Earth Program

(NB: I just found this on a computer I rarely use, dated Sept 1 2009. Figured I’d post it.)

Forty years ago, the United States put men on the moon and returned them to earth, safe and sound, following this up with the six more missions to our natural satellite. President John F. Kennedy had committed the country to this goal and it was met, even while bearing the financial burden of the Vietnam War, the Great Society programs, the arms race of the Cold War.

The space program yielded far more than dramatic photos of our world from another celestial body or moon rocks or even national glory. There were tangible benefits in many areas, all stemming from government investment in various scientific disciplines including medicine, electronics and aerospace. It’s more than Tang.

But now the conquest of space is behind us, as we launch satellites on a regular basis, continue to explore the distant unreachable galaxies with telescopes and other instruments, and build out the International Space Station. I don’t think we will be able to sustain the expense or interest in manned missions to other planets. So what do we do for a rallying cause, a global challenge to motivate the world? I propose we launch an Earth Program, based on the Space Program of almost 50 years ago, but with the results and rewards right here at home.

The challenges are there:

  • we have billions living in hunger, with poor sanitation
  • water, our most precious resource, is being allocated in ways that jeopardize human survival
  • climate change might make parts of the planet uninhabitable
  • ecosystems that underpin life are threatened by human activity.

So what would an Earth Program look like? First and foremost, it would require that the entire planet be considered as a single system, as one big biosphere. Weather knows no borders and disease no checkpoints. We may understand more than we did at the time of the great plagues of the 14th century or the flu pandemic of the early 20th but the speed of global travel doesn’t just benefit humans.

We need to understand that runoff into a small irrigation canal can make itself felt in shellfish beds hundreds of miles away. We need to be aware that the chimney plume from a power plant only dissipates – it doesn’t disappear completely. We have to understand when the counter-culture bumpersticker said 30 years ago: “We all live downwind/stream.”

For too long, we have lived with the idea that resources are limitless and the disposal of our waste was as simple as burying it or dropping it into the ocean. The industrial revolution gave us the power to extract and refine those resources on a scale we had never seen and while it hasn’t been an unalloyed good, it did allow enormous improvements in the lives of many millions. But it came at some costs that our commercial institutions were able to externalize and nations accepted as part of the cost of growth and improvement. Now we are seeing some limits in the ease and cost of extraction of oil and gas. Drinking water is being allocated to crops and industry to the detriment of people and wildlife. The air we breathe, while cleaner in many large cities, is still unhealthy in many others that started their expansions more recently.

This is the only place where humans exist. Whether you believe we evolved here or were placed here by a benevolent creator, this is what we have to live on and to hold in trust for later generations. Terraforming Mars isn’t going to happen until we correct the damage we are doing here. An Earth Program, a comprehensive approach to making all of this planet’s intrinsic benefits accessible to everyone, would address this.

Proposed programs/solutions:

  • increases in sustainable energy production (wind/solar/heat exchange/tidal).
  • investment and improvement of energy efficient appliances and manufacturing equipment.
  • investment and improvement in water conservation, municipal sanitation, agricultural runoff. One planet, one watershed.
  • dismantling of farm subsidies that don’t grow food: corn syrup is not a vegetable and feedlots are not farms.
  • increased investment in lower cost per mile travel solutions (high speed rail) that can be powered by various sources (electricity can be made with coal, gas, hydro or nuclear plants).
  • accept that heavier than air travel may have seen its best days and invest in lighter than air vehicles for freight and passengers.
  • undo the damage of unfettered globalization by forcing manufacturers to account for externalities. No more shopping for labor markets with no safety regulations, wage laws, or pollution controls.
  • re-define major roads and highways for freight and goods, rather than commuting, and apply a regime of road taxes and incentives to reduce the amount of traffic on superhighways that go through cities.

There will be some grumbling, maybe even screaming, that this will wreck human society and is bad for business. This is, of course, nonsense. It will be trouble for industries that cannot adapt or who have predicated their business model on unsustainable practices. But farmers were able to live without feedlots for most of human history so going back to that shouldn’t pose a problem. Lighter that air travel was around before the airliner, and trains pre-dated the automobile.

What we didn’t have before all these changes was an understanding of how much control we had over our ecosystem, for better or for worse. From 1850 to 2050 might be the most decisive part of the human experience as we went from agrarian to industrial and on to something as yet unknown. Will post-industrial man be poised to survive or disappear on the verge of a massive collapse?

Jun 11, 2010

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