Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Our Uninhabitable Earth

One of the main arguments against the settlement of space is that there is nothing there. They look at Luna, orbital space, and the planets and know that they are natively uninhabitable to humans. There is no breathable air on any of these worlds. Liquid water is practically impossible to come by. (Actually, NASA just stated that they discovered liquid water on Mars, but that's for a different blog entry.) There is no known life on these worlds. The temperatures on these worlds are either too hot (as it is on Venus and on the sunlit sides of Luna and Mercury), or too cold (everywhere else in the solar system). Why leave our "paradise" for some dead world? As was stated in the closing sentences of The Dark Side of the Moon, "Everything that is good can be found on Earth," so why leave it?

Is Earth really the paradise it seems? I think not. The truth of the matter is Earth is mostly uninhabitable to humans. This fact escapes most people both pro and anti space because we take our living conditions for granted. Humans have settled practically every piece of land on this planet, except for the ice caps. But as technology improves, even settlement on Antarctica (which would no doubt be like a space settlement, given the extreme cold) will become feasible.

I am writing this blog entry sitting in St. Louis, Missouri. In 2006, St. Louis experienced two major weather emergencies. Many many remember that last July, St. Louis was hit by two derecho events with winds surpassing 90 MPH amid a heat wave. The storm knocked power out for over 600,000 customers (over 1.1 million people) in the area for up to two weeks. Temperatures were around 100 F (with the heat index above 115 F) for several days after the storms. Several people were killed by the excessive heat in the absense of air conditioning. Just a few days ago, around the turn of December, St. Louis was hit by one of the worst ice storms in its history as 1 - 2 inches of sleet and freezing rain accumulated across the area, followed by a few inches of snow on top. Today, 6 days later, there is still over 100,000 customers in the St. Louis area without power, after peaking at 500,000, similar to July. Several days of cold weather (low temps in the teens and single digits at night) have killed several people whose power was knocked out. These temps were not even close to record territory for the St. Louis area (all time highest temp of 115 F and lowest temp of -22 F). These are temperatures that St. Louis experiences over the course of a normal summer or winter, but the lack of heating and air conditioning many homes uninhabitable.

The two major weather events in the same year in the same city has shown just how uninhabitable Earth really is. To illustrate this even more, we have to go very far back in history. Before the discovery of fire and before humans started wearing animal fur, humans were confined to the tropical regions of the planet. Especially in ice age conditions, and even during interglacial episodes similar to today, man could not survive beyond the tropics. For people living during this era of human history, most of the world was uninhabitable. North America, Europe, Asia (north of the Himalayas), most of South America, Australia, and even most of Africa were as uninhabitable as the Moon and Mars were 50 years ago. To these people, the little stripe of inhabitable land in Africa (and probably South Asia) was Eden, while every other place was no-man's land. Put these people in a place as far south as northern Florida today, and they would die off before that winter ended. In spite of Florida's reputation as a land of endless summer, they do get below freezing in the winter. Jacksonville in Florida even dipped to -2 F during the cold wave of 1899, and even Miami has seen subfreezing weather. In fact, there is no place in the contiguous US that does not experience life threatening cold from time to time, if you happen to be free of clothing. Even Nairobi in Kenya doesn't escape cold weather, where temps can fall to near freezing at night. Beyond temps, there are also unfriendly ecosystems. Desert is uninhabitable. Even the most primitive societies living in deserts are technologically advanced enough to live there. Where there are no edible plants, humans have to use weaponry to kill animals for food.

But humans have done the "impossible." With the discovery of fire, they were able to move away from Eden, and into the immediate surrounding areas where temperatures can drop below 50 F, and as low as freezing, at night. The invention of tools and weapons have greatly expanded the menu for humans (Mammoth steak), as did the fact that humans could now cook their food. The invention of fur-based clothing has made it possible for humans to survive even in the tundra. Humans have long inhabited Siberia, where temperatures regularly drop below -50 F at night, and can fall even as low as -90 F. For most people (including myself), that kind of cold is inconceivable. But the technology of using the fur of the animals that thrive in this kind of cold for clothing makes living there possible.

Humans have done more impossible things. Some of the first civilizations have sprung up in the hard desert regions. These people have taken rather desolate regions and turned them into rather green cities. The Nile Valley Civilizations of Egypt and Nubia have left magnificent Pyramids that stand to this day. Mesopotamia was another early civilization built between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East. Modern day Baghdad is located within what used to be Mesopotamia. These are all in major desert regions. The technology of irrigation allowed these people to grow large amounts of food locally, which led to the formation of urban regions. Irrigation has since been repeated around the world in other civilizations. Las Vegas and Phoenix are both built in uninhabitable deserts.

The vast majority of humans are living in uninhabitable regions of the world. In effect, we are settlers. For hundreds of thousands to even millions of years we have been a species that utilize technology to survive in places which are natively uninhabitable. We live in environmentally controlled conditions. Using clothing, we modify the air very close to our bodies. In the Sahara, clothing is normally used to reflect sunlight and to keep the air behind the cloth, and thus the body, cool. For most other places, clothing is used to keep warm air near our bodies, and to keep heat from escaping. In the regions of the world where artificial heat is required for the survival of humans, shelters are used to modify the air to a comfortable temperature. In the Arctic, fires burn inside Igloos to create comfortable temperatures, even if temperatures outside are -50 F. In European homes, fireplaces have long been used to provide an artificial environment that is survivable throughout the winter.

Space (as well as sea) settlement is simply the next step. When humans need to venture outside of their settlement, they will merely take their space suits as humans will need an artificial environment. Most of the time, though, humans will reside in buildings that create an artificial environment. Some of these will rotate to simulate gravity (until a replacement gravity generator can be invented). All will create breathable air, drinkable water, and food. By building an artificial environment, we can grow crops in the most of ideal conditions. Or, using today's cutting-edge technology, we can print our food in an ink-jet printer. We can recycle the water we use, and the air we breathe. We can recycle our own biological wastes.

Just as our ancestors turned hard desert into green cities, we can do the same in space. We can create an oasis on Luna. Like in our desert civilizations, water and crops (or the seeds of crops) will have to be imported. For our space settlements, air will also have to be imported. Asteroids, many of which are Near Earth Asteroids, can provide the life support materials we need. Like those humans who live in the cold regions of the planets, we will have to modify our air for survival, and we will have to keep that air from escaping our habitat. In orbit, our habitats can spin to create artificial gravity. We will be able to create even more ideal conditions than those found naturally on Earth.

Can "everything that is good" be found on Earth? Most of it. But what we think of as "good" can be created elsewhere. What about "what is bad"? Most of what we think of as "bad" can also be found on Earth. Everything "bad" that has happened to humans has by default happened on Earth. 75,000 years ago, a supervolcanic eruption and a sudden return to hard ice age conditions nearly killed off the human species. It's been over 1 million years since most humans have lived in their truly natural habitat. Human survival for at least that long has depended on the settlement of seemingly uninhabitable places. We have settled a planet that was mostly uninhabitable, and will do the same in space.


  1. True. But you have to admit, living in completely sealed environments, and nuking what you need out of bare rock is quite a step up from current conditions, even in Antarctica.

    The amount of equipment required to make such an environment function is going to be pretty large.

  2. I suppose a good analog would be the equipment/people ratio of a submarine.