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A Planetary Greenland: Looking at Risk

Although Jane Smiley has made the haunting story of the Viking settlement of Greenland widely known in her novel The Greenlanders (Knopf, 1988), we have few modern accounts that parallel what happened in remote places like Brattahlið and Garðar, where Erik the Red’s settlements, which had lasted for 500 years, eventually fell victim to climate and lack of external supplies. But local extinctions and near-misses are important because, as John Hickman explains in his new book Reopening the Space Frontier (Technology and Society, 2010), they promote the kind of story-telling that Smiley is so skillful at, advancing the case that not just settlements but entire species can fail when conditions turn ugly.

Image: A reproduction of a Norse church in Greenland, with Eriksfjord in the background. Credit: Hamish Laird/Wikimedia Commons.

In this excerpt from the book, Hickman writes about three modern parallels to 15th Century Greenland, the first being the Sable Island mutiny, where provisioning ships to a French penal colony in the north Atlantic stopped arriving in 1602. The demise of the Sadlermiut Inuit is another case in point, the 58 remaining members of this Dorset culture population expiring due to the effect of infectious disease after a Scottish whaling ship reached Hudson Bay. And then there is Clipperton Island, an eastern Pacific atoll that collapsed when provisioning ships stopped bringing supplies during the Mexican Revolution.

Why write about this in the context of space exploration? Because Hickman wants to understand why we pay so little heed to the technologies that could save our planet from extinction from the likes of a rogue asteroid. We see small catastrophes and large around us, from the 100 million who died at the hands of war, genocide and famine in the twentieth century to the hundreds of millions affected each decade by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes. But our own survival is assumed. Writes Hickman:

Recent events such as the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2008 tropical cyclone in the Irrawaddy River Delta, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which each killed more than 200,000 people provide powerful reminders of the vulnerability of our species to natural disasters. What they have not done is increase awareness of human vulnerability to extinction. Interviews with people who had managed to cheat fate by surviving catastrophes do not incline viewers to consider the possibility of a global catastrophe without human survivors. News audiences around the planet learned about each of these events via television news coverage, which means that the emotional impact of each event was cushioned by the medium’s entertaining and anesthetizing unreality. If these tragedies were rendered to that degree unreal then the possibility of human extinction must seem impossible.

Thus it is that, while we know about the risk of impacts from space and have funded efforts to detect incoming debris, we have yet to devise a well-funded solution to prevent such an impact. Having little experience with truly existential threats, and having seen nothing but the excavations at scattered sites like those above to remind us how a culture can collapse and disappear, we fail to accept the severity of long-term risk. Hickman thinks we’re hard-wired to recognizing only the immediate, a consequence of evolving in environments that did not demand a longer perspective.

Rather than evolve a general perception of risk and a rational calculation of relative risk, our 150 millennia living as hunter-gatherers and the most recent 2 millennia living as farmers prepared us to deal with only some kinds of risk. We respond strongly to those with a high probability of occurring rather than to those with a low or unknown probability of occurring. Warfare, subsistence failure and cooperation failure have produced an animal that is equipped with “specific cognitive adaptations for perceiving cues regarding the likelihood and magnitude of adverse events” and for making rapid decisions based on “risk-risk” trade-off calculations.

And so it is that three million Italians continue to live around the Bay of Naples near Mt. Vesuvius, the consequences of whose historical eruptions are available for all to see in the ruins of Pompeii. People live by the millions along fault lines in California that could spawn catastrophic earthquakes, coping with a threat of extinction that is, in many ways, too abstract to visualize. We get on with daily life. Our perception is deeply human and understandable, and it offers a recipe for playing down security for future generations in favor of proceeding with today and stressing how infrequently catastrophes occur. Short-term means getting through a finite lifespan, and it doesn’t extend to the kind of lapidary effort that builds a safer future for generations beyond.

It’s a difficult truth to acknowledge, but it seems to be part of human nature. Our innate assessment of risk means we have a steep wall to climb to promote the well-being of our distant descendants, and that makes even the most basic attempts to survey the population of near-Earth objects a matter of constant watchfulness to ensure the continuation of funding. Getting into space to prevent an asteroid strike that might not occur for millennia is a hard sell, and so is establishing a space presence to ensure species survival in case anything happens to our planet. Read the excerpt from Hickman’s book and you’ll understand why it may take a near-fatal event (think of the survivable asteroid strike in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama) to make long-term danger immediate and reinvigorate our will to master space technologies.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tarmen December 27, 2010, 13:30

    Sure it’s a risk. Every day is a risk. Someday we’ll lose. Still, natural life is re-colonizing the valleys at Mount Saint Helen’s.
    We are natural life also, following our own nature. Think of our civilization as a Springtime blossoming of mankind. Human beings are in abundance now. We are like new sprouts of dandelions everywhere you look. Surely a lawn mower is coming soon, or a change of seasons nevertheless. But in the meantime, this is our chance to throw seeds up and out into space. Some of these multitude seeds will beat the odds, and find a warm wet patch of new earth. New Earth. Now it is May. No time to waste.

  • Tristram Brelstaff December 27, 2010, 13:41

    “think of the survivable asteroid strike in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama”

    Are you thinking of another book by Clarke? I don’t remember any asteroid strike in Rendevous with Rama, at least not in the BBC Radio version.

  • Paul Gilster December 27, 2010, 13:57

    Tristram Brelstaff writes:

    Are you thinking of another book by Clarke? I don’t remember any asteroid strike in Rendevous with Rama, at least not in the BBC Radio version.

    It’s in the beginning of the book version of Rendezvous with Rama. The impact comes on September 11, 2077, and causes the deaths of 600,000 people, as “…a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy…” Clarke uses this strike as the motivation for the Spaceguard project that eventually finds and tracks Rama. Just going back through these pages makes me want to re-read the book!

  • John Q December 27, 2010, 14:40

    Some laws regarding human survival under extreme/difficult circumstances.
    1) Anyone who predicts disaster has a 100% chance of being proved correct. (The great Heinlein, of course.)
    2) The wealthier a society is, the greater the odds in surviving and recovering quickly from a disaster. (Thomas Sowell and other pro-capitalism economists.)
    3) I’m struggling for the correct wording of the applicable Karl Popper quote but it goes like this: it is difficult to learn, i.e. draw the correct/most reasonable conclusions from big events. That is, such events are invariably interpreted in terms of the knowledge and beliefs of the society enduring them. A really big meteor impact might lead to the creation of a space guard, but it could also lead to religious fundamentalism of the worst kind (“space exploration brought this disaster down upon us!”). The Krakatoa explosion, for example, was interpreted by many locals of a particular faith beginning with the letter “m” as being a warning that they were straying from the commandments of their version of the Big- Guy-Upstairs. Unfortunate consequences followed. There are of course other possibilities.
    4) “Gresham’s Law of Disasters” (my modest contribution): Politicized concern over phony and/or highly dubious global crises drives out reasoned thinking regarding real dangers and the probabilities thereof. Examples are left to the reader.

  • Ronald December 27, 2010, 15:13

    Further to John Q:

    5) The greater a species population size, its reproductive rate and its natural range, the less prone that species is to extinction.
    Island species are particularly vulnerable to extinction, widespread continental species much less so.

    The same is true at a planetary level:

    6) A multi-planet species and civilization are much less prone to extinction than their single-planet equivalents. This is even more true for a multi-planetary system (multi-solar system) species and civilization, these must be almost immune to total extinction.
    Or to rephrase that: the extinction chance for a species and a civilization decreases exponentially with the number of planetary systems settled.

  • Randy McDonald December 27, 2010, 16:28

    Me, my first reaction when I saw this post appear in my Google Reader was to think that this post would be about the unreliability of off-world destinations in our solar system as secure outposts for humanity. Mars is arguably the most suitable world, with its gravity and its resources and its development potential, but it’s as marginal relative to our technology as Greenland was relative to medieval Europe’s.

  • Adam December 27, 2010, 16:33

    As someone else once sagaciously quipped…
    What we don’t know, might kill us.
    …thus the need for, at least, a proper funded Space-Guard effort to detect all the PHAs out-there.

  • John Q December 27, 2010, 16:51

    Ronald:

    I’m inclined to agree, though I believe the changes (structural and otherwise) necessitated by the transformation of a planetary/solar to an interstellar species will be at least on the order of the changes from an ocean-based to a land/air-based species. If true, it would then be debatable whether homo sapiens could still be said to exist.

  • Daniel Suggs December 27, 2010, 19:07

    Paul, S. M. Stirling’s “The Peshawar Lancers” deals with the aftermath of a comet strike in 1870 and the recovery of the remainder of humanity. It is a very good, well thought out, novel worth reading on these cold winter nights.

  • Paul Gilster December 27, 2010, 19:22

    Daniel, thanks for the recommendation on ‘The Peshawar Lancers.’ Can’t wait to read it!

    And to Randy McDonald, who wrote:

    Me, my first reaction when I saw this post appear in my Google Reader was to think that this post would be about the unreliability of off-world destinations in our solar system as secure outposts for humanity.

    Good point! It’s easy to imagine a Mars colony, for instance, becoming a Greenland analogue, a place where eventually the supplies stop coming in, for whatever reason. Robert Metzger has written in great detail on just this scenario re Mars in the bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I’m not sure whether this particular Metzger essay has appeared elsewhere — if anyone knows, please give me the reference and I’ll pass it along.

  • Bounty December 27, 2010, 20:38

    Problem is you have to choose your poison, or at least the one you’re going to make antidote for. Whether it’s super volcanos, solar flares, asteroids, plague, war or man made climate disaster, they all cost time/money to prepare for. Place your bets.

  • ljk December 27, 2010, 23:32

    How long will we as a society be able and willing to colonize other worlds if we keep putting off for future generations to handle, that’s my question.

  • Eric December 28, 2010, 5:22

    Nice post. For bleak scenario of extinction-level asteroid strike, see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

  • Rob Henry December 28, 2010, 6:53

    What a joy it is to see so much discussion on our doom without seeing the dangers of anthropogenic global warming being overplayed. Let me begin my addition by acknowledging the statistical validity of the doomsday argument. Much detail on this can be found elsewhere, but the outcome is that if we survive and prosper from this beginning to technological civilisation we must be the exception not the rule. This also makes it a logical certainty that there are many dangers facing us, and so surely we should look to solving all of them and not just pick one. To illustrate the folly of thinking otherwise just think of solving that aforementioned example of manmade global warming, and imagine that we did completely solve it only to discover that the Holocene temperature stability had simultaneously come to a natural end. From what I have read this could be far worse for civilisation than the original problem.

    I know there is hope for changing us from our natural outlook, otherwise people would never insure. I know this shift must be difficult because the most obvious move has never been made to alleviate the problem of peak oil. To optimally solve the problem of converting our industry from oil we must know how much is left in the ground and how accessible it is. There are many different expert views on this, but there is remarkable agreement that there is sufficient data to give us the vital assessment – it is just owned and secreted by many different companies and countries. If we can not yet save ourselves when the cost is just sharing data then we have a long way to go. Please believe me when I say ALL the problems mentioned by others are urgent. To ignore is to die.

  • Paul Gilster December 28, 2010, 8:50

    Eric writes:

    For bleak scenario of extinction-level asteroid strike, see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

    Yes, have been meaning to read this one for a long time. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Michael Spencer December 28, 2010, 9:10

    Another lively discussion. Thanks to all.

    Lest I be accused of thread-jacking, let me join the wanton quote-tossing: I have met the enemy. He is us.

    I do wonder though about the lessons of Haiti. The western end of that lovely isle has been completely wasted, decimated, and used as a – well, as a sewer, largely due to huge population pressures and concomitantly intemperate leadership. Natural resources are nearly non-existent, having been consumed by a frightful population.

    What are we to learn as a species from this deplorable situation where birth control isn’t even on the radar screen? I asked a similar question of my Indian hosts a few years ago in Pune, India, after having seen huge portions of that large country similarly devastated by what can only be called the scourge of humanity.

    The answer? A blank stare.

    And to our gentle host: Helplessly, I feel a rise in my breast as I contemplate places like India and Haiti. Why? Perhaps it is a fear that before we achieve what is clearly in sight, our biggest challenge isn’t tech. It’s not natural disasters. It is ourselves.

  • Randy McDonald December 28, 2010, 12:29

    “The western end of that lovely isle has been completely wasted, decimated, and used as a – well, as a sewer, largely due to huge population pressures and concomitantly intemperate leadership.”

    That’s a problematic assertion. Does the initial disdevelopment of post-1492 western Hispaniola as a slave sugar-growing colony–brutally exploitative even by the standards of slave sugar-growing colonies, mind–count for nothing? Colonial Saint-Domingue was a nightmare, and independent but devastated Haiti didn’t have much to work worth even after Haiti paid France for its independence.

  • Randy McDonald December 28, 2010, 12:34

    What Saint-Domingue/Haiti shows, much more than the problematic nature of humanity in too large numbers (there are still more New Yorkers than Haitians, but never mind), is that societies remain shaped by the legacies of their founders and that it’s important that people who want to build dynamic societies know what they’re doing. Brutally exploitative work practices undergirded by racism–for instance–aren’t likely to make a Mars colony founded on those principles very durable, say, while (as Diamond suggested) sending colonists to a marginal environment they’re not willing to adapt to fully is lethal foolishness.

  • Bounty December 28, 2010, 14:29

    Another wrench in the problem is that an asteroid riddled Earth is still probably much more habitable than Mars or interplanetary space.

  • bigdan201 December 28, 2010, 18:03

    So much to respond to…

    It’s in the beginning of the book version of Rendezvous with Rama. The impact comes on September 11, 2077, and causes the deaths of 600,000 people, as “…a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy…” Clarke uses this strike as the motivation for the Spaceguard project that eventually finds and tracks Rama. Just going back through these pages makes me want to re-read the book!

    Indeed, that book is one of my favorites. Its complex imagining of an alien spacecraft, combined with a focus on hard science, was brilliant. It always struck me as strange that he happened to pick the date of september 11 for that disaster.

    I have read about the viking greenland colonies with great interest. I’ve wondered what would’ve happened if they’d continued their colonization in the americas – an interesting possibility for alternate history. Personally, the real history of the viking colonies reminds me of possible space colonization. Hopefully we will learn from examples like that, and the roanoke colony, when we plan our colonies on mars and elsewhere.

    I agree that human extinction, while considered impossible, is in fact possible. Dinosaurs dominated the earth for millions of years, but are now extinct. There’s nothing to prevent that from happening to us – but if I ever get the chance, I’ll do what I can to ensure our survival. In any case, vigilant awareness and preparation for catastrophic events is important. It is equally important that our preparation is scientific in nature, rather than a hysterical crusade about imminent doomsday and a falling sky.

    Mars is the favored location. However, cloud-top colonies on Venus are also possible – and in fact, the work on carbon nanotubes makes them more plausible. Mercury often goes unnoticed, but the strong solar power and possibly rich natural resources also makes that a location.

    The ultimate step forward will be interstellar colonization, but that’s a long way off. The best we can do now is to keep up the exoplanet hunt.

  • NS December 28, 2010, 18:20

    “The wealthier a society is, the greater the odds in surviving and recovering quickly from a disaster.”

    Dunno. In the ancient world, elites rose and fell but the self-sufficient peasants (which the elites basically parasitized) endured. Ours is probably the first society in history in which almost everyone depends on an interconnected global economy. That’s progress, but it also makes us vulnerable to complete extinction in a way lower-tech societies weren’t.

  • Rob Henry December 29, 2010, 0:42

    I like the way bigdan201 brings up the nature of our response to potential disaster and whether it will be ‘hysterical’ or ‘scientific’. I would go further and ask if humanity as a whole is bound to see disaster prevention as a nasty little chore that we really should get around to some time, or whether it can take such an incredible undertaking as an inspiring quest that reflects the best part of our nature.

    I would also like to comment on how the potential to recover from disaster correlates with the technological complexity of a civilization. I thought that it has always been clear that if a society does not disintegrate, the more technological the more resilient. If it does have to completely rebuild, then the more primitive the better. Surely exceptions to this are rare, such as massive solar flaring where only electrical equipment is at risk??

  • tesh December 29, 2010, 5:41

    Just finished reading Flood and Ark by Stephen Baxter. A pretty good read and alittle depressing. Not for the fact that the planet is beset with major problems and most of humanity is dying or dead but more for the fact that the human condition is an ugly one when it comes to being faced with hard choices…

  • ProtoAvatar December 29, 2010, 16:17

    bigdan201
    “Mars is the favored location. However, cloud-top colonies on Venus are also possible – and in fact, the work on carbon nanotubes makes them more plausible. Mercury often goes unnoticed, but the strong solar power and possibly rich natural resources also makes that a location.”

    Actually, O’Neill colonies are the best solution to colonizing the solar system.

    They present significant advantages over colonizing hostile planets:
    Building them will take far less time and resources than terraforming planets. And they will be as earthlike as the designers desire (including gravity, etc).
    They would not be located at the bottom of gravity wells, making them ideal ports for interplanetary ships.
    Mining asteroids and commerce would ensure their economic stability.
    They would even be safer from asteroid impacts – one could choose the place where to build them, they could be moved from this place if necessary, they would present a far smaller target than a planet (making impacts unlikelier), etc.

  • Mike Prather December 29, 2010, 17:42

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been any mention here of the mitochondrial evidence which points to all currently living humans being descended from several thousand individuals. That alone shows that we barely dodged a bullet some time in the past.

    @tesh: I think it’s pretty clear from most of Stephen Baxter’s writing’s that he has a pretty low opinion of humanity and its future – either that or he’s a sensationalist. The first book of his I read, Titan, makes for a pretty angry read. Kind of confusing considering he’s also produced amazingly bright and hopeful works like The Timeships.

  • Ronald December 29, 2010, 19:49

    @ProtoAvatar: O’Neill colonies are probably not the best solution to colonizing the solar system, because they are so extremely risky, as has been argued on this website several times before.

    The smaller a habitat island, the greater the risk of extinction by stochastic (chance) events. In fact the extinction risk increases exponentially with decreasing habitat size. This is also the reason why small islands are nearly always species poor and particularly poor in larger species.

    On a relatively small and artificial habitat island, such as an O’Neill colony, so many things can and will go catastrophically wrong (such as loss of atmosphere, fire, impacts, structural breakdowns) that the long-term survival chances are minute.

    This is why we need planets.

  • ljk December 29, 2010, 23:40

    The Road is a really depressing read. Honestly I am bothered by all these pessimistic scenarios for humanity. I know it may make for a more exciting drama as one excuse, but I also see it as a growing negative trend against our species and society. As if the optimism for the future from past generations was something nieve and uncool and only by being dark and downbeat can such things as predicting the future be taken seriously.

    We can choose our future for the most part, but a lot of what I see today is that humans are doomed even though the threat of nuclear annihilation is far less than when I was growing up and that such things as space colonies and the possibility for ETI are considered somehow irrelevant – because aliens are seen as non-existant, too few and far between, or a threat if they are abundant.

    Life in the old days was far less pleasant and survival much more difficult than it is now. An average American lives better than the richest kings of even a few centuries ago. Yet somehow with all our knowledge, technology, and potential, somehow many only see things getting worse. Well, I guess we will have a doomed future if that is what we want.

    The rest of us would like to go to the stars, thanks.

  • ProtoAvatar December 30, 2010, 5:55

    Ronald
    ” @ProtoAvatar: O’Neill colonies are probably not the best solution to colonizing the solar system, because they are so extremely risky, as has been argued on this website several times before.

    The smaller a habitat island, the greater the risk of extinction by stochastic (chance) events. In fact the extinction risk increases exponentially with decreasing habitat size. This is also the reason why small islands are nearly always species poor and particularly poor in larger species.

    On a relatively small and artificial habitat island, such as an O’Neill colony, so many things can and will go catastrophically wrong (such as loss of atmosphere, fire, impacts, structural breakdowns) that the long-term survival chances are minute.

    This is why we need planets.”

    You assume that O’Neill colonies can only be small habitats. This is not justified.
    Indeed, O’Neill colonies that can house millions/tens of millions can be built – and far, FAR faster and cheaper than is terraforming a planet; and with results closer to Earth, too.
    Plus, these O’Neill colonies could be linked in a trade/transport interplanetary network – more or less like nowaday cities/countries. A network much easier to build between O’Neill colonies than between planets, whose gravity requires a lot of energy to escape from.

    You also assume that redundancies in O’Neill colonies’ systems can not be built, making living on them just as safe/even safer than living on a planet. This is also not justified – especially when one considers large O’Neill colonies.

    Of course, the first human settlements throughout the solar system will be small – a few thousands – whether one builds them on a planet hostile to life or in a confortable O’Neill colony.
    With the differece that, with O’Neill colonies, you can have economic self-suficiency very soon (from mining easily accesible resources on asteroids, for example), having the resources to build larger habitats, expanding your community. On planets, not only is gravity a formidable challenge to overcome in building larger domes (terraforming won’t yield results for centuries to come), but your resources will be scarce.

    Anyway one looks at it, O’Neill colonies have many advantages by comparison to dead, hostile planets – and barely any disadvantage.
    Indeed, for equally large communities, it can be convincingly argued that the risk of extinction is much larger on a planet than in an O’Neill colony.

  • tesh December 30, 2010, 9:57

    The darker side of the human spirit is too closely intwined with the side of humanity that we would cherish and preserve. The very nature and goal of this discussion, i.e. survival, would work against any such endeavour. Imagine a scenario where, on an outpost, a one person, out of 15, has to be sent to death. How does one choose that person?

  • bigdan201 December 30, 2010, 15:13

    Interesting side discussion on O’Neill colonies vs. planets.

    Certainly space habitats are a viable option. There is no reason why you can’t have those alongside planetary settlements. Centrifugal force can create the needed gravity, which is an important issue in space colonization. And as ProtoAvatar mentioned, they are mobile and have no gravity well.

    However, you can’t go so far as to say that they trump planets in all respects. First of all, plenty of resources would be needed to build these habitats from scratch in the middle of space. Planets, on the other hand, already have natural resources that can be used for building and economics. Planets offer plenty of natural surface for colonizing, whereas O’Neill colonies require 100% construction. Also, planets can offer some natural defense against the hazards of space (particularly mercurys magnetic field). In the case of disaster, an O’Neill colony would be in a more precarious situation overall. And although the planetary gravity well is an issue, this could be dealt with by more efficient technology so that it is not such a hurdle.

    This is not to refute O’Neill colonies, as they could be a helpful addition. But planets are also viable.

  • ProtoAvatar December 30, 2010, 16:21

    bigdan201

    About the resources needed for building O’Neill colonies – they would be extracted from asteroids, rich in many minerals – which can be extracted far easier (and cheaper) than digging them out from a planet.
    Also – much of the constructed area of an O’Neill colony will be used for habitation (let’s take as example the O’Neill colonies shaped as rotating cylinders) – far more than in the case of a dome built on a planet, for example.

    About magnetic fields/radiation protection/etc – as little as ~1 metre thick exterior wall will provide the O’Neill colony with as much radiation protection as Earth’s atmosphere provides Earth. And we’ve known for more than a century how to generate magnetic fields effectively – especially when concerns about mass are not an imperative (as they are when it comes to building spaceships)

    About the gravity well – we’ve been waiting for half a decade for an efficient technology to arrive – so far, with disappointing results.

  • Ronald December 30, 2010, 17:11

    ProtoAvatar: “Indeed, for equally large communities, it can be convincingly argued that the risk of extinction is much larger on a planet than in an O’Neill colony.”
    No, simply wrong (or give us the convincing argumentation): as I have argued before, according to island biogeography and demonstrated many, many times, the smaller an island habitat, the greater the risk of an all-out catastrophy. This relationship is (inversely) exponential. This is also true for time period, but linear: the risk of a catastrophy increases linearly with time.

    Combined: the risk of a catastrophy increases linearly with time, but decreases exponentially with habitat size.

    In fact, this is also in response to the more recent post ‘A pioneering interstellar text’, in which some people are making the well-known argumentation for hollowed-out asteroids as a slow way to the stars. I do not believe in that either, and even less so, for the same reason.

    I am not saying that O’Neill colonies could not succeed, on the contrary, but only as intensively managed and continuously maintained space stations, not as long-term self-sufficient substitutes for planets. For the same reason asteroids might be used for space stations, but again not as substitutes for planets, nor as very slow space ships to the stars.
    The long-term risks are simply too great. particularly with regard to maintaining the atmosphere, water and food supplies.

    Asteroids may be easy to exploit but planets have much greater total amounts of resources plus enormously vaster absorbtion capacities and resilience with regard to disasters than any asteroid or mega space station.

    Therefore, I still strongly believe that our dispersal through the MW galaxy will have to consist of relatively quick (years, decades at most) transits between the stars and long duration colonization of planetary systems.

  • ProtoAvatar December 30, 2010, 17:51

    Ronald
    ““Indeed, for equally large communities, it can be convincingly argued that the risk of extinction is much larger on a planet than in an O’Neill colony.”
    No, simply wrong (or give us the convincing argumentation): as I have argued before, according to island biogeography and demonstrated many, many times, the smaller an island habitat, the greater the risk of an all-out catastrophy.”

    Apparently, you did not understand my argument.

    Let’s say have two communities, each comprising 30000 persons. One community lives on an island, the other in an O’Neill habitat.
    For the community living on the island, the risk of a catastrophe/extinction is arguably larger (and in no case smaller) than for the community living in an O’Neill colony.

    You want to compare an O’Neill comunity of thousands with a planet-bound population of millions. That’s a specious comparison.

    If you wish to compare a planet-bound population of millions living in spread out cities, you have to compare it with a population of millions living in multiple large O’Neill colonies.
    And again, in this case, the risk of extinction due to catastrophe for the planet inhabitants is larger than for the ONeill colony inhabitants.

  • ProtoAvatar December 30, 2010, 18:09

    Ronald
    “Asteroids may be easy to exploit but planets have much greater total amounts of resources plus enormously vaster absorbtion capacities and resilience with regard to disasters than any asteroid or mega space station.”

    About resources:
    A planet does not have a larger amount of resources when compared to the asteroid belt. And most of the resources of a planet are unexploitable ((buried too deep) unlike the resources present on the asteroids.
    Plus, resources extracted from a planet are not amenable to being exported between planets due to the energy/cost needed to escape the planets’ gravity well; unlike, of course, asteroid mined minerals.

    About water: also obtainable in large amounts from interplanetary space.

    About disasters:
    A planet may survive a huge asteroid impact/ecological catastrophe/other disaster, but it takes far less (and I mean FAR LESS} than that to kill everything alive upon it.
    On the other hand, NO SINGLE natural catastrophe will manage to destroy life spread out across multiple O’Neill colonies.

    For example, take a moderately large asteroid at a moderately large speed (enough to make it unstoppable), impact it on a planet and all life on that planet will disappear, no matter how spread out it is.
    Try to do the same thig with a few O’Neill colonies; you will fail to destroy even a single one – it will just move out of the way of the asteroid.

  • Randy McDonald December 30, 2010, 18:31

    O’Neill colonies may be smaller targets than planets, but when they’re hit by whatever–ecological collapse, asteroids, name it–their failure modes tend to be proportionately more dire.

  • ProtoAvatar December 30, 2010, 19:19

    Randy McDonald
    “O’Neill colonies may be smaller targets than planets, but when they’re hit by whatever–ecological collapse, asteroids, name it–their failure modes tend to be proportionately more dire.”

    Not really.

    In the case of asteroids – absolutely not.
    An O’Neill colony is far better equipped to survive an asteroid heading towards it than an island/a city. And no asteroid could threaten more than one O’Neill colony – as opposed to one threatening every being on a planet, no matter how spread out the cities are.

    About ecological collapse:
    Are we comparing a settlement on Earth with an O’Neill colony?
    In this case, the spread out ecology of Earth will giver its settlement an advantage; On an O’Neill colony, though, you could install all the redundancies you want, compensating for that.

    Of course, there’s only one Earth in oue solar system, and its already occupied, robbing the addressed comparsison of relevance.

    We should compare a dome on hostile Mars with an O’Neill colony.
    It’s immediately obvious that the Mars dome had all the disadvantages an O’Neill colony has, and many others – ex: gravity is not Earth standard (problematic especially for unborn and little children); resources are hard to reach through mining; few, if any means to achieve prosperity, as opposed to exporting asteroid resources, etc.

  • Eniac December 30, 2010, 19:45

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been any mention here of the mitochondrial evidence which points to all currently living humans being descended from several thousand individuals. That alone shows that we barely dodged a bullet some time in the past.

    The fact (if it is true) that we all descend from a thousand individuals does not mean that there were only a thousand people alive at the time. There would have been many more, in neighboring valleys or continents, who were members of our species, but not our ancestors. Uncles and aunts, if you will. It also does not mean that there was any sort of natural disaster.

    What it does show is that after that point in time, a large expansion occurred that allowed the descendants of those thousand (the “chosen few”?) to push everyone else aside and spread quickly to cover the Earth with billions of ancestors. Most likely that expansion was due to the dawn of technology, some sort of early cultural competitive advantage: language, weapons, fire, clothing, what have you.

    On a shorter timescale, Caucasians and Asians all descend from a fairly small group of Africans. Again, this does not mean the number of Africans was small at the time, nor that any catastrophe or near-extinction was involved. Rather it was a colonization event, in which a small band of pioneers with a competitive advantage set out to populate a large territory.

  • Eniac December 30, 2010, 20:40

    I think this debate is resolved rather simply: Ronald is right that a *single* O’Neill colony is more vulnerable than a planet, but ProtoAvatar is also right that a thousand (or even a few dozen) O’Neill colonies together are far safer than a single planet can ever be.

    While Ronald’s relationship between size and chance of extinction has some merit, there is a much stronger relationship between number of independent colonies and chance of extinction. It goes with some small number to the power of the number of colonies. Assuming a 1% chance of extinction per year for a single colony (not very good odds, really) makes 0.0000000000000000000001 (10^-24) per year for a dozen colonies, better than even the most optimistic assumptions about the safety of life on Earth.

    This assumes that in case of an extinction event, the remaining colonies will salvage and/or rebuild the affected colony and repopulate it before the next event occurs, no more. In reality, the number of colonies would of course be steadily increasing, for the same reasons they were built in the first place (why stop at a dozen?). The odds of extinction in that scenario are even more astronomically small.

  • Rob Henry December 30, 2010, 21:41

    Is protoavatar correct in his implicit assumption that second generation O’Neil Colonists will continue to spend considerable resources on disaster prevention? It seems more likely that they will become complacent and spend their surpluses in ways that are more fun. If not he is surely correct about O’Neil colonies being the safer option.

    Is Eniac correct in his implicit belief that tending to the survivors from one devastated colony will not ever strain the resources of neighbouring O’Neil colonies?

  • bigdan201 December 31, 2010, 19:17

    ProtoAvatar, you’ve made compelling arguments. However, planetary resources may not be as difficult to mine as you are assuming. For example, Helium-3 deposits in particular will be on the surface. Also, I have some doubts about how easily these O’Neill colonies can be constructed from asteroid material. In contrast, filling in caverns or crevices on mars with a colony would probably be easier. However, I don’t have solid figures for this, only estimations.

    Also, consider aerostat colonies in the atmosphere of venus. They could be at an elevation where there is mild weather and earthlike pressure, which means that an air rupture would mix slowly with the surrounding atmosphere, giving plenty of time for repair. They could sequester oxygen and carbon from the co2 atmosphere, oxygen for air and carbon for building etc. There would also be earthlike gravity.

    On mercury, there is tons of solar power as well as a large potential of metals to mine – which may or may not be difficult to access.

    Space is, of course, an unforgiving environment, making space colonies a bit more of a challenge – but certainly no less viable. My point is that planets and their potential resources can’t simply be dismissed. And as far as the gravity well, there are a number of ideas for dealing with that. And although none of them have come to fruition yet, they certainly could with greater technology and space infrastructure.

  • Andrew W January 1, 2011, 16:19

    Unless you can find a handy Earth, O’Neill colonies make far more sense than living on planetary surfaces because on the surface of Mars (for example) you have all of the disadvantages of living on a planet, but still have to address the disadvantages of having to construct an artificial environment as you would do in space.
    An O’Neill colony has easier access to the solar system, and the advantage of not having to deal with a natural day-night cycle, which counts for more than most people realise, especially when it comes to power generation and the need for power storage.

  • Ronald January 3, 2011, 7:51

    I think that Eniac (December 30, 2010 at 20:40) settles the debate between ProtoAvatar and myself rather well, by stating that a large number of artificial space colonies together have, statistically speaking, a much greater chance of survival than one.

    However, to state that these colonies combined are also ‘far safer’ than a single earthlike planet, is, in my opinion, blatantly wrong, both statistically and physically;

    – Statistically: a large number of independent space colonies dispersed in our inner solar system do not have a smaller chance of being hit by a large object (asteroid, comet) than such a number of individual targets (such as cities) on earth (if we disregard the gravity well effect of the earth for the sake of argument here). Truly global extinction events are exceedingly rare, it is much more reasonable to compare, say, once in a decade to once in a century events, roughly boulder/Volkswagen/truck sized objects, i.e. large village to city destroyers. If we assume the average area destroyed in such an event to be roughly on the order of a (few) thousand square kilometers, our planet can be subdivided in many, many (hundreds of thousands) of such relatively little areas. I think this is the only fair comparison.

    – Physically: even relatively small impacts could be catastrophic to an entire space colony, resulting in loss of atmosphere, structural failure, etc. Our planet is naturally protected against many, if nor most of such impacts by a thick protective atmosphere. It seems that boulder/car sized objects reach our planet on a very regular, maybe even daily basis, but don’t get beyond the upper atmospheric layers. Such objects would do tremendous damage to a space station. Even very small objects have a cumulative eroding effect.
    Furthermore, our planet is rather robust, it can withstand a few big blows, as it has proven time and again. Again, global extinction events are extremely rare, maybe on the order of once in ten million years orso.
    Moreover, with advancing technology it is reasonable to expect that humankind will be able to foresee and avert many of those events in the rather near future.
    The more common events, say the loss of a city, if not avoided, is tragic, but no threat to our species or civilization, and absolutely no threat to our planet.

    Probably the risk from impacts is exaggerated on both sides. A much greater risk might be the long-term internal structural stability of the body and its inhabitants, and in this case, of course, a planet always wins hands-down against any artificial space colony.
    And moreover, I think that here, the very favorable chance calculation by Eniac is not valid, because in this case we are not dealing with entirely independent chances: what is wrong with one space station is also likely to be wrong with the others, as in the case with planes, automobiles and nuclear power plants. Simply put: if a space station appears to have an expected life span (and hence write off period) of a century, or even a millennium, this will be the case for all of them.

    Planets have viable lifespans of gigayears. And to spread the (small) risk of the global extinction events, we want a few more of those, not space stations.
    The latter category will undoubtedly play an increasing role in the future of humankind, but besides planets, not as substitutes.

  • Eniac January 3, 2011, 12:52

    Ronald: As I have said, I think my chance calculation is not only valid, but also conservative. The limited lifetime of space stations has to be balanced with their reproducibility. As long as more are built than wrecked, there is no practical chance of them ever becoming extinct. As of now, it is more difficult to build a planet than to wreck one, and the stations therefore have the long term advantage.

    Note that during the statistical 10^24 year lifetime of my hypothetical, non-growing, replacement-only bunch of 12 very fragile, but independent stations, the Earth will be gone early on. The stations might one day succumb early as well, due to lack of resources, but that time will come long after the Earth has been swallowed up by the expanding sun.

    The real problem at these time scales is, of course, the stability of society. Here, too, stations have the advantage, because they encourage the formation of truly independent societies, which is no longer practical on Earth. As many have said, stations also facilitate migration beyond the solar system, opening up the resources of the entire galaxy for human consumption, and reducing the chance of human extinction to some small number with “billions and billions” of zeros after the decimal point.

    Our Earth is to the galaxy what the tiny cavity (or whatever it was) in which the first microbial life was formed is to the Earth. A point source of life, destined to multiply, evolve, and eventually spread into every available niche, numerous catastrophic “extinction events” notwithstanding. Except, it will take much less time for us to colonize the galaxy than it took for life to colonize the Earth, because most of the hard work of evolution is done. We needed to develop intelligence and technology to go beyond the Earth. Now that we have it, we can go and live anywhere. Not today, or tomorrow, but surely in the blink of an eye compared with the time it took to get this far.

    The only fly in this ointment is the possible presence of others. No amount of redundancy or fortification can protect against being out-competed, or hunted down and killed. So far, the evidence says that we are alone and it is all ours, but we will see.

  • Andrew W January 3, 2011, 15:55

    Here’s a must read for those interested in meteoroid and other risks to space colonies:
    http://www.nss.org/settlement/ColoniesInSpace/colonies_chap12.html

  • Ronald January 4, 2011, 6:44

    Eniac: I agree with your last two paragraphs. I also agree that besides habitat size number is important in survival chances. In fact, the two are closely related: larger habitats generally harbor larger populations.
    But I still think that your statistics are simply and plainly wrong and overly (WAY overly) optimistic on the side of space stations: you are multiplying chances which are not independent. maybe true for *external* events, but not for *internal* events (failures, etc.).
    Besides, a similar calculation could and should then also be made for similiarly sized areas on a planet, also giving very optimistic results then.
    Finally, the minute chance that you (correctly) calculated is the chance that *all* space stations will fail *in one and the same year*. The chance is rather large, however, that one will fail in one year, another one a few years later, etc.
    So, to come to a compromising conclusion, your space station concept may indeed work, but only if intensively and continuously managed and maintained, and regularly replaced. Not impossible, but an inherently vulnerable situation.
    You don’t have to do that with planets, they can maintain themselves for gigayears, as demonstrated.

  • Eniac January 4, 2011, 11:37

    Ronald: Space stations are much more independent than areas of a planet, simply because they are much further apart and not linked nearly as much by common issues such as real estate, resources, climate, global disasters, etc, etc.

    You are right that my calculation is simplistic, instead of “per-year”, it would be better to consider the period of time it takes to erect a new station. However, my calculation is also pessimistic in that it assumes a stagnant population of 12 independent groups. It ignores growth, which is certain to happen, and is the surest way to guarantee long-term survival. It has worked for life on Earth for billions of years, but humankind has reached the point where planets do not provide much room for continued growth. Deep space has many orders of magnitude more room, and growth into it is inevitable.

    You are also right that stations need to be continuously manged and maintained, but that is a given and has been proven by the their existence in the first place. If you can build them, you can maintain them, in the worst case by regular replacement of the entire hardware. A colony might degrade and lose the ability to maintain their hardware, but that is fully accounted for in the generous failure rate.

    The critical issue is that of independence. My 12 colonies would, in reality, probably rely on a shared facility on the moon or elsewhere to supply them with materials, which would destroy the assumption of independence. On Earth, we are stepping on each others toes, and a catastrophe affecting one nation can bring down the entire world economy. Colonies scattered around the solar system will be more independent from each other than nations on Earth, and quite possibly completely independent in some cases, aided by technological advances in robotics and/or nanotechnology. As habitation spreads to the outer regions of the solar system, this trend towards independent economies will accelerate due to increased isolation in terms of both communication and transportation. At the interstellar level, interdependence between colonies in different star systems is pretty much out of the question.

  • ProtoAvatar January 4, 2011, 12:12

    Ronald

    Eniac did the math, calculating the probability of survival of only 12 O’Neill colonies, each havingonly a 1% chance of destruction per year (the space stations we build today are more durable than that), provided that, in the future, the only O’Neill colonies built will be replacements for destroyed ones.
    His assumptions were highly conservative.
    He proved tthese 12 O’Neill colonies are far safer than a life supporting planet; far, FAR safer than domes built on Mars or baloons built on Venus

    You can’t argue with the numbers – credibly, that is, Ronald.

    About the planet – why are the chances of survival of settlements on a planet so much lower? Because most types of disasters – ranging from weather to climate change to asteroid impact – will affect far more than one settlement, but an entire region, continent, planet.

  • Andrew W January 4, 2011, 15:34

    “your space station concept may indeed work, but only if intensively and continuously managed and maintained, and regularly replaced.”

    In other words, safe as houses.

    Incidentally, “space stations” are to “space colonies” or “habitats” as office buildings are to nations or towns.

  • Rob Henry January 4, 2011, 20:00

    Oh the distortions of human nature! Some want planets to be the best solution to space colonisation because that is what they are familiar with or simply due to claustrophobia and the shock of the new. I believe that those who are fervent O’Neil supporters are distorted by the knowledge that these colonies could physically resemble a chosen paradise from the beginning, rather than offering the possibility of more loosely resembling this in a millennium or two. To me the deciding factors are exemplified by reflecting or the great pyramids and air travel.

    The pyramid of Cheops is the most perfectly constructed in Egypt, and yet almost the earliest. It seems that they over-engineered it because they did not then know what it would take. The strange thing is that if you bring this up with any modern engineer they can’t believe that the first can be the best – to them you should just keep slightly improving designs until one day your structures no longer catastrophically fail. If you do not believe that this could be their uniform attitude, just try them on the above example some time. If this continues to hold it would make early O’Neil habitats unsafe in comparison to planetary habitats. After all, the design change from Apollo’s Eagle to a planetary habitat looks far more linear than the change from the International Space Station to an O’Neil habitat.

    Air travel is by far the safest form of travel. The reason is very well known: because humans are paranoid about dying that way. Every crash is investigated and every weakness is successively eliminated at great, sometimes crippling, expense. This second attitude may eventually make O’Neil habitats thousands of safer than living elsewhere. After all no one likes the idea of dying in heartless space vis a vis dying on a ‘warm’ friendly planet.