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."
Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts

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.