Jun 07 2009

Fermi vs. Malthus: A "Sustainability" Solution?

In 1950 Enrico Fermi was impressed that the light time across our Galaxy is about 5 orders of magnitude less than its age, because he realized — even for non-relativistic speeds — that if any advanced extraterrestrial (ET) civilization ever existed, they should have been here by now; so Fermi asked, “Where are They?”

Are we on Klaatu’s galactic travel itinerary? Click klaatu.jpg.

Recently, Jacob Haqq-Misra and Seth Baum (JH/SB) of Penn State (Journal of British Interplanetary Society, February, 2009) have proposed the “Sustainability Solution.” In a nutshell, their idea is that environmental issues (e.g., resource shortages) may slow down exponential expansion of ETs (and humans) into the Galaxy and thus explain “the absence of observed extraterrestrial civilization.”

JH/SB are proposing a neo-Malthusian argument: “Human civilization cannot indefinitely sustain exponential growth in the consumption of human resources.” This is, of course, a strawman because of the phrase “indefinitely” on Earth. In actuality, human civilization is preparing for its next quantum leap into the cosmos during the 2015 Maslow Window.

Despite the fact that JH/SB assure us (!) that “All hope is not lost for human civilization,” their analysis is unconvincing — economically, politically, technologically, historically, and even morally — and their negative tone suggests minimal awareness of macroeconomic data and historical trends of the last 200+ years that indicate human civilization is NOT near the edge of starvation or collapse. We’re very near an ebullient, transformative era — superseding even the 1960s boom — of unparalleled human prosperity and spectacular expansion into the cosmos.

With a 21st Century perspective, it’s clear that neo-Malthusian scenarios are unrealistic because they ignore the lessons of two centuries of technology development and economic growth. For example, in 2007 the New York Times (8/7/07; N. Wade) explained that the Industrial Revolution — the economic boom in England around 1800, during the Lewis & Clark Maslow Window — occurred because “people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save,” according to Gregory Clark (UC, Davis). And others explain that, in a modern economy, the combination of educated people armed with new science and technologies for food production, plus the existence of economic freedom and profitable opportunities ensure that abundant food supplies will exist.

Over the last 200 years — since the Industrial Revolution — these factors have allowed human civilization to avoid any global Malthusian crisis.

Toward the end of their paper, JH/SB admit that space-based solar power and space materials suggest that “the limits to exponential growth may lie beyond planetary scale…” But then strangely suggest that “perhaps civilization can safely undergo exponential growth until – but only until – it has colonized a solar system.” This comment might have carried more weight 30 years ago, but I think the current situation is better summarized by K.F. Long (J. British Interplanetary Soc., March, 2009) in Long’s review of interstellar propulsion candidates, “There are many dozens of propulsion schemes to show us how to get there. It is simply a question of when we will go — not if.”

JH/SB’s concept of “sustainability” is fuzzy, especially in regard to economic growth, but they do insist that, “Should human civilization successfully transition to sustainable development, it would have the opportunity to colonize the Galaxy.” If, for example, “sustainability” actually means lower economic growth then we’re faced with a moral problem according to Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman (2005). In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Friedman explains that during times of rising living standards a society becomes “more open and democratic.” Indeed it’s economic growth, not just high living standards, that are essential, because, “Merely being rich is no protection against a society’s retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.”

In addition to morality, it’s not clear how “sustainability” relates to ebullience, the powerful societal phenomenon that — over the last 200 years — appears to fundamentally drive great explorations and macro-engineering projects. Like the “animal spirits” of Keynes, ebullience is affluence-induced, and thus in the absence of the major, twice-per-century economic booms (seen over the last 200 years), great explorations and MEPs — including space colonization — might not exist.

In the spirit of Sir Martin Rees (Cambridge Univ.) — who believes that “the prime exploratory challenge of the next fifty years … is surely to seek firm evidence for, or against, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.” — it’s fun to turn JH/SB’s argument around and ask: If one explanation for the lack of ETs visiting Earth is “sustainability,” would the presence of ET spacecraft near Earth — as proposed by scientific investigators like Friedman (2008) — indicate that the exponential growth of ET societies into the Galaxy is sustainable?

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One Response to “Fermi vs. Malthus: A "Sustainability" Solution?”

  1. […] the absence of extraterrestrial visitors one of sustainability in the face of limited resources?  21st Century Waves thinks otherwise in this critique of a recently published paper in the Journal of the British […]

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