The Environmental Case for Extraterrestrial Resources

17 07 2013

During recent travels over the heart of our nation’s fossil fuel development and storage centers, a realization descended upon me in a new and sudden way.  As I peered out of my porthole window at the landscape below, it struck me that a simple glimpse at the current state of our world is the only justification needed for developing extraterrestrial resources.

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words:

Drilling Pads

Take a closer look.  Different aspects of the image will no doubt strike individual readers first.  But as for me, I saw for the first time a jarring and unsettling truth.  Quite unexpectedly, I was assaulted by the reality that between agricultural development and subsurface mineral resource exploration and extraction, no native portion of the planet’s surface remained as far as I my eyes could take me.

I reached up and took a picture with my phone, seeing for the first time the image of a planet not new but used – a surface completely consumed or discarded.  It was the very first time I’ve had a negative visceral reaction to the breadth of our civilization’s development of the Earth’s surface.

The thought quickly followed that, with an ever-expanding population and given the current course and nature of our civilization’s growth, this is the least developed our world will ever be, barring some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster.

My mind then immediately turned to the idea of life support.

The Holy Grail of Space Exploration

From a space exploration perspective, the idea of the Closed Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) is a critical one.  The holy grail of human space exploration, CELSSs are a natural, self-sustaining life support system, (e.g., a collection of plants that feed us, purify our waste, and supply our air, while our waste, in turn, feeds the plants and supplies their air).

One can quickly see that possessing functioning CELSS technology would enable our ability to establish long-term settlements on space stations, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.  We wouldn’t need constant resupply shipments from Earth.

On a massive scale, the Earth’s biosphere has managed to itself become a CELSS after great spans of geologic time and the cooperative adaptation of biology with it.  Unsurprisingly, our biosphere serves as the very (only) natural template for current CELSS research.

So, like the importance of a spacesuit to a lone astronaut on a spacewalk, what struck me as I gazed our of the aircraft window at our pervasive impact on the environment is that our biosphere is all that stands between us and the great, inhospitable reaches of space.

Damaging our species’ only functioning life support system by compromising our biosphere is a terrifying proposition.  Just as was the case with timber resource utilization early in this nation’s development – the rude awakening that what was perceived to be a limitless resource was instead all-too-finite – so too might it be time we open our eyes to the realities of our finite world from a life support perspective?

The first Earthrise imaged by a human.  B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8.  (Credit: NASA)

The first Earthrise imaged by a human. B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

Encouraging a Planetary-Perspective Paradigm Shift

Whereas the rationale our society has adopted in implementing better sustainability practices, such as recycling, is to “protect the environment,” I was awakened to the reality that from a planetary perspective a greater truth is the reverse:  It is not humanity that protects the Earth’s “environment,” rather, it’s the Earth’s biosphere (environment) that protects us – from asphyxiation and starvation in orbit about the Sun.

So, if we can encourage a broader (and I dare say more scientific) view of our world in the cosmos, we might all come to view our biosphere not as simply “the Environment” in which we live but instead as a crucial, planet-scale, natural life support system operating to keep us all alive in the dark, unforgiving, and unyielding reaches of space.

Such a paradigm shift, which could be driven by one, simple directive – to preserve our global biosphere as a planetary resource – logically compels our development in two directions:

  1. Minimize the surface area impact of what must be located or conducted on Earth’s surface.
  2. Maximize the impact of that which can be located or conducted off-world.

Should we accomplish the task of even beginning such a conversation, the right sorts of questions will follow:

  • Can we consolidate, enable, and focus mining operations in areas of less biospheric importance?
  • With limited land surface area, can we take advantage of much more plentiful airspace for agriculture, (e.g., vertical farming, or perhaps explore even the possibility of aerostat-based agriculture?)
  • Alternatively, can we increase the use of marine farming (mariculture)?
  • Might not we lessen or reverse the burden of natural resource utilization on Earth’s biosphere via the development of off-world mineral resources?
  • After that, could we begin a shift toward extraterrestrial agriculture and export back to Earth?  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, anyone?)

By merely engaging in this mode of thought in a culturally-significant way, it seems possible that not only would we develop and promote the use of extraterrestrial resources, but we could and would simultaneously become smarter about the way we structure our communities and settlements here on Earth.

Where does this lead?  Well, it seems to me that the clearest path is the serious, practical use and implementation of Arcology research, which is something I believe we as a civilization are ready to pursue in earnest.

In other words, an inevitable outcome of leveraging and fully harnessing the technological advances at our fingertips to actively preserve greater portions of our planet’s biosphere would promote our civilization’s growth and maturation along two fronts – the creation of an extraterrestrial infrastructure and economy, and the development of sustainability technologies that would improve life for us all.

A Call for Wiser Expansion

While certainly I’m not the first to voice these sorts of opinions, nor was this the first time I’ve considered these sorts of concepts, there was something fundamentally different about the experience I had as I was flying above majestic portions of the country, witnessing what for the first time appeared to my eyes to be the subtle but pervasive erosion of our species’ only life support infrastructure.

It was the context.

Thinking of the Earth as a closed life support system not from within but from beyond, as a system sustaining us against a vast and threatening cosmos, it struck me that elevating our collective views above and beyond our world’s horizon may be more than just financially lucrative and scientifically fruitful.

In working to shift the burden of our growth off-world, and considering the social perspective shift that doing so will require with respect to the way we view our own civilization, (e.g., as a people for the first time directly connected to an environment that extends beyond our planet), we should reinforce the pursuit by simultaneously cultivating a view of our world’s biosphere as an ultimately rare resource – or perhaps even the rarest natural resource (as the only known, functioning CELSS to-date!).

In doing so, perhaps we can accomplish several worthy objectives at once:

While lengthening the useful span of our planet’s life support system, we could also inspire and challenge ourselves to finally become smarter and wiser about how we populate our world… and in the process, start thinking seriously about how we move beyond.

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Forward Backward Thinking: Pipelines and Deep Time

22 11 2011

A bit of a long-winded digression today, but as a physical scientist at heart I can’t help myself.  I’m riled.  (Riled to the point of considering expanding the rant to follow into an article submission to the journal Ground Water or perhaps Arid Environments…)

Allow me to explain.

Industry vs. Academia

Me - seeking an elusive industry+academic science subculture balance.

First, for those who haven’t been long-time readers, I should mention that I’m something of an enigma as a scientist: I’m an academia-industry hybrid.  In my experience, this isn’t normal; We tend to be either-or.

Often, in one corner, there are career field scientists (with often nothing more than a bachelor’s degree) who have spent their professional lives out “in the field,” dealing with practical problems, earning the kind of experience and “sixth-sense” about their specialty that can only be earned with the expenditure of time, blood, sweat, and tears.  They tend to hold in disdain the highly-credentialed-and-published academic scientist, with little comparable field experience and much effort spent on apparently esoteric pursuits, who swoops down from a perch in the ivory tower to tell the field scientists “how it really works” because of research they’ve performed, etc., etc.  (They’re un-apologetically incorrect often enough, due to a real-world complexity or oversight, to really turn off the field guys.)

In the other corner is the committed academic, (often sporting graduate or doctoral degree[s],) having spent a career researching to understand the subtleties of process in natural systems and who has worked long years to improve scientific understanding or the powers of prediction.  They tend to hold in disdain the provincial field scientist, who sports a requisite chip on his shoulder (a growth resulting from years spent in the field,) who believes he already knows everything without having even attempted the more sophisticated understanding of process that comes with years of academic work.  (They often resist changes in instrumentation or methodology that might yield better data due to a “how we’ve always done it” mentality.)

In my view, both are right, and both are wrong.  Each has something supremely valuable to offer the other, but neither side wants to hear about it.  Usually when the two collide out in the field, head-butting ensues.  Sometimes spectacularly so.

The Long Now and the Long Then

In any case, this brings me to the subject at hand: a current clash between academic and practical views of the natural world, science’s role in it, and how few seem to be able or willing to see reality through the garble.

Northern Spring Valley, NV. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Specifically, the Las Vegas Review Journal recently reported that the Long Now Foundation, an organization aimed at promoting deep-time-style thinking to current and future human planning, has come out in opposition to the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s East-Central Groundwater Development Project, a freshwater pipeline venture intended to relieve for southern Nevada communities the effects of prolonged drought on the Colorado River system.

I’m torn because I’m a long-time supporter of both endeavors.

The Long Now Foundation, among other pursuits, has designed and is planning to build a 10,000 year clock.  Why?  Designer and inventor Danny Hills puts it directly:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

As a geologist and planetary scientist, an awareness of the depth of time that precedes us colors my view of the future.  I’m concerned about humankind’s ultimate fate on a geologic timescale, what with broader and potentially civilization-ending threats, such as impacts from space, supervolcanoes, and proximal supernovas.  I have an affinity for, well, us, and I want to make sure we make it in the long run.  That’s one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for human space exploration.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to plan much, much farther out, and I believe projects like the 10,000-year clock will really help people start thinking about it.  However, that doesn’t mean that human lifespan-range planning should stop – Indeed, there is some reason to believe that long-range plans are rarely feasible because they are inevitably created “by committee,” and anyone who’s worked in a highly bureaucratic environment knows how that turns out…

Precautionary Principle vs. Real-World Problems

So, why do the Long Now folks oppose the pipeline?  Well, here is where I believe the classic “industry-versus-academia” problem begins to rear its head.  You see, I spent more than two years as a front-line hydrogeologist on the pipeline project.  I helped design and implement a sprawling, 1,400-square-mile precipitation monitoring network for the project in addition to installing gaging stations, flumes, and repeatedly measuring every stream, creek, spring, and groundwater well for nearly a 300-mile stretch along the proposed pipeline’s reach.  I performed data quality assurance checking and verification for the project’s central database, analyzed precipitation/surface-water/groundwater response mechanisms, and used satellite imagery to reconstruct the historical extents of ephemeral lakes in the region to calculate their water storage.

Spring Valley, NV, near the proposed pipeline reach. (Credit: Ben McGee)

In short, I was in this data, cradle to grave.  According to everything we collected, the groundwater system and water budget for each of the pipeline’s basin and range valleys could definitely handle the proposed pumping scheme.  Further, proposed pumping rates were highly conservative, and there were an array of biological vectors that required constant monitoring so that we’d detect an unlikely change in the ecosystem as soon as it happened and shut the pipeline down for evaluation.  (And then there’s something else**, which I’ll return to at the end of this post.)

Now, while I appreciate the severity of the drought affecting the region and the need to proactively prepare to secure a backup water supply for Southern Nevada, the academic perspective on engineering projects of this scale tends to be more aloof.  In stereotypical academia, the precautionary principle, (which I support in large part,) is always given top priority (apparently irrespective of what the field data supports,) which means that any major project should essentially never be attempted without many decades of preliminary research.  I’ve worked long enough off-campus to realize that idealized scenarios like this aren’t tenable in the real world, (primarily due to cost,) and we need to do something about the drought more decisively.  Hence the root of academia-industry tug-of-war at the onset of this particular issue.

The more “traditional” opposition to the water authority’s pipeline project takes the form of emotionally-charged but completely illogical concerns about  creating “the next Owens Valley,” despite the fact that there is no body of surface water to deplete a’ la Owens Valley, or about  “destroying the ecosystem,” despite the fact that groundwater tables are far beneath the depth of even the most invasive phreatophyte, several hundred to more than a thousand feet.  (This means should the groundwater table be lowered as a result of pumping, neither surface streams nor the ecosystem would have any way of knowing about it.  It’s akin to alleging that excavating beneath a waterfall will speed up the falling water = defies laws of physics = nonsense.

By contrast, I suspect that the Long Now Foundation opposition to be different and somewhat more sophisticated in that it they will likely oppose the project by alleging that it does not represent suitably “long term” planning.  Certainly, the pipeline is subject to multi-century-scale changes in regional climate should such changes occur.  However, this caution does not award the field data or the administrative controls their due credit, and it fails to take into account the human factor – that there are communities that will rely on this project’s timely execution.

**And Another Thing

Here’s the kicker.  For reasons that mystefyingly are never considered, the water authority’s precipitation estimates, (particularly concerning snow, the source of the water for any water budget in an arid mountainous environment,) are already conservative, even without working on limiting pumping impacts.  Why?  Because the precipitation gauges maintained by them, the National Weather Service, and the United States Geological Survey  fail to catch nearly 50-80% of the falling snow!

Unlike the rest of the developed world, for some reason, the United States fails to consistently include wind shields on their rain and snow gauges, resulting in an under-reporting condition of up to 80%.

This means that all national precipitation data is being under-reported to at best an unknown extent, and (ignoring the implications for apparent measurements of climate change) the data being used to determine watershed baselines for the pipeline project is automatically conservative, for there is more water in the system than is being accounted for.

Check it out for yourself.  Visit a weather station if you can find one nearby.

This is something I have yet to see considered in print, and it is high time, in my opinion.  (Stacking that on the “to-do” manuscript pile.)  Why is it that during the course of the conversation between opposing scientific factions doesn’t anyone either independently or together appear to recognize this as a problem?!

Last Words

We simply need more thoughtful scientific engagement by academic groups when it comes to automatically opposing human engineering where natural systems are concerned.  Forward thinkers shouldn’t automatically oppose human activity or progress, while industry scientists shouldn’t be so opposed to taking a step back and considering the Long Now.

It seems as though in most cases the data obtained and presented by the “industry” side of the fence isn’t even explored by those who oppose it on ideological grounds.  In far too many cases baseless accusations of data bias, manipulation or forgery are automatically assumed, which is a gross disservice to the scientists hard at work in industry – many of whom consider themselves shielded by the data against retribution.  (One can’t get fired for obtaining unfavorable data, and I dare a project manager to try and see how loudly an irked and disenfranchised scientist can blow a whistle.)

In any case, I suppose all I’m trying to say is this:

Can’t we all come to agree that we need both the higher-level, academic understanding of natural processes in addition to the wisdom of boots-on-the-ground experience in data collection and exposure to natural systems in order to make a smart, humane, conscientious, and successful civilization possible?

Can’t the Long Now Foundation recognize the practical (and urgent) utility of the pipeline and engage the Southern Nevada Water Authority to help them to improve their modeling efforts? Can’t the Water Authority recognize the wisdom in the Long Now Foundations considerations of long-term sustainability and invite them to take part?  Can’t both sides work together to help the collective improve the understanding of the field at large(unshielded rain gauges) while simultaneously working to benefit society?

Wishful thinking, I know…  But perhaps, someday, we’ll cross the divide in scientific culture and all be better for it.








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