On the Morality of: Conservation

Today’s post on morality concerns environmental conservation and sustainability. Human civilization has historically behaved (and many still do behave) as if the Earth was there to be conquered and natural resources were limitless. Environmental devastation is not solely the product of industrialized society; ancient cultures did the same thing, even those with tools no more sophisticated than the hand ax. For instance, as Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse, the reason for the disappearance of the Easter Island civilization was that the natives completely deforested the island (in part to make the log rollers used to transport the moai, the massive stone heads they are famous for), resulting in severe soil erosion and the collapse of agriculture.

But, of course, environmental destruction is most serious in industrialized societies with the technology that gives them the power to do the most damage. The damages we are still inflicting on the planet are legion: the collapse of fisheries and the mass extinction of species, tropical deforestation and the destruction of vanishing habitats, pollution in the air and water, the exhaustion of fresh water and the spreading of desert, and last but not least, the emission of greenhouse gases that accelerate global climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects worldwide.

The secular moral system of universal utilitarianism offers a set of principles through which to judge these actions. UU’s main tenet is that we should maximize opportunities for human happiness over time. This leads directly to the conclusion that any use of natural resources which can be sustained indefinitely should be preferred to a use which destroys, or exhausts, the thing being used – for destructive use offers at most a single opportunity to improve human welfare, while sustainable use offers unlimited opportunity. This sweeping conclusion applies to everything from the preservation of species, encouraging the protection of living things and habitats threatened with extinction, to energy, where we should prefer indefinitely renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and immediately begin to phase out those that are not renewable.

Although conservation has numerous benefits for people who are alive today, its greatest repercussions will be felt by those in the future. As I wrote in a past comment, we cannot rationally apply UU to the desires of merely potential people – for there are a limitless number of these, and trying to anticipate their wants would result in paralysis. But there is a special case: we should try to anticipate the desires not of individuals, but of the next generation as a whole, because barring some unprecedented disaster, we know that there will be a next generation. This means that the impacts of our decision will be multiplied “down the line”, affecting all our future descendants, which makes it all the more vital that we use the earth sustainably, with an eye to the future, rather than sacrificing it for short-term gain.

For cases where wealthy nations destroy the environment for the sake of convenience or luxury, all this should be uncontroversial. But one of the complicating issues is that environmental degradation is usually linked to overpopulation, as increasing numbers of people have an ever heavier footprint on the natural world. UU entails the pragmatic principle, that we cannot reasonably make some rule a moral obligation if it would impose unrealistic burdens on the people asked to follow it. By this principle, we cannot ask people to preserve the environment – it would be immoral to ask them to preserve the environment – if that required them to sacrifice their lives or the lives of their loved ones, or to give up hope of attaining a standard of living that many wealthy nations enjoy.

Defeating this problem requires tackling it from both ends. The world’s wealthy nations absolutely should give up their use of unsustainable luxuries to show that they are making a sacrifice in this effort (although in the long run, most of those sacrifices will pay for themselves). Moves to reduce urban sprawl, increase the amount of protected habitat, and migrate away from fossil fuels are essential. In the meantime, we should initiate an aggressive effort to stem the tide of global population growth, through female empowerment, education on family planning and the distribution of contraception. Helping these societies to become industrialized will also help in the long run to reduce family sizes and level off population growth. All these measures will put a stop to the necessity of colonizing previously uninhabited land for survival.

In the long run, the interests of humanity are not opposed to the goal of protecting nature. Safeguarding species and habitat, fighting pollution and global warming, and investing in a sustainable infrastructure that treads more lightly on the planet will lead to stability, security and good lives for billions of human beings. Only in the near term, driven by unsustainable growth and short-sighted profit motives, does the conflict arise. And if we let the short term win out over the long term, the consequences will be disastrous. Rising seas and shifting weather patterns could turn cities into deserts, lead to staggering mass exoduses and catastrophic natural disasters, and trample the few remaining untouched parts of the planet underfoot. Global poverty will explode, as will famine, disease and drought; and we will enter into what E.O. Wilson called an “age of loneliness”, when the beauty and the grandeur of biodiversity has been all but erased.

This is one track. Down the other lies a quieter, richer and more beautiful world: a place where we have learned from our mistakes, where we have drawn back and allowed nature to recover, and where human beings live within the world and not at its expense. Even beside its freely given beauty and grandeur, nature provides us with countless services we rely on, yet often take for granted: waste recycling and remediation, fresh air and clean water, productive soil and crop pollination, and many others as well. It still remains to be seen which of these two worlds we will bring into existence.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    In the meantime, we should initiate an aggressive effort to stem the tide of global population growth, through female empowerment, education on family planning and the distribution of contraception. Helping these societies to become industrialized will also help in the long run to reduce family sizes and level off population growth.

    While I agree with this completely, I think it’s an even harder sell than giving up luxuries. Woman’s rights are still treated hostilely in even the US, and there are plenty of people who consider it a moral good to have as many children as physically possible (and beyond physically possible in some cases). See the quiverfull movement.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    In the long run, the interests of humanity are not opposed to the goal of protecting nature.

    I would go a step further and say that the interests of humanity are deeply rooted in the goal of protecting nature. After all, humankind is part of the natural world, nothing more and nothing less than that. Unfortunately, this is not all obvious to those who think that humankind is something special, creatures that somehow stand apart from and above nature, and that nature was given to us for our use and exploitation.

  • Maynard

    I have the troubled mind that believes that only after the human population is considerably reduced by our own actions (global warming, resource depletion, etc.) will the now significantly reduced majority wake up decide it is time to act. It seems to be the way things are going lately (such as the Katrina aftermath).
    I wish it were not so since I’m hoping to get another 50 years or so in this world. What will it be like at that time and will my niece and nephews appreciate what we have left them?

  • bestonnet

    Original Post:

    For instance, as Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse, the reason for the disappearance of the Easter Island civilization was that the natives completely deforested the island (in part to make the log rollers used to transport the moai, the massive stone heads they are famous for), resulting in severe soil erosion and the collapse of agriculture.

    No it wasn’t. We’ve since found that to be incorrect and that the real reason was rats which were accidentally introduced to the island. See http://www.livescience.com/history/060309_easter_island.html

    Not that pre-industrial civilisations lived in harmony with nature or whatever it is that some radical ‘environmentalists’ think.

    Original Post:

    This leads directly to the conclusion that any use of natural resources which can be sustained indefinitely should be preferred to a use which destroys, or exhausts, the thing being used – for destructive use offers at most a single opportunity to improve human welfare, while sustainable use offers unlimited opportunity.

    But the sun will die in 5 billion years. How is that meant to be indefinite?

    Original Post:

    to energy, where we should prefer indefinitely renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and immediately begin to phase out those that are not renewable.

    Wind is obsolete, why go back to it?

    Fossil fuels are not the transition to renewables as some ignorant people think, but the transition away from renewables. With renewable energy you steal energy from nature (which would otherwise use it) as well as have to use a lot of land to collect the energy (since the power density is low, which is actually a good thing), not to mention having to depend on unreliable natural forces. Looked at without green coloured glasses use of renewable energy is not very good for the environment, especially when you need a lot of energy (and our energy usage will not be going down, no matter how much it may be required to make wind and ground based solar viable (don’t let us use nuclear, fine, we’ll burn coal)).

    Original Post:

    But one of the complicating issues is that environmental degradation is usually linked to overpopulation, as increasing numbers of people have an ever heavier footprint on the natural world.

    Over population is largely irrelevant. If we have clean technology that can provide our needs without destroying the environment then we can just scale it up to handle a larger population, if we don’t have such technology that it won’t matter how small our population is because we’ll still have an impact on the world (it’ll just take a bit longer to actually happen).

    Original Post:

    The world’s wealthy nations absolutely should give up their use of unsustainable luxuries to show that they are making a sacrifice in this effort (although in the long run, most of those sacrifices will pay for themselves).

    Won’t happen, people (with the exception of a very small number of ideologues) will simply not be willing to do that.

    Instead you’ve just got to figure out a way to let them have their luxuries without destroying the environment (although increased standard of living which means more luxuries does tend to make people value the environment more).

    We’re also going to need to have a good economy if we are to have any hope of being able to afford to fix the problems.

    Original Post:

    In the meantime, we should initiate an aggressive effort to stem the tide of global population growth, through female empowerment, education on family planning and the distribution of contraception. Helping these societies to become industrialized will also help in the long run to reduce family sizes and level off population growth.

    The proposals of female empowerment, family planning education and industrialisation are good ideas and should be done but they should not be promoted for that reason.

    Although it should be noted that it is rich people who already have their basic needs met that care the most about the environment (why pretty all groups that call themselves ‘environmental’ organisations are filled with rich white kids).

    Original Post:

    All these measures will put a stop to the necessity of colonizing previously uninhabited land for survival.

    If we want our species to survive we must colonise.

    Of course there’s a whole universe out there (and it looks to be uninhabited). In the long term we’ll probably mostly leave Earth behind at which point the main industry of Earth could be tourism (which would give an incentive to fix things up).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    With renewable energy you steal energy from nature (which would otherwise use it)…

    I can’t see any way of interpreting this statement that would make it accurate. Solar panels are usually placed either in desert areas, where biomass is already low, or on the roofs of existing buildings, where it wasn’t being utilized before in any case. And no living thing other than humans uses wind or tidal power as a source of energy, and geothermal power is used only by ocean-bottom ecosystems that are not competing with human use.

    Looked at without green coloured glasses use of renewable energy is not very good for the environment, especially when you need a lot of energy…

    The amount of solar energy the Earth receives in a single hour is equal to humanity’s current energy needs for an entire year. There is no issue of renewable sources not providing enough energy, only a question of whether we can capture and utilize it efficiently.

    If we have clean technology that can provide our needs without destroying the environment then we can just scale it up to handle a larger population…

    This is also wrong. Every technology has at least some environmental impact; none can be scaled up indefinitely without environmental cost. That’s why, in addition to switching to technologies that have less of an impact than the extraordinarily destructive ones we’re currently using, we need to ensure that human population growth levels off and does not continue to expand indefinitely.

    Although it should be noted that it is rich people who already have their basic needs met that care the most about the environment (why pretty all groups that call themselves ‘environmental’ organisations are filled with rich white kids)..

    This is not only wrong, it’s demeaning to the countless people of color who recognize the connection between human activities and the environment just as well as Caucasians do – for instance, Dr. Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.

  • Jim Baerg

    I think it’s worth dropping the term ‘renewable’ & instead talk about resource use being sustainable for some time period, decades, centuries, millenia, millions or billions of years. After all, the hydrogen in the center of the sun is being non-renewably used up, so in a sense there is no such thing as a renewable resource.

    In this context it’s worth noting that nuclear fission is sustainable for millions or even billions of years, at least if some sort of breeder that fissions U238 via conversion to plutonium, or that fissions Th232 via conversion to U233, is used.

    There is no issue of renewable sources not providing enough energy, only a question of whether we can capture and utilize it efficiently.

    The latter is a serious problem. Solar & wind are expensive because of the construction and maintenance costs of the large areas of collector required, as well as the problems connected with the intermittent nature of those 2 energy sources.

  • Maynard

    bestonnet: “Fossil fuels are not the transition to renewables as some ignorant people think, but the transition away from renewables.”
    Fossil fuels are renewable. The problem is that consumption exceeds the production. Big time.

    Ebon: “Every technology has at least some environmental impact…”
    Exactly. Anything any living creature does has an impact. The only way is to look (hope) for some balance.

  • Erika

    Common Wealth: Economics for a crowded planet explores solutions to many of these solutions and also goes into more detail about how reducing fertility is absolutely vital for improving conditions in impoverished countries (both to increase their economic condition and to decrease the rate of population growth).

  • Leum

    Won’t happen, people (with the exception of a very small number of ideologues) will simply not be willing to do that.

    Instead you’ve just got to figure out a way to let them have their luxuries without destroying the environment (although increased standard of living which means more luxuries does tend to make people value the environment more).

    At some point, willingness to give up luxury won’t matter, there won’t be any alternative. The danger in using exclusively nonrenewable resources isn’t just damage to the environment, it’s dependence on something that will run out. Once we’ve depleted the petroleum reserves, there won’t be much choice.

    There’s something to be said for valuing the environment in it’s own right, but even if we don’t, we still depend on it for our very existence.

    We’re also going to need to have a good economy if we are to have any hope of being able to afford to fix the problems.

    I’m not sure a good economy is a prerequisite for conservation. Most forms of conservation are money savers, and people are more willing to make sacrifices when money is tight. The major technology innovations cost money, but government spending is helpful in tough economic times, and there will be more call for innovation as people look to newer and better ways to save more money.

  • Brad

    Jim -

    I think it’s worth dropping the term ‘renewable’ & instead talk about resource use being sustainable for some time period, decades, centuries, millenia, millions or billions of years.

    I agree insofar as saying we should plan in terms of relative sustainabilities (it is an important factor to consider), but I fall short in claiming that there is worth in dropping the term ‘renewable’. The word does not imply indefiniteness or permanence, but it does imply re-usability, even if it is geologically short-term.

    I think another huge factor to consider in conservation is the efficiency of our energy-gathering techniques as well as our energy use. (What’s the highest efficiency in solar energy these days, forty percent?) It would do well both for individuals and future generations if we increase the efficiency of our homes, buildings, vehicles, utilities and technology in general.

  • bestonnet

    Ebonmuse:

    I can’t see any way of interpreting this statement that would make it accurate.

    Argument from personal incredulity is a logical fallacy.

    Ebonmuse:

    Solar panels are usually placed either in desert areas, where biomass is already low, or on the roofs of existing buildings, where it wasn’t being utilized before in any case.

    When you have a lot of deserts that’s not such a bad idea but what if you don’t? When you don’t have large stretches of desert solar power ends up meaning deforestation.

    As for the roofs of existing buildings, that just isn’t going to provide the power that our civilisation needs.

    Ebonmuse:

    And no living thing other than humans uses wind or tidal power as a source of energy, and geothermal power is used only by ocean-bottom ecosystems that are not competing with human use.

    Quite a lot of plants and animals are dependent upon the wind and tides though.

    BTW: Make sure you don’t put wind turbines too close to peoples’ homes, the infrasonic noise they give off seems to cause health problems (although that’s still not certain, more study is needed there) along with the risk of blade shedding (which has happened, though so far has only caused property damage).

    Ebonmuse:

    The amount of solar energy the Earth receives in a single hour is equal to humanity’s current energy needs for an entire year. There is no issue of renewable sources not providing enough energy, only a question of whether we can capture and utilize it efficiently.

    I know how much power the Earth receives from the sun and I know that it is a lot more than we use, the problem is that capturing even a small fraction of what we’d need to capture would lead to massive environmental devastation.

    Not to mention all the nasty chemicals used in manufacturing solar cells.

    Then you’ve got the problem of storing all that energy for still nights (or do you think rolling blackouts are a good idea?).

    Ebonmuse:

    This is also wrong. Every technology has at least some environmental impact; none can be scaled up indefinitely without environmental cost.

    We seem to be pretty good with coming up with new technologies to fix that when we reach the limits of what our previous technology can do. We’ve reached the end of the S-curve with renewables and we’re pretty close to it with fossil fuels (which may explain why those who prefer renewables think depopulation is necessary) although we’ve barely even started with nuclear technology (we can’t even get controlled fusion to breakeven and haven’t really deployed fission breeders).

    The biggest environmental impact once we’ve dealt with electricity production and transport fuels would then be food production and genetic engineering shows great promise there. Feeding more than twice our current population using less land looks quite possible.

    Ebonmuse:

    That’s why, in addition to switching to technologies that have less of an impact than the extraordinarily destructive ones we’re currently using, we need to ensure that human population growth levels off and does not continue to expand indefinitely.

    So how many people do you want to have live?

    Reduced population growth is a by-product of other beneficial trends, not something to aim for itself.

    BTW: Malthus was wrong.

    Ebonmuse:

    This is not only wrong, it’s demeaning to the countless people of color who recognize the connection between human activities and the environment just as well as Caucasians do – for instance, Dr. Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.

    You’re seeing racism where none exists.

    It is not that a person is a Caucasian that causes them to care about the environment, but that Caucasians tend to be (by historical accident) richer than average and it is rich people that tend to be more inclined to concern about the environment.

    People who are starving tend to be more concerned with catching fish than about overfishing, it’s those who are well-fed that can afford to care about that.

    Jim Baerg:

    I think it’s worth dropping the term ‘renewable’ & instead talk about resource use being sustainable for some time period, decades, centuries, millenia, millions or billions of years. After all, the hydrogen in the center of the sun is being non-renewably used up, so in a sense there is no such thing as a renewable resource.

    Renewable is basically just a term used to describe whatever the person using it thinks is good (you’ll sometimes see people leaving hydro out of renewable despite it being about the only one that’s actually getting significant usage).

    Maynard:

    Fossil fuels are renewable. The problem is that consumption exceeds the production. Big time.

    You do have a point, fossil fuels are really just a form of stored biofuels that we are using up faster then they are replaced. But even so, most people who use the term ‘renewable’ don’t consider fossil fuels to be ‘renewable’.

    But even so, we have a lot more fossil fuels left than many people realise. In fact the problem is not that we are running out of fossil fuels, but that we’re not running out of fossil fuels.

  • bestonnet

    Leum:

    At some point, willingness to give up luxury won’t matter, there won’t be any alternative. The danger in using exclusively nonrenewable resources isn’t just damage to the environment, it’s dependence on something that will run out. Once we’ve depleted the petroleum reserves, there won’t be much choice.

    When we depleted petroleum reserves we start using petroleum resources and the price rises (reserves just means the resources that can be sold at a profit and is dependant upon market prices and technology level).

    The increase in price makes alternatives more attractive and people start switching to the alternatives. Thus the problem would solve itself without us needing to really give up much (by the time we need to switch away from oil for running our cars electric cars will probably have decent range and reasonably fast charging).

    Leum:

    There’s something to be said for valuing the environment in it’s own right, but even if we don’t, we still depend on it for our very existence.

    Human aesthetics is a valid reason for doing something in many instances, people who have all their basic needs met can put more effort into making things “look good” to them.

    Leum:

    I’m not sure a good economy is a prerequisite for conservation.

    If you want to rip out a good deal of our infrastructure and rebuild it (which we’re very likely to have to do) then it very well is.

    Leum:

    Most forms of conservation are money savers, and people are more willing to make sacrifices when money is tight.

    So I’m not the only one who noticed that people only moved to smaller cars when oil prices increased massively?

    Though you do need to be careful here, because when money isn’t so tight those efficiency improvements are going to result in people being able to do more at which point you find that far from conserving resources people are actually using more.

    An understanding of Jevons paradox is essential to discussion of environmental policy, if you don’t know about it (and that it is a possibility) then you really shouldn’t be here (and it is always waiting to give those who propose conserving our way out of trouble a surprise).

    Brad:

    I agree insofar as saying we should plan in terms of relative sustainabilities (it is an important factor to consider), but I fall short in claiming that there is worth in dropping the term ‘renewable’. The word does not imply indefiniteness or permanence, but it does imply re-usability, even if it is geologically short-term.

    So what?

    If something will last a million years does it really matter whether it lasts that long because it’s non-renewable but there’s so much of it or whether it lasts that long because it’s constantly being renewed over those million years? It’s really not a difference that actually matters.

    Brad:

    I think another huge factor to consider in conservation is the efficiency of our energy-gathering techniques as well as our energy use. (What’s the highest efficiency in solar energy these days, forty percent?) It would do well both for individuals and future generations if we increase the efficiency of our homes, buildings, vehicles, utilities and technology in general.

    Jevons paradox again, efficiency improvements can actually lead to increased resource usage since it becomes cheaper to use that resource (in fact this is largely what led to the current global warming problem).

    Now efficiency improvements are good for the economy so I’m not going to say that we shouldn’t work to make things more efficient (and there’s also some aesthetic value in efficient solutions) but it isn’t the way to fix environmental problems (if you haven’t fixed the source of the problem by improved technology it runs the very real risk that your efficiency improvement will make things worse).

    Now it is true that in most cases efficiency improvements do lead to (at least in the short term) a reduction in resources usage but it is not always true (and you almost never get the predicted reduction in usage). I have also never seen a convincing argument for why Jevons paradox won’t apply in a particular situation (all the ones I’ve heard are based on just assuming that we won’t find new things to do if energy costs drop which is not at all convincing) or a convincing way of preventing it (taxes have been proposed to keep costs constant even with increased efficiency but I can’t see that actually happening).

  • kanashiinohato

    So what about nuclear energy? I think that it is at least worth mentioning. Very efficient compared to other sources.

  • Maynard

    From Wikipedia “Jevons Paradox (sometimes called the Jevons effect) is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.”

    Solar, tidal, or geothermal resources cannot be “used up” as long as we have the “Earth”. Dinosaurs lasted for millions & millions of years, but when you look at a specific species, their time was not so lasting. We, as human beings, don’t have forever. We will either evlove to something new, or just disappear.

    What will the next species that takes our place say about what we did? Will they look back and shake their heads in shame because we share a common ancestor or will they appreciate how hard we tried to save our “environment”?

    George Carllin (RIP) knew that we aren’t killing the planet. Everything we do is of the planet. We are only killing our ability to survive. The real question we should ask ourselves is “where do we go from here?”

  • bestonnet

    Maynard:

    Solar, tidal, or geothermal resources cannot be “used up” as long as we have the “Earth”.

    Collecting that energy has environmental consequences (and on a large scale it ain’t pretty).

    There’s also the fact that we aren’t using them very much (and I suspect we won’t be unless we start putting solar panels in space and beaming the power down with microwaves), instead what we are using at present is fossil fuels where increased consumption will cause more global warming.

    Maynard:

    We will either evlove to something new, or just disappear.

    I’m hoping we take control of evolution and become posthuman.

    As for how we will fare, humans are a pretty adaptable species so we’ll probably manage to adapt to whatever change we manage to make provided we don’t turn Earth into another Venus.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    Geothermal Power looks quite promising…

  • bestonnet

    For places with the geology needed for geothermal it is very promising (and Iceland gets good use of it) but that isn’t everywhere we need the power (and geothermal power could cause earthquakes in some places).

    Geothermal is no where near as useless as wind or ground based solar but it’s still a niche source and probably always will be (10 km is very deep to drill). To me it looks like a promising technology that should get some research, but it’s not an excuse to delay deploying what we have in case something better comes along (though a lot of people seem to want it (and a whole heap of other proposed solutions, whether feasible or nonsense) to be).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    When you have a lot of deserts that’s not such a bad idea but what if you don’t? When you don’t have large stretches of desert solar power ends up meaning deforestation.

    On your hypothetical world that might be a problem, but the Earth where we actually live has plenty of desert and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. The solar flux in the Sahara alone would be more than sufficient to provide for the planet’s energy needs, even if solar cells do not get any more efficient than they presently are.

    Then you’ve got the problem of storing all that energy for still nights (or do you think rolling blackouts are a good idea?).

    bestonnet, I’m astonished that you blithely propose migrating into space or evolving into posthumans as a way to solve the energy crisis, but at the same time, you think the problem of building a battery is an insurmountable technological hurdle.

    There are many schemes being proposed to store solar energy for nighttime, including underground caverns where compressed air is stored and later released to drive turbines, and molten salt reservoirs which are heated during the day so that energy can be extracted at night. This is an issue we’d have to deal with, yes. But insurmountable? Hardly.

    People who are starving tend to be more concerned with catching fish than about overfishing, it’s those who are well-fed that can afford to care about that.

    I dealt with this in my article, as you may or may not have noticed. As I said, people in imminent need of starvation cannot be expected to value the environment over their own well-being, so there is a short-term conflict there, but in the long run, doing what’s right for the planet will also benefit humanity. This is recognized by environmentalists of all nations, not just the West.

  • Justin

    From Ebonmuse:

    The solar flux in the Sahara alone would be more than sufficient to provide for the planet’s energy needs, even if solar cells do not get any more efficient than they presently are.

    The problem here is transporting the energy, which I assume was what bestonnet was pointing out. If I recall correctly, transporting energy, at least through the power grid, is inefficient in that the electricity can only be sent a short distance, hence the need to build power plants near where they’re needed.

    By the time energy transport is fixed, maybe we’d be able to build solar farms on the Moon. That has its own series of problems, just economic instead of environmental.

  • bestonnet

    EbonMuse:

    On your hypothetical world that might be a problem, but the Earth where we actually live has plenty of desert and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. The solar flux in the Sahara alone would be more than sufficient to provide for the planet’s energy needs, even if solar cells do not get any more efficient than they presently are.

    Yes it does, just that those deserts aren’t where we need power.

    The solar flux of the Sahara would be sufficient if you could store it and get it to where it’s needed. If you can’t do either well enough then it wouldn’t matter even if your cells were 100% efficient.

    EbonMuse:

    bestonnet, I’m astonished that you blithely propose migrating into space or evolving into posthumans as a way to solve the energy crisis, but at the same time, you think the problem of building a battery is an insurmountable technological hurdle.

    Those are long term solutions that we probably will eventually have to do (and I certainly didn’t propose post-humanity as the solution to environmental problems, just mentioned that is what I’d like to see us evolve to).

    We’ve got the technology to support a higher population than we have now without completely destroying the environment, I’d rather we use that and in the mean time start to get serious about space development so that we’ll have the living space for trillions of people (our solar system could easily support that many).

    BTW: Large scale energy storage hasn’t really been solved yet (and batteries have some durability issues).

    EbonMuse:

    There are many schemes being proposed to store solar energy for nighttime, including underground caverns where compressed air is stored and later released to drive turbines, and molten salt reservoirs which are heated during the day so that energy can be extracted at night. This is an issue we’d have to deal with, yes. But insurmountable? Hardly.

    Proposed.

    That means we can’t deploy them right now, we’d need time to work out the bugs, we don’t know what the economics are going to be like, we haven’t been able to do really through studies of the environmental effects, etc.

    Pumped hydro works pretty well but it requires a hydro-electric dam of which about half the good sites are already taken (so it isn’t going to be able to provide the storage needed on its own).

    On a large scale once you exceed what pumped hydro can store you end up needing conventional power plants to back up wind and ground based solar and that usually means simple cycle natural gas (not the more efficient combined cycle).

    Eventually we’ll probably manage to get at least one decent large scale energy storage system working and should that happen I’d be willing to change my plans on how to solve global warming depending on how well it works but right now I’d rather we just use what we have.

    Justin:

    The problem here is transporting the energy, which I assume was what bestonnet was pointing out. If I recall correctly, transporting energy, at least through the power grid, is inefficient in that the electricity can only be sent a short distance, hence the need to build power plants near where they’re needed.

    Pretty much although increasing the voltage can allow you to send the power further with less loss, super-conducting cables have also been proposed as well which would solve the problem for pretty much any distance (although without a room temperature super-conductor those would probably be a fantasy, at least for a global grid).

    Neighbouring countries connecting their power grids together is a good idea though but that’s already been done (without being able to buy Norwegian hydro Denmark would never have managed to get to 20% wind capacity).

    Justin:

    By the time energy transport is fixed, maybe we’d be able to build solar farms on the Moon. That has its own series of problems, just economic instead of environmental.

    The actual problem with solar farms on the moon is that it’s dark half the time and building a solar power plant in a place that is dark half the time is not really such a good idea. Space Solar Power (which is actually a good idea and gets rid of most of the problems of ground based solar, although we lack the infrastructure to do it) would be better done with platforms in Geostationary orbit where it’s sunny almost all the time.

    But still, space launchers still have some environmental impact although that depends a lot of what fuel the rocket uses (but space launches are rare enough not to be significant).

  • Samuel Skinner

    For deserts, we have the South-West in the US, Atacama in SA, Sahara and Kalahari in Africa, Gobi and the empty Quarter in Asia and Australia in Australia.

    Space travel will NEVER be a solution- people breed faster than you can cram them into rockets.

    “BTW: Large scale energy storage hasn’t really been solved yet (and batteries have some durability issues).”

    No, it is easy to do, just a problem of efficiency. Worse comes to worse, we can simply use water towers to store energy.

    “Eventually we’ll probably manage to get at least one decent large scale energy storage system working and should that happen I’d be willing to change my plans on how to solve global warming depending on how well it works but right now I’d rather we just use what we have.”

    All proposed plans require a massive change in “what we have”. As it is, it is just a problem of getting high efficiency.

    “The actual problem with solar farms on the moon is that it’s dark half the time and building a solar power plant in a place that is dark half the time is not really such a good idea. Space Solar Power (which is actually a good idea and gets rid of most of the problems of ground based solar, although we lack the infrastructure to do it) would be better done with platforms in Geostationary orbit where it’s sunny almost all the time.

    But still, space launchers still have some environmental impact although that depends a lot of what fuel the rocket uses (but space launches are rare enough not to be significant).”

    Honestly? Get fusion and all your problems will be over. The Sun can do it and so can we- getting it controlled is the hard part.

    Using a space elevator or magnetic accelerator would help drastically reduce the cost and impact of space launches.

    Sadly, we don’t have any of these things. People are pushing solar because unlike space based ideas, it has alot less problems to deal with.

  • Christopher

    Regardless of how quickly the civilizations of humanity burn through resources at least great species will be around to pick up the pieces should we consume ourselves into extinction – the cockroach.

    I’m not too worried about environmental devistation because I know that – no matter what – the cockroaches will survive and evolution will simply continue on without us…

  • Christopher

    bestonnet,

    Won’t happen, people (with the exception of a very small number of ideologues) will simply not be willing to do that.

    Nor do I see any compelling reasons for those with the edge in resources to give them up – contrary to the notions of egalitarianism that too many people in Western society embrace, all men are *not* created equal nor are they all equally entitled to resources. The strongest among us have first pick, and going down the line everyone else just has to settle for whatever’s left.

    My aim is to maximize my own resource pool, not ensure that all have equal access…

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I normally don’t feed this particular troll, but the bait is too enticing…

    I’m not too worried about environmental devistation because I know that – no matter what – the cockroaches will survive and evolution will simply continue on without us…

    Do you have kids? If you do, I hope they realize that you don’t give a flying eff whether they live or die in the future.

    …all men are *not* created equal nor are they all equally entitled to resources.

    It must be nice to be able to think yourself superior to others simply by accident of where you were born.

  • Christopher

    OMFG,

    Do you have kids?

    Do dogs count?

    If you do, I hope they realize that you don’t give a flying eff whether they live or die in the future.

    1. The next generation (be it of my seed or some one else’s) will fend for itself no matter what we do in now – causality has a funny way of throwing wrenches into even the best-laid long-term plans. Besides, by the time the next generation becomes dominant I will be gone and thus I will no longer be able to care about them anyway.

    2. There’s no future as time is just matter/energy moving through space – assuming all forms that it can potentially assume and then repeating itself throughout eternity: thus “past” becomes “present,” “present” becomes “future” and “future” becomes “past again. As far as I’m concered only the period of time we know as the “present” matters to me as it’s the one I exist in.

    It must be nice to be able to think yourself superior to others simply by accident of where you were born.

    It has nothing to do with where I was born and everything to do with good ol’ natural selection – there simply aren’t enough resources to go arould to all individuals in a population (the geography is irrevevant here as all lands can only produce so much), so populations (human or otherwise) compete for the existing resources and the result is that some will win and survive and others will lose and die.

    It may sound cruel to folks who think of nature’s bounty as being infinitely renewable, but the cold, hard truth is that existence is a zero-sum game: there’s always only so many material resources to go around and there will always be competition for them. I intend to be on the winning side of that Darwinian war.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I just remembered why I don’t poke this sociopath.

    The next generation (be it of my seed or some one else’s) will fend for itself no matter what we do in now…

    No, it won’t if we sufficiently destroy the planet’s ecosystem to the point that humans die off. It might not matter to you personally, but I’m sure you know some younger people that will be affected by it, and it’s nice to know that you don’t care if they live or die.

    There’s no future as time is just matter/energy moving through space…

    Nice pseudo-scientific sounding BS.

    It has nothing to do with where I was born and everything to do with good ol’ natural selection…

    Keep telling yourself that. The access that you have to natural resources (especially wealth) are determined by where you were born, or do you think that if you had been born in Africa that you would be there only because of natural selection? More pseudo-science, yay!

  • Brad

    Two people cannot swordfight off of two different rooftops. If two people hold irreconcilably different value judgments, then it is inevitable they will disagree and be totally unable to agree on any conclusion deriving from those judgments. So don’t try crossing the wires, because only sparks will fly and no circuit logic will emerge.

  • prase

    Ebonmuse,

    The amount of solar energy the Earth receives in a single hour is equal to humanity’s current energy needs for an entire year. There is no issue of renewable sources not providing enough energy, only a question of whether we can capture and utilize it efficiently.

    Are you sure that reducing the energy income from the Sun by approx. 1/8000 doesn’t cause significant changes in the environment? It is still lower than the changes in solar activity over time due to solar cycles (1/1000, but this has impact on the climate); but by your proposal the effect will be concentrated locally (mainly on deserts) and it is not so easy to predict what happens. I think bestonnet is right in the point that the renewable energy is stolen from nature, and such small change can disturb the nature even if it is not easily visible how. (I am not saying that CO2 emmissions aren’t more dangerous.)

  • alex siyer

    well, we could merge both ideas (the microwaves-space/and the Sahara solar plant).

    I mean, after collecting the Saharan solar energy we could beam it to some kind of satellite system and then re-send it to wherever it`s needed. Also we could avoid the night problem by having a secondary solar plant in another desert (which would be able to provide energy during the Saharan night)

    on another subject; It haven`t been mentioned the scary pollution with pharmaceuticals and sex hormones in our water supplies, which would probably will increase in the next few years.

  • Alex Weaver

    OMFG,

    Do you have kids?

    Do dogs count?

    -Christopher

    …not gonna say it…

    It has nothing to do with where I was born and everything to do with good ol’ natural selection – there simply aren’t enough resources to go arould to all individuals in a population (the geography is irrevevant here as all lands can only produce so much), so populations (human or otherwise) compete for the existing resources and the result is that some will win and survive and others will lose and die.

    It may sound cruel to folks who think of nature’s bounty as being infinitely renewable, but the cold, hard truth is that existence is a zero-sum game: there’s always only so many material resources to go around and there will always be competition for them. I intend to be on the winning side of that Darwinian war.

    The fact that you’re convinced you’re part of the “superior” group without providing any evidence of such and with an apparently categorical inability to grasp the concept and benefits of reciprocal altruism is telling.

    Are you sure that reducing the energy income from the Sun by approx. 1/8000 doesn’t cause significant changes in the environment? It is still lower than the changes in solar activity over time due to solar cycles (1/1000, but this has impact on the climate); but by your proposal the effect will be concentrated locally (mainly on deserts) and it is not so easy to predict what happens. I think bestonnet is right in the point that the renewable energy is stolen from nature, and such small change can disturb the nature even if it is not easily visible how. (I am not saying that CO2 emmissions aren’t more dangerous.)

    Considering the fraction of that electrical energy that will be dissipated as heat in some form later on, it’s certainly not like it just disappears.

  • prase

    Considering the fraction of that electrical energy that will be dissipated as heat in some form later on, it’s certainly not like it just disappears.

    The problem may be that it dissipates at place different from where it was collected.

  • bestonnet

    Samuel Skinner:

    For deserts, we have the South-West in the US, Atacama in SA, Sahara and Kalahari in Africa, Gobi and the empty Quarter in Asia and Australia in Australia.

    Aside from leaving out the biggest desert in the world (even though that one is pretty much useless for solar power generation) that also doesn’t explain where Europe is going to put it’s solar farms (unless they cut down trees or build a super-conducting line to Africa or Asia).

    Samuel Skinner:

    Space travel will NEVER be a solution- people breed faster than you can cram them into rockets.

    The airliner like operation (does not in any way mean looks like an airplane) that we’d need for serious space development would mean that we could cram people into rockets faster than they breed.

    Samuel Skinner:

    No, it is easy to do, just a problem of efficiency. Worse comes to worse, we can simply use water towers to store energy.

    If it’s easy to do why isn’t it being done?

    As for water towers, ever heard of: V = mgh?

    For 1 km height, and about 10 m/s^2 gravity you’d be able to store 10 MJ of energy per tonne of water. That won’t even be enough for 1 kW consumption over 3 hours so if you want to run a heater on a cold winter night you’re going to need more than a tonne of water for each house in a city to be pumped up to 1 km (more if you don’t build your water tower that high). Then the second law of thermodynamics comes up and makes you use even more.

    Samuel Skinner:

    All proposed plans require a massive change in “what we have”. As it is, it is just a problem of getting high efficiency.

    At which point you run the risk of Jevons paradox.

    Besides, I was referring to technology and using only technologies that are mature and well tested, those fossil fuelled power plants are going to need replacement but we should ensure that we use a replacement that we know can do the job right now, as opposed to something that might be able to do the job if we give it a few decades of R&D and if a couple of other pieces of technology that are also in R&D work out.

    Samuel Skinner:

    Honestly? Get fusion and all your problems will be over. The Sun can do it and so can we- getting it controlled is the hard part.

    Not sure I’d want to launch a fusion rocket from Earth (Power is the thrust times the exhaust velocity, high thrust and high exhaust velocity means high power, with fusion rockets we’re talking of the order of Megatonne of TNT per second).

    But when it comes to power on Earth fusion is a promising technology, we just need a few decades to get it to work (yes, I know they said that a few decades ago, but quite a bit of progress has been made on that).

    Samuel Skinner:

    Using a space elevator or magnetic accelerator would help drastically reduce the cost and impact of space launches.

    A space fountain would also probably help and could be done using conventional materials, mass drivers are the way to go for getting material from the moon (an airless body) but for Earth it might be better to mount them on a space fountain at ~100 km altitude instead of ground level.

    Samuel Skinner:

    Sadly, we don’t have any of these things. People are pushing solar because unlike space based ideas, it has alot less problems to deal with.

    Ground based solar has significant problems of it’s own.

    prase:

    Are you sure that reducing the energy income from the Sun by approx. 1/8000 doesn’t cause significant changes in the environment? It is still lower than the changes in solar activity over time due to solar cycles (1/1000, but this has impact on the climate); but by your proposal the effect will be concentrated locally (mainly on deserts) and it is not so easy to predict what happens. I think bestonnet is right in the point that the renewable energy is stolen from nature, and such small change can disturb the nature even if it is not easily visible how. (I am not saying that CO2 emmissions aren’t more dangerous.)

    CO2 emissions are more dangerous to be sure but even more dangerous than CO2 emissions is lack of energy (which is why coal power plants are still being used and still being built despite pretty much everyone who doesn’t make money mining coal wanting the coal industry gone).

    An for solar stealing energy, it will do that (so would space solar although the higher end to end efficiency possible by not having to deal with night or clouds or energy storage would mean less is stolen) but it’s unlikely to be much of an effect per se. Large solar collectors on the ground though would have an effect especially if they aren’t built in deserts, there’s also the increase in albedo that would occur from covering a desert with so many black panels (probably not as bad as CO2 though).

    Still, even deserts have life and some of that life would be displaced.

    alex siyer:

    well, we could merge both ideas (the microwaves-space/and the Sahara solar plant).

    I mean, after collecting the Saharan solar energy we could beam it to some kind of satellite system and then re-send it to wherever it`s needed. Also we could avoid the night problem by having a secondary solar plant in another desert (which would be able to provide energy during the Saharan night)

    It’s possible although if you could do it then you could probably just put the solar panels in space where it’s sunny almost all the time.

    alex siyer:

    on another subject; It haven`t been mentioned the scary pollution with pharmaceuticals and sex hormones in our water supplies, which would probably will increase in the next few years.

    A potential worry although it’d depend on the doses (we can detect things at levels well below where there’s any real risk of harm).

  • Christopher

    Alex Weaver,

    -Christopher

    …not gonna say it…

    Say what? That it’s somehow shameful that I ascribe a value to my two pitbulls that would normally be reserved for biological offspring? When you raise something almost from birth (I had them since they were 2-week-old pups) you develop a bond with it akin to that of a child – what’s so terrible about that?

    The fact that you’re convinced you’re part of the “superior” group without providing any evidence of such and with an apparently categorical inability to grasp the concept and benefits of reciprocal altruism is telling.

    1. When did I say I was “superior?” The ability to attain more resources than someone else only indicates that one can attain resources better than another party – not intrinsic “superiority.”

    2. I do practice the idea of reciprocity – I just don’t delude myself into thinking that it’s done with any altruistic intetions.

    OMFG,

    No, it won’t if we sufficiently destroy the planet’s ecosystem to the point that humans die off. It might not matter to you personally, but I’m sure you know some younger people that will be affected by it, and it’s nice to know that you don’t care if they live or die.

    1. Even if we do make an effort to maintain our ecosystem, that’s no guarantee that it won’t implode on itself anyway – all it takes is one good meteor strike or supervolcanic eruption or some other such disaster and life as we know it will come to an end regardless of all our futile efforts to keep nature “in balance.” To think that we have total control over whether or not the environment will continue to support us or not is nothing short of arrogance.

    2. People can only care about things so long as they are alive – death = inability to care about anything. By the time the next generation comes on the scene, I won’t care what they do – not because I’m an insensitive asshole (as certain people perceive me as being), but because I will literally, physically be unable to care what they do or don’t do.

    Keep telling yourself that. The access that you have to natural resources (especially wealth) are determined by where you were born, or do you think that if you had been born in Africa that you would be there only because of natural selection?

    That is only partially true – yes, some lands have more resources than others yet the fact remains that (a) the amount of resources availible are finite (no matter how many resources there are they will eventually run out) and (b) populations *will* compete for them and those better suited towards taking them *will* get more of resources availible. This is true whether you are born in Africa, the U.S., the Middle East or another goddamn planet.

    The only difference I see is one of resource quantity, not principle.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    1. Even if we do make an effort to maintain our ecosystem, that’s no guarantee that it won’t implode on itself anyway – all it takes is one good meteor strike or supervolcanic eruption or some other such disaster and life as we know it will come to an end regardless of all our futile efforts to keep nature “in balance.” To think that we have total control over whether or not the environment will continue to support us or not is nothing short of arrogance.

    That’s like saying, “Who cares if I shoot you in the head and kill you since you might get hit and killed by a car tomorrow.”

    2. People can only care about things so long as they are alive – death = inability to care about anything. By the time the next generation comes on the scene, I won’t care what they do – not because I’m an insensitive asshole (as certain people perceive me as being), but because I will literally, physically be unable to care what they do or don’t do.

    Your refusal to note that I’m not talking about after you die, but your callous attitude towards others who are living right now while you yourself are alive is duly noted. Nowhere did anyone say, “How dare you not care about people while you are dead.” No, we noted that you obviously don’t give a flying eff right now about whether younger people (that you know even) die tomorrow or whenever in some horrible plight that you helped happen. This is why we call you a sociopath.

    That is only partially true – yes, some lands have more resources than others yet the fact remains that (a) the amount of resources availible are finite (no matter how many resources there are they will eventually run out) and (b) populations *will* compete for them and those better suited towards taking them *will* get more of resources availible. This is true whether you are born in Africa, the U.S., the Middle East or another goddamn planet.

    And you still think yourself more deserving and better than others simply because you were born here in the US. This has nothing to do with evolution and everything to do with your warped version of reality.

  • Christopher

    That’s like saying, “Who cares if I shoot you in the head and kill you since you might get hit and killed by a car tomorrow.”

    More like “why bother washing the car when a little rain can do the job just as well?” The way I see it, our species’ ultimate destination is extiction anyways – so we might as well enjoy the ride while we’re here.

    No, we noted that you obviously don’t give a flying eff right now about whether younger people (that you know even) die tomorrow or whenever in some horrible plight that you helped happen. This is why we call you a sociopath.

    I prefer to leave people to their own devices: if they make it so be it, if not it’s tough luck for them. Call me crazy, but I like the idea of having nature root out the weak – such an approach would help solve our overpopulation problems (fewer people = more resources to go around).

    And you still think yourself more deserving and better than others simply because you were born here in the US.

    And it’s apparent that you still don’t get it – no one “deserves” anything as there is no standard regarding what folks are “deserving” or not. The whole idea is just a construct designed to make people feel like they have certain things guaranteed to them. People get whatever it is they get based soley on their ability to take whatever’s availible in their environment. I’ll admit that chance has played me a favorible hand in some aspects, but I hardly see them as a sign of me getting them because I “deserve” them more than some one else.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    More like “why bother washing the car when a little rain can do the job just as well?” The way I see it, our species’ ultimate destination is extiction anyways – so we might as well enjoy the ride while we’re here.

    Nice try, but I don’t think anyone is fooled.

    I prefer to leave people to their own devices: if they make it so be it, if not it’s tough luck for them.

    I stand by my assessment and others’ that you are in fact sociopathic.

    And it’s apparent that you still don’t get it – no one “deserves” anything as there is no standard regarding what folks are “deserving” or not.

    And you don’t get your own hypocrisy. This is especially blatant when you claim things like:

    I’ll admit that chance has played me a favorible hand in some aspects, but I hardly see them as a sign of me getting them because I “deserve” them more than some one else.

    and:

    …all men are *not* created equal nor are they all equally entitled to resources. The strongest among us have first pick, and going down the line everyone else just has to settle for whatever’s left.

    Are you really so delusional as to not understand that you are one of “the strongest” based solely on the fact that you were born in the US instead of in Uganda?

    With that, I will stop feeding your trolling, since you’ve done a splendid job at making yourself look ridiculous.

  • Christopher

    I will stop feeding your trolling, since you’ve done a splendid job at making yourself look ridiculous.

    I was going to say the same thing after reading you last post – you keep looking at people like they’re just members of larger collectives rather than sovreigns that separate themselves from them. Unless you adjust that mindset there’s little more to be said…

  • http://cafephilos.wordpress.com/ Paul Sunstone

    What passes for conservatism these days is arguably authoritarianism.

  • bestonnet

    Paul Sunstone:

    What passes for conservatism these days is arguably authoritarianism.

    Could you clarify because I can’t quite tell what it is you are actually saying and in what way you are using “conservatism”?

  • lpetrich

    I don’t see how renewables are a path to fossil-fuel use, because I’ve calculated the ratio of consumption to production of them, and it’s something on the order of 1 million. And some fossil fuels are not being produced at rates comparable to their past production.

    The biggest coal deposits are from the Carboniferous and the Permian, and it’s likely because termites evolved in the Triassic and ate all the dead trees that might otherwise have become coal. And much crude oil had formed in Oceanic Anoxic Events, notably in the Mesozoic; there have not been as many in the Cenozoic, especially not recently. OAE’s mostly happen during relatiely warm periods (“greenhouse climate”), and we are in a relatively cool period (“icehouse climate”).

    Nuclear fusion won’t be ready anytime soon — it’s been VERY difficult to construct a fusion reactor that puts out more energy than is necessary to run it.

    And going into outer space? I’ve calculated how much energy one needs, and it’s enormous, especially if one wants to send along all the necessary supplies to build a self-sustaining space colony. Supplies like enough biomass of food plants and animals to sustain having some of it eaten.

    I don’t know where bestonnet gets his ideas — I don’t think that I’ve ever seen anything like them.

  • bestonnet

    lpetrich:

    I don’t see how renewables are a path to fossil-fuel use, because I’ve calculated the ratio of consumption to production of them, and it’s something on the order of 1 million. And some fossil fuels are not being produced at rates comparable to their past production.

    Renewables were what our civilisation was based on before we started to use fossil fuels and allowed us to have the technological base upon which to exploit fossil fuels.

    lpetrich:

    Nuclear fusion won’t be ready anytime soon — it’s been VERY difficult to construct a fusion reactor that puts out more energy than is necessary to run it.

    ITER probably will succeed at that. Fusion whilst it is 30 years away, 30 years ago, has actually been making steady progress towards break-even and if the trends are projected ITER should be able to do it (then DEMO can be an actual fusion power plant).

    lpetrich:

    And going into outer space? I’ve calculated how much energy one needs, and it’s enormous, especially if one wants to send along all the necessary supplies to build a self-sustaining space colony. Supplies like enough biomass of food plants and animals to sustain having some of it eaten.

    If the only thing we had to pay for space launch was energy costs at electricity rates there’d be no problem with affording it.

    Although space colonies are more likely to be built using materials from space, not blasted up from Earth so only things that can’t be made in space (computers, biomass, maybe nitrogen and carbon if you use moon mining) would need to be blasted up from Earth. Most of the mass of a space colony would be radiation shielding anyway (I also doubt our first space colony would be self-sufficient).

  • lpetrich

    Why is it necessary to use fossil fuels? Is it dishonorable to use renewables?

    And moaning and groaning about how putting up solar panels will lead to deforestation — that seems like unconvincing pseudo-environmentalism.

    I don’t think that bestonnet realizes how difficult it is to travel in outer space. There are a lot of things that you have to provide for your human crews that on Earth we either get for free or else that are much less costly to acquire. Air. Water. Food. An appropriate temperature. A suitable volume to move around in.

    I once calculated that the amount of rocket fuel that an astronaut needs for going into low earth orbit is the equivalent of 7500 gallons of gasoline, and that is working from the Soyuz rocket, not the Space Shuttle.

    And as to mining the Moon, that would be OK for silicon and the more common metals, but for hydrogen and nitrogen and other volatiles, forget it. It’s possible to go to the outer Solar System or some comet to get ice, but the only thing one will save is rocket propellant — that will be an extremely time-consuming solution.

  • bestonnet

    lpetrich:

    Why is it necessary to use fossil fuels?

    If we need the energy, aren’t allowed to use fission, don’t have the technology to do fusion or the infrastructure to do space power systems and don’t have the geology to use one of the useful renewables (i.e. hydro and geothermal) then there’s really no alternative to fossil fuels. This happens to describe quite a lot of places including where I am.

    lpetrich:

    Is it dishonorable to use renewables?

    There are niche markets in which renewables are useful (e.g. off grid power only needed during the day) but the ones that can be used everywhere can’t handle baseload without storage technology we currently don’t have.

    lpetrich:

    And moaning and groaning about how putting up solar panels will lead to deforestation — that seems like unconvincing pseudo-environmentalism.

    Actually it is those who are proposing putting up the solar panels that are engaging in pseudo-environmentalism.

    Deforestation is actually a big environmental issue and not something we should be trying to make worse just to feel good about not burying a small amount of waste where it won’t enter the environment.

    lpetrich:

    I don’t think that bestonnet realizes how difficult it is to travel in outer space. There are a lot of things that you have to provide for your human crews that on Earth we either get for free or else that are much less costly to acquire. Air. Water. Food. An appropriate temperature. A suitable volume to move around in.

    Those are all things we can do and have been able to do for decades.

    lpetrich:

    I once calculated that the amount of rocket fuel that an astronaut needs for going into low earth orbit is the equivalent of 7500 gallons of gasoline, and that is working from the Soyuz rocket, not the Space Shuttle.

    The actual figures for how much a Soyuz uses (more than 250 t of propellent) are easily available but largely irrelevant at present since propellent costs are actually a very tiny proportion of the cost of a space launch (even for rockets using expensive Hypergolic propellants instead of relatively cheap LOX, hydrocarbons or hydrogen (and the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels anyway)).

    lpetrich:

    And as to mining the Moon, that would be OK for silicon and the more common metals, but for hydrogen and nitrogen and other volatiles, forget it.

    For a space power satellite most of the mass would be metal structure and silicon which can be obtained from the moon just fine.

    For a space colony most of the mass would be radiation shielding and you don’t really care what materials you use, just as long as you have enough mass so slag left over from ore processing will do just fine with the second largest mass being the structure. Hydrogen containing substances are better at stopping the radiation in space but that’s only really going to matter for spaceships, not space colonies that are meant to stay in one place.

    Bringing what little Hydrogen, Carbon and Nitrogen we need from Earth would work just fine provided we can get most of the mass we need from space (and we’ll need to prove the technology used for space mining, so it’s probably not a good idea to rely on it if you can avoid it).

    lpetrich:

    It’s possible to go to the outer Solar System or some comet to get ice, but the only thing one will save is rocket propellant — that will be an extremely time-consuming solution.

    A lot of near earth asteroids are probably burnt out comets that still have a lot of volatiles.

  • lpetrich

    bestonnet, there you go again. Do you really think that the only place for a solar panel is in a forest? You remind me of the Kennedy family, which despite its claims of greenie credentials, opposes the Cape Wind offshore wind farm at Cape Cod.

    And let’s take a look at the Soyuz spacecraft again. The spacecraft’s mass is about 7120 kg, and it takes the equivalent of 22500 gallons of gasoline to get it into orbit. That’s about 3000 gallons/ton or 60 barrels/ton, and that’s into low earth orbit.

    That spacecraft carries 3 people, which is where I got the 7500 gallons/person or 140 barrels/person. So to send a billion people into low earth orbit, you’d need half of Saudi Arabia’s estimated reserves of crude oil.

    Notice that I said “low earth orbit” — to get out of there requires additional rocket propellant. And to live in outer space for any length of time, one will have to have much more volume per person and much more food biomass per person than will be available in a Soyuz spacecraft.

    It’s possible to construct solar-electric or nuclear-electric low-thrust rockets; it has actually been done in the form of the SMART-1 rocket to the Moon. But such rockets are awfully slow.

    And mining asteroids? Don’t make me laugh. Point me to a reasonably cost-effective way of extracting metals from metal silicates, as compared to extracting them from metal oxides or carbonates or sulfates or chlorides or other common ore chemistries. I remember trying to research this question and coming up empty-handed. There might be something in some mining journal somewhere, but such publications are usually buried in university libraries or behind paywalls.

    And the mining machines would have to be built, and then sent to those asteroids.

  • bestonnet

    lpetrich:

    bestonnet, there you go again. Do you really think that the only place for a solar panel is in a forest?

    There are some places where that is the only place to put solar panels.

    lpetrich:

    You remind me of the Kennedy family, which despite its claims of greenie credentials, opposes the Cape Wind offshore wind farm at Cape Cod.

    I don’t see how I could considering that I’d be quite happy to have one of my preferred power sources right in my backyard (although it just so happens that my preferred power sources don’t have the infrasonic problem or strobe light effect of wind power).

    lpetrich:

    That spacecraft carries 3 people, which is where I got the 7500 gallons/person or 140 barrels/person. So to send a billion people into low earth orbit, you’d need half of Saudi Arabia’s estimated reserves of crude oil.

    Which is quite doable (and if you’ve just assumed that all of that >250 t propellent is fuel then you’ve overestimated the amount of oil needed since most of the propellent is actually LOX).

    Of course in the long term we’ll end up switching to synthetic fuels at which point we’ll be able to make the fuel from CO2 from the atmosphere and water.

    lpetrich:

    Notice that I said “low earth orbit” — to get out of there requires additional rocket propellant. And to live in outer space for any length of time, one will have to have much more volume per person and much more food biomass per person than will be available in a Soyuz spacecraft.

    It is often said that Low Earth Orbit is half way to anywhere (and by the time we’re moving even millions of people into space we’ll have a pretty well developed space infrastructure with many space stations to dock to and with food grown in space).

    lpetrich:

    It’s possible to construct solar-electric or nuclear-electric low-thrust rockets; it has actually been done in the form of the SMART-1 rocket to the Moon. But such rockets are awfully slow.

    There have been a lot of other solar-electric spacecraft and they’ve worked pretty well (though somewhat slowly), I’m not aware of any use of nuclear-electric propulsion so far although the technology to do it is all out there.

    Of course there is also the nuclear thermal rocket which provides a higher exhaust velocity than a chemical rocket and enough thrust for manned applications. The US got it to the point at which it was almost ready for a test flight before it was cancelled (since the US government had decided not to go to Mars).

    lpetrich:

    And mining asteroids? Don’t make me laugh. Point me to a reasonably cost-effective way of extracting metals from metal silicates, as compared to extracting them from metal oxides or carbonates or sulfates or chlorides or other common ore chemistries. I remember trying to research this question and coming up empty-handed. There might be something in some mining journal somewhere, but such publications are usually buried in university libraries or behind paywalls.

    Some asteroids are just giant lumps of Iron-Nickel alloy and many others contain quite a significant amount of oxides (including chondrites which are the most common type).

    Although even silicates can be mined, you just need to provide enough energy (which is much easier to do in space where solar concentrators can be very flimsy).

    lpetrich:

    And the mining machines would have to be built, and then sent to those asteroids.

    The idea is that the equipment used to mine the asteroids would be a lot lighter than the materials you’d get out of mining it.