[ExI] Thoughts on Space based solar power (Clinic Seed & a diverse future)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sun Nov 23 00:32:36 UTC 2008

hkhenson wrote:
> At 06:50 AM 11/22/2008, you wrote:
>> hkhenson wrote:
>> Anyway, an assumption of famine and resource wars is just that -- a 
>> possible assumption.
> Given *current* technology, i.e., no nanotech, then the consequences of 
> running low on energy are gigadeath.  We burn huge amounts of energy to 
> grow and distribute food.  The existing population is not sustainable 
> without a huge replacement energy source.

Agriculture needs to change, agreed. But how it changes is subject to 
discussion of alternatives.

I used to help run an organic farm certification program in the 1980s in New 
Jersey for a time. Among other reasons, I thought an important aspect of 
space habitation was agriculture, so I wanted to learn about that, and who 
wants to go spraying conventional pesticides around a small habitat? :-)
So I know there are lots of alternatives here right now which are kept at 
bay by our economic system and how it subsidizes or promotes centralized 
products. Maybe cheap transport costs lets us choose to have long supply 
lines to bring lettuce from California to New Jersey instead of buying local 
produce in season. But if people in New Jersey don't have lettuce after 
"peak oil", that is not from any lack of people who know how to grow lettuce 
in a reasonably sustainable way in New Jersey and who desperately want to do 
so (but have been limited by land prices driven by speculation and a playing 
field tilted by fossil fuel subsidies). New Jersey is full of people who 
love to farm and garden. They just don't get a chance to do it.

Out of that experience came the idea of writing a (free) garden simulator to 
help everyone learn to grow their own food in a sustainable way. My wife and 
I put six person-years of effort (or more) into it in the 1990s. It's not 
perfect, but it's a start.
Sometimes it turns out that conventional farms converted to subdivisions 
actually produce more food from intensive gardens. :-) A lot of people like 
to garden, it is arguably the biggest single outdoor recreational activity 
in the USA.

Wes Jackson of the Lands Institute
has worked for years towards ideas of no or low till perennial grains in the 

Then there are also "permaculture" ideas.

There is the legacy of the New Alchemy Institute and its successors:
"From the very outset, we saw all of science as a kind of pigment in this 
great canvas we hoped to be able to paint. This canvas had to do with 
reintegrating society into a genuine partnership with nature. I was a young 
college professor, promoted too quickly, still in my twenties, to associate 
dean of 19,000 students. I was made the head of this new Center for 
Environmental Studies and I was realizing that a university department, for 
example, wasn't going to change the paradigms. We were talking about 
fundamental change. At the time, Nancy Todd, who co-founded New Alchemy 
Institute with me, and Bill McLarney, a third co-founder, and I, were very 
taken with the notion that most of the way society goes to try and improve a 
bad situation is basically to work on the coefficient's structure of the 
system alone. Through our friendship with people like Gregory Bateson, we 
realized that, technologically, we're a completely addicted society. Let's 
say that we're addicted to internal combustion -- the way we would solve the 
problem of using too much gas is to make it more efficient. But there was 
nothing in the society that would allow us to ask the fundamental question, 
"How would we get around?" The same was true of food production -- using too 
much energy from halfway around the globe, or simply poisoning the hell out 
of the planet. So to make things better, people were saying, "Well, maybe we 
should use lower impact strategies." But no one was asking the question, "Is 
the way we raise foods -- shuttling food several thousand miles before it 
ever reaches the table -- does it make sense?" New Alchemy was really begun 
to go back to first principles. There is another underlying theme, which was 
borrowed from the teachings of Taoist science, of which I was a student, 
that is that science not practiced out of a context of sacredness or 
responsibility was a devil's bargain. If you think about it from that point 
of view, if science were practiced in that context, nuclear power wouldn't 
have developed the way it developed. I don't think modern society would have 
developed the way it has developed. So we had to change the rules. There 
were all kinds of great minds floating around to which one could turn for 
inspirations. ... It has been a long journey from the original idea to the 
sophisticated living machines that we've developed today to provide food, 
waste treatment, fuels, climate, heating and cooling, architectural 
integration. All those things that have become possible weren't even visible 
in the beginning. An enormous amount has happened in this brief span of 
twenty-two years."

Should thousands (even millions) of person-years of work in that direction 
over the last few decades by a variety of people just be dismissed?

There are lots of solutions to these issues of global food security that are 
not so fossil energy intensive -- at the worst involving reduced consumption 
(but still enough to go around, given all the waste now, including raising 
meat), and at best producing more higher quality and nutritious food than 
ever before (including meat if desired) and giving people deeper roots to 
their land.

And then we can talk precision farming and agricultural robots, really high 
tech stuff. :-)
   "Huey Dewey And Louie from Silent Running"

Anyway, we've got hundreds of years of coal in the worst case to fuel 
business as usual. :-( At worst, along with gradually rising cancer rates 
and increasing respiratory disease worldwide, we relocate a few hundred 
million very unhappy people due to climate change issue. Sure that will be 
disruptive and unpleasant, but it is not a "peak oil" apocalypse some talk 
   "EVOLUTION" by Michael C. Ruppert
It's just really, really, sad -- that we could not break free of a fossil 
fuel addiction sooner.

 From something I posted here, just as one option in the worst case:
   "On Climate Change vs. the Singularity"
Let's use Eric's figure of $1000 per square meter for artificial land on the
ocean. Even if maybe these people may someday do it for less:
If people need, say, 1000 square meters of ocean front land per person to be
happy and grow most of their own food near the tropics (given the ocean as a
playground too), then that's a million dollars a person to build someone
land for anyone displaced by climate change. That figure is not that out of
line with, say, a "cruise ship condominium", but you'd presumably get more
and have lower operating costs with Eric's suggestion:
    "Cruise ship condos"
If global warming leading to sea level rises removes the land from 100
million people, then it would cost 100 trillion dollars to build them all
artificial land to live on working from that figure and that assumption. But
$100 trillion is only about twice the charitable dollars expected over the
next few decades. The global economy itself is about US$60 trillion annually
as a gross world product (GWP),
so that (extreme) cost is about a year and a half of world output, or over
100 years, about 1.5% of world output annually. That's really not that much
to pay for the previous benefits of fossil fuels giving us an advanced
technical infrastructure if we want to address the cost of pollution with
some sense of fairness to the people most directly inconvenienced -- though
I would rather have used more solar energy. So clearly, there are enough
resources to go around to deal with this issue even in a brute force way of
just building new land in the sea the most expensive way we know how. The
question is, will everyone worldwide be willing to pay this 1.5% tax going
forward for 100 years? Or is there a cheaper way?
Or if you were going to spend $100 trillion, maybe there are better ways to
spend it to bring about abundance for all? I'd suggest free and open source
space habitations might be better for most people than ocean habitations (or
any place on the surface of a planet) for a variety of reasons I won't go
into now, but you could see:
"O’Neill posed the question during an extra seminar he gave to a few of his
students: “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an
expanding technological civilization?” His students’ research convinced him
that the answer was no."
And LUF develops that theme in newer ways.
So with maybe $100K per person for launch costs with advanced rockets, and
the space habitations built for free by self-replicating robots using lunar
and asteroidal ore, I'd be saving the world $90 trillion dollars, for maybe
a $1 trillion up front investment in OSCOMAK and OpenVirgle and open
manufacturing today. :-) Well, if the banks and auto companies and
warmongers can put out their hands for trillions of dollars, why not open
space manufacturing? :-)

Anyway, yes changing agriculture's use of fossil fuels (and all of 
industry's use) is a big problem (or opportunity :-), as in dealing with the 
ongoing consequences of climate change. But it is also a big world with 
billions of people to help deal with it. There are many people who might 
actually enjoy the feeling of making ocean habitats or space habitats rather 
than sitting in front of the TV, if they had a realistic chance to make a 
difference. Projects like Eric Hunting's "The Millennial Project 2.0" 
efforts give people that alternative.
And that work in part flows from your earlier pioneering efforts with the L5 

>> We can work to avoid them by efforts on Earth towards sustainability 
>> that at the same time advance us towards space habitations.
>> Also, ask yourself, who do you want making all this stuff? Big corps 
>> (and their allied big foundations) or the grass roots?
> Do we have any choice?

Sure, people make choices all the time in terms of how they spend their 
spare time. Examples:

   "Welcome to HobbySpace. the site that will prove to you that everyone can 
participate in space exploration and development in one way or another. "

   "Welcome to Appropedia: Sharing knowledge to build rich, sustainable lives."

People can be willing to pay more for local produce too, even though it 
makes little economic sense that local produce should cost more than stuff 
trucked across the country.

> This AI and the other million instances of it wiped the _whole 
> continent_ clear of humans.  The leopard got to sleep in the village.  
> The humans got what they wanted or were seduced into wanting.  Editors 
> who looked at the story said it could not be sold told me it didn't have 
> enough violence. 

I now see your point. Bravo on having me miss it until now (which I guess is 
part of the point of the story. :-)

Still, I guess I've read too much sci-fi where people spent more and more 
time in a virtual universe (e.g. Hogan's Giant's Novels) to notice that as a 
completely undesired fact. :-) Also, as a software developer, where a 
program runs to me is often a bit irrelevant. :-) We retire old hardware all 
the time -- if the Earth is obsolete compared to virtually, so what?
I'm not saying it will be, I'm just saying maybe it does not make a huge 
difference. And of course that leads into a lot of philosophical issues like 
discussed here previously. (For the record, I would think the Earth would 
hold it's value as a "sacred" place.)

Still, I did look at this "clinic seed" situation from a data security 
perspective (among other perspectives). A good related news group:
Typical IT security questions these days: "Where do you want your programs 
running? Do you want them in the "cloud", or do you want them on hardware 
you physically control to some higher degree and then you take 
responsibility for availability?"

So, if villagers did not ask those questions themselves, there are millions 
of Information Technology professional even now who could ask for them. Just 
because strong nanotech is involved does not mean these IT questions go away 
-- data security, physical security, experienced operators, financial 
stability, redundant access to network connections, backup power, fire 
suppression, and so on. All the things I look for in choosing a web host, 
for example. The whole world just forgets about this? What about even an 
archive of this web page: (Not that I'm a big Gartner fan, but it shows that 
even *they* get it...)
"Gartner: Seven cloud-computing security risks"
Here are seven of the specific security issues Gartner says customers should 
raise with vendors before selecting a cloud vendor.
1. Privileged user access.
2. Regulatory compliance.
3. Data location.
4. Data segregation.
5. Recovery.
6. Investigative support.
7. Long-term viability.

That's part of the issue of any story -- an author can usually only focus on 
one or two key variables. Sure if Bill Gates springs Vista Cloud 10.0 on an 
unsuspecting world, maybe he would get away with this. I just don't see in 
happening socially if change comes mostly incrementally, sorry. Still, it is 
true that agriculture is more a monoculture that I would like, but again 
that is for scarcity-related economic forces, not post-scarcity opportunities.

Maybe the "clinic seed" scenario might happen to a few extremely isolated 
villagers, perhaps, if there are any anymore. But you've crafted the 
situation to do that -- like a twilight zone episode asking how do people 
react to the prospect of abundance from an unknown party with no way of 
verifying their intentions?

Here is one of my Twilight Zone favorites:
   "The Twilight Zone: The Hunt"
"Hyder starts to enter but the Gatekeeper informs him that people are only 
allowed in people heaven and Rip has to go to dog heaven. Hyder refuses to 
go without his dog, even after the Gatekeeper offers to slip Rip through the 
gate later."

He walks on. :-)

This ties in with the earlier discussion here on "Online social groups" 
referencing Shirky:
   "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy "
"Now you could ask whether or not the founders' inability to defend 
themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a 
social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was 
it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply 
couldn't stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But 
in a way, it doesn't matter, because technical and social issues are deeply 
intertwined. There's no way to completely separate them."

But what the "Clinic Seed" does is exactly separate the social from the 
technical. That does not make it a bad story (I wish I could write fiction 
that well) since for example it prompts this discussion. That is just the 
space it explores -- what if we separate a technology from a society for a 
time and then bring them back together again through a mysterious stranger? 
It's an interesting question, but is it really what most people face 
approaching the singularity? And if it is, then how can we maybe change it 
by developing more open systems?

> If we don't solve the energy problem, my vision of the future is more 
> like a nightmare.  http://www.csiro.au/files/files/plje.pdf

After reading your story and comments on it, and having read Vinge's "A Fire 
upon the Deep" years ago, I was a little nervous downloading any documents 
from anybody. :-) Guess I find out how well written the virtual machine is 
on my computer that interprets the pdf data. :-) I should keep the Skrode 
maintenance port blocked though, just in case. :-)
   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Fire_Upon_the_Deep (spoilers)
Again, a data security risk of everyday life on the internet, as we weigh 
possible risk versus potential reward. :-)

All computer simulations or other models are based on assumptions. That 
report's conclusions (which from skimming and seeing similar reports seems 
to ignore making technological capacity and innovation increase in 
proportion to population, and thus Julian Simon's point about "The Ultimate 
Resource") are directly opposite these reports on what is actually going on:
   "Hans Rosling: Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you've 
ever seen"
   "Hans Rosling: Watch the end of poverty"
This is doctor who studies hunger in Africa. So he has been out trying to 
care exactly for the people you write about in "The Clinic Seed -- Africa".
Why should he be misleading people about an optimistic future for Africa and 
other poor countries based on the trends of the real data? I can think of 
some reasons, but the trends he describes hold up with my own thoughts and 
experiences in relation to technological development and Julian Simon's 
theories about price feedback for scarce items in classical economics.
(Not that I agree with everything he writes. :-)

I'm trying to interpret what you write in terms of "Practical Optimism". :-)
I guess I am seeing that optimism can be interpreted from different 
perspectives -- I'm optimistic that resource issues are manageable on Earth 
in the near (pre-singularity) term with things we already know, you are 
optimistic they are manageable with deploying solar space satellites. So, 
we're both optimists in that sense, just about different things. :-)

Anyway, to the extent you put your solar space satellite plans under free 
and open source licenses, people can collaborate on improving them however 
they are used down the road. That itself is a decision point, I feel, about 
what sort of singularity we want to have -- how much we build what surrounds 
it from a scarcity world view or a post-scarcity worldview. Still, we are 
deeply embedded in an economic system built around rationing and scarcity 
assumptions, so it is hard to do any new ventures without taking that into 

--Paul Fernhout

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