The End of Growth is Why Space Exploration is Needed
Having listened to this TED talk, and currently trying to dive into the book by the same person, I can’t resist making a preliminary pre-read post to size up the perspective 0ffered. The bottom line is simple and most of us probably already knew it — 20th century growth rates can not be maintained in a future that looks anything like what is comprehensible to us now.
This discussion is razor-focused on the concept of our way of life. Considering what hangs in the balance, it’s actually astounding how bad typical arguments both for and against spending resources on space exploration are. For example, the argument to make humans inter-planetary as an insurance policy is generally framed against cosmically small risks, like an asteroid impact. You can run the numbers if you like, and an asteroid hit (although truly existential in some scenarios) is not much of a risk, and probably an acceptable risk. The end of growth can hardly be called a risk. It’s more like a certainty.
What would it take to get us back to 2% growth sometime in the near future, and what should we think about this concept? Should this be scary to us? If it’s unambiguously a good thing, what sort of material sacrifices or moral compromises are we willing to make in pursuit of it?
Let’s just put space in the picture, and consider what this takes in that scenario. This is difficult because, right now, we can’t economically build solar panel farms on the moon from in-situ resources. So you have to make a limited suspension of disbelief, but only for the simple and straightforward mental experiment of transplanting existing modern machinery to off-world locations. If you could have people working there at somewhat reasonable transportation and labor costs, then what multipliers are we talking about? What can be produced more efficient than a similar factory on Earth, and by how much?
This thought experiment is genuinely difficult for reasons that I think are fundamental to the nature of history. One point I’m aware that the book The Rise and Fall of American Growth makes is that the greatest 20th century productivity gains are virtually forgotten now. Even more unfortunate for the sake of prediction, they were likely unforeseeable just a few decades before they were real.
Self-driving cars strike me as a productivity gain which would likely be on a similar scale as some of the breathtaking early innovations in the book. However, I think many people will argue that I’m underestimating the value of running water. That’s true, but the IT revolution could probably best be compared to the steam engine. As described in The Coal Question, it wasn’t just about coal or railroads, but an interconnected technological network. We just wouldn’t count any of those individual components as a productivity gain that changed our way of life on the scale of the other data points which are in-play for the discussion about the 20th century.
Could stem cell engineering offer productivity growth at a tremendous rate, but at a moral cost? Probably not. It’s doubtful that the gain could possibly be enough to move the dial much…. although medical technology will be the most conspicuous drain on productivity in a status-quo view of the future. The only way that medical technology will jumpstart growth to the idyllic 20th century levels is if it increased birth rates.
Regarding space development, I actually have no trouble imagining getting another century of 2% growth per year. The problem is that I don’t know what that could mean. You could have a micro-gravity infrastructure that moves and processes massive amounts of material. For every 1 house you could have had on Earth, you could have 10 houses in orbital space colonies. While that’s totally conceivable in a future with software-controlled and highly self-replicating (or at least bootstrapping) infrastructure, I fail to see how it could matter much. Increases in material wealth will simply hit upon diminishing marginal returns.
Then again, happiness may not have ever been in the picture. I don’t know with any certainty that the last century decreased misery, so it’s probably unreasonable to demand that the next century do the same.