Human Adaptability and Space Colonization
Given the popularity of doomsday cults and predictions over the years, I felt that I, at some point, needed to address at least those that feel we are going to end up wiping ourselves off the planet, be it through nuclear war, over-breeding, or climate change.
There is only one way we can wipe ourselves out: total nuclear devastation. I'm talking a release of enough nuclear weapons to completely scour all life from the surface of the planet, taking about 6 feet of topsoil with it. And even that wouldn't be guaranteed to obliterate us, as many will have gone underground by then, quite potentially having already set up underground gardens (Japan's already got a subterranean farm in Tokyo). Why do I think this is the only way we can annihilate ourselves? The very same reason why we've survived every civilization collapse to date. And the very same reason why we have managed to spread from a small band of hominids in the Great Rift Valley to being the only species capable of survival on every continent, and the only terrestrial species that is capable of intentionally travelling into that most inhospitable environment of space. And that reason is our adaptability, which encompasses a little more than our intelligence, but our intelligence and creativity are probably the largest factors in our adaptability.
We adapt. To everything. No matter how harsh the conditions, humans are capable of adapting not only ourselves, but also our environment, to, not only survivable conditions, but, in most cases, downright comfortable conditions. Even in the event of global catastrophe, be it global famine, near-total war, or global epidemic, there will be a FEW who survive. And those few will adapt to whatever new and harsh conditions exist. And they will propagate. And, eventually, we will modify those new harsh conditions to a more comfortable state for our existence. This is simply the way of our species. It is what has made us so successful (biologically speaking) as a species. And, yes, biologically speaking, we are a damned successful species - having managed to spread ourselves from some few thousand members 40,000 years ago to the billions we have now.
Yes, our numbers are too much for this planet. For *THIS* planet. And, ideally, we need population control. Unfortunately, negative population growth is an ideal. It's not a reality. Nor will it be as long as we have the attitudes of the Catholic Church - where the Pope encourages propagation and discourages birth control - and of third world nations - where large families are viewed as necessary for survival. This is a harsh reality. So, this then poses the question: If negative population growth is not realistic, and we have surpassed a safe population size for this planet, what is our solution? Is our solution to allow this overpopulation to lead to great suffering, caused by widespread famine and disease, thereby allowing age-old methods of population control to do the job? Or, do we, making use of our adaptability, our minds, and our ever-expanding technology, derive a better solution, to the betterment of all (that all including not only humanity but the terrestrial ecosphere as a whole).
The second option sounds much better, no? I certainly think so. So, let us cast aside the former as unviable and undesirable. Let us now approach the latter choice of making use of our adaptability. Recognizing that we are adaptable, and recognizing that we have an ever-expanding technology, we set to this solution under this second option. What are the possibilities under this second option? There are three frontiers we have not yet fully adapted ourselves to survive in comfortably.
The first we already have settlements on - the seventh continent of Antarctica. This would provide a little bit more living space, but not much. And we would be further unbalancing the global ecosphere by "terraforming" Antarctica to more comfortable conditions - especially if we were foolhardy enough to melt the icecap (never mind we’re already doing this via global warming). This would raise the global sea level by approximately 36 meters. Say goodbye to most of San Francisco, the California Central Valley, Florida, much of the East Coast, and the American Midwest. So, this solution is not viable.
Second, we have the ocean itself. Fully two thirds of the world's surface is water. Our population of 6 billion is crammed onto a mere one third of our planetary surface! And, in the ocean, we would have not only 2-dimensional growth potential, but 3 dimensional. Okay, so we can triple our living space by adapting to the oceanic environment. Nifty. Sounds great, why not? Problems arise already. First, 80% of the world's oxygen is generated by plankton in the ocean. We have already seen through our carelessness how easy it is to destroy oceanic ecosystems in our near-destruction of the kelp forests off coastal California. Fortunately, we have somewhat reversed that crisis, but then there are the massive dead zones we’ve created in the throughout the world's oceans with our heavy use of fertilizers, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The oceanic environment is simply too delicate for us to intrude upon too much. Exploration and maybe LIMITED colonization, if done carefully, is fine. Through these, we might be able to further study this frontier and learn a few things. But adapting the environment to suit our needs is simply not viable. Personally, I like to breathe.
Okay, so we've now nixed two of three frontiers. What's the third one?
Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages...::sounds of record scratching to a halt::
Yep, space. A frontier that, if not fully infinite, is near enough so for our purposes. We won't increase our living space by 10% or triple it, but effectively create an unlimited lebensraum for ourselves.
Problems facing us in space colonization:
As a friend of mine mentioned, food production will be problematic. However, not quite as problematic as he made it sound. Assumption made in his assault upon food production in space is that we would be dealing with a sterile environment, which, for our initial colonization, we would not. Initial target: Mars. It already has water. It already has a carbon-dioxide atmosphere. It already has a dusty surface (which is a plus - initial fungi, protozoa and primitive plants used for terraformation won't have to undergo the arduous task of creating as much loose topsoil - they merely have to fix the dust - still a large task, yes). And evidence points to the possibility that it may at one point have supported life. This creates a positive outlook for terraformation. And food production.
Second problem is the times involved in space travel. Using standard chemical thrust engines, even the trip to our nearby neighbor Mars, ETAs tend to be measured in months over a year. However, this is not going to be the case in even the near future. Already we have developed a superior method of propulsion to chemical thrust engines - the ion drive. The first ion driven interplanetary craft, Deep Space 1,was launched in 1998. It completed its full 12-point mission by April 1999. Its thrust potential was determined to be roughly 13 times that of a standard chemical-thrust driven craft. Since then, ion drives have slowly started becoming the standard engine of choice for interplanetary vehicles. An ion driven craft would cut the travelling time to Mars down to somewhere around 3 months or less. An additional benefit of the ion drive is the reaction mass required for it is much, much smaller than that necessary for chemical thrust engines, freeing up space on board for other systems (or passengers) and decreasing the costs of the initial takeoff (a chemical thrust booster is still required to escape the atmosphere as the ion drive doesn't work too well in atmosphere, not to mention the idea of expelling highly charged xenon particles into the air we breathe).
Space/Mass aboard craft. A simple fact of Newtonian physics is the more mass you put aboard the craft the more reaction mass you need to get it off the planet. Which, by the fun laws of economics, costs more. However, this dilemma, though never solved, is made less and less a dilemma as our technology advances, as shown in the instance of the ion drive above. These increases come more and more rapidly the more our space program advances. Just look around you. The very monitor at which you're looking, the keyboard upon which you're typing, the CPU and materials of which they are all composed, the microwave in your kitchen, the dvd player you may be listening to, etc, etc. All of that has been developed because of the space program. Even our medical technology is seeing great leaps and bounds thanks to it. Yes, this in a way adds to the overpopulation problem. However, it is also contributing to our finding a solution to this very same problem.
The whole point of this is, yes, humans can be very stupid and shortsighted. All of us can - it’s part of being imperfect and having a really huge brain and the ability to use it. So our screw ups are on a larger scale than other species. But so are our successes. And, no matter what we do to ourselves (I severely doubt that we are so stupid as to unleash complete nuclear devastation upon ourselves) we WILL adapt and overcome. It is the nature of our species. It's part of our hubris. But it's also part of what gives us hope.