We’ve successfully landed on top of a comet. I say “we” in the same way as a sports fan referring to their home team. A semi-autonomous machine, made by very clever people, after travelling very, very fast, for quite a while, following a carefully calculated trajectory has managed to make physical contact with a non man made object travelling at an equally silly speed, quite far away. This rather positive news comes shortly after two unlucky events – the spectacular explosion of the Antares rocket, and the tragic crash of SpaceShipTwo operated by Virgin Galactic. If we add to the mix the release of the film Interstellar, the recent news stream is all about space.
I’m quite bullish on space. In my humble opinion, this is the next big venture for mankind. We’ve pretty much conquered everything here, haven’t we? Apart from death itself, we have lots under control: very high survival rate of infants, reliable warmth in winter, coolness in the summer, transportation, etc. The problem is that the way we measure success in no way reflects our progress. Each time we celebrate the survival of a human being, between the ages of zero and five, we use money. How much is human life worth, and probably more accurately, when? Does the inflation affect our worth in time? Will I be worth more, or less by the time of my death (regardless of the amount of stuff I accumulate by then)?
The same goes for everything else in the “externalities” category (which is anything that can’t be directly measured in money). You know, the air we breathe, the pollinators that make our food a reality, the unimportant stuff. Money is way too efficient for this kind of accountancy. It moves very fast. Too fast for the reality that is made with atoms or energy. Consider this example: if you buy a mass made trinket, brand new in a shop for £10, try to sell it to the other customer who’s just left this shop with you. You can’t, because now, this trinket’s resell value is £0. See, very fast! And what about the Sun. It produces only all of the energy this planet ever needed, but no matter how hard I try to look, I’ve never seen the Sun’s rays spontaneously transform into a rain of coins. Hence I proclaim money as too efficient for accounting for this energy. It’s much easier with oil. Oil is concentrated sunlight. We like concentrated. Maple syrup is concentrated maple juice, ketchup is concentrated tomato, a city is concentrated humanity. All these are very efficient, and we can put some value of money on it. Today. Tomorrow it will be different of course.
Oil is great! We make everything out of oil now. We used to make the same stuff out of different, natural based materials in the past, but that was so much faff, compared with oil. Oil is efficient. We pump it out of the ground, and do all kinds of stuff with it. It’s that simple. Of course we’ve now run out of land based oil, so it’s normal to be drilling at sea, and it created so much industry that is efficient. Almost as efficient as money. We can measure our industry success with money, and it is a good thing. Oil gives us energy. All we need to do is burn it, in an efficient machine, made by efficiently organised workforce of people. As mentioned before it’s hard to measure their value, so we simply make it zero, and give them as little as needed for them not to die or revolt. Job done. Oh, and we make food for them with oil too. Two brilliant scientists in the past came up with a clever way to make nitrogen fertilizer by burning lots of oil to trap the nitrogen from the air into a salt. Thus, we took the air which is not efficient, added some of that efficient oil, put the two into a magic mix, and gave it to the plants which we forced to be a little efficient by making it grow in straight lines to be collected by an efficient tractor run by as few inefficient people as possible. And then we could measure that with money.
We’re very efficient thanks to oil, and straight rows. And machines. Machines are cool. We can buy and sell them, and they don’t ask for rights. We can make new machines every year and sell them, after scrapping the old ones. The new ones are much better. They are very efficient at removing the externalities, like the rainforests. The rainforests are horrible, horrible places. There’s snakes, and wild people, and jaguars. They make oxygen, and we can’t sell oxygen, so rainforests are of no use. Only if we compress oxygen, by burning oil in another clever machine, we can then sell it to some other people so that they can go under water to install new machines to drill for more oil for us. We sometimes have to use them to clean up spills. Honestly, I can’t understand the faff. None of our machines have ever been harmed with some extra oil. They usually ran better. You know, they got oiled! Sorry, I couldn’t help the pun.
We’ve been told that there is a bit less oil now than it was in the 50’s, and we ought to burn something else. We came up with a plan. Biomass. There’s still trees that can burn, and we have some efficient machines to cut them down. And those run on oil too. So, we cut those down, and we find tar sands! Bingo, two in one. More oil and less trees to worry about.
But then there is this CO2 thing. We keep burning and burning all that sunlight that has accumulated throughout millions of years. We are a bit worried, not much, that it might destroy some of our machines if we get bad weather. We get bad press, and some people are upset. We could just reforest everything, but we need the space to grow orderly rows of plants fertilized with the efficient nitrogen, distributed by efficient machines to feed the inefficient people. We could just reforest, and let the people grow their own food, fertilized by nodules of root microbes on leguminous plants, but these are very inefficient as they appear on their own and we can’t put a price tag on it. Besides we need the people to be concentrated in our efficient cities, so that we can keep tab on all of them in case they revolt.
Thankfully we have our top man – a scientist (a kind of a really clued up fella) working on a breakthrough. Wait for it… Artificial trees. Isn’t it wonderful? An artificial tree. It’s like a machine, very efficient at sucking out the CO2 out of the atmosphere, which we then pump underground and measure in money. No birds will make nests on them, they won’t shade our manicured lawns, we can put them in our orderly cities and they won’t litter the ground with leaves or, God forbid, rotting fruit! We can make them in any colour, or size you wish, and then use oil to transport that captured CO2 into it’s final resting destination. Once we make new ones, we can take down the old ones and smelt them for scrap using some lovely, efficient coal. And we can measure our progress of reversal of climate change by the reducing amount of CO2, which we can trade now, in money. And our very efficient markets will tell us what a certain amount of atoms is worth today, and then what the same amount of atoms will be worth tomorrow. Job done.
So I’m very bullish on space. Once we liquidate this place, there will be no other way but to go out and find another one. Just like Interstellar shows us. I hope that we come across a planet inhabited by an intelligent species. But not too intelligent. It’s been a while since Columbus showed us how little money we need for valuing the lives of the less technically advanced people. As long as we can round them up and fool them into thinking that we are gods, we’re good. We have the scientists – the clued up people. We have the money accountants to show us what’s efficient, we have the generals that will break our cheap people into submission, so that in turn they can release their frustration on the interstellar terrorists. Yes, terrorists, because once we tell them that we need their resources, they will probably rebel, but we will have the politicians and linguists on hand to explain how it really is with the use of magic words that make everything right: security, freedom, democracy, peace process, collateral damage.
We have so much knowledge. We have done so little to apply this knowledge in making this World a better place. These are not my own words, but I agree that we ought to spend the next one hundred years doing nothing but applying this knowledge. What we know about the ecosystems, water cycles, life cycles. Build natural systems that would sequester the extra CO2, whilst producing food for us and a safe haven for wildlife. Moderate the climate with real trees. Moderate temperature and water flows whilst growing timber for new homes for the extra 2 billion of us.
I wish to drop my tone now. I’ve finished venting. Truly I think that all the industrialists, scientists, engineers, now can focus on taking us to the stars. Star Trek is closer than we think. We can free the people, give us all a place to live and provide healthy local food. We can do all that. It’s just a choice. Then the free time that we have worked so hard for over the past two centuries could be reinvested to launch mankind on a new, exciting journey of exploration. All the big boys with big ambitious dreams. Go, and explore. Leave the people who value the externalities here, and whenever you wish to come home, there will be a paradise waiting for you. We have another 5 billion years of fuel in our Sun. Let’s be wiser about it.
Daniel Tyrkiel is no expert in any subject matter. He has no portfolio of achievements to dazzle you with. Please do not blindly follow the opinion of a random person on the internet, or for that matter, any mass media. Think for yourself. Spend some time connecting with your own needs and feelings. Then grow some, and give empathy and understanding to other people’s needs and feelings. Give love a chance. In the end, we are all one. Reality is but an illusion.