The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, March 29, 2021

Running out of Ice on the Moon. How we Forgot the Problem of Resource Depletion


"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein, (1966), translated into Italian as "La Luna è una Severa Maestra." It was probably the first science fiction book for adults I ever read in my life, I still remember buying it and taking it home in awe, as if I had in my hands a religious relic. It was also, possibly, the first time that I read about resource depletion. It was mentioned in the novel as a problem for the inhabitants of the Moon but, clearly, also as a metaphor of the limits to growth of Earth.

Thomas Huxley said that "it is the customary fate of new truths, to begin as heresies, and to end as superstitions." It is a sentence that describes the cycle of ideas, you can call them memes, which tend to have a life-cycle similar to that of living creatures. They are born, grow, and disappear. 

The popularity of ideas is not necessarily linked to reality. The virtual world of ideas (the memesphere) may well be completely disconnected from the real world. So, the fact that an idea is forgotten or rejected doesn't mean it is false or wrong. It is just the effect of memes going in cycles, growing and declining.

So, during the past few years, the idea that resource depletion was a serious problem for humankind became thoroughly unmentionable. In parallel, the memesphere got infected with a completely different set of memes. If things don't go as well as they should, that's now supposed to be due to such things as peak demand, the Russians, China, terrorism, capitalism, or anything else, but nothing ever related to mineral depletion. Obviously, eventually, reality will get the upper hand, whether we recognize it or not. But, for the time being, resource depletion is unnameable and incomprehensible. 

At this point, you may ask the question: why did the cycle start? What caused resource depletion to be recognized as a problem?

Ideas are born out of the data available, and the finiteness of our planet was not part of the average worldview (the memesphere) until relatively recent times. That we could run out of some important resource started being discussed only in mid-19th century by William Stanley Jevons, the British economist. He was probably the first who had a clear idea of the depletion process of a mineral resource, coal. But, in this field, Jevons never really had an impact on modern economics. His ideas were too advanced for the times when they were expressed.

The possibility that we would eventually run out of oil or other mineral resources popped up occasionally after Jevons, but it never was part of the mainstream views. Things changed in the 1960s. It was probably the result of the space explorations of the time that produced many impressive pictures of a spherical and limited Earth. Kenneth Boulding was the first to articulate these ideas in a well-organized form with his article of 1966, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” still worth reading today. Boulding coined the well-known statement "anyone who thinks that economic growth can go on forever is either an idiot or an economist."

An idea needs more than an article written by an economist if it has to make inroads into the memesphere. It needs to become a story. And, in the 1960s, science fiction was a lively form of literature dedicated to exploring the future. In principle, it was there that the concept of resource depletion could have had an impact. 

That never really happened. Think, for instance of Isaac Asimov's famous series "Foundation," published from 1942 to 1953. Asimov dealt with the future history of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but nowhere in the story, you will find a hint that the Empire had a resource problem. In other publications, Asimov clearly stated that he was worried about human overpopulation, but it doesn't seem that he ever articulated the concept of "resource depletion." You may also think of Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside" (1971) where you can read of a world of some 200 billion inhabitants living in Urban Monads (Urbmons), huge thousand-floor skyscrapers. The world described by Silverberg is resource-constrained, but population continues to grow!

That was typical of science fiction. Not that, as a genre, it would always produce an optimistic view of the future. On the contrary, it widely explored themes such as nuclear wars, famines, pestilences, and overpopulation. Yet, the science fiction of the "golden age" (the 1940s-1970s) was basically technology-oriented. It was hard for authors to include limits to growth in a worldview that saw atomic energy and space travel as an obvious feature of the future. 

True, overpopulation was often seen as a big problem in science fiction, see for instance John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar," published in 1968, but not because humans were running out of resources. It was mainly a question of overcrowding leading to all sorts of political and social problems. If humankind were to face a dire destiny, it was because it had failed to properly use the technological tools that were available: nuclear energy being the clearest example.

In the large number of stories that were published during the golden age of science fiction, there must have been some that dealt with resource depletion. Most have been forgotten, but one stands out: Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," published in1966. 

The novel covered several themes, one being resource scarcity. The story revolves around an interplanetary conflict: the Earth's governments have established a lunar colony to host criminals and undesirables. At the same time, the lunar dwellers, the "Loonies"  are exploited to cultivate and ship grain to Earth to feed a population that would not survive otherwise

Heinlein had very clear the concept of "overshoot" even though he didn't use the term in the novel. The problem of resource depletion was cutting both ways: the lunar colony was not as overpopulated as Earth, but it had limited water resources (in the form of mineral ice). The revolutionaries of the novel who fight for an independent Moon do so because they realize that soon the lunar ice will run out and the Loonies will face death by starvation. 

The story is complex and fascinating, with many twists and unforgettable characters. "Mike" is an artificial intelligence that develops moral views and fights alongside the revolutionaries. Although conceived in the 1960s, Heinlein perfectly understood the role of controlling the communication system for a political force to succeed in changing the status of a society.  

As it happened also for other stories by Heinlein, the story of the Loonies also originated terms that are still in use today. "Tanstaafl" ("there ain't no such a thing as a free lunch") is a refrain that summarizes the message of the novel. It is not clear if Heinlein invented the term but, when it is used today, it is often associated to the novel (see also "to grok"). 

Yet, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" didn't originate a specific line of stories exploring the theme of resource depletion, at least not until the late 1990s and the 2000s. It seems that the same rules that apply to economics apply to science fiction: depletion is a concept so hard to accept that it is normally ignored. It is an effect of our tunnel vision that prevents us from seeing more than one problem at a time. And, unfortunately, that's the way we face the future.   





  1. "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" is still a great read after some 50 years. So is "Stand On Zanzibar". I'd like to add "And the Sheep Looked Up". I regard these books as prophecies much like Cassandra of old. The TV series, "Star Trek: Discovery" is a recent show that deals with a resource depletion in energy production with the distruction of "DiLithium" which powers their spaceships. And the Suez Canal blockage is showing us right now that a blockage of the "distribution system" of oil and industrial products is giving us a real world example of what is to come.

  2. No human has pulled a barrel of crude oil from 1000s of feet deep in the ground with muscle power.

    No barrel of oil has been pulled up from deep in the ground without muscle and mind power worked and working for that process somewhere - as if the barrel is pulled up with hands.

    Fossil fuels needed 24/7 Control. Control needed Social Contract purposely dedicated for that operation, including disproportionate force.

    Minimum workforce needed to mount and run that system end-to-end today is 8 billion population.

    It has been a colossal mistake dropping the sense of scarcity in humans dealing with mass extraction of fossil fuels - since early coal.

    After 300 years, extraction of fossil fuels understood now being muscle-done, no matter how it seems to our almighty Science self-powered.

    Putting fossil fuels under what is called 'Energy supply-and-demand' doctrine by Economics in the hand of Life - has been a disaster, no less than the deluge.

    Life worked in the exercise brilliantly, the human system foolishly playing games with Life has miserably failed, though.

    Shame, humans have mastered mass extraction of fossil fuels before develop morally, ethically and intellectually enough to understand that "Energy flows from past to future".

    I wake up every morning thinking I need another 300 years before I accept it.


  3. Ursula Le Guin's novel, "The Dispossessed" is a good read about two planets, one loosely modeled on our earth and the other a desert planet. People on the desert planet live within the carrying capacity of the environment while the other planet lives beyond its means but still is prosperous and hasn't hit its limits yet.

    1. Yes. Anything written by Ursula Le Guin is great literature! In a certain way, "The Dispossessed" goes in parallel with "The Moon is a harsh mistress" with the role of the two planets, Urras and Anarres, similar to that of Earth and the Moon. It is clear that Anarres is much poorer than Urras, a leaner and more efficient society. Yet, I think not even Ms. Le Guin had a clear idea of the question of resource depletion. You see that also in another masterpiece of hers, "The Left Hand of Darkness" that features also a contrast between two different societies.

    2. I was about to mention this book and I'm glad someone did it already. In "the dispossessed" K.leGuin also mentions a planet named "terra"(in a spanish version of the book) that went past some pollution threshold and became inhabitable. This is something that is just mentioned without detail. It came back to my mind when I saw it better explained in a Bardi's book. Maybe resources depletion was not clear to her, but climate change seemed to be. Back in 74.
      After this experience other societies adapt differently to prevent collapse. Urras and Anarres are two examples that are covered in the book. Urras as some kind of green dictatorship, Anarres as an extremely poor, efficient, equalitarian libertarian society. Urras, with their armies and high tech, tolerates Anarres because they provide them some minerals they don’t have in exchange of quite chip (for Urras) technology items Anarres cannot produce. It is never mentioned what may happens when mines run out of ore...

  4. A theme worth investigating. Clifford Simak's "Dusty Zebra" had depletion in reverse. The 'throw it away' culture backfires with some interesting consequences. see page 73.

  5. [" It seems that the same rules that apply to economics apply to science fiction: depletion is a concept so hard to accept that it is normally ignored. It is an effect of our tunnel vision that prevents us from seeing more than one problem at a time."]

    'Leaders' don't have the prerogative to ignore "hard to accept" concepts.
    I think following WWII the subject matter must have hit the radar at the Pentagon.
    The 1973 episode should have been enough of a final warning.

    With all the science the Pentagon had access to through NASA and other agencies, and all that 'Game Theory' crap going on, I don't buy that nobody ever knew and that no blame can ever be attributed to anyone ...

    Yes, there's been a cultivated ignorance ; but I still believe somewhere, at some critical time -- choices were made ...

  6. Sci-Fi, while enjoyable to read, is just that, fiction. I remember H T Odom calculated how much energy it took just to put a single person into space compared to activities carried out on earth and the number was astronomical. Jeff Bezos gave a lecture where he envisioned building colonies of millions not on other planets but in actual outer space. Even smart people don't seem to understand the energetic limitations imposed on us by our finite world.

  7. I "accidentally" read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in high school and still am amazed at how much I learned from it. Perhaps humans have a hard time facing the concept of depletion as it is too harsh a reminder of our own mortality. We have so few days to spin on this top we call the Earth circling this star we call the Sun.

  8. Heinlein, being an engineer by training, was pretty damn smart about a lot of things.

    1. Great post about Heinlein, probably the best "social SF" writer of the 20th centry. But resource depletion - Olaf Stapledon dealt with it at length in his 1930 novel "Last and First Men." Stapledon tells the story of human evolution through multiple species, some evolved, some genetically engineered. However, the First Men - us - collapse after the formation of the First World State, a fusion (after conflict) of America and China. Atomic energy is discovered, but the secret is hidden, and science at the time is increasingly converting to something else (as in your commentary). So, society runs on ritual consumption until the coal and oil in Antarctica run out. Collapse. After a long dark age, humans discover atomic power, and destroy themselves with it. A new species of human evolves (one of many) which runs on relatively low energy and high brainpower. In the very long run, engineered human replacements figure out how to trigger matter-antimatter energy, and they have lots of energy - though not enough to escape when the Sun finally goes nova.

      Stapledon also considers these themes in his latter "Star Maker" as the entire universe advances to heat death.