Friday, August 31, 2012

On Earth As It Is On Mars

"A day on Mars is a little longer than a day on Earth: 24 hours and 40 minutes.  A year on Mars is less than two Earth years: 686 Earth days, or 668 Martian days.  Mars is 6,787 kilometers in diameter, compared to Earth's 12,756 kilometers.  Its gravitational acceleration is 3.71 meters per second squared, or just over one-third of Earth's.  The atmospheric pressure at the surface of Mars averages 5.6 millibars, about one-half of one percent of Earth's.  The atmosphere is largely composed of carbon dioxide.  Temperatures at the "datum" or reference surface level (there is no "sea level", as there are presently no seas) vary from -130 to +27 Celsius.  An unprotected human on the surface of Mars would very likely freeze within minutes, but first would die of exposure to the near-vacuum.  If this unfortunate human survived freezing and low pressure, and found a supply of oxygen to breathe, she would still be endangered by high levels of radiation from the sun and elsewhere.

After Earth, Mars is the most hospitable planet in the Solar System."  --Greg Bear, Moving Mars

Some people see exploring outer space as a colossal waste.  Any numbers associated with outer space truly are mind-boggling.  Light, which could circle the Earth more than 7 times in one second, takes over two seconds to go to the Moon and back and over 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth.  Mars is 50% further away than the Earth, so you would have to wait from 8 to 40 minutes to get a reply.  Sending a package to Mars today would take at least 6 months and cost well over $10,000 a pound.  Even if you devised some technomagical teleportation system that just had to overcome the Earth's gravitational pull, at today's prices for electricity it would cost over $7 to send a gallon of water to the Moon.

Most people will agree that satellites have improved life here on Earth.  Many people use Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to navigate.  Satellite TV is a popular option.  And virtually everyone who gets a weather forecast benefits from weather satellites.

Beyond satellites, though, the short-term benefits are dubious at best.  Even Gerard K O'Neill, one of the biggest early proponents of solar power satellites, projected that it would take at least 20 years before the program produced as much energy as it consumed.  Other projects have even worse economic projections.

Not all benefits can be measured economically, though.  There are the spin-off technologies such as photovoltaics, of course.  Some people fantasize about finding another Earth-like planet and finding a faster-than-light way to get there.  Even if that were remotely possible, it still wouldn't solve any of our problems.  But look at the threats facing us, and then compare them with what life on Mars would be like.  Nuclear meltdown?  EMP weapons?  Massive solar flares?  Mars doesn't have a magnetic field, you would need that kind of shielding everyday.  Desertification?  Mars is a desert.  Sea level rise?  Deforestation?  Loss of wildlife?  Loss of arable land?  Loss of industry?  Running out of oil?  Mars doesn't have any of those to begin with.

Every conceivable problem we face, short of a rogue black hole, would be much worse on Mars.  Logically, this means, if we can solve those problems so we can live on Mars, we can solve those problems so we can live on Earth.

Sometimes doing things just because they are hard makes the Long Ascent easier.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Road Ahead

I've been working out the map for the Long Ascent for a long time. Tripp, over at Small Batch Garden, is ahead of me on the actual journey, which he documents well in his blog.  I highly recommend reading it if you want to see what everyday life on the Long Ascent is really like.  He recently posted on his blog an excellent piece, "Starting at 40", that maps out the future pretty well.  The last paragraph gives a wonderful explanation of why I call the road ahead the Long Ascent.  Coming from someone who truly lives it makes it truly meaningful:
I've modeled my activity around these trends and around permaculture principles more generally for the past 4 years, and can say, first-hand, that it is a joyful and rewarding way to live, whatever the time frame for energy descent turns out to be.  It's hard sometimes - automatic dish and clothes washers are pretty awesome tools when one wants to spend their time doing something else.  And let's face it, who doesn't want to spend their time doing something other than washing clothes and dishes by hand!  It's a lot more deliberate, living in power down mode; the number of things one can accomplish in any given day declines dramatically without those excellent fossil fuels working constantly behind the scenes to free up our time.  But there is a certain elagance, a kind of da Vincian sophistication, that can only be found in a life lived simply.  Hardly a day goes by now when either I or my wife don't utter the phrase, "I love our life," and how many people, fossil-fueled or not, can say that?  There is a real and tangible silver lining in energy descent, but it has to be experienced first-hand.  It can't be lived and written about by proxy.  I mean, it can, obviously, but it won't mean much until you own it for yourself.  It's not a lesser life, it's not even a lateral move, it's actually better this way, because it's the way we have always lived and done business.  Realigning with a more classical way of life is normal, peaceful, and fulfilling.  It's the last couple hundred years that are the strange bit.
That's why overcoming our addiction to fossil fuels is the start of the Long Ascent.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ratchet Effects

For those who don't know tools, a ratchet is a device which allows something to move in one direction but not the other.  A ratcheting screwdriver, for example, will only turn the screw in one direction, so you can twist it back and forth without having to let go.

When a technology is introduced that expands the capacity to produce food, population grows to use all that extra capacity.  People don't generally voluntarily reduce population size, so the adoption of that technology becomes irreversible.  (I would like to thank Garrett Hardin for introducing me the ratchet effect.  It really is just an extension of Thomas Malthus's ideas and is central to Jevon's Paradox, that increasing efficiency in using a resource increases the overall use of that resource.  Hardin was specifically concerned with food production, but the ratchet effect applies to many other endeavors.)

Just because people don't choose to do something, however, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.  Technologies can be lost and populations reduced without any intention.  When they cut down the last tree on Easter Island, being a lumberjack was obsolete.  The bubonic plague significantly reduced the number of Europeans.

Going back to the tool analogy, a screwdriver which only tightens or only loosens screws isn't very useful.  That's why ratcheting screwdrivers have a switch: flipped one way it tightens, flipped the other it loosens.

There also is an reverse ratchet effect.  Extinction is a 100% phenomenon; a species is not extinct until every male or every female of a species is dead or incapable of reproducing.  So too is it with technology.  As long as someone somewhere in the world knows how to do something, the technology is not completely lost.  With the key technologies that allowed populations to expand, this leads to a ratchet effect on the downside.  Those who still have those technologies will have an advantage over those who don't, and they will grow in proportion to those who don't.  (Please note I am talking about relative percentages, so if one group loses 50% of its population and the other loses 75%, the first has doubled in relative proportion to the second.)

No matter how bad things get in the short term, the reverse ratchet effect will determine where we resume the Long Ascent from.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Prepaid Arbitration

How do you settle disputes in the absence of a legal system? Or more bluntly, how do you get people to uphold their end of a deal without pointing a gun at their head?

The best answer I've found came from someone who named his avatar Judge Jude.  His avatar and the project we were mutually involved in passed into the aether long ago, so I can't provide any references.  I also haven't seen this idea anywhere else, but I only claim copyright for these words, if anyone wants to take the idea and implement it, please feel free.

There already is a mechanism for settling disputes without resorting directly to the legal system: arbitration.  All the "judges" you see on television, whether they were judges previously, are technically acting as arbitrators.  One feature of most arbitration is that the arbitrators only get involved after a dispute is arisen.  This can make it a contentious and expensive process.

Judge Jude's innovation was to get involved before the contract was signed.  His fee was a certain small percentage of the contract.  (How small can be an area of competition between different arbitrators.)  The contract wasn't binding until both parties and the arbitrator signed off on it.  This makes for great incentives.  The arbitrator has a huge incentive to make sure that everyone understands and agrees to exactly what they're getting into, so there won't be a dispute later on.  The better he does this job, the more satisfied his clients will be, the better his reputation, and the more he can charge.

What if a dispute does come up, and someone does not want to comply with the arbitrator's decision?  That person then gets blacklisted: the arbitrator will no longer adjudicate any disputes or sign off on any contracts for that person.  If they do that several times, they will soon find no one wants to do business with them.

Settling disputes before they arise will be key to prosperity on the Long Ascent.