Putting the life back in science fiction

The Malthus-Boserup Ratchet
February 7, 2017, 11:05 pm
Filed under: climate change, Oceania, sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

This is an idea I picked up from Patrick Kirch.  While it is used to explain population growth by Polynesian archaeologists, I’m starting to wonder if it can be repurposed to a wider context.  The basic idea starts with the notion that, just perhaps, Malthus was wrong.

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The Way of the Island Locust

Sorry for the click-bait title, this has nothing to do with martial arts.  It’s a reference to a post I wrote in December 2015 about humans being locust-like in our ability to have mass outbreaks when and where conditions are right.  My idea was that we call these outbreaks civilization.  I came at this from the biology side, but of course the anthropologists and archaeologists have been looking at the same phenomenon in their own way for quite a long time.  Over Christmas, I ran into a highly readable version of their thinking based on archaeology and anthropology from Oceania, one of my favorite regions, and…

well, there hangs a substory.  I was originally going to post this after Christmas, but I realized I didn’t quite understand what was going on.  So I read more books by the same author (Patrick Kirch), developed some germ of understanding about what he thinks is going on, and finally looked up to realize that it’s been a long time since I posted last.  Anyway, if you want to read about my holiday reading, aka how a small group of people settled the Pacific using mostly indigenous resources and founded one and possibly two archaic, pristine states, then read more after the jump.

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What mass extinctions look like

Another post, in part to remind myself that I’ll need to update the chapter on reefs in Hot Earth Dreams.  The bad news of March, at least in my opinion (aside from all the rain that didn’t fall on California) was that the bleaching of the northern section of the Great Barrier reef (as mentioned by, among many others, National Geographic, DW, Slate, CNN, and The University of Queensland.  Personally I like the last one the best, but tastes differ).

What’s going on, to be brief and oversimplify, is that coral have a temperature range, and the Coral Sea, or at least parts of it, are exceeding that range with this year’s El Niño.  By itself it’s a tragedy, and it’s one that’s going to leave a mark that’s bigger than you might think.

Here’s why.

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Preludes to Space

While I haven’t seen The Martian yet, as a trained botanist, I’m wondering why they didn’t identify the protagonist as the Master Gardener of Mars.  Botany as a science really isn’t that useful on Mars, and what you really need is a good horticulturalist.

Still, this got me thinking.  I’ll admit I’m a big fan of Oceania, and part of that is because the Oceanians–the Polynesians, Micronesians, Melanesians, and Australian aborigines–inhabit some of the most difficult and alien areas parts of the planet, even if we think of them (erroneously) as paradise.  Moreover, the settlement of Oceania is a good testimony to how hard it is to settle such alien environments.  I’m not the only one who thinks this way either.  Dr. Ben Finney, Anthropology Professor Emeritus at U. Hawaii, is both a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (google Hokule’a), a member of the Planetary Society, and someone who has written multiple articles for NASA on what Pacific anthropology can teach NASA about colonizing space.

Anyway, what’s so alien about Polynesia?  For one thing, none of the islands could support humans very well at all without the plants and animals that the Polynesians brought with them from South East Asia and the Papuan Islands.  These include pigs, chickens, taro, bananas, yams, bamboo, sugar cane, kava, and so forth.  The Polynesians also got sweet potatoes from South America somewhere around 800-1200 CE, but that’s another set of voyages, and I’m getting off track.  The key problem for settling Polynesia is that you’ve got to settle coral atolls as a necessary step to getting to most of the bigger islands.  Coral atolls have plenty of fish, but they have no usable stone (atoll dwellers used clam shells for hard tools), limited water, and few plants can grow there.  In addition to building deep sea ships and learning how to navigate well beyond the sight of land, the islanders had to adapt their entire lifestyles to live on atolls, including learning how to build deep sea ships there, which is a real trick.  This adaptation meant they abandoned ancient technologies like pottery and knapping stone, because neither clay nor stone were available.  For all we know, they even abandoned bronze, but that’s much more speculative.  Once their descendants reached big islands like Hawai’i, they didn’t reinvent pottery or flintknapping, but kept making tools using techniques that worked as well on clamshells as they do on basalt.

If we’re thinking about humans colonizing space, there are a couple of lessons in Polynesian history.  One is that we’ve got to learn to settle space before we colonize other planets.  It’s not just a matter of building a better spaceship, it’s a matter of learning how to live in space, on the Moon, on asteroids, as well as colonizing Mars, the Jovian satellites, and so forth.  This is a giant cultural revolution.  The descendants of the spacers will colonize other planets, but they won’t be moving, say, American car culture to another planet.  They’ll be adapting how their ancestors lived in space to settling the surfaces of these new worlds.  This is something science fiction routinely gets wrong.

The bigger lessons, though, are that colonizing the islands involved whole suites of adaptations from all over, it took a long time, and it was a marginal activity.  The Polynesians had ancestors from everywhere from Taiwan and the Philippines to the Solomon islands, and their dozens of domestic plants and animals came from a similarly wide swath, everything from Asian chickens to Melanesian kava.  While the Islands near Papua New Guinea were all colonized by ca. 13,000 years ago, it took until about 3,500 years ago for the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians to start colonizing the Solomon Islands and from there to Fiji and Samoa.  Just being able to sail a canoe doesn’t make it possible to settle islands across the Pacific, any more than sending a rover to Mars makes it possible for humans to live there.  And those Lapita people?  They were beach bums and yachties,  fisherfolk who lived near the water, traveled among the islands, possibly traded pots and such, and who definitely hadn’t settled the interiors of all the islands they visited.  They lived on the margins, waterfolk rather than landsmen.

What if the settlement of space was a replay of the settlement of Oceania?  Well, looking around, we’re in that window where we’ve got ships, but we don’t know how to live on little islands yet, or even how to survive beyond cislunar space.  It might take us 10,000 years to get to Mars, too.

One of the ways you can gauge our readiness for space is to look at what I’ll call the Preludes to Space: all the technological precursors that we need to survive up there.  Yeah, we’ve got rockets.  So what?  Life support’s a bigger problem right now.  There are a lot of things we don’t have and don’t know how to do.

For example, if we were ready to colonize space, we wouldn’t be worrying about climate change.  On the scale of hell, a severely climate changed Earth is still massively more benign than Mars, let alone the Moon, Ganymede, or Mercury.  Keeping people fed, watered, housed, and living meaningful lives is going to be a problem anywhere there are people.  If we were serious about space, we’d be investing far more in things like water recycling and compact food production, and we’d be focused on deploying these technologies in places like Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.

Think about the refugee experience in a place, like Jordan, that is severely water stressed as it is.  If we had spaceworthy life support, we’d have things like, oh, hydroponic gardens in shipping containers, where the plants grew under LED lights powered by solar panels, water and nutrients would be mostly recycled and highly efficient, and a shipping container could support a family more or less indefinitely with the right nutrient inputs, which should ideally come out of recycling the family’s sewage and wash-water.  And such a system would be cheap enough that we could build hundreds of thousands of them and ship them to refugee camps around the world, or indeed, to any disaster area.

No, I haven’t run the numbers to see if this would actually work, but that’s about the scale of technology we need as a prelude before we’re ready to settle space, because once we’re in space, we’ll have to learn how to make those technologies using whatever materials are locally available.  Space colonies aren’t domed cities, they’re basically giant collections of greenhouses with tiny homes attached, except that the greenhouses have to be buried, the plants fed by LEDs, and the systems run off solar panels or something similar, to protect against everything from radiation to meteorites.

That’s what the preludes to space look like.  They’re pieces of a cultural tool kit that includes everything from building ships to life support.  If we were ready for space, let alone the stars, our planet would have a rather different set of crises than it does now, and our ability to cope with them would be much more sophisticated.  But we’re not ready yet.

If the space-nuts had any sense, they’d be investing hugely in developing life support systems and deploying them, not in high end cities, but in refugee camps, slums, and similar harsh places where life is marginal, because life will be marginal in space too. Polynesia wasn’t settled by a mass migration of overcrowded Papuans heading for Fiji, but by fisherfolk figuring out how to live on beaches anywhere in the tropical Pacific, and heading out and on.

Feel free to tell Elon Mush, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye that I said this, too.  They’re going to need a bigger toolkit if they really want to tackle this.