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Colonizing Planet Earth
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by WorldchangingCanada writer Karl Schroeder

If our civilization requires the resource equivalent of three earths to be sustainable, then we have to stop drawing on ecosystem services that are overstretched. In fact, maybe we should start acting like there are no ecosystem services available to us at all.

What's an ecosystem service? Here's Wikipedia's definition:

Ecosystem services are distinct from other ecosystem products and functions because there is human demand for these natural assets. Services can be subdivided into five categories: provisioning such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits; and preserving, which includes guarding against uncertainty through the maintenance of diversity.

Economically, ecosystem services provide us with assets that we would otherwise have to produce ourselves. The simplest example is water treatment, which is done for free by our aquifers. It's possible to directly measure the equivalent cost of a water treatment plant for a given set of wetlands or aquifer, which means you can exactly quantify the value of many ecosystem services. Pollination is another hugely important ecosystem service, which is provided largely for free by bees.

There's a lot of discussion about ecosystem services these days, and about our ecological footprint. The usual line is this: we're using three earths worth of resources, so we have to find a way to cut back or we're all sunk. This is true, but as I've pointed out before, there's a dramatic difference in terms of motivating people, between framing something as a positive, or as a negative. The "three earths" metaphor is good for scaring people, but it's a negative: it evokes images of austerity and sacrifice. If we want to motivate people to change things, it's always better to frame the change in terms of opportunity.

Charles Stross recently yanked the collective chains of the space advocacy movement with a little article entitled "The High Frontier, Redux." In this article he questions the practicality, and ultimately the value, of human colonization of other worlds. To make the point that there's "no there there" when it comes to space colonization, Charlie quotes Bruce Sterling:

I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

...And this is where I break ranks with Charlie and Bruce. Because the assumption both of them are making is that the only places worth settling are those that provide us with good ecosystem services. Quite apart from being a spectacularly lazy point of view, this stance takes for granted that alternatives to the Gobi desert (or Mars) are still available to us. But as the "three earths" metaphor makes clear, they aren't. In fact, if you ask where we should have been building our cities over the last century or so, the answer is in the Gobi desert, and the Sahara, and the barest and emptiest rocky plains we could find. (Even those have thriving ecosystems, of course.)

We should have been colonizing Earth as though it were a planet with no ecosystem resources to exploit.

Look at the difference between what we do when we settle a new area on Earth, compared to what we'd do on a planet like Mars. On Earth we'd take advantage of the free air and water, ready-made soils provided by local fauna, pollination provided by the local bees, all to minimize the costs of building and maintaining our colonies. This process is documented expertly by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel; he points out that the conquest of the Americas was really the invasion of one ecosystem by another, rather than a simple matter of moving human populations. North America is the greatest success story of European expansionism because its ecology was most similar to that of Europe, more than for any political or social factors.

On Mars most of those services are unavailable. Mars is the most attractive local planet precisely because it does have some services, most notably a 24 (and-a-half) hour day, potentially fertile soil, and ready water from underground sources. Still, that's not much compared with even the Gobi desert. Our assumption on landing there has to be that the 24-hour day is about the only service we're going to get. Everything else--from air to agricultural production--has to be provided by us.

If we knew how to live on Mars, we'd know how to reduce our footprint on Earth. Space colonization is the Rosetta stone for earthly sustainability because it's entirely about living in the absence of ecosystem services. The Moon, Mars and the asteroids are a great experimental laboratory that we're ignoring at our own peril.

Back to the idea of framing something as a positive rather than a negative: we have the historic opportunity to colonize planet Earth, and do the same to our neighbouring planets at the same time. The effort to do one may necessarily involve the other. And doing this no longer has to be reactive, but can be a positive goal for our whole civilization.

If you read my Rewilding Canada entry, you might have figured out that I'm saying exactly the same thing here as I did there; I'm just using slightly different language. The ability to colonize other planets is the ability to rewild our ecosystems--to reforest our plains and mountains, and to restock our oceans. A mature vertical farming technology is precisely the technology needed to do agriculture on Mars, for instance. Grey-water and black-water recycling are necessary in exactly the same ways. Ditto for energy production and conservation.

I'm not suggesting that we all end up walking around our own planet in space suits--but I am suggesting that our industries and agriculture will ultimately need to do the equivalent. I don't expect Buckminster Fuller's domed cities to sprout up everywhere. I do think that chemical industries have to be closed-loop, taking nothing from the ecosystem and putting nothing into it. It would be fine for us to continue using coal and oil into the indefinite future, provided none of their byproducts ever enter the ecosystem. That would be equivalent to running industry under a dome.

Colonizing planet Earth--and therefore the rest of the solar system--is a recipe for a future of growth and opportunity that meets the exact same goals as programmes that emphasize austerity and conservation.

We don't want restraint. We don't want austerity. We want unlimited growth--just not at the expense of this glorious planet we live on. And we can have that, provided we start by reframing what we think of now as a crisis as, instead, an opportunity.

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"...provided we start by reframing what we think..."

I'm still stumped about who "we" is these days. It's not all due to negative mojo in the climate change projections. There's a planet's worth of inertia in public attitudes about change.

I'm mostly behind you, Karl. Not sure about the need to practice elsewhere in the Solar System. But learning to use dead and ruined land to support human habitation certainly has a future. China may have to lead the way as the Gobi overruns its northern farmland. If you can't beat it, live on it.

Posted by: Cliff on 12 Aug 07

I still like the message that McDonough-Braungart espouse in "Cradle to Cradle," which is a message of integration with natural systems. These systems were meant to sustain life, and there is no reason why they can't sustain human life if we successfully re-integrate (note that "re-integration" doesn't mean "going back to the time before agriculture"). The actual process of re-integration would, and should, take many different forms.

You remind me of something I was thinking about recently, however. It seems like the "get off this rock" types who wish to see human civilization in space could get along well with ecological designers for exactly the reasons you lay out... they could learn a whole lot from each other. I wonder if they are fundamentally 180 degrees out of phase with one another, though. To me, colonization and integration are two messages that differ in fundamental ethics.

Posted by: c! on 12 Aug 07

Huh. It seems that long ago, the idea that the inhospitable parts of this world would be settled along with space was taken for granted. Haven't you ever been on the "Horizons" ride at Epcot:

As for the "get off this rock" types getting along with ecological designers, isn't that what Biosphere2 was all about?

Posted by: Some guy on 12 Aug 07

"If we knew how to live on Mars, we'd know how to reduce our footprint on Earth."

Maybe I've missed something, but wouldn't applying lessons learned in living with Mars' austere conditions to Earth involve a certain - austerity? This can be "reframed" in the sense of "spun", but it's still just the frame you're changing, not the painting.

I agree with reframing the "crisis" as an "opportunity", but the opportunity seems to be for us to truly take advantage of the foresight we've evolved. We might be able to be the first species to consciously pull back from overshoot instead of stumbling into it like any other animal that want to blindly grow without limits, only to have limits forcibly imposed by destructive feedback from the environment.

Posted by: Gyrus on 13 Aug 07

There's a great button waiting to happen here:

"Live on Earth like you were colonizing Mars!"

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Aug 07

Thanks for the comments above. Eager to hear more perspectives...

Also, here are some other comments on this post that didn't carry over in the move to main page publication:

"We should have been colonizing Earth as though it were a planet with no ecosystem resources to exploit."

I have a different take on our overuse of ecosystem services. You say that our reliance on natural resources is lazy, yet you also recognize that we interact with the environment on a fundamental level. I see this dichotomy arising from the view that humans are separate from the environment. To me this view is impractical because it ignores our role as an intrinsic part of the ecosystem.

After reading your article Rewilding Canada my initial thought was "for whose benefit?". I see hints of deep ecology in your articles that are at odds with the bright green view of WorldChanging. Alex Steffen took up these conflicting views in The World With Us.

I agree that our overuse of ecosystem services is lazy, but I see no reason not to use ecosystem services intelligently. If we can use biological resources (such as water treatment by aquifers) without degrading the ecosystem, how is that different from using physical resources (burning coal) in a responsible way? I don't see us creating closed-loop industries in the future, but I do believe we are capable of greening our industrial practices.

We may create barriers that are more aesthetic than spacesuits and domed cities, but the ecosystem will continue to cycle materials and energy outside of our control. Cradle-to-cradle design will work for some products and not for others. We're not likely to create a recyclable sandwich because the ecosystem readily reprocesses our waste into ingredients for a new sandwich.

Balancing our economic and social needs along with the environment is the challenge facing sustainability. Framing the ecosystem as a set of services is a means to ensure that we preserve our current ecology. Even if it were somehow possible in the future, I'm curious why you propose that we should we stop interacting with the environment.

Posted by: Mike Simons on August 4, 2007 7:31 PM

A very interesting and thoughtful article. Pieces of it have value, but I'm not sure the foundation holds up. Whether we want austerity or not isn't the point if that's what we need. If "unlimited growth" really is possible, do you have any examples you can share? The only one I can think of is cancer.

Posted by: Chris Tindal on August 9, 2007 9:45 AM

Thanks, Chris, for providing a perfect example of framing something as a negative: "growth=cancer." This is a very good example because it's so emotionally loaded. People commonly use such reframings when they want to shut down discussions. I'm going to assume that wasn't your intention in this case.

To clarify: there are limits to growth within the earthly biosphere. There are no limits to growth as such.

Mike, we can have sustainability plus unlimited growth. Some people will sputter in indignation at this idea, because their goal is not actually sustainability but the end of growth that they think sustainability implies. Sustainability does not require that our civilization stop, scale back, or reduce our use of resources; it means that we don't overdraw on those resources that we share with other living things in our environment. If the only resources available to us are those that we share with other life on earth, then sustainability is a zero-sum game. I'm saying it's not. Our civilization can balance its economic and social needs along with the environment while pursuing unlimited economic and industrial growth; in this article I've proposed a conceptual framework for thinking in those terms.

Your question "for whose benefit?" assumes that sustainability is a zero-sum game. In the case of rewilding Canada, the answer to the question could be, "everybody." Consider the scenario:

You drive across southern Saskatchewan (as I just did two weeks ago). The rewilded part of the prairie is no longer a patchwork quilt of fields, though there are plenty of farms; they're smaller, family-run, and don't produce the genetically-impoverished monoculture crops of old. There are even farms within the rewilded area; their crops consist of the new perennials and are very difficult to differentiate from the rest of the prairie. There are just as many farms as there used to be, in fact; they are simply smaller and their produce is worth more.

People still live in the rewilded prairie--this is not a park. There are roads, but posted speed limits are low and, since the animal life here is all tracked by ubiquitous smart dust, cars are warned whenever anything approaches the road. Houses stand in the rewilded prairie; people live here. There's a booming market for wilderness adventure camping--you can track the location of every moose, bear, and elk in realtime on the web and plan your movements accordingly.
In this scenario, there is more potential for human interaction with the environment than in our current situation (you can't, at present walk across those patchwork fields without permission, and you have no real connection with the foods you eat because they're commodified and all identical). And yet, in this scenario the agricultural infrastructure that produces monoculture staples for the cities has been offloaded, essentially out of the biosphere into hermetically-sealed vertical farms. This is truly sustainable, especially as the human population is leveling off so previous Malthusian assumptions don't apply.

Everybody can win. That's the point.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on August 10, 2007 11:47 AM

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Aug 07

Personally, I'd take this observation more as an existence proof than a programme of action; there exists at least one technique that supports great growth with negligible environmental impact (assuming space colonisation technology).

In reality, it'll probably make more sense run things open-loop, as we do now, just making sure that the sum total is more-or-less balanced.

But it is an important observation: space colonisation technology is very likely closely related to environmental impact mitigation technology. Therefore, supporting one supports the other.

And, as Linux shows, two groups that differ in fundamental ethics (Free Software movement and Open Source movement) can still cooperate on the production of useful real-world artefacts :-)

Posted by: sabik on 13 Aug 07

I have decided to break ranks with myself and confess that I, for one,
do write some "GobI Desert Opera." There just had to be some way
to make that stunt seem exciting, and now that I'm finishing my latest
science-fiction novel, I think I've found it.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 14 Aug 07

Through the first half of Sun of Suns, I kept thinking: "This world is neat but not sustainable." The more I read though the more pieces fell into place and it all made some kind of sense. I see now this wasn't an accident. :-)

Posted by: Nathan on 14 Aug 07

It seems to me the beauty of colonizing Mars is that it is potentially a "blank slate" (assuming the various Mars rovers find no current life). Although it may have once had life, it does not now, so there is no ecosystem to upset, as there is in the Gobi/Sahara/etc. With terraforming we could create an ecosystem to our liking, although I'm sure it would take centuries of work and refinement to get it to function well enough for human habitation.

Earth is (I suspect) nearing a "human saturation point"; look at NASA photos of the earth at night, the amount of human-generated light shows how filled up every piece of land is, except the poles, the deserts, and equally inhospitable areas like the Himilayas and densest rain forests. We shouldn't be contemplating populating the Gobi, we should be considering population control. Sure there's plenty of land still for us to occupy, but I think the QUALITY of life is more important than the QUANTITY, and our lives would be so much more pleasant if we weren't fighting for the available resources.

Posted by: illlich on 14 Aug 07

Sorry in my tardiness in responding, I've spent the past three days in Temagami, canoing by day and watching the Perseid meteor shower by night.

sabik hit the nail on the head with the comment that these ideas were more of "an existence proof than a programme of action; there exists at least one technique that supports great growth with negligible environmental impact..." My main point here was not to prescribe some grandiose megaproject but to provide a concrete example of why sustainabiliity is not a zero-sum game. That is the most important take-away message here, and the one that most people seem to be missing.

For instance, c! raises the question of whether integration and colonization differ in fundamental ethics. I say no, in fact I can't see how they could differ unless your ethic in either case is for its own sake: integration for integration's sake or expansion for expansion's sake. If human expansion could be achieved in such a way as to increase our ability to individually integrate with the natural environment of the earth, then how could you be against it? (Unless it's not really the earth that you care about, but rather the enforcement of some moral vision of how human beings should live...) Once again, however, the idea that integration and expansion must be opposed stems from the idea that this is all a zero-sum game: that one's success has to occur at the expense of the other. If you consider that this is not the case, then it's much harder to find reasons why they should conflict.

Gyrus suggests that my reframing of the issues is more of a whitewash covering up a necessary austerity that can't be wished away. Not so. If you go back and read my Rewilding Canada post you'll see that the opposite is the case. A square of vertical farms 25 city blocks on a side can provide the staples to feed all of Canada. Everything else agricultural that goes on in the country is gravy after that. Where's the austerity? It's not zero-sum.

There's a further point that relates to my own personal ethics. It is that this is exactly the wrong time to be taking moral or ethical sides. Our generation is faced with a monumental crisis/opportunity and like it or not, it's not just the people you approve of who will have to be enlisted to fix it. Changing people's minds will take too long (and the last 2,000 years of history shows plainly that it isn't possible anyway). The people you resent or hate may be part of the solution. Find out. If they can help, then work with them.

That is how zero-sum games get turned into non-zero-sum opportunities.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 14 Aug 07

"That is how zero-sum games get turned into non-zero-sum opportunities."

well put

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 14 Aug 07

Gobi desert opera

Dune comes to mind: a powerful story of war over a desert planet with a vital natural resource. The native population live in "stillsuits" which recycle every drop of (scarce) water.

Posted by: Peter Clay on 15 Aug 07

I wish there was a way to "frame" genuine, ideology-free skepticism here. I guess the framing of the whole site as pro-optimism immediately creates difficulties with that, though. Skepticism as a crucial part of the scientific methodology can be abused, as we see with many "climate skeptics"; but it seems like a mistake to drop it in the spirit of can-do bravado.

It'd be great if the vertical farms idea works! But while it might be best to pitch it to the public as our "way out" rather than a vast gamble that's not been proven in practice to work in a sustainable way, I can't help personally seeing it as what it is: the latter.

If vertical farms work out, maybe it's bye-bye austerity. But the colonizing Mars metaphor doesn't seem to fit, cos I don't know of a scenario for colonizing Mars that doesn't involve, at least initially, vast risks and prolonged austerity. The image of colonizing Mars says: say goodbye to your green and pleasant land for a loooong time. So, I have reservations about these ideas; but even if they're right, this might not be the best PR for them.

Posted by: Gyrus on 15 Aug 07

"North America is the greatest success story of European expansionism because its ecology was most similar to that of Europe, more than for any political or social factors."

If, the above statement can be taken as fact then, you are ignoring the easiest reaquisition of fertile territoires avaialble to us. Think of all the underdeveloped countries sitting on viable resources "we" would be better able to cultivate. Tally ho! "we" can just finish the job the Europeans started.

In several, Central American countries, their economies rely on remittance paid by illegal workers in America. Why is this so? You could argue that the current government of those countries has failed to provide an acceptable standard of living to those obviously ambitious and hard working people. Would "we" not be doing the Earth and those people a service by liberating those resources from incompetant hands. Wouldn't it be easier to "rewild" already semi developed lands?

Maybe there are other crisises in the world than ecological that need tending to first?

Posted by: Mark on 23 Aug 07



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