Copyright 1977, 2007 by T. A. Heppenheimer, reproduced with permission
Since the mid 1960s a number of premises about the basic economic structure of the world have become widely accepted. Among the more important of these ideas are:
(1) That every major human activity must be confined to the earth’s surface
(2) That humanity’s resources of energy and raw materials are merely those of planet Earth
(3) That these resources are limited essentially to those now known to exist, so that the world’s economics must henceforth be based upon redistribution of resources rather than upon development of major new resources
Much of the rationale for this point of view lies in a small book which was one of the publishing phenomena of recent years—The Limits to Growth by Donella and Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens. Like much that is characteristic of our age, the influence of this book may lie less in the cogency of its argument than in the public-relations aura in which it was born.
In a sense the book began in 1968 in the mind of an international industrialist, Aurelio Peccei. He is an executive of both Fiat and Olivetti, the Italian corporations. He was also one of the founders of the Club of Rome, a by-invitation-only association of prominent scientists, businessmen, and politicians which Science describes as “bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jules Verne’s fictional Gun Club of Baltimore,” organizers of the famous lunar flight. It was Peccei who organized a scarcely less ambitious effort, The Project on the Predicament of Mankind. This predicament, the Club of Rome believed, lay in the unquestionable certainty of the three premises mentioned, which they felt meant ultimate doom for mankind unless humanity would repent of its sinful, growth-seeking ways.
For two years members of the Club of Rome carried their message from Moscow to Washington to Stockholm to Rio, seeking to warn world leaders of the coming apocalypse. They were treated courteously, but found their words alone would not turn mankind’s course. Something stronger was needed: a computerized study which would prove conclusively that what they were saying was true.
After several months of searching, they settled on Jay Forrester of MIT as the man to do the study. Forrester has had a distinguished career both in designing computers and in using them to study difficult economic problems. He agreed to do the job at a Club of Rome meeting in Berne, Switzerland on June 29, 1970, “that momentous date when it all began,” in the words of one Club member. He conceived the main features of his mathematical model of world growth trends while aboard the plane returning to New York. Shortly afterward Eduard Pestel, another Club member and a director of the Volkswagen Foundation, arranged a $250,000 grant from his foundation to support the work.
The model used involved five quantities: population, pollution, food production, industrialization, and consumption of resources. Each of these was taken as representing activities over the entire earth. Forrester and his associates defined about 100 relationships among the variables (such as the relation between industrialization and the birth rate) and described these relations by equations. They proceeded to run the model, or set of equations, on a computer, making various assumptions about policies which might be followed over the entire world.
The results were what Peccei and his associates were hoping for: Unless world trends in population growth and industrialization are checked and pollution severely curbed, civilization faces a catastrophic collapse within 100 years, and perhaps within 50.
The Limits to Growth was actually written, for the most part, by Donella Meadows, the biophysicist wife of systems analyst Dennis Meadows. Late in 1971, under the encouragement of Peccei, the Meadows signed over the rights to the book to a Washington think tank, Potomac Associates.
To William Watts, Potomac Associates president, the book was (as a later press release described it) an “intellectual bombshell.” With the aid of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, he arranged a symposium on the book to be held at the Smithsonian Institution, with financial aid from Xerox. To get proper publicity Potomac Associates hired a local public relations firm. They turned out press releases and background material, released their material late in February of 1972, and hit the jackpot. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major papers splashed the story across their Sunday editions. Columnists soon picked up the story, describing the book’s “shattering insights” into the calamities facing mankind.
Suddenly the symposium at the Smithsonian was an event of major proportions. There was a flood of phone calls from ambassadors, Cabinet officials, congressmen, and scientists, all clamoring to attend. The meeting was held on Thursday, March 2. That morning, the first copies of the book were released for public sale. Hardly anyone at the symposium had a chance to study the book or to review it critically.
The symposium opened with a blaze of kleig lights and TV cameras. Hardly anyone challenged the conclusions of the work (how could they?) but the ambassadors and government officials present discussed at length the work’s implications for social policy. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Elliot Richardson pronounced the work “too thoughtful, too thorough, too significant to ignore.”
Not all were caught up in the excitement. At noontime that day, a group of reporters held an impromptu news conference. They asked Meadows why he had rushed to publish a popular book before first submitting the work to the criticism of professional economists in technical journals. His reply: “Journals take so long. You’re talking about delays in publication of twelve months on up.” He said that he would in due course publish a technical report, describing the study “equation by equation.” Carroll Wilson, a fellow scientist at MIT and a member of the Club of Rome, said that “so few will read the technical report and so many will read the book that it doesn’t really matter.”
As the symposium went on, critics of Limits began to find their voice. One warned, “The masses will look at these diagrams and believe them, but I feel it’s dangerous to speak of projections so far ahead. If we feed the decision makers half-baked conclusions we can do great harm.” Another critic said that “this is not a decision-making model,” urging substantial refinements. But such views were in the minority. Eduard Pestel remarked that “policy decisions can now be derived from what has been worked out. There’s no need to wait to start action.” Edward P. Morgan of ABC Radio said that negative reaction to the book would come mostly from “reactionaries and older folk,” and said, “It’s up to us, the news media, to mount a basic education campaign here.” Aurelio Peccei explained that the book was “a tool of communication to move men on the planet out of their ingrained habits.” To make sure that the tool would not rust from lack of use, he announced his intention to translate the book into half a dozen languages and to send it without charge to 12,000 world leaders.
At MIT the enthusiasm was considerably less than universal. One associate of both Meadows and Forrester, a senior scientist who asked not to be named, put it this way: “I happen to like Dennis Meadows. He’s a nice fellow and very bright, if he doesn’t go off the deep end. I find their work fascinating, but I’m not about to tell a congressman to base his career on it. . . . What they’re doing is providing simple-minded answers for simple-minded people who are scared to death. That’s a dangerous thing. There’s a sense of naivete here too . . . it’s not that they want publicity or a grant, but they want to save the world. This messianic impulse is what disturbs me.”
Aside from the public-relations effects and the messianism of the Club of Rome, just what substance is there to the work? The work basically represents an attempt to improve decision-making processes by substituting presumably exact computer methodologies for the fuzzy, often erroneous verbal methods in use. The authors of the book would argue thus: People can easily understand relationships between individual components of the world system, such as the relation between pollution and the quality of life. But when there are a great many of these relationships, human minds are not very good at deducing the effects on the entire world of all the relationships. However, it is easy to use a computer to study the effects of any number of relationships. Human intuition is inferior to the workings of the computer in seeking policy decisions.
Computer users have an expression, GIGO, or Garbage In, Garbage Out. That is, a computer’s results are no better than the information fed in, or the mathematical model used to process the information. While an impressive set of results may be produced using a particular model, the results are worthless if, by using an equally plausible but different model, results are found which are completely different.
In the case of the world’s future economy, there are two points of view which may be regarded as ideological poles. These are the Malthusian view and the technological-optimist view.
The Malthusian view is a latter-day version of the outlook of Thomas Malthus, an advocate of limited growth in the 1700s. He argued that population would grow exponentially while available resources would grow only linearly, so that ultimately there would be a catastrophe. The modern advocates of this view argue that the earth has only a finite amount of resources, such as agricultural land. Further, they argue that anything which makes life better, such as rising living standards or better nutrition, acts to promote population growth. New technology can only temporarily alleviate shortages, since population growth must inevitably overtake any increase in production.
The technological-optimist view holds that there are no foreseeable limits on the production of goods. If there is a shortage in a particular resource, it can be eliminated by development of alternate resources, or substitutes. Increases in the standard of living lead to lower birth rates. Eventually, there will be zero population growth from the lowering of birth rates, and technology will then provide a continually rising living standard.
The model used in The Limits to Growth is basically Malthusian. The quantity of natural resources is assumed to be fixed, and the productivity of industry is thought of as decreasing with time. In agriculture, it is assumed that nations can increase productivity only by increasing capital investment. The pollution output, in proportion to the material standard of living, is regarded as irreducible. The birth rate increases strongly with increasing food per capita, decreases strongly with increasing pollution and crowding, and decreases only slightly with increasing standard of living.
The future, as predicted by The Limits to Growth, is keyed to the steady depletion of a fixed supply of natural resources. As the supply diminishes over the next century or so, the population continues to increase. The early decades of the next century bring about a crisis in industry, as these trends continue. Capital investment in industry peaks out and declines, as does capital investment in agriculture. The standard of living then begins to decline rapidly, and the population also begins to fall as the world quality of life deteriorates.
But do we find similar results if we adopt the viewpoint of a technological optimist? This question has been studied by Robert Boyd of the University of California. He started with the basic Forrester model, with its five variables. To these, he added a sixth: technology. He wrote equations to express the assumptions that increased capital investment would speed technological growth; that increasing technology could reduce pollution, or could be used to improve the quality of life, or increase agricultural output. He also assumed that technology could reduce the amount of natural resources needed to maintain a given living standard. The birth rate, in Boyd’s model, would decrease strongly with increasing living standards and would not increase with increasing availability of food.
The results of this model were exactly what a technological optimist would expect. In these results, technology is seen to increase the living standard, which in turn drives down the birth rate. The population in time levels off. The quality of life (an index derived from such factors as surplus food per capita, disposable income, crowding, and pollution), approximately constant from 1950 to 2050, then begins to rise. The standard of living rises slowly to about the year 2020, then rises rapidly.
Forrester has argued that the world system often will show behavior contrary to what one would expect from intuition. He introduces birth control into his model by reducing the birth rate—and finds that the eventual catastrophe is even worse. In Boyd’s model birth control greatly improves the situation, since the quality of life then is found to increase almost continually.
Boyd’s conclusions, which were published in the August 11, 1972 issue of Science but which received far less attention than they deserved, show that Limits has its own limits. The computer models used appear as powerful methods for testing assumptions. But they do not infallibly foretell the future. A different set of assumptions does give entirely different, and far more hopeful, results.
One area where the question of limits to growth impinges upon public policy is the problem of energy. In this country there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the energy crisis. This crisis is not due to actual shortages of energy supplies. What is happening is that the United States is in the early stages of a transition from reliance upon petroleum as an energy source to reliance upon alternate sources of energy. A rather similar transition occurred early in this century as petroleum and natural gas supplanted coal. An even earlier transition, in the last century, put the New Bedford whalers out of business when kerosene for lighting replaced whale oil in the nation’s lamps.
While environmental concerns make some sources of energy more costly, these concerns are not responsible for the underlying problem of energy. The Alaska pipeline was stalled by five years of lawsuits, many of them inspired by concern lest the builders disturb the Alaskan elk and caribou. An act of Congress swept aside these objections. But the oil from that source, however valuable and necessary, will be gone before the next century is very old. Similarly, the world’s uranium will suffice for only a few decades of large-scale operation of conventional nuclear plants. Then the problems begin.
We have enough coal to last a thousand years. But much of it cannot be recovered without ripping up vast stretches of western lands in states like Utah and Montana which do not now propose to become “energy colonies” of Los Angeles. We have shale oil in abundance, but it is costly to transport and cannot be processed on the spot (in Wyoming and Colorado) without the water which that region conspicuously lacks. Moreover, the only longterm source of nuclear energy which can be built with present technology is the breeder reactor. The breeder uses plutonium, the stuff of nuclear bombs. An energy economy based upon the breeder would involve many tons of the stuff, to be transported to and from reprocessing plants. Ten pounds, in the hands of a hijacker or terrorist, would suffice to build a small but potent bomb.
The Energy Research and Development Administration, ERDA, is the federal agency charged with solving these problems. There is little doubt they can be overcome, in time. Strip-mined lands can be restored, at a price. In Germany, the Rheinbraun Coal Company has routinely done this, even building new towns on the restored land. Oil from shale may be obtained by heating the rock with fires lighted underground. Breeder reactors and their fuel-processing plants may be sited together in huge nuclear parks, built perhaps on artificial islands, to provide security against plutonium theft. Still, such solutions will be costly. Following the Arab oil embargo, President Nixon proposed “Project Independence” to meet America’s energy needs. The price tag: $600 billion to $2 trillion.
And at this point the idea of solar power satellites, built in a space colony, becomes quite appealing.
Power satellites, of course, tap the inexhaustible energy of the sun. Such inexhaustible energy sources are in short supply. We will continue to get something out of hydroelectric power (though all the good rivers have been dammed) and we will get something from the winds, something from the tides. There will be other renewable sources such as firewood or household garbage. These sources will be appreciated but will not solve the problem. Fusion power is nearly as inexhaustible as sunlight, but it has not yet even been demonstrated in a laboratory and no one can say when this will be done. Until this happens and until we learn precisely what fusion power will entail, we cannot count on it either.
The power satellites’ rectennas are very kind to the environment. They emit no fumes or smoke, produce very little heat, foul no streams, use no supplies of water. They simply sit in the desert or out at sea, soaking up the power beam. They involve no unsightly structures. If a rectenna were built off the New Jersey beaches, all a beachgoer would see would be a line of buoys or marking lights to warn ships to steer clear. If the rectenna were two or three miles offshore, he would not even see that.
Power satellites built in a space colony offer more than this. They may be the key to overcoming the catastrophe predicted in The Limits to Growth.
One of the major criticisms directed against the original Forrester model was that it treated the world as a single entity. In reality the world has a relatively small number of industrialized nations, in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Soviet bloc. There are a larger number of underdeveloped nations, in Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia. Dieter R. Tuerpe of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory has developed a “two-sector” world model. The two sectors correspond to the developed and underdeveloped nations, with each sector modeled using the equations of Forrester’s models. This corresponds to a highly Malthusian set of assumptions. Results from the model at least represent a worst case, so if a change in the model serves to make things better, then in the real world the situation would probably improve even more. Of particular concern are the prospects for the underdeveloped nations.
Tuerpe’s two-sector model shows results which differ little from those of Forrester. The population continues to grow until late in the next century. The available food per capita, not very high today, diminishes to below the level of the year 1900. The quality of life falls to abysmal levels as does the standard of living. By the year 2100, conditions throughout the underdeveloped nations are perhaps somewhat poorer than exist today in Calcutta.
Peter Vajk (rhymes with “like”), of Science Applications, Inc., has extended Tuerpe’s model by incorporating a third sector. This sector represents space colonies. The colonies then are regarded as interacting with the rest of the world, producing power satellites and selling their electricity to the world’s nations.
In Vajk’s model major construction on the first space colony begins in 1982, using NASA’s space shuttle launch vehicle, which will be available in 1980. The shuttle is far from being the least costly launcher which could be built for a space-colonization program. The assumption of its use leads to an estimate of $178 billion as the cost of the project. The schedule assumed for the project is not based upon providing the greatest amount of energy to Earth at the earliest possible date. It is based upon paying off the investment, or funds expended upon the project, from sales of electricity in the United States alone.
Vajk’s schedule is as follows: The first colony is finished in 1988. Thereafter, using lunar resources, it can build another colony (a duplicate of itself) in two years or two power satellites in one year. Each colony holds 10,000 people, and each power satellite delivers 5 million kilowatts of power to the earth. By 1998 the number of colonies has increased to sixteen and they are turning out thirty-two powersats per year. By 2007 the investment is repaid and all revenues are assumed to be plowed back into building more colonies or more power satellites. It is assumed that the colonies are not allowed to go into debt to provide a more rapid economic return. Revenues are obtained only from the sale of electricity from the powersats with the price initially at 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, dropping with time to 1.0 cent. This is at least as cheap as the cheapest electricity available today and far cheaper than electricity now available in the developing nations. Nevertheless, Vajk’s model provides a 40-year transition period, during which power satellites grow to become the predominant source of the world’s energy.
Vajk did this work on his own, in the manner of bootleg research, without a contract or formal support, while working for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. It was in this fashion that he programed his computer and ran his equations. The results were startling.
According to Vajk’s model space colonization will almost completely solve the developing nations’ problems of limits to growth. The population, instead of continually rising, will level off and then decline. The standard of living will stay at or above the level of the present. The quality of life will also stay close to its present value. The food available per capita will show a slight decline around the year 2000 then increase steadily as the century progresses.
The decrease in population growth in this work does not follow from a siphoning-off of population as humanity heads for the rocket transports. Instead, it results from the rising standard of living brought about through cheap energy from the powersats. In Vajk’s projections, by the year 2020 the population is 3.55 billion in the underdeveloped world, 1.33 billion in the developed, and 0.03 billion in the colonies. This compares with results from Tuerpe’s two-sector model, without space colonization: 4.39 billion in the underdeveloped world and 1.82 billion in the developed. In Vajk’s model by 2020 the world’s population is leveling off rapidly, with the worldwide increase being only 12 million people per year. This compares with the present-day increase of close to 100 million per year. Of the population increase in 2020, half is leaving Earth for the space colonies.
The nations which build the first space colonies would wield immense power in such a world. They could become the future equivalent of today’s oil cartel if they wished. The space colonist, visiting Earth, might be regarded in the future as we today regard an Arab sheik. Underdeveloped nations would quite likely accuse the colonists of being colonialists. But these nations would be able to move rapidly to build rectennas. Dozens of rectennas could be built in the Sahara, in the plateaus and deserts of Asia, in clearings in the jungles of Africa or Latin America. Under the power beams, the earth could become a steadily more hopeful place.
Paradoxically, perhaps the greatest benefits of space colonization would go to those nations which are doing the least to promote space flight today. The situation then could be quite similar to that brought about, in recent years, with the advent of communications satellites. These have given the United States television programs from around the world and improvements in our overseas phone networks. But beyond bringing Muhammad Ali live from Manila, they have had little impact on U.S. communications. The reason is we already had phone and TV networks in place, using cables and telephone lines. Many of the world’s nations lack such systems and they eagerly joined the international consortium, Intelsat. For them, it was the first chance to build any sort of modern system for TV and for international telephony.
If the United States were to undertake to build space colonies, it would gain far more than the power and prestige of being the world’s energy supplier. It would also gain a major new industry and source of wealth. Mark Hopkins carried out several studies on this point while with the NASA study on space colonization in the summer of 1975.
Hopkins’ work differs from Vajk’s in that he was not trying to solve the problems of the world. Instead, he was concerned with providing a new energy source which would be used principally in the United States. He assumed that only one-third of the power produced would be sold abroad. He also tried to develop a program which would build the first space colony at minimum cost, so that the program would get more easily through Congress. He sought to provide electricity from the powersats at the lowest possible cost, a fraction of a cent per kilowatt-hour.
With the cheerful optimism that was a feature of the NASA study, he assumed that major studies would begin in 1976. (The fact that they will start at a later date does not change his results.) Like Peter Vajk he regarded 1982 as the year for major construction in space to begin.
His work then proceeded based upon a detailed program plan as developed in the course of the study. This plan calls for the use of rockets more advanced than the space shuttle, which can be built within the next few years. These rockets will serve to cut the project cost. His results show that until 1986 the major costs involve research and development, along with the costs of building a moon base and the construction shack. After 1986, costs are dominated by the expenses required for building power satellites. Hopkins found the extra costs needed for the first and later colonies to be rather small.
In the program the first lunar material starts coming up from the moon in 1987 launched from the lunar base. During the next two years the work crew enlarges the initial construction shack and builds the first power satellite. But this powersat is not used to provide energy to Earth. It is transported to the L, point (see chapter 8), 40,000 miles Earthward of the moon and directly above its visible face. This powersat serves to greatly increase the power available on the moon, so that the moon-miners can mine and launch material at a much faster rate.
In 1989 the work crew builds the first powersat for commercial use. In that same year, they begin constructing the colony. With this first powersat, the colonists begin the process of taking over the entire United States market for new power plants. By 1999 the takeover is complete: all new and replacement power plants in the United States are built as rectennas for space-generated power.
Colonists begin to arrive in 1994. They have all arrived and the first colony is completed in 1998. After that the colony works to build more powersats. Later they build additional construction facilities and by 2011 they have the second colony.
Hopkins found the total cost of the program, through completion of the first colony, was $106 billion. The net costs of powersats produced through 1999 is $26 billion. After that the powersats produce a very large stream of revenue—as much as $80 billion a year by 2008. The entire cost of the project, principal plus interest, is paid back by 2019. The greatest expense of the program in any year is under $8 billion, quite similar to the peak cost of the Apollo program when this cost is corrected for inflation. By this analysis the colonization of space resembles an Apollo program continued for twenty years.
The cost of electricity from the powersats starts at 0.8 cent per kilowatt-hour, or one-half the lowest rate currently available, and drops with time to 0.35. This price is charged both within the United States and to customers abroad. Hopkins concluded that with foreign sales, the market could easily double in size, so revenues early in the next century could readily approach $200 billion per year.
What about the effects of inflation? Like most studies, Hopkins’ work corrects for inflation by assuming that all costs are measured in 1975 dollars. If inflation makes the dollar of 2008 worth only half what it is today, the revenues then might be $400 billion, which is worth $200 billion in 1975 dollars. Similarly, the costs of electricity were given in 1975 cents. In addition, the economic analysis treated outlays for the program as debts which earn interest at a “real rate” of 10 percent. This rate is 10 percent plus whatever the inflation rate is in a given year. For instance, if inflation were 8 percent, the interest on the debt would be 18 percent, in the manner that interest rates are usually quoted. This very high rate of interest tends to make it quite hard for the project to turn a profit. The fact that in the analysis it nevertheless does so is testimony to the immense economic potential of space colonization.
At the 1976 Summer Study Dr. Gerald Driggers of the Southern Research Institute carried out his own analysis of the cost of space colonization. He was skeptical of Hopkins’ and Vajk’s results and expected that the colonization effort would be much more costly and difficult than had been envisioned; so he developed a construction schedule for the entire program. To his surprise, he found that the first powersat serving Earth could be built in 1992. His cost estimate for producing the first twenty 10-gigawatt powersats and building a lunar base, a space construction facility, and a colony for 6000 workers was $102.5 billion. At a subsequent press conference he stated: “I thought we would shoot down these earlier estimates, but they were right.”
The foregoing studies offer a good deal of hope. There is the prospect of a major new industry in the United States, and of a solution to our energy needs. There is the possibility that the United States, through its space colonies, might become energy supplier to the world, overcoming the underdeveloped nations’ limits to growth. From this, space colonization appears as one of the important new ideas to have come along in recent years.
It is possible that space colonization will become a generic subject, something like Ecology or Women’s Lib, which everyone knows something about and has an opinion on. Then it will become part of political campaigns. Once an administration is elected with space colonization in the platform, or if Congress should pick up the idea, the twenty-year program begins.
Perhaps the president will appear before a joint session of Congress someday and present an address:
“I believe that this nation should set itself the goal, before this century is out, of establishing a colony in space which will be independent of Earth.”