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Charles Stross: The High Frontier, Redux

Written By: - Date published: 9:04 am, December 28th, 2010 - 32 comments
Categories: climate change, science - Tags:

If you haven’t read this blog post by Charles Stross yet, and you’re a science and/or science fiction nutter (or just interested), then you should probably do so.

I’m going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn’t unfamiliar; domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O’Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore.

And I don’t want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they’re there, that the case for space colonization isn’t usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. “We can’t afford to keep all our eggs in one basket” isn’t so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.

Stross then looks at the energy requirements required and the reasons for exploring, but throughly trashes the idea of interstellar travel without “...technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, furthermore, does things that from today’s perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics…“. He then runs through the same types of issues for colonizing the planets.

We’re human beings. We evolved to flourish in a very specific environment that covers perhaps 10% of our home planet’s surface area. (Earth is 70% ocean, and while we can survive, with assistance, in extremely inhospitable terrain, be it arctic or desert or mountain, we aren’t well-adapted to thriving there.) Space itself is a very poor environment for humans to live in. A simple pressure failure can kill a spaceship crew in minutes. And that’s not the only threat. Cosmic radiation poses a serious risk to long duration interplanetary missions, and unlike solar radiation and radiation from coronal mass ejections the energies of the particles responsible make shielding astronauts extremely difficult. And finally, there’s the travel time. Two and a half years to Jupiter system; six months to Mars.

Now, these problems are subject to a variety of approaches — including medical ones: does it matter if cosmic radiation causes long-term cumulative radiation exposure leading to cancers if we have advanced side-effect-free cancer treatments? Better still, if hydrogen sulphide-induced hibernation turns out to be a practical technique in human beings, we may be able to sleep through the trip. But even so, when you get down to it, there’s not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live there for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don’t exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there’s no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we’ll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow, driven by our increasing dependence on near-earth space for communications, positioning, weather forecasting, and (still in its embryonic stages) tourism. But the domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

I’ve been reading science fiction for a long time because it stretches my mind more than any other type of fiction does. Normal fiction I can usually deduce the plot early from the very limited numbers of plot lines that humans have so far invented. I drive people nuts watching films and doing the same thing. Non-fiction is ok, but being fed on a diet of facts is as boring as eating one of those diets designed to prolong life by slowing down the metabolism – dead boring. Science fiction is fun to read and even more so now I’m using Stanza and Project Gutenberg to read my way through classic SF written before I was born.

But science is science and of course Stross is correct. His dismal analysis isn’t good for the romantics. But without a mythical magic kit there is no escape route.The implication is that there isn’t any way that we want to risk screwing up our only viable living space. So why are we stupidly attempting to change the climate that we depend on with our greenhouse emissions?

32 comments on “Charles Stross: The High Frontier, Redux ”

  1. jcuknz 1

    It is fun to read about space colonies and Crystal Singers, last one I read, a paperback for a dollar outside a bookstore .. but reality is it is not going to happen for more than a very small elite. The rest of us have to survive back here. Paul Krugman today http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/opinion/27krugman.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a212
    suggests we are going to learn to pay higher prices .. I suggest the solution is to reduce population to a level that Earth can sustain at whatever level that is … far fewer than the current population for sure. Could be the answer is both, higher prices and lower living standards until we stabilise the population at a sustainable level.

    • pollywog 1.1

      I suggest the solution is to reduce population to a level that Earth can sustain at whatever level that is … far fewer than the current population for sure. Could be the answer is both, higher prices and lower living standards until we stabilise the population at a sustainable level.

      ..and funnily enough


      Years before Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft made population reduction the official foreign policy of the United States Government, the Rockefeller brothers, in particular John D. Rockefeller III, or JDR III as we was affectionately known, were busy experimenting on human guinea pigs… JDR III made Puerto Rico into a huge laboratory to test his ideas on mass population control beginning in the 1950’s. By 1965, an estimated 35% of Puerto Rico’s women of child-bearing age had been permanently sterilized, according to a study made that year by the island’s Public Health Department. The Rockefeller’s Population Council, and the U.S. Government Department of Health Education and Welfare – where brother Nelson Rockefeller was Under-Secretary – packaged the sterilization campaign. They used the spurious argument that it would protect women’s health and stabilize incomes if there were fewer mouths to feed…

      With population control, Rockefeller and others in the establishment believed they had finally found the answer to mass, efficient and effective negative eugenics. The founding meeting of the Population Council…was attended by Detlev W. Bronk, then president of both the Rockefeller Institute and the National Academy of Sciences. JDR III arranged for the conference to be sponsored under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences to give it a quasi-scientific aura…Dr. Bronk was sympathetic to the agenda of population control. Being promoted was the same unvarnished eugenics racial ideology, veiled under the guise of world hunger and population problems.


      …sure we’re carrying a lot of deadweight on this planet but nature has a way of selecting for those fittest to survive without any extra help from genocidal fatcats.

      “…technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, furthermore, does things that from today’s perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physic. And while I won’t rule out the possibility of such seemingly-magical technology appearing at some time in the future…“

      Neccessity is the mother of invention. We need fast loose meta physical magic tech so it will come to pass. It really is that simple. It’s just a case of when, not if and i’m pickin it’ll be way before the doom and gloomers worst case scenario climate changes can happen or before the energy barons can monopolise the technology.

      One thing i can’t rule out though, is seemingly-magical technology appearing all throughout history in the form of extraterrestrial visitations. Only they’d be foolish to share any next level tech secrets with us while were nothing more than cavemen with laptops.

      Imagine man in his current evolutionary stage with a magic wand of infinite power ?..gone before lunchtime is what we’d be, and i mean gone as in dead, not off terraforming new planets.

      Nature is ought but the will of God. Let it run it’s course and have faith that we are fit to live long and prosper. And let God take care of itself for we’ll meet it soon enough, if only in our dreams…


      • Bored 1.1.1

        Interupting my holiday to say Top of the Season to you Polly…keepem coming.

      • jcuknz 1.1.2

        I should have known that somebody would bring this subject up, awhile back I was accused of being an old guy past it and wishing to deprive the younger. Really I am hoping, not that I will see it I guess in what is left of my life, but common sense prevailing by common consent. With socialism providing the counter measures to endless procreation by care for the helpless by those with the ability.

  2. Colonial Viper 2

    Humanity needs to invent artificially intelligent, machines with human-like cognitive abilities to work in these hostile environments and to do the dirty work that people don’t want to do. The great thing is, we can let these machines do all the fighting and working for us, we won’t need to pay them, and they won’t complain if we mistreat them, it’ll be great. The future of humanity.

    • Bill 2.1

      “…we won’t need to pay them, and they won’t complain if we mistreat them, it’ll be great. The future of humanity.

      Hmm. Let’s go back a hundred years (give or take)….Mechanisation of the means of production. It’ll be great. The future of humanity. Oops. Living it. Not that flash.

      • Bored 2.1.1

        I was supposed to get a lot of leisure as a result….we did when the machines took away our jobs and incomes….

        • RedLogix

          Exactly… as I said before, the fruits of 30 years of high tech productivity have been stolen from us by a tiny elite.

          I want it back off them before I let them have more ‘magic’ to play with.

    • Colonial Viper 2.3

      The war began when humanity’s robotic creation, the Cylons, turned on their “parents” after years of slavery. During the course of the conflict the Cylons used Raiders and basestars, while the Colonials developed the first battlestars and the renowned Viper Mark II.



  3. Lanthanide 3

    It’s easier to live in Antarctica, or the Sahara, than it is to live on Mars or the Moon, because while they’re both inhospitable in their own way, they have air and relatively easy contact with other humans if required for an emergency. Look at our success in colonising both of those places, and that’ll give you an idea of how desperately we want to get to Mars and the Moon (hint: not very).

  4. Zorr 4

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C. Clarke

    It is true that the idea of interstellar travel or colonization of other planets is far out of our grasp but to say that it is impossible as the required level of science is that of “magic” compared to our current level of understanding of the universe just makes me laugh because it assumes that we already have a significantly advanced understanding.

  5. joe90 5

    Word Lens looks like something Roddenberry dreamed up.

  6. Oscar 6

    ” So why are we stupidly attempting to change the climate that we depend on with our greenhouse emissions?”

    Indeed. Especially when we don’t know anywhere near enough about the atmosphere after just 30 years of analyzing it.
    Why, a believer even said to me the other day that it’s global warming that’s making the ozone holes bigger.

    • NickS 6.1

      Why, a believer even said to me the other day that it’s global warming that’s making the ozone holes bigger.

      Yes, because you’ve so shown yourself to be a trustworthy source of information….

      Aka I’m presuming you’re making shit up as per usual.

      Indeed. Especially when we don’t know anywhere near enough about the atmosphere after just 30 years of analyzing it.

      Correction: You know nothing about climate science.

      Also climate science has been around for far longer than 30 years, and we know more than enough to understand and explain the impacts of greenhouse gases on climate at regional scales and over decadal time spans.

      • Eddie 6.1.1

        the understanding that humans putting more of certain gases into the atmosphere will cause it to retain more heat has been around for at least 114 years http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science

        Svante Arrhenius’s calculations were amazingly good for a first try (he spent years on them), close to what modern modelling shows

        • Oscar

          Thats only the understanding. Nothing to do with the composition of the atmosphere.

          We know Nitrogen and Oxygen are the two permanent gases making up 99% of the atmosphere. We know their composition now, but we have no way of knowing what the original composition was like a million years ago.
          Except tp theorise it was probably nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Lethal to us, but certainly beneficial to the algae in the sea.

          • NickS

            Even if it wasn’t super-happy fun insomnia time your attempt at a post still wouldn’t bear any resemblance to reality.

            Why? One word, One Field, One Concept to bring them all and bind… Wait… Fucking Tolkien.

            Anyhow: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleoclimatology

            Reconstructing paleoclimate, and also historical atmospheric make up is not exactly difficult, and once more of course, you’re shown to be full of shit.

          • lprent

            Oxygen – a permanent gas in the atmosphere? I’d guess from that statement that you’ve not done any chemistry. The only thing that I can think offhand of that is more reactive is flourine. The average residence time in the atmosphere of oxygen would be measured in decades at the outside. Apart from everything else rocks love sucking up O when they weather. Without constant replenishment from plants there would be no free oxygen in the atmosphere.

            CO2 on the other hand is quite chemically stable and once resident in the atmosphere will hang around for thousands of years. The only thing that sucks it are plants (and they are constrained by water and soil fertility) and water. Currently both are using it at full capacity, and the atmospheric CO2 keeps rising.

            I see nick has already looked at paleo atmospheres. But I’d add to his comments that you appear to be too gullible to ever understand science. You pick up these shit ‘science’ ideas from somewhere and drop them here without bothering to think them through at all. There are always great gaping holes that you could drive a truck through that anyone who was even slightly skeptical would have seen.

            • jcuknz

              I think you missed the word ‘not’ out of your first sentence …. OH! that there were more like you and fewer or better none like NickS
              Your science paints a horrifying picture I was not aware of having not done Chem at school or since.
              We obviously have two targets … to maintain the world in a state that can support homo sapien and restrict HS to levels that the world can support … anything else is dreamland … not to say that dreamland cannot exist if we can conceive it but until it arrives it is not a basis for sensible action.

              • lprent

                I did miss the not. Irritating. It is what happens when writing in bed just after bestirring

              • NickS

                OH! that there were more like you and fewer or better none like NickS

                Quit Tone Trolling.

                And it appears you can’t read time stamps, otherwise you might have inferred that someone writing a post at 3:41am in the morning might not be in the mood and mental fitness to do anything more than a punctual cluebat.Because deep cluebatting would involve a literature hunt and given prior experiences of doing that while I can’t sleep have resulted in sweet fa and makes me even more disorganised and late for say this thing called “work”. But yeah, ablism and tone trolling ftw!

            • Oscar

              Turns out that even the IPCC seem to think that CO2 half life is 5 – 15 years so not sure where you’re getting the idea that it hangs around in the atmosphere for thousands of years. But it’s something that NOAA say is true, so it must be!

              I note that the paleo atmospheric conditions all point to far far higher levels of CO2 than currently exist. And of course not everything in the atmosphere has an equilibrium with what’s on the ground. Atmospheric changes happen far more gradually than changes on the ground.

              And of course atmospheric CO2 is rising. Do you not believe that it wouldn’t when we’re still technically coming out of an ice age?

              And the Believers also leave some great gaping holes too. It’ll be a sorry day when CO2 levels drop below 300ppm and humans start wondering why plant life is dying. Not long after that, O2 levels drop, humans start dying. Perfect cycle.

              In any event, what CO2 we create when we burn oil and coal was already in our atmosphere, thousands of years ago. The difference is that we need to ensure that there’s enough plant life around to take in the additional CO2 getting released. In the northern hemisphere = problem.
              Southern, not so much due to the Amazon and NZ forests taking up much of this CO2 that’s burnt.

              No greater enemy of man, than man himself.

              • lprent

                Oscar, you are a bullshitting idiot. That paper is not from the IPCC. In fact it is not even a science paper. It talks about a discrepancy in the 1990 IPCC report – the first and rushed one. The last IPCC report was released in 2005 – 15 years later

                If you want to look at the IPCC report then go and read it. Do not try and pass off a paper written by a engineer who knows as much about the atmosphere as you, that uses a reaction chamber for a simulation (try putting oceans into that), and is published in a non-peer reviewed energy trade magazine as being credible science. I notice the backing paper is written by a mechanical engineer and again in a bullshit rag.

                We know that the atmosphere changes over time. Rather than natural vulcanism and weathering, humans are changing it now. They are doing it a a rate that is massively faster than any natural processes over decade periods. What is your point? You don’t appear to have one.

                You are a waste of bandwidth. Is there any reason that I should not think of you as being a ignorant troll who has absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

                • Oscar

                  I understand you did Earth Sciences some 40-50 years ago Lynn :D, but not sure whether you keep up to date on it.
                  I’m interested in the whole area, hence why Im being rather obtuse. Just because you’ve been there, done that, doesn’t really mean that you can dismiss my observations offhand, just because I can’t necessarily find anything relating to my viewpoints – probably because the science hasn’t got there yet.

                  Im of the mindset that the IPCC is government funded, and they’ve changed their tune over the past 15 years, as is their wont due to the vagaries of science as a whole.

                  Personally, I think “climate change” is very much a wait and see scenario before we even start the political discussions around taxes and carbon trading. If AGW is affecting the climate at a faster rate, then really, what’s 5 – 10 years on top of the 40 years of atmospheric sampling so far?
                  It’s hardly likely to kill us to wait a little bit longer and actually prove once and for all that CO2 IS deadly to Earth, considering the fallacy of that argument which the believers seem to be perpetuating.

                  • lprent

                    30 years ago, and I keep any eye on it as I do with everything that I learn. Sure science changes especially in what was an under researched area like the climate. But in the 20 years since the IPCC started issuing reports, the risks of an irreversible climate shift (at least over the next few thousand years) have kept increasing and the scale of probable damage get worse. This reflects both the better modeling (trying to model chaotic systems was in its infancy 30 years ago) and the closer examination of past climate shifts has shown how close the climate is to tipping points to different climate states.

                    Anyone who does earth sciences has little worry about the earth as a whole. It’d only take thousands of years to restabilize. The issue is if humans are going to maintain something like our current civilization.

                    The problem that you do not look at the risks to our civilization (especially food production) and your grasp of the basics of earth science is clearly pretty poor. As far as I can see your attitude is to simply ineffectually attack the science without showing a flaw.

                    The issue with waiting is that this is a forward loaded system where CO2 fills the buffers in the slow ocean currents and heat builds up in water and ice.. Those release over time. It is a laggy system that we have been feeding at an accelerating rate for the last couple of centuries. The shit is starting to hit now in terms of climate shifts and will increase at an accelerating rate over the next few centuries.

                    In the next decade at current rates of increase in use of fossil carbon we will excrete as much as we have in the last couple of decades. The question at present is how to reduce that rate of increase to reduce the problems further down the line because the buffering appears to be getting full and anything we add now will affect us rather than our children and grand kids.

                    So delaying is an expensive option

              • NickS

                It’ll be a sorry day when CO2 levels drop below 300ppm and humans start wondering why plant life is dying. Not long after that, O2 levels drop, humans start dying. Perfect cycle.


                wtf? Do you even understand how photosynthesis works? Different genera of plant’s have different evolutionary and developmental tools to deal with lowering CO2 concentrations. For example C4 plant’s can deal with sub 200ppm CO2 concentrations easily due to how the plant’s cellular morphology and biochemistry concentrate CO2 close to RuBisCO, and while C3 plant’s will grow slower, as leafs develop the lower CO2 concentrations will trigger the development of more stomata. Basically, 200ppm concentrations would cause would be slower plant growth, rather than plant death. And less plant growth means changes in heterotroph biomass due to less food. But given human stupidity, a drop to 200ppm while a global, industrial metaculture is extant is rather fucking unlikely, more so given that the oceans, one of the major carbon sinks are nearing max CO2 concentrations.

                Anyhow, during the depths of the big Ice Ages, CO2 concentrations did drop to 200pm and lower, and yet there’s no major loss of plant biomass/diversity from the tropics and other areas that has been separated from droughts from the available proxies. That and you’re ignoring that the photosynthetic plankton produce much, much more oxygen than terrestrial plants and their habitat is mainly restricted by high ocean temperatures and light intensity.

                But none of this is surprising, given your evident, utterly total stupidity when it comes to anything more complex than using a web browser.

              • RedLogix

                Just in case anyone actually reads Oscar’s ideas on carbon half life … here is roughly the real story. What Oscar is drivelling on about is a totally misunderstood bit of very basic chemistry.

                What he is doing is completely failing to distinguish between the individual path of carbon atoms … and the en-mass equilibrium of all the carbon in the atmosphere.

                Individual atoms have a relatively short half-life, cycling around various paths of the carbon cycle quite quickly. This is well known and totally uncontroversial.

                However the total increase in carbon in the atmosphere is driven by a completely different mechanism and is also well-known to have a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years. Again this is well known and totally uncontroversial.

                The physical basis of these two parameters is quite different and fundamental. Oscar’s repetition of this idiot mistake (that even a Chem 101 student should not make) reveals nothing but the depth of his willful ignorance. It’s really not worth wasting politeness on this drongo.

                • Oscar

                  So are you talking about C or CO2 having a half life of thousands of years?

                  Because see, Lynn says “CO2 on the other hand is quite chemically stable and once resident in the atmosphere will hang around for thousands of years”

                  Now you say “carbon in the atmosphere is driven by a completely different mechanism and is also well-known to have a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years”

                  Im not disputing the fact that C hangs around, but CO2 is a completely different matter.

                  • lprent

                    I’ve been doing family in chch with poor links for the last week which has been restrictive

                    But the best overview I’ve read recently (certainly the most accessible) on various gas and aerosols impacts on heat retention was this. It is a discussion on alternative strategies for reducing greenhouse effects in the short and long term. The comments were fun to read.

                    What was really interesting to me was the commentary about the rapid breakdown of methane CH4 to CO2 (and probably water). While methane is a better greenhouse gas, it isn’t as much of an issue longer term. That is important because all agriculture produces methane in varying amounts, and we require increasing agriculture to prevent the catastrophic dieback. In other words it is a lot easier to reduce use of fossil fuels than it is to reduce food production.

                    All bets are off if we manage to trigger the feedback for methyl hydrates though by warming and moving ocean currents. If that happens, the climate shifts are likely to be rapid and finding climates stable enough to grow food will be the issue

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