For those not in the loop, the Kardashev Scale is a system of measurement invented by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964. It quantifies how advanced a civilization is according to how much energy they’re able to harness.
Type 1 civilizations have harnessed 100% of the accessible energy of their own planet. Type 2 has harnessed 100% of the accessible energy in their solar system. Type 3 has harnessed 100% of the accessible energy in their galaxy. There is no official Type 4 but it is conceivable that eventually a civilization could harness 100% of the accessible energy in the universe, and Type 5, which has harnessed all the accessible energy in the multiverse.
That’s some heavy stuff, well beyond the scope of this article. The public’s focus on near term manned spaceflight efforts these days belies a problem with our priorities. Grand, ambitious projects like settling the Moon and Mars grab our attention, while there’s still much left to be done on Earth.
I’m not talking about environmental conservation, though I don’t mean to downplay its importance. I mean improvements we can make right here at home that will make space settlement / resource development and every other ambitious project we dream up significantly easier and more affordable.
I would liken this to my recent article about holding off on Mars colonization for the time being to industrialize the Moon first. This would ultimately make building settlements on Mars (or putting anything into space) so much cheaper that we’d have to be insane not to invest in lunar mining and manufacturing as our first big step toward the stars.
But like I said in that article, before we can fly, we must run. And before we can run we must walk. Attaining K1 here on Earth would optimize the planet’s resources to a degree that would make us all healthier, wealthier, and better able to afford ambitious space projects. What all do we still need to check off the list, you ask?
1. Massive rollout of nuclear power
Nuclear power is criminally underutilized currently. France has shown us it can be done safely on a large scale, Finland has shown us how to solve the waste storage problems. Even Democrats reversed their stance on nuclear power recently, after officially opposing it for the past 48 years.
Addressing climate change demands rapid, massive increase in carbon free or carbon neutral generation capacity, and right now we can only achieve that with nuclear power. For that reason it’s something everyone should be able to get onboard with.
2. Mastery of fusion
This may be a superior alternative to fission if we get there quickly enough. If we don’t, we really ought to build some fission power plants in the meantime due to the urgency of the climate problem. Once fusion power is a reality, we can begin sourcing He3 from the Lunar surface.
3. Renewables where appropriate
Some circles will tell you that if we roll out nuclear on a sufficiently wide scale, there’s no need for solar, for wind, even hydro or geothermal. While it’s true we could do it all with nuclear if we had to, there are also good reasons not to, and some forms of renewable energy like hydro and geothermal are as good as nuclear (uninterrupted, no need for storage) without any of the drawbacks.
Zeal for long-repressed nuclear power is not a good enough reason by itself not to prefer hydro and geothermal where it’s possible to implement them. There’s also no good reason why individual houses shouldn’t have solar panels and a power wall, as the more homes are thusly equipped, the fewer reactors need to be built, maintained, and eventually commissioned.
More generally, with PV getting so cheap, why shouldn’t we put it on every surface that’s regularly exposed to sunlight? Sunlight is free energy that falls from the sky every day, there’s no downside to catching it and putting it to good use. My backpack is solar, my hat is solar, my boombox is solar. I’d have solar panels on my car if there was space left to mount them.
Besides these reasons, there are also large seismically unstable regions where nuclear power can’t be used safely. Transmitting electricity over long distances gets wasteful in a hurry, otherwise we could just blanket the Sahara in solar panels and use it to power every country on Earth. Speaking of deserts…
4. Desert reclamation
Climate change, industrial deforestation by the logging industry and other factors have resulted in accelerated desertification of regions that were formerly forested. A privately funded desert reclamation effort in China, the Kubuqi Ecological Restoration Project, halted creeping desertification advancing from the Kubuqi desert by planting a vast “wall” of trees which also prevents sandstorms from reaching population centers.
This is a labor intensive process but that hasn’t stopped even individuals, in some cases, from taking steps to halt the creeping desert. Yacouba Sawadogo is one famous example of an African farmer who took it upon himself to save his village from desertification by the mass, targeted planting of trees.
As seen in the documentary The Man Who Stopped the Desert, this feat was achieved using land improvement techniques known to native Africans for thousands of years. Desert reclamation is not a new technology then but the rediscovery of an old one, brushed off and brought down from the shelf in our time of need.
It shouldn’t be something left up to individuals or companies though, governments should be the ones doing this. Desertification is a war being fought on such a large scale that winning a few battles here and there isn’t going to turn the tide. One barrier being that of course any privately owned land that is restored in this way has effectively been made more valuable at taxpayer expense.
We all benefit indirectly though, and if nothing is done to halt the steady creep of the desert, we all suffer. The process of greening deserts is now so well understood that individuals and small companies can do it, and it’s cost positive, paying for itself by increasing the productivity of land and thus economic activity in regions where it’s successfully implemented.
5. Oceanic farming
What have we used the ocean for currently? A big toilet to dump waste into, which we paradoxically pull food out of with ecologically devastating trawling nets. Very literally shitting where we eat. Adding insult to injury we began drilling the seabed for oil in the 70s, further hastening climate change and thus oceanic acidification which, along with agricultural runoff, is a main driver of coral bleaching.
We can do better than this, and we’ve just begun after decades of talking about it in speculative depictions of the future. Perhaps you rode the Spaceship Earth or Futurama rides at Epcot/Disney as a child. I did, and one of the many rosy predictions about the future was that by now, we’d have transitioned from rapacious hunter gatherers in the ocean to responsible agriculture, as we have long since done on land.
Making that change on the third or so of the Earth that’s above water made possible such an abundance of food that we now host a population of 7.674 billion at the time of this writing. That should furnish you with some idea of the agricultural potential of the ocean, which is not a flat farming surface as the land is, but a three dimensional one.
Had we never made that transition on land, our population today could not be a tenth of what it is. When we make that transition at sea, it will unlock such an abundance that food will become more plentiful and affordable than it has ever been prior to this development.
That’s not to say it will end world hunger as we’ll still need to be able to pay for it, and the ocean will have to be cleaned up if we’re to raise healthy crops and livestock in it. Mercury levels for example are rising to dangerous levels in fish. If nothing is done to reverse that trend, soon they will no longer be edible.
6. Oceanic mining
Another component of the oceanic resource development trinity, oceanic mining will grow increasingly necessary as we transition away from fossil fuels for the simple reason that every alternative energy and transportation technology requires rare earth minerals. We’re soon to need vastly more of them and right now nearly the entire world’s supply comes from China.
Obviously that’s a politically untenable situation. Japan recently began mining the seabed around their island nation upon discovering it to be so rich with rare earth minerals that it could supply the entire world’s current level of demand for 800 years(!). Of course that’s not the projected demand, which is certain to steeply increase, but that’s still an incredible abundance.
Indeed, luckily for humanity it turns out that the density of precious and rare earth metals on the ocean floor isn’t just equivalent to the preindustrial density of those metals on land, it’s about three times greater. That fact alone is what makes extracting these metals from the seafloor economically viable.
7. Oceanic Energy
This falls under renewables, but represents such a disproportionately huge chunk of as yet unrealized generating capacity that I felt it belonged with the other oceanic resource development projects. Harnessing the full potential energy of the Gulf Stream alone would power the entire planet. Clean, uninterrupted power too, with no need of storage.
The promise is enormous but so is the engineering challenge. Designing infrastructure to survive in the deep sea is in all respects more difficult than designing for space. Certainly gulf stream turbines would require a great deal of ongoing attention. Maintenance and repair would be a full time endeavor.
However with enough turbines distributed throughout the portions of the Gulf Stream where seabed conditions permit them to be securely emplaced, a degree of redundancy would be achieved sufficient to prevent any downtime. The reason why these turbines are so much better than wind turbines is simple: Water is nearly 700 times denser than air, and some oceanic currents (like the Gulf Stream) are non-stop, whereas wind is much less predictable.
8. Antarctic Resource Development
Everything we need to do in the sea applies equally to the last unspoiled continent. This may be even more controversial, owing to a treaty in place since 1959 prohibiting commercial development of Antarctic resources, but that treaty is due to expire in less than thirty years. If it is not renewed at that time, and I expect it won’t be due to the desperation of treaty signatory countries to access Antarctic resources, it’ll be a free for all.
Not first come, first served though, crucially. Only those nations which have maintained a continuous manned presence in Antarctica since the time the treaty was signed will have a legally recognized claim to that land, per the fine print of the treaty.
Of course the borders of these land claims are tentative right now and not agreed upon by all signatory nations. Australia for example has claimed nearly a quarter of the frozen continent for itself, and Russia is unlikely to honor that, to say nothing of China.
What this all translates to is that current Antarctic land claims don’t really mean a whole lot, and if the signatory countries elect not to renew the treaty in 2050, it’s a big question mark exactly how this land will ultimately be divvied up. War is a real possibility, given China’s rapid rate of construction in the region, recently completing their sixth base, with Russia currently operating ten.
Russia famously planted their flag on the seabed beneath the ice of the North Pole back in 2007, so their commitment to claiming polar resources isn’t in doubt. Antarctica is the more valuable target however as there’s land under that ice, with preindustrial densities of precious and rare earth metals, to say nothing of coal or oil.
As the average atmospheric and oceanic temperatures continue to increase, Antarctic ice will continue to melt. Once upon a time on a much warmer Earth, Antarctica was a lush, green paradise. It may be again within a few centuries. Those nations who stake their claim now stand to benefit tremendously as Antarctica continues this transformation, revealing more and more of its former self to us as the ice recedes.
Desert reclamation should furnish us with all the additional living space we need for many decades, even centuries to come. Most of the American Heartland, as it’s called, is extremely sparsely populated. Large swaths of Southwestern desert land in Nevada, Arizona and Utah is currently unsuitable for population centers, but that will change, because it’s cheaper to reclaim desert than to colonize the sea (to say nothing of the Moon, or Mars).
It may not always be cheaper, however, than colonizing Antarctica. Inevitably company towns built to support Antarctic resource extraction industries will grow into permanent cities, as happened in the United States.
It may seem dubious that anybody would want to move their family to Antarctica as it is today, but then Alaska is plenty populated. Northern Canada has population centers. Antarctica will become equally habitable one day, perhaps within our lifetimes.
Why the urgency?
Modern high tech society is a castle built upon a cloud. It resides at the top of a ladder which we’ve been able to climb only by destroying the rungs below us, one by one, on ascent. Those rungs were all of the energy sources possible to access at lower levels of technology than what we possess now.
For example, wood is readily accessible at any tech level, but there is only so much you can do with it. If we were content to forever remain an agrarian society whose only machinery ran on steam or wood gas, we could make due with sustainably farmed wood.
However that would seriously limit the amount of energy available. We could never advance to where we are today without graduating to more energy dense fuels. Charcoal can be made from wood, but it’s a lossy process, and mining already formed coal from the Earth requires mining technology. In fact draining flooded mines was the first use case for steam engines.
So, wood facilitates access to coal. Coal furnishes us with a more energy dense fuel for steam engines, unlocking rail travel, steam ships and so on, but we’re still limited to steam at this stage. Steam power also makes it possible to begin drilling for oil however. This eventually unlocks internal combustion technology, once we realized petroleum wasn’t just a waste product.
So it goes, the industrial revolution following from these developments, the availability of convenient energy dense and easily transportable fuels giving rise to heavy industry as well as pollution we didn’t understand the full cost of yet. However heavy industry also made possible the mass production and thus widespread adoption of solar and wind energy.
We would also soon begin experimenting with nuclear energy, and heavy industry powered at that time entirely by fossil fuels would be essential in constructing nuclear power plants. So from wood we get coal, from coal we get oil, from oil we get uranium, solar, wind and everything else.
These are the rungs I spoke of, in ascending order. As we climb from one to the next, the rung below us breaks, as we must deplete all the most easily accessible deposits of each resource before we move on to the next. Is there coal left in the world? Certainly, but not so easily accessed as it once was.
We’ve had to dig deeper, more extensively, to continue getting at it. Likewise there’s oil and natural gas left in the world but now we’re having to frack and drill the seabed in order to access it. Technologies which weren’t available prior to or during the industrial revolution, and which would not be available to a post-industrial society which has collapsed back to an agrarian state.
This is the danger I’m getting at. Right now we’re privileged to live in a time when, despite all the challenges we face, we’re enjoying a higher standard of living than anybody has before us. That is largely because we’re surfing along the skin of a bubble, made of oil, which is soon to burst.
If it’s still holding up our society by the time it bursts, everything will come tumbling down. If that happens, we will never be able to rebuild society as it is today, lacking in the technologies needed to access the easier, lower tiers of fuel that we’ve already depleted most of.
A dead end. A corner we may paint ourselves into from which no escape is possible. How do you get from wood or coal power back to nuclear if you’re unable to complete any of the steps in between? We may, with great effort, preserve the generation capacity already in place. But we couldn’t refuel those reactors. As solar panels and wind turbines degrade or break, we’d be hard pressed to replace them using wood fired, steam powered factories and mining equipment.
We’d have truly peaked, and for the last time. The societal superorganism slowly decomposing, never to fully regenerate. This may seem like a distant, far fetched concern to someone reading this on their smartphone in an air conditioned coffee shop, sipping their machiatto.
But it’s an all too real pack of entropic wolves nipping at our heels, which we’ve so far been able to outrun. We’ve outrun the problem by outgrowing it, faster than the natural consequences have been able to catch up, until recently. It remains to be seen how much longer we can play this dangerous game for.
Even nuclear is non-renewable, incredibly long lasting though it may be. 100% nuclear isn’t a wise or viable end state for our grid, though fusion is. We’ll want to conserve nuclear fuels for niche applications where no other approach will do the job anyhow, like spaceflight. On Earth we should regard it only as the final rung we’re willing to break before we have no more use of the ladder.
The good news is that there does exist a foreseeable win condition. Something firmer than clouds to build our castle on. Once we’ve fully developed and utilized the planet’s resources, replacing all fossil fuels with renewable carbon-free alternatives, the various subsystems of modern high tech society should be self-supporting. Durable, robust and functionally immortal. Even the sun will die of course, but not in a timeframe that’s of any concern to humans.
We haven’t got forever to make this change though. It isn’t only the environment that will suffer, should we fail to replace the cloud supporting our castle with something solid before it evaporates. We need, with a capital N, to get serious about making modern high tech society sustainable and as clean as we can make it in the near term, if we hope to be able to sustain ambitious, costly projects like settling the Moon and Mars.
What a tragedy it would be, if the oil bubble we’re standing on now were to burst, with nothing to replace it, halfway through the process of making offworld colonies self-supporting. If the support substrate of high tech society on Earth were to implode at such a vulnerable, critical stage, those colonies would have to be abandoned. The project of establishing permanent human populations off the Earth would, itself, have to be abandoned…possibly never to resume.
If on the other hand we can keep the wheels turning on Earth long enough to make those offworld settlements self-supporting, it won’t much matter if high tech society on Earth collapses. It will have served its primary purpose. Earth could gradually be reclaimed by nature, restored over many centuries to a healthy, lush garden planet while humanity’s industrial activities continue on other worlds.
Which future we get depends on what steps we take now. We’re in a very precarious spot. There’s only a narrow range of paths forward we might choose, from this fork in the road, that will get us where we want to go. All of them will require making more deliberate, intelligent use of the Earth’s resources than we have to date.