Monday, July 23, 2007

What's a Gaiome?

It's a word I coined for what Gerard K. O'Neill and other would-be space colonists were trying to invent 30 years ago: a self-sustaining mini-Gaia in space. It's also the title of my new book.

What will it really take for large numbers of people to travel and live in space? I've been pondering this for decades. But four years ago, when I began to examine the question methodically with the tools from my work in astrophysics, astronautics, business and ecology, I had no idea what a shock I was in for.

After all, the first thing I remember seeing on TV was the Apollo 8 Christmas Broadcast. When I was learning to read, everybody knew that space was our future.

Imagine my surprise when, nearly 40 years later, the evidence forced me to conclude that space isn't a frontier at all. Worse, technology alone won't get us there.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking has made the news a lot lately by saying that we're making such a mess of the world that we should begin building space arks. I beg to differ. We are absolutely certain to fail at building space colonies until such time as we are no longer insecure about our survival as a species. Gaiome explores this in great detail, but here's the short of it: if we're damaging our own life support systems on this world, where we and millions of other species have long evolved to sustain each other, what are the odds that we will be any more skilled at life support, let alone building whole new worlds, alone in a radioactive vacuum?

Now let's be fair to Stephen Hawking. Virtually the entire space establishment agrees with him, at least in private. For over a century now, legions of science fiction fans (yes, including me) have dreamed of conquering space and escaping our mundane problems. But in so doing, we subscribed to a persistent fallacy: that life support can be mastered by one species.

The world's leading ecologists say it can't. They've been saying it for decades—not that we've been listening.

We can't conquer space because conquest is exactly what has brought us to the point of fearing for our survival. The main point of my book is that if we want to become a cosmic species, we must give up conquest. Not just space conquest. I mean conquest as a way of life.

But look, the book is 296 pages long. I'm not going to rewrite it here. I've put the introduction online to give you a taste of it. You'll notice there that the tone is more rigorous than a blog would allow. It has to be: this conversation is more than a century overdue.

But this blog is about what comes next: the day-to-day effort to transition from a global consumer economy to the regenerative local ecologies required of cosmic species.

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