Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beyond the Limits to Growth: Social Implications of a Bold Business Venture

NASA, Artist concept by Denise Watt.
The Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” scenario that has had a profound impact on economic and social policies around the world is based on an model, generated on a mainframe computer forty years ago, assuming that the Earth and its resources are a closed system. In other words, material inputs to production originate only from the Earth itself and residual material from that production remain on the Earth. The “Limits” scenario has, to varying degrees, affected the environmental and industrial policies of various nations over the past few decades. The impact of complex environmental regulation on business is, at least in part, based on this world view.
But the “Limits to Growth” scenario, the modern incarnation of the older Malthusian world view, has had even more profound social consequences through its emphasis on the impact of supposed “overpopulation” on the planet and its resources. Overt population control measures, particularly the brutal one-child policy in China, are a direct threat to human life and liberty. However, a population control influence can be seen on more subtle issues around the world. The demographic trends seen in the “graying” of developed and developing nations indicate a population control effect already underway. Many would even see the recent controversial health care mandates in the US that impact religious, personal and economic liberties as having a population control agenda among the motivations. Thus, any development that either validates or calls into question the “Limits to Growth” scenario can have a profound effect on life in our society and the future of our civilization.
But what if the fundamental assumption of Earth as a closed system is called into question? What if humans have access to resources beyond Earth and are able to relocate some of our heavy industrial activity away from our home planet?
Today’s announcement of the Planetary Resources venture inaugurates an incremental plan that starts with affordable prospecting of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) but that could lead to actual mining of materials for use in space and on Earth at a time far sooner than many had previously imagined practical. Use of resources from the Moon or asteroids is a prospect that has been discussed by some for many decades. But the difference between dreams and a serious venture is the commitment of serious money to a project. This is a bold venture and there is a great possibility it will not succeed. In that case, though, others will learn from it and some will eventually succeed. History may regard that today’s announcement as the turning point toward a growing extraterrestrial economy.
The proponents of Limits to Growth are not likely to just fold up their tent and go away. In fact, this year’s fortieth anniversary of “Limits to Growth” will probably see its advocates double down on the pessimistic scenario.
It should be said that the opening up of vast new resources does not diminish the case for responsible stewardship of resources on Earth or in space. Also, these social issues may continue to be struggled over on other grounds (“prolife” v. “prochoice”, etc.) However, they should not be decided based on unwarranted fears based on a faulty model using a flawed premise.
The availability of vast new quantities of resources can change social views on the future of civilization, in particular on our ability to welcome future generations by providing them with more abundant resources. In the 21st Century, we are beginning to realize the moral imperative behind human expansion into space: providing resources and opportunities for future generations.

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