Click Here to sample George W. Drake’s Trumpeting.
The “Open Window” Space Myth vs. Space Fact
Probably the most common response [to the idea we must go to Mars as a means of guaranteeing our survival] is one of “all in due time, my lad, all in due time.” It is essentially taken for granted that, one day, humans will be a space-faring species, colonizing distant planets, exploring faraway worlds, and going “where no man has gone before…”
The reality is much more complicated. There is a wonderful novel by George Stewart, Earth Abides,1 which inadvertently addresses the first, and most glaring, misunderstanding that most people, including many actual rocket scientists, have about man’s future in space. The novel follows the life of a man, Ish, who survives a terrible plague which sweeps the Earth, killing something like 599,999 out of every 600,000 people.
The story dramatizes the dependence of technology on a dense population. At first the dominant repercussion for Ish’s life is his utter isolation, for water and power systems continue automatically, regulated by machinery which requires little maintenance; canned and frozen goods, gas, and weapons for hunting feral livestock, etc., are freely available in the empty shops; surviving immediately beyond the plague is not the problem. As the plot unfolds over Ish’s lifetime, however, the systems fail, the supplies deteriorate with age, and technology drops away until the remaining human population regresses completely to the stone age.
The novel convincingly shows that technology is a function of population. This reversion to a primitive lifestyle is both predictable and inevitable. When there are only 100 people in a closed society, totally dependent upon themselves for their survival, they do not have toilets. It would not only be absurd because of the lack of necessity for it, it is simplyimpossible. The technology of toilets requires too many people. For one thing, it presupposes a water system. Water systems do not work without plumbing. And plumbing requires pipes, which don’t just spring from the ground. Somebody, almost always at a great distance from the application point, manufactures them, usually using metal mined in a separate, even more remote location. Somebody has to deliver them over that great distance. Someone had to build the truck, or wagon, or whatever, and others the road, etc., etc. Knowing how a toilet works is not the issue. The job is just too large unless the population is also large. It requires an infrastructure impossible to support without a minimum population base. One hundred is not enough. Nor is 1000 or 10,000, or, if the society is truly closed, even 100,000.
As with toilets, so also with spaceships. Far more so.
Many people find the comparison of humanity to a tumor offensive. Others have no trouble with the analogy at all, for they’ve been watching it for years as our cities grow out to encompass the land–first converting wilderness to farms, then enveloping even that, first as suburb, then as city proper.
But, almost no one is ready to draw an easy conclusion from the analysis and analogy above. If Gaia were a patient, and the night photos actual x-rays taken over a small portion of that patient’s normal life span, the prognosis for survival would be very poor. We would not expect the patient to live much longer.
If Gaia were a human, we’d see a virulent tumor and give Her, at most, a few more months. If she were a pet, it would be much shorter. An elephant? Perhaps a bit longer, but, in no way would we assume She would spontaneously improve and miraculously survive indefinitely.
But, when the word “patient” is removed from our thinking process, we kind of go blind to what is actually going on here. Probably more because of our size than anything else, we cannot comprehend our ability to kill Gaia–God–Herself. We are not a cancer. She is not a patient. If worse comes to worse, we can always fall back on “She is not even alive.”
But, let us harken back to the thinking cell analogy. Even harder than imagining a cell that thinks, is to try to imagine a cancer cell that worries about the possibility that it might be a part of a fatal disease–fatal to not only itself, but to the host. I mean, that would be one f-wording smart cancer cell!
My point here is really about how hard it is for us to imagine ourselves as the possible fatal feature affecting the life of something so much larger than ourselves. Hell, even conceiving of that something as a living being, as just discussed, is hard enough.