Spaceman

Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic space plane recently flew 85km up from the Earth’s surface. An incredible achievement for a private citizen. Even one who is a billionaire. Sadly, some (?many) people pooh-poohed this event as another rich person running amok. We disagree with these naysayers and we hope the future leads to more human adventures in space.

Let’s first recap. Do you know of the space race of the 1960s? This pure flag-waving exercise saw the government of the USA put a human on the Earth’s moon. And after a few more landings, humans stopped going. Afterward, many governments from around the world aided the construction of the International Space Station, an artificial Earth moon. It’s still up there. Humans have continuously inhabited the station since year 2000CE and performed a great number of experiments there. But governments haven’t taken up anything grander.

Now it’s interesting about democratic governments in that they are in place to lead today’s voters. And voters continually say that the future is much less important than the present. Anything that doesn’t provide an immediate return on investment is not palatable to them. Sadly, this means that governments typically sacrifice the future for a better today. Thus, even though we have solutions for so many of the ills which ail us, governments fail to effectively implement them because we the people don’t want them.

Hence, with the average person focused upon personal improvement then the future becomes solely the purview of the rich. And there are many rich, over 2700 billionaires. Sure some of them are more interested in corporeal pleasures. But others have shown particular concern for the future as with the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation and its progress in countering malaria. And with Richard Branson and his space plane. And with Jeff Bezos and his space rocket. And with Elon Musk and his space company. We should be thankful to them in their pursuit of a future for humanity that could entail vast opportunities for the next generation while both we and our governments remain perhaps too focused on the day to day.

Virgin Galactic

Density

Will they fit? How many can you put into one space? These are questions of density. Sometimes the answer is easy to measure such as with determining the number of glass marbles that can fit within a box. Or, we can predict population densities over time with the Lotka Volterra predator-prey model. In all density calculations, it is a defined space that is key to the calculation.

Let’s set the space as the land surface of Earth and the question is, “How many people will fit?” For the record, some believe that at one time there were less than a hundred thousand hominin living on the surface. These easily fit and the density barely registers. Yet we predict the population this century to crest at over 10 billion humans. The resulting density is 83 people per square kilometre. It rises to 117 people per square kilometre when we locate people only on viable land cover, i.e. excluding deserts and such. This will be the average global density.

For comparison, at the end of the last glacial period about 12,000 years ago when humans lived as primitive hunter-gatherers, the estimated population was 2 million or about 0.02 people per square kilometre. Contrarily, in the city of Manila today, there’s a local density of 46,178 people per square kilometre. This increased density speaks to our prolificacy.

Density is important as it relates to the amount of resources humans consume. For instance, to maintain current density, we use a third of all Earth’s land surface for agriculture so as to produce food. What do you expect of the future as the human population continues to increase while the land surface remains constant? How can we use local density values to predict sustainability and future survival?

Tren-Maya

Transportation continues to avail our civilization. Our roads and railway lines make almost any place on Earth readily accessible. With this transportation network, we efficiently move people and material. And we continually add more. For example, Mexico is building the Tren-Maya railway line. This +1500km rail extension will soon open the Yucatan peninsula to modern conveniences.

Yet transportation networks are costly. They are expensive in terms of both money and energy to build, to maintain and to operate. Equally, their construction usually replaces the native flora that naturally captures and stores the Sun’s energy. Thus, they represent a strong energy imbalance.

No one expects the Tren-Maya railway line to become an historical footnote like the Mayan temples, the line’s namesake. Yet, as with most constructs of our civilization, we will only use this line when profitable and abandon it when not. And its remains will be a continual energy imbalance as nature restores the flora’s natural energy capture. Given this perspective of our transportation network, what does this foretell about civilization’s future?

Steam Train
Photo by M. Rehemtulla / QUOI Media Group

Choices

Imagine sitting down at a banquet. You are famished. As you eat, others keep joining you at the table to eat as well. There’s pleasant background music. The food is totally tasty. Life is grand.

For awhile, as you eat, you see that servers regularly replace empty trays. But as you eat and new comers join you at the table, you see bare spots appear on the table. Also, you hear servers gossip about the kitchen running out of supplies and that some of its appliances are failing.

Also, weirdly, the longer you sit and eat, the hungrier you feel. Actually you see that everyone at the table seems to be eating more and eating faster. You soon appreciate that with more people coming and with the supply failure then the banquet will not suffice.

What do you do? Do you go find another banquet house? Do you reduce your consumption? Do you stop eating and remedy the supply shortfall? Do you try to convince everyone to reduce theirs as well? Or do you ignore the information and just continue eating?

Using this as an analogy to our situation on Earth then do you see the value of a social contract for humans together with the other life forms that share Earth?

Feedback

When we feel hungry, we eat assuming there is food at hand. When we’re full then we stop eating. This represents feedback at the biological level.

There is also feedback at the technological level. For example, we experience easier lives by using semi-autonomous powered assistants such as vehicles. As we desire more ease, we want more assistance. However, we have no feedback saying we’ve got enough assistance. Rather, with easily available financial credit, there is no feedback to limit our access to technology-based powered assistants.

Nevertheless, the use of powered assistants comes with its own feedback mechanism. Principally, as over 85% of mechanical power comes from a carbon base, the use of powered assistants results in airborne pollution. This leads to an increase in the Earth’s global temperature which results in the melting of the polar ice caps and desertification of many regions. This is a very strong environmental feedback to our use of technology-based assistants.

If we ignore the feedback and continue to eat though full, then we suffer health consequences. If we continue to use powered assistants and ignore the environmental feedback are we ready to accept the consequences?

Human impact via machine tools
Machine tools