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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Life among the stars

Life among the stars

The latest episode of the ever-excellent 99% Invisible podcast tells the story of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse being moved half a mile to save it from collapse. The island on which it stood has been progressively eroded by the tides over the last 150 years and the foundations of the lighthouse were at risk. As an important tourist attraction in a national park, it was felt necessary to preserve the lighthouse and hence, following much intense debate, it was decided to relocate it, a giant feat of engineering.

The podcast uses this story to question how we might react when we have to move more structures away from rising seas. Not just structures in fact, but potentially whole cities. Tides are rising as the world warms and many of our most densely populated areas are along coastlines. Moving a 4800 ton structure will look positively straightforward compared to relocating a whole population and all the infrastructure to support them.

Food, space, population

Compounding the issue is the continuing population rise. The latest UN figures suggest the population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and clear 11 billion by 2100. Climate change will also have potentially catastrophic effects on some of the world’s most productive farming regions. So, more people, in smaller spaces, with less food and diminished water resources.

Not a happy story.

How do we tackle this? The good news on climate change is that where good intentions have failed to make a major dent in our world-destroying behaviours, science and economics are starting to fight back. Fossil fuels, the cause of so many of our current issues, are looking increasingly unviable from a pure cost perspective. Trump’s efforts to hold back this particular tide will ultimately look rather Canute-like. Wind and solar will win out, balanced with battery storage and maybe backed by some new nuclear.

But these changes will not undo the damage already done, nor will they happen fast enough to avert some scale of disaster.

So what is to be done?

Reality and fantasy

The likely reality is a slow, expensive and reactive response to the challenges. As I often say, I’m a short term pessimist but long term optimist: we will find a way through. But a proactive response might be to look again at the opportunities for living in space.

Human beings are ill-suited to life beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Space rather lacks many of the things we need: air, water, and gravity for a start. And then there’s the radiation. But these issues can be overcome. And space has a few advantages: ready access to solar energy, for example. And zero gravity allows new industrial processes and the production of new types of material.

Enthusiasts at the British Interplanetary Society last year suggested we could build a space habitat for thousands in just twenty years, given the right funding — and desire. We’d have to scale that up significantly to offer an alternative home to many of those displaced by climate change. But pushing out into space has other advantages.

An image of a possible space habitat from the original Usborne Book of the Future, first published in 1979

There’s ready access to materials from the moon and elsewhere, for a start. Manufacturing in space means we aren’t manufacturing on earth, releasing more carbon. Yes, there’s an argument that having spoiled our planet we shouldn’t be moving on like locusts (like the aliens in Independence Day). But we’ve learned a lot: space colonies would likely be run entirely on renewable energy and largely vegan, given the inefficiencies of raising animals in space.

Moving into space might also provide jobs. Lots of them. This would be a new environment, one for which it might be rather complex to build automated systems, at least in the earliest days. Having human potential — both mental and physical — on tap would be critical to the success of these colonies.

Pipe dreams?

This all looks pretty unrealistic right now. But one thing makes it potentially more likely. And it’s a strange side effect of one of the most negative trends affecting us right now: growing wealth inequality.

It’s almost 100 years since the first sketches of a realistic space habitat were made. But back then the only prospect of building them was large scale government, or even international projects.

Today, access to space is increasingly in the hands of private organisations like SpaceX. They might rely heavily on government budgets, but they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to kick-start space innovation, which had stalled under collapsing government budgets and a falling appetite for risk. Billionaires can decide to launch a space colony, not quite on a whim, but with much less consideration than a government might require. As the space race between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others heats up, they just might.

Tom Cheesewright