight for everybody to grow enough food to eat. We have enough technical and engineering resources to get everyone a house. Most of the tools can be mass produced for a few dollars a unit, and even the housing can be dirt simple. Land tenure needs to be addressed, but Kerala and Cuba have done alright on that front: land redistribution without massacres to the long-term benefit of the entire society. What’s keeping the space technology out of our hands is international rivalries left over from the cold war era, and nothing else (barring the possibility that the Little Green Men say “no!”)

    I am not positing a change in human nature. But I am here to say that we must unwind human territoriality and competitiveness by reaching out beyond our planet, to the vast uncharted deeps of space, and we must do so within one generation, before our rising small group destructive power, amplified by biotechnology, turns into genetically engineered basement bioweapons being used to resolve futile disputes over tiny strips of land, like Israel, Palestine and Gaza. To have a future we must reopen the map fundamentally, and the only way out is up.

    Now, watch this, and say it with me: “we are here to go!

    (read more of this series in The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal)

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    9 Responses to The Only Way Out Is UP

    1. February 4, 2011 at 3:51 am

      It’s a tough nut to crack. Part of me thinks that the reason that we are not privy to the military space technology is that it uses certain exotic technologies that, our leaders fear, could either be weaponized, or free us from energy dependance. At any rate, I doubt that they are inclined to voluntarily release the goodies into the white world.

    2. Alice Y.
      February 4, 2011 at 9:43 am

      What’s the evidence against JM Greer’s alternative hypothesis that economic collapse began in 1974 and that the current situation is the second wave catabolic collapse?

    3. February 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      However, if it’s a choice between the uncontrolled spread of biotech, and releasing what probably amount to combo rocket/jet engines… I very much doubt it’s Deep New Physics, just good engineering.

      I think we probably are in catabolic collapse, but I don’t think that it needs to be the end – the counter-entropic force of new technology, massively multiplying human access to education and the speed with which innovation is transmitted, new energy technologies like CSP and the next gen plastic solar panels, even the discovery of permaculture as a teachable skill and design tool for previously damaged land…

      This goes all ways at the same time. That’s what makes it the future.

    4. Alice Y.
      February 5, 2011 at 7:55 am

      Wondered what your thoughts are about Wendell Berry’s take on space colonization ideas:

    5. Pingback: The Bucky-Gandhi Design Institution › The Beautiful World

    6. Pingback: The Bucky-Gandhi Design Institution › The Summary

    7. February 8, 2011 at 10:17 am

      So your proposed solution to humanity’s aggressive, colonising instincts and extreme territoriality is to unleash those forces on other planets?

      We’ve fucked and burned everything here – so let’s go somewhere else? We need new land to take, new ‘resources’ to steal?

      What you are proposing is the British Empire in space. I wonder what Gandhi would have said about that?

      Have you seen ‘Independence Day’? It’s a terrible film, but the alien invaders are surely metaphorical. They are a colonising species, moving from planet to planet, exhausting the resources, then moving on.

      That’s us.

      Here’s a reason not to go into space: because we have a responsibility so sort out our aggressive and destructive instincts on our home planet before unleashing them anywhere else. We’ve done enough damage here

    8. February 10, 2011 at 12:00 am

      So far, I’m with you on “we should have gone to space” and on the big picture threat analysis. I also agree that neither government nor market nor communitarian actors provide a sole answer. I don’t agree with your analysis of why government must have effective orbital lifters — civilizations have plateaued technologically numerous times. Look at the Ottoman Turks and the Chinese in the Fifteenth Century — vast powers with effective navies, but one focused its naval development on the local optimization for the Med (a Nash equilibrium right there for you) and the other gave up its immense navy due to the intersection of religion and politics. Those factors were able to prevail in each case because there were no local competitors capable of forcing the ruling elites in either case to adopt new technology and expand their geo-social networks to a further frontier. I think the American elites have been in exactly this position since the 1980s, and technological optimization for local military supremacy combined with abandonment of new frontiers due to internal political and religious quarrels is exactly what has characterized American space technology for the last twenty years. One could almost have predicted the plateau. It ain’t rocket science, so to speak. Now I’ll go read your recipe for the beautiful world.

    9. John R
      February 12, 2011 at 1:50 am

      @Paul dawg i don’t think you read the last section. and i quote:

      >So here’s what’s in the way: scarcity thinking and cold, dark, irrational fear. We have enough land, enough water and enough sunlight for everybody to grow enough food to eat.

      sagan, whom mr gupta embeds at the end of the article, said that if there were a single microbe on a planet, then it is not for us, it is for that life. that in mind, from whom would we be taking resources?

      is it inherently wrong to explore space, or to develop it? will dead matter complain at being converted to life supporting structures and living matter? will we be oppressing the rocks we find, or what?

      much of the damage humans inflict on nature and the suffering we inflict on each other and other living things is a result of a compartmentalization or rejection of the rest of the universe. the aspirations of our entire species revolve around taking from one another instead of rising to create, but if we reject solutions to problems because the problem hasn’t been solved yet we accomplish nothing at all.

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