Planet

Colonizing Planet Earth


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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 minimizing 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.

Comments

"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

It's simple: I don't propose that we stop interacting with the environment. I am suggesting that "balancing our economic and social needs along with the environment" is fine where it's possible to do so entirely within our shared ecosystems, but the question is what do we do when that is no longer possible?

Say 100,000 people live harmoniously with their environment in a particular area. Then, say 100,000 more people move in. The ethos of sustainability as you've described it dictates that the 200,000 people must learn to balance their needs with that of the environment. If your commitment is to remaining "part of the environment" and the 100,000 had maximized their draw on local ecosystem services, then you've got a couple of choices: import services from elsewhere; overtax the ecosystem; or reduce the standard of living for your residents. At that point, you abandon growth. If your goal is integration with the ecosystem, those are your choices. If your goal is sustainabiliity without sacrificing growth, then the fourth way is to find means to provide the additional needed services without adding an extra burden to the environment. Which is not the same as not interacting with it.


I'm not advocating deep ecology; what does concern me is the use of environmental crises as a moral club to beat people with. The idea, for instance, that we must change our ways in order to live in harmony with the environment is turned around in some people's minds to mean that we must live in harmony with the environment so as to change our ways. When this kind of moralizing creeps into environmental discussions it turns mainstream people off; and as I've said before, in the case of global warming, we want everyone on board.


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.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on August 5, 2007 6:58 AM

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

Please address further comments to the main page post...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on August 13, 2007 3:33 PM