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'Cornucopians in Space' Deliver a Dangerously Misguided Message

Optimism has its dangers
Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 11:44 AM

Once a year the very chic and exclusive TED conference takes place in Southern California, bringing together entrepreneurs, inventors, and thought leaders from every corner of the world.

There, gathered around a stage, a kind of hive mind begins to unfold in which the most cutting edge ideas in healthcare, energy, social development, and behavioral psychology are shared from a very plugged-in, big-screen podium. It’s extremely well done.

And despite the reflexive criticism from outside the conference -- that the gathering is inward-looking and elitist -- TED usually does manage to disturb the zeitgeist, a little, with its unveilings in technology and innovation. It is plainly good that next-step advances in solar technology, data collection, and developing world health initiatives are explained and broadcasted from TED. Especially given that policy makers, or those who have the ear of policy makers, are also often in attendance.

A better charge to level against the TED conference, however, is that it’s routinely, if not unfailingly, optimistic.

The 2009 conference, held in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, did not address the unpleasantness of that historic event in any meaningful way. Moreover, very few talks in recent years have addressed energy costs, especially the price revolution in oil.

In some sense, TED is the techno-innovators’ version of the faith expressed by neo-liberal economics, in which the market solves nearly all of its own problems. The enduring posture at TED, therefore, is one that acknowledges serious world problems, ranging from war to famine, water, and food availability, but which nearly always concludes that amazing and ingenious people -- geniuses -- are working to solve the problem. The Great Man theory of history would find each TED conference a comfortable place to be.

So it was perhaps surprising, but also encouraging, that the January 2012 TED conference finally addressed the subject of collapse, by inviting Paul Gilding to give his talk The Earth is Full (opens to video).

I’d actually seen a version of Gilding's talk at the Ilhahee Lecture Series here in Portland last fall. Gilding’s view is that we’ve reached a relationship between global population and available natural resources that makes it inevitable that the economy -- a converter of natural resources into goods -- will sharply slow down, if it has not started to slow down already. Gilding can be thought of not as a neo-Malthusian, or a doomer, but rather as an ecological economist. (As most readers know, I share this same view.) Gilding looks at trailing historical growth rates -- again, the rate at which natural resources are converted to industrial and population growth -- and concludes that the future size of the economy at these growth rates would create a machine that the earth simply cannot sustain. Again, I agree.

But Gilding’s TED talk was countered, if you will, with a more typical and rousing plea from Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation.

Diamandis, grounded heavily by a personal background in science and medicine, is not naive. His talk, Abundance is Our Future, was a laundry list of fast-moving technological innovations that have transformed poverty rates historically and promise to transform quality of life in the years ahead.

One of the most laudable and humanistic beliefs advanced by Diamandis is that the 3 billion people who have not yet come online to the Internet and telecom networks represent a vast and underutilized supply of human thinking. As a previous educator myself, I find this argument to be powerful.

My quibble with Diamandis and his talk is that the magnitude of the world’s present challenges cannot wait for the array of potential solutions that may start to work at the margins of humanity, even despite his core belief that innovation and its impacts will actually start to speed up. After all, Diamandis is an adherent to technological singularity, the notion that exponential growth in technology will eventually reach a crescendo, thus offering humankind super-solutions at a kind of hyperspeed rate of change. (By the way, I don’t agree with this view.)

Diamandis would go on to further test my ability to follow his arguments, however, when he recently announced a team that will explore the possibility of mineral mining on moving asteroids. I’ve no doubt that the public has reacted to this prospect as either impossible or as another silly story about the grandiose dreams of tech millionaires.

I had a different reaction: Why is Diamandis thinking about mineral mining in space, when resources here on Earth -- in his view -- are so abundant?

Blue Sky (Asteroid) Mining 

Although here in America we tend to dumb down complex subjects into simple 'either/or' arguments, it was useful to hear the Gilding vs. Diamandis debate at TED. In addition to their respective presentations, they had an onstage exchange that you can see here, hosted by Chris Anderson.

One of the major dividing lines between cornucopian technologists like Diamandis and thinkers like Gilding is the role that technology plays in the creation and extraction of resources. In ecological-economics, technology helps us extract resources. But for folks like Diamandis, technology creates resources. It is both a distinction without a difference and a distinction with a huge difference, depending on your perspective.

And the implications, depending on that difference, for the future price path of commodities, for inflation, for industrial growth, are enormous.

Ask yourself the following. For the technologies that allowed for the increased rate of extraction of coal in the 19th century, or that now allow for the increased rate of extraction of natural gas from shale in the 21st century, did those technologies create the resources, or merely extract them as they already existed? The answer seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, I want to be sympathetic to the view that technology creates resources, in the sense that technology makes previous unrecognized or unrecoverable resources available. But a threshold I cannot cross, however, is that idea that there are always a new resources waiting to be discovered, if we can only create a technology to obtain them.

Which brings us back to mining for minerals. On asteroids.

Why is Diamandis not pursuing technologies for material upgrading, for example? In material upgrading, the task is to substitute materials once thought inapplicable to processes such as the task of solar manufacturing or electricity transmission. If copper gets too expensive to use for electrical transmission, then some other metal, or combination of metals, or even liquids or gases are used. That’s the theory, anyway.

Why mount energy-intensive missions into space and run heavy payloads back to earth? Surely the ROI (return on investment) for such efforts would be low, even if the minerals involved commanded a very high price....back on earth.

I think I have one answer to this question, but first, let’s review the business plan, the mission, of Planetary Resources, Inc. From the Los Angeles Times:

A group of 21st-century private space entrepreneurs is expected to unveil an ambitious new venture to mine the surface of near-Earth asteroids in search of precious metals and rare metallic elements. The plan may seem like it was torn from a science fiction novel, and critics say the idea may be far-fetched and difficult for a small company to accomplish. But the company, Planetary Resources Inc., has already drawn an A-list of investors and advisors. The backers include Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, "Avatar" director James Cameron and Microsoft Corp.'s former chief software architect Charles Simonyi...."Humanity has been driven for thousands of years to explore the Earth for resources," said Peter H. Diamandis, the company's co-founder and co-chairman. "The next step is to expand the economic sphere of humanity beyond Earth's confines.

(Source)

You have to wonder, is it possible that the team behind Planetary Resources accepts that many crucial natural resources, necessary for mobile, greentech, and telecom development are in truth neither replicable, nor substitutable, nor sufficiently recoverable here on our fair and blue planet?

The Abundance Movement

A flowering of new books heralding a new age of abundance have recently appeared, including one from Mr. Diamandis.

However, it is worth noting this cultural theme comes after a decade in which the production rate of many natural resources, from oil to gold to (more recently) copper, did not speed up but instead either slowed or stagnated in the face of quickly rising prices. Crude oil production has been trapped below a ceiling since 2005. Global production of gold actually fell every year of the past decade until the last two years, but it is once again stagnating. Copper production managed to rise the past decade. However, ore grades of copper have been declining for a century, and this is why copper has now repriced at much higher levels, closer to $4.00 per pound. Recent data shows also that the rate of growth of global copper production in the last decade slowed significantly and also stagnated in the past 24 months.

There’s an important distinction to make, therefore, between an abundance movement that simply posits that we’ll have more of everything, at cheaper prices, in the same style as the past, as opposed to an abundance movement that is tethered to reality and realizes that large changes in consumption, values, and lifestyle will be needed to create the next phase of “wealth.”

Authors such as Juliet Schor, who wrote Plentitude, are much more reflective of and respectful of limits, and therefore do not dream of the next phase of mineral mining in outer space. Rather, many “new wealth” thinkers have gravitated instead to a less is more pathway, in which a lot of our previous consumption and time-bankruptcy is finally recognized as waste.

Three Crucial Problems with the “More is More” Abundance Movement

Peter Thiel recently debated George Gilder at ISI (you can open the video at YouTube, here). Thiel made a familiar point, which is that the impact of technological progress has become more narrow. I have treated this issue in previous reports and pointed to some of the data on which this thesis relies, including the stagnation of Total Factor Productivity, for example.

But Thiel goes on to make a second point, which is that belief in rapid, even accelerating technological progress is surely going to cause tremendous mis-allocation of capital. And that’s the first crucial problem I see with the cornucopian abundance movement.

Like a financial system that refuses to accept that tightly coupled structures are risky and that risk itself grows with in tandem with complexity, the cornucopian abundance approach simply won’t take no for an answer. This means that instead of focusing on smaller solutions with more immediate effects, grandiose solutions with long timelines are pursued instead.

The second crucial problem is a failure to consider the limit outlined by Paul Gilding, which is that present growth rates of energy consumption, for example, imply an economy that just about everyone can agree is simply too large for the planet to handle. You simply cannot keep growing the size of the human-created heat engine up to the level of a star. This was articulated beautifully by physicist Tom Murphy in his recent and very widely read post, Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist. When problem solvers entirely avoid the subject of limits, it is both appealing and exciting, but eventually it becomes vaguely pathological.

Finally, there are a number of pressing issues already on the planet, which range from the risk created when food production is outsourced by water-starved populations to other continents, to large regions of the world such as Asia attempting to provide increased electrified transport for billions of people. Leap-frog adoption of mobile telecom and the rise of social networks will no doubt serve to get these emerging voices out to a world eager to learn and to help with solutions. But celebrating the success of solutions before they’ve actually arrived -- indeed, well before they’ve arrived, is no solution at all.

Repricing the Planet: Real World Copper as Opposed to Metals in Space

In Part II: The Looming Dislocation Risks Posed By Resource Scarcity, we dive further into the challenges that accompany the acceleration of technology, as related to de-industrialization and the displacement of human labor with automation.

Previously, at least in the last century, this dynamic gave rise to increased productivity and wealth. But that may no longer be the case. We are not living in a world where any of our critical natural resources are forecasting a radical upswing in supply. Oil and copper, for example, remain decidedly unconcerned about substitution or miracles from space.

Importantly, we will take a closer look at the red metal (no, not the red planet!) also known as Dr. Copper. What happened to global copper production this past decade as the price rose? And how crucial will copper become, as the world tries to transition away from transport based on liquid BTUs?

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; paid enrollment required for full access).

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27 Comments

Damnthematrix's picture
Damnthematrix
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
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Posts: 3998
They just don't get it......

Great post BTW.....  But I like Tom Murphy's explanation of ultimate limits:  he has calculated that if we continued using energy, from ANY SOURCE your little heart desires, the accumulated waste heat (ALL energy use results in degradation to waste heat) would fry us all within 400 years.

Forget Climate Change, this would quickly kill the planet......

Mike

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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Busy now, Back Later.

Why mount energy-intensive missions into space and run heavy payloads back to earth?

 Why bring them back to Earth? Use them at L4 and 5.

dave s's picture
dave s
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Posts: 56
Arthur Robey wrote: Why
Arthur Robey wrote:

Why mount energy-intensive missions into space and run heavy payloads back to earth?

 Why bring them back to Earth? Use them at L4 and 5.

Arthur, I knew this post would interest you!  What do you make of this commentator's blog entry?

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/09/solving-fermis-paradox.html

And, this comment from him in response to various comments:

I'm familiar with the "rare earth" argument -- one of many ways of crunching the numbers in Drake's equation. There's no way to know whether it's true or not. The claim ... that life off the surface of a planet would free an intelligent species from the energy and resource limitations found onworld strikes me, though, as mythology dressed up as science.

A few resources (metals and a few gases) can be had fairly easily in space, though even there they're distributed very thinly over immense volumes of hard vacuum, and you have solar power at more than earth-surface density. On the other hand, everything else (starting with air, water, and food) has to be imported or made, so the calls on your resource base to support a human population will be much more extreme, and managing a manufactured ecosystem -- as the folks at Biosphere II found out -- is much harder than it seems.

Over and above that, your "yolk" theory assumes a teleology -- that the goal of intelligence is to make some sort of flying leap into outer space -- that's ultimately a value judgment, and not one shared by all of us. Certainly I don't share it. Even if deep space were the best place for industrial civilization, a claim I find questionable at best, I suspect the biosphere where we evolved is the best place for a human civilization -- and that seems much more worth striving for than the science fiction vision you're suggesting.
 

There is a small handful of regular readers of both JMG's blog and Chris'.  I find JMG generally pretty brilliant, if a bit insufferable.  I'd love to hear the two of them chat.   

rhare's picture
rhare
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Dictates from the ivory towers...

Gregor, great article. I find it refreshing as you that at least some of this is being discussed, and hopefully more people will begin to at least give these issues some thought.  I have many friends in technology, science, medicine, very smart people, and many of them think I'm nuts and that everything will be okay.  It's the blind faith that things have always worked out and that we are really smart and will solve the problems.

One issue, particularly with the mining in space is that few people actually think through the math of the problem, sort of like the math about resources, or economics.  With just a little bit of scratching at the surface you can quickly determine many of these ideas are pretty impractical given our current understanding of physics.  Tom Murphy's stuff is great in that regard and some of his other works pokes pretty large holes in ideas many people accept as probable.  I think his "Why not space?" article is great at debunking any of the space based solutions to problems.  It makes me wonder how so many smart people can promote them as solutions.  Too much money - just for fun?  I think the exploration being done by those promoting things like the X-prise may offer some valuable technology advances, but it's highly unlikely they will be a solution for the more mundane problems we face.

Paul Gilding wrote:

... free market fundamentalists will tell you that more growth and more stuff, 9 billion people going shopping is the best we can do.

I consider myself a free market "fundamentalist" and I don't believe that at all.  In fact I think the free market is necessary particularly in a no growth resource constrained environment.  How else are you going to decide where best to allocate resources?  We've not had any free markets for quite sometime, and we can see the results.  It's not free markets that lead us down unsustainable paths, rather the opposite, when people believe they are "smart enough" to direct resources and make the right decisions for others that gets us into trouble.  Look at the control by the Fed with monetary policy encouraging consumption and malinvestment.  Or politicians encouraging growth of suburbs, housing, huge communities in the deserts, etc.

So while I agree with much of Gilding's talk, I find it troublesome that an attitude prevails that we just need the right "smart" people to look at the problems and make the tough decisions for the majority of the population.  Instead we need the majority of the population to understand the problems and each to be making decisions based on their own self interest (free market).  We need people to view "natural" resources as valuable and I think the only way is when you have a free market properly setting prices. More dictates from the ivory towers are likely to cause more imbalances and push us down different unsustainable paths.

 

Mirv's picture
Mirv
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Posts: 105
Re: "solution for the more mundane problems we face"

Rhare you make excellent points regarding how to address the problems.  You stated that instead of relying on ivory tower "experts" with ideas for mining asteroids:  "[i]nstead we need the majority of the population to understand the problems and each to be making decisions based on their own self interest (free market). "   This CM blog is focused on a  study of the problems and is wonderful for that purpose. However the solution(s) are not discussed much outside of immediate time frame prepping and stacking.

The long term solution (after the crash occurs-whether slowly over years or suddenly) is a new paradigm based on profitable use of the abundant virtually free (internet) technology/information at the local community level for community level production of energy, food, security, health, education etc.  That is: local community responsibility and local generation of wealth without any need of central banksters, federal welfare state or other manipulators.  The latest technology development (internet) finally delivers all the information we need anywhere we want for almost nothing and potentiates local  community development without relying on banksters, or other non-value adding manipulators.  We now have enough information to build and live in our own fruitful communities (with inter-community trading  for things that require large investments to make).  In such paradigm banksters and the federal welfare state are not needed and we can follow Alexander Solzhenitsyn's good  advice: "Dont believe them, dont fear them, dont ask anything of them." 

Chris Duane of the silver shield has a specific exit strategy, which involves the same prepping and stacking as described here, but also includes more formal development of relationships for eventual community building after the dust settles.  Each person, regardless of background or history has a very valuable set of skills and talents that should be identified now and respected (begin to integrate) in the context of an eventual community.  I think that participants in this blog could progress even more by starting to work together now, beyond just arm chair chit chat communication on a  blog site.  Members of the silver shield report (http://dont-tread-on.me/) are doing just that.

 

 

Adam Taggart's picture
Adam Taggart
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Formal development of community
Mirv wrote:

Chris Duane of the silver shield has a specific exit strategy, which involves the same prepping and stacking as described here, but also includes more formal development of relationships for eventual community building after the dust settles.  Each person, regardless of background or history has a very valuable set of skills and talents that should be identified now and respected (begin to integrate) in the context of an eventual community.  I think that participants in this blog could progress even more by starting to work together now, beyond just arm chair chit chat communication on a  blog site.  

We agree, Mirv. Give us two weeks.

 

rhare's picture
rhare
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The non-free internet
Mirv wrote:

the abundant virtually free (internet) technology/information

Mirv, I agree that things will be local and we will be much more involved at the local level through necessity.  But don't be fooled by today's "free internet:".  It is no where near free.  The cost to build, power, and cool very large data centers is incredibly expensive, not to mention the costs involved in the dramatic increase in complexity that has occurred over the last few years. There is also a very large infrastructure and embedded energy in the equipment, software (lots of hungry programmers), communication facilities, and end user devices (PCs, tablets, phones).  

In the same way that we have support via fiat currency for the stock market, gas fracking, and housing - that same "free" money is masking much of the expense of the internet.  What happens when true "capital" becomes tight?   No more VCs dumping cheap money into companies that don't have a reasonable plan for profit.  Much less advertising based revenue covering the costs since fewer people buying stuff means fewer advertising dollars.

Just like oil, I think many of us are in for a rude awakening about the true cost of our electronic toys and the services that support them.  I agree it will be a major component of our future, but it will not be free.  There is also the problem which Chris has pointed out, that complexity in society has a direct correlation to the excess energy available, and the internet is the pinnacle of that complexity.

 

Here are some links you might be interested in:

Worldwide electricity used in data centers

  • About 1% of electricity used worldwide (2005)
  • From 2000-2005 growth rate of 16.7% annually
Mirv's picture
Mirv
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Internet is not free

Thank you very much.  I did not realize that.  Now I am more concerned that parts of the internet may go dark.  What are the chances of that happening? 

In this context, I understand that one or more groups (in N. Vir. area) have been developing simple hardware and software for easily implementing RF based local nets (with repeaters to link up entire city areas) that for example could be smuggled into middle east locations to free up the communications.  If a community were unable (due to finances or to central authority control) to use cell phones  or internet communications how hard would it be (assuming that RF emissions met acceptably low limits for suchan intranet system, maybe highly directional?) to implement such thing post collapse? Can the Multi  Use Radio Service be  used that way? Can  zigbee modules be used that way?..................................

 

 

rhare's picture
rhare
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Don't think mad max - think bankruptcy
Mirv wrote:

Thank you very much.  I did not realize that.  Now I am more concerned that parts of the internet may go dark.  What are the chances of that happening?

I think it's inevitable that some things will disappear.  It's why it's best to always keep a copy of anything you consider really important locally available.  When companies go bankrupt, all those servers and communication networks get shutdown and data stored on them may become never become available again.

Here is another article you might find interesting, Google utilizes an estimated 900,000 servers.  I'm sure MSN, Apple, Amazon, Yahoo all have comparable data centers.   It makes you think about the enormous amount of power the internet takes.  Here is an article on the 100 acre PV solar array Apple installed at one of it's facilities, but it still only covers 4% of the data center's power.

Mirv wrote:

In this context, I understand that one or more groups (in N. Vir. area) have been developing simple hardware and software for easily implementing RF based local nets (with repeaters to link up entire city areas) that for example could be smuggled into middle east locations to free up the communications.  If a community were unable (due to finances or to central authority control) to use cell phones  or internet communications how hard would it be (assuming that RF emissions met acceptably low limits for suchan intranet system, maybe highly directional?) to implement such thing post collapse? Can the Multi  Use Radio Service be  used that way? Can  zigbee modules be used that way?..................................

I'm sure people will cobble together local networks, local ISPs etc.  The internet is not going to go away, it's just will not be as free as it is now.  So I don't think the worry is about having to build local communication channel replacements, just realize that you can't treat it as a free unlimited resource.

I'm sure you can use any radio communication channel for network traffic however, Zigbee is a low power, low bandwidth short range mesh network generally used for control applications as opposed to high volume data transmission. 

The important thing is to understand, you will most likely have to pay more for data services.  The variety available may be reduced, and that it's risky to trust storage of critical data on a remote server. If it's critical you should have a backup copy (several), and ideally a local copy.

 

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jonesb.mta
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The Internet

Rhare, I agree with everything you've said but I'm not so sure that the cost of the internet will go up. Usually if you can take government out of the picture the costs goes down when the free market takes over. We may pay more to our service provider but less tax for the government to waste with their inefficient central planning.

rhare's picture
rhare
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Internet - same as other infrastructure
jonesb.mta wrote:

Usually if you can take government out of the picture the costs goes down when the free market takes over.

Absolutely agree with that!  I'm not so much worried about the government regulation (well - other than it becoming more onerous) as I am the removal of lots of "free" money from the system.  There is a lot of Internet related stuff that makes no business sense.  We saw extreme examples of it during the dot com bubble, but it's still occurring.   A lot of money flows into Internet based companies and when that spigot is removed I suspect many will go under - they will not be providing a needed service during a time when that is what people can afford and are willing to pay.  We also have the whole "reserve currency" subsidy in the US which could have a large impact.

Whether it does or not, I don't think it changes the message.  If some piece of data on the Internet is particularly valuable to you, you should keep a local copy of it just in case.  I also don't see this as being one of those problems that will just go poof one day, it's more likely to be a long slow degradation in an energy starved world, like other infrastructure - (roads, telecommunications, electric grid, etc).

pmbug's picture
pmbug
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Posts: 2
Population

Population problem?  Nothing that large scale war can't fix.

gregroberts's picture
gregroberts
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Warning, Utopian ideas

Warning, Utopian ideas alert

This whole conversation reminds me of the people who said that it is impossible for man to fly, while birds were flying around the globe. We are surrounded by an almost unlimited universe with almost unlimited resources and we spend our time coming up with better ways to kill each other instead of figuring out how to live in space. Solves a lot of problems, population becomes a non issue, energy too, isn't Jupiter a giant ball of mostly hydrogen? Since if we want to survive as a species we will have to leave the Earth anyway why not get started working on it now?

BTW, Chris, really enjoyed your interview with Stefan Molyneux, you guys amaze me with the wonderful brains you were gifted with, reminds me of the doctor in the movie Gattaca, "I wish my parents would have ordered one of those for me" although he was speaking of an alternate organ of one track thought.

nedyne's picture
nedyne
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Asteroid mining

"Why is Diamandis thinking about mineral mining in space, when resources here on Earth -- in his view -- are so abundant?"

Hmm. I don't think that is Diamandis' view.

Read here: http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/

And watch this talk of his: http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_diamandis_on_our_next_giant_leap.html

... and then draw your own conclusions.

 

witold.bialkowski's picture
witold.bialkowski
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DELUSION

What a joke. Oh sorry, that which is understood, need not be said.

mammamia's picture
mammamia
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Please make this post public!

This post is so important, with the dialectic between technology and limited resources going toward social injustice that I would invite Chris Martenson and his team, and the author Gregor Macdonald to agree to make it all public (that is, also the second part). It would also give a sense of what people are missing by not joining.

I have been thinking along the same lines for quite some time seeing those two strong forces clash, but not being really clear what the outcome was going to be. I was infact preparing an article myself. And then your article came out. I now feel I should not write mine anymore,... but what is written overn here needs to be public... Humanity needs it!

Please make it public!

Dan Robinson's picture
Dan Robinson
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Posts: 13
Space Debris

Noting the picture of an asteroid being broken into many pieces brought to mind the problem of space derbis, in this case we assume not in near Earth orbit, but a danger for future voyagers to other planets. We didn't think of it being a problem locally either.

We also need to look more at the real problem of continuing Earth-base human population growth, a much lower tech industry, which it seems will always outrun technology.

RJE's picture
RJE
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Asteroids, really!?

I am of a different mind set now than wasting time with the issue of whether to mine asteroids or not. Frankly if TED is to be denigrated as some futuristic elitist, and time to implement their grandiose ideas does nothing for us in the here and now then certainly even spending time on outer world mining is just nonsense to be direct.

The market will decide the issues of the Internet, just as it will with so many businesses. As Peak Oil moves along then mending ones jeans may be preferred as apposed to buying another pair. Same with a host of other products. If the economy and the consumer has to kick things out it will be the items they bought forward. and have many of. An example of things that would perhaps take a hit would be homes with 2, 3, 5 TVs in them. Instead of buying the latest great picture plasma type TV it will be rationalized that we have many fine TVs to use already. As each break down we move the one from the sons room that has been married off a couple of years ago. This is a practical use of many household items, and the market with less oil will make the decision to just use what they payed for during the gluttonous period. That being the last 20 years. It only makes sense that when you have to cut corners to pay for $5 dollar gasoline with a wage that is not staying up with inflation, that you will use what is on hand first to make ends meet.

I will keep my positive attitude for things I can control, that would be here on planet earth for the foreseeable future. Going forward, where there is a need, and prices rise for base metals ,it will be far cheaper to just recycle what we have buried. So, over the years we have buried trillions of tones of stuff that will be useful to us in the future, and in doing so will not only create energy but the energy created will extract many base metals during the process. In the very basic example: Solar panels can be installed to handle the use for homes with excess energy being supplied to the grid. This is not only energy neutral but a profit making venture. It really is as simple as that as prices for fossil fuels rise. When too high then we produce what can now be environmentally friendlier and cheaper energy sourses. Win, win. Then we keep our fingers crossed and hope what we have sent to the atmosphere already hasn't change things climatically to kill us in the long run.

I say we just led the TED type move along because some day back in the 70's they were looking at some futuristic things like the computer, Internet, better fracing technology and 3D imaging, etc... all very important today when you consider that these extra barrels of oil are what is making things better and not worse 40 years later (70's to 2010).

Everything has a place, and asteroid mining may in fact come online at some futuristic time when it will be critical but perhaps a more reasonable solution can be taken with just the idea that everyone understands what Peak Oil means and starts treating the issue with the urgency it needs. If we do this then I don't  thinkasteroid mining will be the pressing issue for a good long time.

Respectfully Given

BOB

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nickbert
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I'm split as to Gregor's

I'm split as to Gregor's thoughts on Planetary Resources.  On one hand I agree it is rather foolish to parade this as a project that will meaningfully affect resource limitations on Earth, at least for the next 2 or 3 decades or longer.  Even for utilizing purely robotic mining & processing of near Earth asteroids, the time it takes to get both the spacecraft to the objects and the extracted materials back to Earth or Earth orbit would be very long (not to mention irregular schedules... these asteroids may be close in a relative distance sense, but their orbits may only allow limited time windows for sending materials elsewhere).  This long time delay between investment and return and the irregular deliveries would make for a very challenging, and probably discouraging, business model when shorter-term and less uncertain opportunities exist.  And even considering the most potentially profitable and valuable resource, Helium-3 for energy, depends on our research on nuclear fusion making immense strides first in order to be a useful resource. 

But on the other hand, while I don't see this as our resource savior, I do think the project has potential merit if pursued primarily with the intent of creating a space economy for space-based activities and industries.  Space-based resources are very likely to be cost prohibitive when compared to even shrinking available resources on Earth, but if they are meant to be used in projects and industries in orbit and beyond they will likely be very competitive compared to hauling materials from Earth.  This is stated as one of their primary goals on their site ("Harnessing valuable minerals from a practically infinite source will provide stability on Earth, increase humanity’s prosperity, and help establish and maintain human presence in space").  So I wonder why are they selling this also as a means of alleviating resource issues on Earth in anything but the very, very long term?  They HAVE to know the limitations and logistical challenges better than I do (I have had only 5 years experience and much of it only partially applicable to space exploration), and despite the perhaps overwhelming optimism on some of their members' part, at least on the surface they are doing this largely with their own money which I expect would induce some caution even the most optimistic individual.  I have two guesses.... the first is as Gregor hints at, that perhaps they do realize that the resource scarcity issue needs a very long term vision and investment, and that maybe they don't expect to make money or benefit directly from this but perhaps their children and grandchildren will.  The second guess is that they primarily care about space exploration and creating a space-based economy and infrastructure out of both personal and financial interest, but realize they need more than that to sell other people on signing on to it.  Making allusions to helping solve resource problems on Earth is one of many tempting hooks, and while making such a pitch is potentially shady or dishonest it very well may work in getting them to their goals.  I suspect that they know that such a grand project would eventually provide great benefits for mankind, just not in the way they're suggesting or as immediately as they make it out to be.  Kind of like the initial discovery of the New World didn't yield the kind of result or profit that Columbus and his backers in Spain expected, this project probably won't benefit us in they way these guys say it will. 

I'm just guessing here but those are the only things that make sense to me.  I sincerely hope that they are not really betting everything on getting a good ROI for bringing minerals back to Earth, because if they really do I suspect the odds will be high of their project imploding in an epic way.

- Nick

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Montestruc
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Radiation Heat Transfer

 You seem totally oblivious to loss of heat by infrared radiation.  Heat added on earth is lost to space by radiation.  You are making yourself look really ignorant.  

 

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_radiation

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Doug
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Montestruc wrote:  You seem
Montestruc wrote:

 You seem totally oblivious to loss of heat by infrared radiation.  Heat added on earth is lost to space by radiation.  You are making yourself look really ignorant.  

 

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_radiation

You might want to check your sources.  The earth absorbs energy from the sun and reflects some of that energy in the form of long form radiation (infrared) back into space.  The numbers are not in balance.  The imbalance is what explains climate change and why we aren't 'iceball earth.'

http://icp.giss.nasa.gov/education/radforce/page2.html

Doug

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Gregor Macdonald
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The Economics of Asteroid Mining

As I discuss in Part II, the venture capitalists behind Planetary Resources seem not to have considered that if mining for minerals on asteroids were actually profitable, both in energy and financial terms, then it's not likely more than a handful of people or institutions could afford such prices, back on earth. Imagine oil at $5000 a barrel, and the Alberta Tar Sands operating exclusively to produce a small amount of oil purchased only by governments, annually. It doesn't work.

There's an optimal level of price and consumption for any resource or product. Outside of that band, in either direction, you run into limits. As always, the technology people tend to run into business model problems when they depart the world of Bits and try to get stuff done in the world of Atoms.

Thanks for all the comments!

G

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Oh no, not the space resource mining thing again...

 Back in the 1970s Princeton physics professor Gerard K. O'Neill proposed his "high frontier" concept for mining Lunar materials and catapulting them to L5 for processing.  Models were built and the L5 Society lobbied on behalf of the proposal.  Of course this was also the decade when a group of scientists led by MIT professor Dennis Meadows conducted their Limits to Growth research using system dynamics modelling techniques developed by MIT professor Jay W. Forrester.  So, let's see where we are today 40 years later...no mining of the Lunar surface seems to have occurred unless you count the few boxes of  Lunar materials returned to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, but the LTG model runs seem to have held up pretty well over that time.  Three years ago professor Meadows publicly remarked that the course of events had actually overtaken the model runs to the extent that policy makers only have 20 years left in which to prepare a large human population for a controlled collapse of industrial civilization.  He warned that the time leading up to the collapse of industrial civilization would be dangerous and events could spin completely out of control. The problems of material and population growth in a finite world is that they will not be widely recognized until it is too late.  It could be that we are pre-disposed to run head first into the wall of ecological and geological scarity at full speed before we are willing to organize our lives on a different basis.  Anyway, Enlightenment thinking and economic liberalism fueled by a bonanza of fossil energy has run out of gas...literally, and all we really have to look forward to is the struggle over the last stocks of life-sustaining resources on the planet followed by a massive die-off.

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HopDavid
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rhare wrote:Tom Murphy's
rhare wrote:

Tom Murphy's stuff is great in that regard and some of his other works pokes pretty large holes in ideas many people accept as probable.  I think his "Why not space?" article is great at debunking any of the space based solutions to problems.

Tom Murphy's articles do nothing of the sort.

In Stranded Resources Murphy paints the following picture: an asteroid 1 kilometer in diameter, 5 kilometer/second delta V needed and oxygen/methane propellant -- this mix has about 3.3 km/x exhaust velocity.

In an actual asteroid retrieval proposal the suggested asteroid size is about 7 meters. Not only because this is doable but also for safety considerations. Delta V for parking many asteroids in high lunar orbit is in the neighborhood of .2 km/sec, much smaller than the 5 km/s Murphy suggests. Exhaust velocity in the KISS Proposal is around 30 kilometers/second.

The propellant mass in these two scenarios vary by nine orders of magnitude.

Anyone who cites Murphy's "Do The Math" to debunk asteroid mining obviously hasn't bothered to Do The Math.

For a more detailed critique of Murphy's "Why Not Space?" and "Stranded Resources" see  Murphy's Mangled Math.

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Not economical
HopDavid wrote:

In an actual asteroid retrieval proposal the suggested asteroid size is about 7 meters. Not only because this is doable but also for safety considerations. Delta V for parking many asteroids in high lunar orbit is in the neighborhood of .2 km/sec, much smaller than the 5 km/s Murphy suggests. Exhaust velocity in the KISS Proposal is around 30 kilometers/second.

Okay time to do a little math....

The proposal estimates costs (I'm sure they are low) to be $2.6B to bring a 7m asteroid to earth.  So lets assume you can find a 7m asteroid made of solid gold, then maybe it would be worth it, since the asteroid at $1600/oz would be worth around $178B.  However, since asteroids are either rock, or iron you get a whole lot less.  For a solid iron asteroid your return is $212K worth of iron at today's prices.

I don't believe anything I have read from Murphy says you can't figure out how to technically get an asteroid, build space based energy, etc.  The problem is the costs are enormous, risks very high, and just not worth it on a material basis compared to traditional sources here on earth.  My guess is your can mine a landfill far far cheaper than you can haul stuff back from space.

The point Murphy makes in the articles I have read is that space is expensive, risky, extremely inhospitable to humans, and other than for scientific interest/research is not worth doing.  It it's far easier and more economical to concentrate on more terrestrial based solutions.  His math shows what Gregor is pointing out in this article, that proponents of space based solutions provide false hope where much more mundane solutions are attainable.

I would also argue that even if we currently had the technology to implement space mining today, the time frame for any meaningful change is too far out to make any difference.  We will have to deal with our current crop of issues using only resources found her on earth.

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HopDavid
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rhare wrote: HopDavid
rhare wrote:
HopDavid wrote:

In an actual asteroid retrieval proposal the suggested asteroid size is about 7 meters. Not only because this is doable but also for safety considerations. Delta V for parking many asteroids in high lunar orbit is in the neighborhood of .2 km/sec, much smaller than the 5 km/s Murphy suggests. Exhaust velocity in the KISS Proposal is around 30 kilometers/second.

Okay time to do a little math....

The proposal estimates costs (I'm sure they are low) to be $2.6B to bring a 7m asteroid to earth.  So lets assume you can find a 7m asteroid made of solid gold,

Gold? Please. Do some research.

The first asteroids Planetary Resources hopes for aren't gold, nor platinum nor diamonds. But water rich asteroids.

In his essays Murphy correctly points out the importance of delta V. Propellant high on the slopes of earth's gravity well would break the exponent in Tsiolkovsky's Rocket Equation. And that is exactly what Planetary Resources is hoping to do. This could make space travel much cheaper, a prerequisite for mining asteroidal platinum.

Murphy does look at the idea of refueling in space. There are potential propellant sources nearby in terms of delta V: Near Earth Asteroids or the lunar cold traps. Does he look at these? No, he suggests Jupiter or Titan. Were you to suggest Jupiter as a potential propellant source, the Planetary Resources engineers would correctly dismiss you as utterly clueless.

rhare wrote:

I don't believe anything I have read from Murphy says you can't figure out how to technically get an asteroid, build space based energy, etc.  The problem is the costs are enormous, risks very high,

This isn't math, rather extremely vague handwaving. I want to look at Murphy's numbers.

His numbers are drastically inflated. Examples:

For example 5 kilometers per second needed delta V to retrieve an asteroid. There are many asteroids much closer in terms of delta V.

Murphy's Methane/lox propellant gives has an exhaust velocity of 3.3 km/s. The ion engine Planetary resources is 30 km/s.

There are many bad numbers in Murphy's arguments. Some of them are from out and out bad math. For example his failure to patch conics correctly.

rhare wrote:

The point Murphy makes in the articles I have read is that space is expensive, risky, extremely inhospitable to humans, and other than for scientific interest/research is not worth doing.

And he uses false numbers to make this point. Parroting the point Murphy claims to make does not defend his math.

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