To avoid the Great Dying our planet may be facing, we should look towards colonising space, says Kim Peart.
In 1942, mainland Australia was nearly invaded by a Japanese force fighting its way through the mountains and jungles of New Guinea, which Australian diggers (soldiers) engaged, halted and repelled on the bitterly contested Kokoda Track. Now, with the carbon crisis, another enemy is upon us — and it is time to awaken from the dreaming of better days to meet this challenge.
The most concerning feature of the carbon crisis is the news that too much carbon in the air, as carbon dioxide (CO2), has been entering the oceans and turning the old briny acidic — threatening to dissolve shells and undermine the global food chain. We are warned that the final destination of this process could result in giant algal blooms in dying oceans releasing toxic hydrogen sulphide gas — that can kill life on land and destroy the ozone layer.
It is now feared that this has happened before on Earth — and most dramatically in an event called the Great Dying, 251 million years ago, during which most of life on Earth perished. It took life 50 million years to recover from that blow with renewed evolutionary diversity.
The Great Dying happened over a period of 200,000 years, but the human impact of rapidly releasing a high volume of carbon into the air during the industrial era may now herald a much swifter and more catastrophic disaster.
When we have a sensitive system, as with the body of the living Earth, we may wonder why Mother Nature would allow a conscious species of life to interfere with her life-support systems. The answer to that puzzle could lie in life's simple drive for expansion toward greater diversity.
Life on Earth is of itself unable to expand into space, or we would see strange forms swimming around in the Solar system, soaking in solar energy and feasting on comets. The emergence of a tool-making species that can build spaceships changes the equation for life's expansion beyond Earth, but to achieve space technology requires the use of fossil fuel, long sequestered by Nature in the belly of the Earth.
If we can imagine the process as one of Nature giving birth to life beyond Earth, then fossil fuel can be seen as the birth-booster at a very sophisticated level of evolution. In this context, to delay the call of Nature for stellar expansion and burn fossil fuel too long, turns the birth-booster into a toxin to life and puts the whole planet at risk of stillbirth.
One of the first scientists to warn the world about the carbon problem was James Hansen, now head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen is concerned that unless we keep CO2 levels below 350 parts per million (ppm), now at 388.92ppm, we run the risk of creating a second Venus, where the rocks glow in a heat that can melt lead, which he calls the Venus syndrome (p.223 'Storms of My Grandchildren' 2010).
Cosmologists are puzzled as to why there is no evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence in the cosmos. In the light of Hansen's warning, we may wonder if many species have arisen on planets across the Universe to challenge infinity, but burned their birth-booster too long and drove their planet into a hot stillbirth.
If we survive our current carbon crisis, we may in time discover the husks of failed civilizations on Venus-like planets around distant stars and know the answer to the great silence from the stars. Do we need to lay our eyes on such stark evidence before we get serious about making the transition from an Earth-based carbon economy to a civilization built on stellar energy that could last as long as the stars shine?
In his 2009 book 'The Vanishing Face of Gaia’, James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory for Earth's life-support systems, pointed out that our Sun is now 25 per cent hotter than at the dawn of life 3.5 billion years ago and will one day expand to the size of Earth's orbit as our star becomes a red giant in 5 billion years. Global warming on Earth will be an irreversible reality long before then.
Over the billions of years Earth's life-support systems have been working to keep the temperature on this planet at a suitable level for life as the Sun has become steadily hotter. Lovelock warns that the impact of too much carbon released so swiftly could generate a sudden shift to a permanently hotter planet, one that is much less hospitable to life and resulting in the deaths of billions of people.
The greatest tragedy for humanity could be the loss of the cutting edge of space technology, leaving us trapped on this planet and gazing into the fiery hell of the Venus syndrome. This spectre can now be seen with the United States’ current loss of the ability to send an astronaut into space and until that is won back, it remains lost.
Any student of the history of space development knows that we were in a position to pursue serious space development in the 1970s following the success of the Apollo missions to the Moon. When Dr Peter Glazer proposed the building of solar power stations in space in 1968, the stage was set for the birth of life beyond Earth.
In the early 1970s, Professor Gerard K O'Neill put all the pieces together and worked out a plan to build a baby star-faring society with the technology of the day — by building solar power stations in space, launching space industry and constructing Earth-gravity orbital space settlements. In his 1977 book 'The High Frontier' O'Neill wrote concerning space based solar power:
"If this development comes to pass, we will find ourselves here on Earth with a clean energy source, and we will further improve our environment by saving, each year, over a billion tons of fossil fuels,” (p.162).
If the world had acted on O'Neill's vision, instead of pouring money and blood into wars like that in Vietnam, we could have entirely avoided the carbon crisis and kept a safe Earth. Instead of expansion toward greater diversity beyond Earth, the environmental movement became trapped in a death-waltz with the carbon energy industries and both distracted parties failed to see the gathering danger that is now upon us.
As a consequence of seeking solutions to all needs and or problems on Earth alone, human civilization is now at risk of becoming a total failure, as the painful spasms of stillbirth begin to grip our planet.
As avoiding expansion of life beyond Earth has created the problem we face, does the solution to the carbon crisis and winning back a safe Earth lie in getting back to the future of space development? If it does, then radical surgery will now be required to save the life of both mother and child, life on Earth and human civilization.
In the age of democracy, it is over to individuals to figure matters out and if there is agreement that the long-avoided expansion beyond Earth is the solution to the carbon crisis, then there is a political vision that can be driven like a stampede of wild horses, because our future now depends on action for survival. A clear path of action will generate hope in the hearts of people and the confidence to tackle and solve any problem.
Australia is in an amazingly unique position in the world at present, going through a resource bonanza in a region of the planet that is in need of resources. Rather than squander this unique boon and be left with little to show but a fist full of dollars turning to dust, why not invest this amazing bonanza in building solar power stations in space?
Carbon can be cracked from CO2, but it will take a huge volume of energy to achieve this and turn the crisis. With unlimited access to solar energy, harvested directly in space and beamed to Earth, the level of energy will be available to mine excess carbon from the air and sea as a resource for construction and building.
With solar power stations beyond Earth, we would be able to launch industry in space and also build orbital space settlements that offer an Earth gravity via rotation. At the same time we would be creating a strong defence to deal with the next monster asteroid that will arrive one day to threaten the Earth, by pushing it into a new orbit, or mining the beast into oblivion for the resources.
Better to have a strong forward defence than be caught like sitting ducks in the game of cosmic billiards.
By launching into serious space development, young people will be attracted into careers in science and engineering and many great minds will be drawn Down Under to work under the stars of the Southern Cross.
With access to unlimited stellar energy in space, Australia would be in a position to desalinate any volume of ocean water and pump the liquid gold to where people will need energy and water to survive and keep cool. We could turn the deserts green, build many more cities and create a much stronger manufacturing base.
Australia would also be in a position to work with northern neighbours, to also access stellar energy to build their way through the carbon crisis, especially if the oceans begin to die and start releasing toxic hydrogen sulphide gas from algal blooms. Our expansion beyond Earth may therefore determine our ability to survive on Earth and keep our global civilization on track into the future.
In changing geopolitical circumstances, new superpowers are emerging in the world and taking an increasing interest in their trade routes and access to resources. With shipping between China and the Middle East running through Indonesia, China may seek strong ties with Indonesia, even the establishing of a military presence to protect supply lines.
Indonesia is one of the nations that is predicted to be hit hard by dangerous climate change as the carbon crisis intensifies and it is easy to imagine a future where China forces Australia to accept quite a few million Indonesian environmental refugees. This may not be a peaceful transition for Australia, and may be one that even leads to the questioning of our right to hold the entire continent as one nation.
Conflict over territory and resources may be avoided, if Australia takes a leap forward with space development and works with our north to build their way through the crisis. With the high frontier being opened, there will be space, energy and resources across the Solar System for all nations wishing to expand and build new land for human settlement.
The cost of expansion beyond Earth is often raised as a barrier. This should not be the case, especially as our very survival may now depend on reaching out to the Sun to heal the Earth.
A simple forward projection can demonstrate that a line would one day be reached in space development, using the unlimited energy of the Sun and resources from across the Solar System, where there would be no further cost to Earth, where all subsequent space development will be essentially free and the return to Earth on the investment would be infinite.
I call this the Liberty Line.
A clear vision of and giant leap to the Liberty Line would allow humanity to create an entirely different form of economy in the Solar System (the Solar economy), where we will be able to send poverty marching off into history, as we offer a healthy life with unlimited creative opportunities for all Earth's children. When we know the shape of the Solar economy that we are working toward, then this will become a form of futures market that we can start planning and building for now.
Since China blew up one of its own satellites in early 2007, concerns have grown about security in space, where human habitats are fragile bubbles in a vacuum, all too easily burst from within or without by conflict and or terrorism. A vision for space that includes the health of all Earth's children may be the key to a more peaceful Earth, by generating the goodwill for peace that translates into improved security in space.
The ultimate peace movement may therefore prove to be the vision of the solar economy.
Beyond the carbon crisis and the winning back of a safe Earth, we may no longer require energy beamed from the solar power stations in space, as ground-based solar power generation may prove to be adequate for terrestrial needs, especially with much industry being located in space. In this future, it is possible to imagine a slow-Earth society, where fleets of airships able to reach any location may replace jet aircraft and cargo ships, where people may travel more than now, but at a slower pace.
With our cosmic survival assured and access to unlimited stellar energy, we may send out many stellar explorers to the stars, powered by solar sails driven to a high velocity by a laser beam powered by the Sun. In time the great migration ships, offering an Earth gravity via rotation, may also set out on journeys lasting generations, heading to cities among the stars built by the robots that will arrive first.
We are now in the dawn of a robot revolution — where the home computers will grow legs and work around the house; where nearly all factories will be automated, as is now rapidly becoming the case, just as mining is fast becoming an automated process, excluding humans from the income flow. It is with a view to the solar economy that we will need to grapple with these socio-economic changes and redesign our society to ensure that all people are able to participate and benefit from the boons generated, not just through the humiliation of a welfare payment, but by being universally valued as a creative contributor to our civilization.
The Solar economy cannot be planned and run, let alone peace on Earth delivered, by continuing to run our society with a 1950s economic model that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of one per cent of humanity.
Change to a more mature and cultured society will only happen when a critical number of individuals on Earth awaken to the realities of the Solar economy and connect all the pieces of our problems to deliver a whole solution. It should be very clear by now that a total focus on Earth, whether by corporations or conservationists, is a death-trap and if we continue to carry on with business as usual, we may simply be working our fingers to the bone to gain a permanent place in our planets long fossil record.
Just as Australian diggers rallied to meet the challenge of the Japanese invasion in 1942, we again need to rally and mobilise to face the brutal truth of our circumstances and demand action for survival at a level that offers the hope and certainty that will generate confidence and action. The threat is no less now than during World War Two.
An unexpected victim of the carbon crisis is the Australian koala, because the higher levels of CO2 in the air are making its gum leaf tucker more toxic and less nutritious, threatening the koala with extinction from malnutrition and death by starvation. For the koala to survive the carbon crisis, we may need to build protected environments with reduced levels of CO2 in the air, so that gum leaf will grow that the koala can eat.
I call these protected environments Earth Oasis, which could serve as arks for life should conditions on Earth start to become too hostile in the open as we fight to win back a safe Earth. In this future, with toxic hydrogen sulphide gas poisoning the air and a damaged ozone layer, we may be forced to live on Earth more as if we were living in space, simply to survive.
Is the great silence in the cosmos telling us something? If we will awaken to heed the warning, we may find that the birth of life beyond Earth is only the beginning of a new phase in cosmic evolution, as we spread our wings from Sol and learn to fly among the stars.