Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Elegy for the Age of Space

The orbiters are silent now, waiting for the last awkward journey that will take them to the museums that will warehouse the grandest of our civilization’s failed dreams. There will be no countdown, no pillar of flame to punch them through the atmosphere and send them whipping around the planet at orbital speeds. All of that is over.

In Houston, the same silence creeps through rooms where technicians once huddled over computer screens as voices from space crackled over loudspeakers. The screens are black now, the mission control rooms empty, and most of the staff have already gotten their pink slips. On the Florida coast, where rusting gantries creak in the wind and bats flutter in cavernous buildings raised for the sake of a very different kind of flight, another set of lauch pads sinks slowly into their new career as postindustrial ruins.

There are still rockets lifting off elsewhere, to be sure, adding to the globe’s collection of satellites and orbiting space junk. The International Space Station still wheels through the sky, visited at intervals by elderly Soyuz capsules, counting down the days and the missions until its scheduled deorbiting in 2016. In America, a few big corporations have manned space projects on the drawing boards, angling for whatever federal funding survives the next few rounds of our national bankruptcy proceedings, and a few billionaires here and elsewhere are building hobby spacecraft in roughly the same spirit that inspired their Gilded Age equivalents to maintain luxury yachts and thoroughbred stables.

Still, something has shifted. A tide that was expected to flow for generations and centuries to come has peaked and begun to ebb. There will still be rockets surging up from their launch pads for years or decades to come, and some few of them will have human beings on board, but the momentum is gone. It’s time to start coming to terms with the winding down of the age of space.

Ironically, one of the best pieces of evidence for that was the shrill reception given to an article in The Economist announcing The End of the Space Age. The irony was particularly delicious in that The Economist is a British periodical, and Britain has already been through its own retreat from space. During the first half of the 20th century, the British Interplanetary Society was among the most prestigious groups calling for manned space missions, but dreams of a British presence in space collapsed around the same time as Britain’s empire and industrial economy did. It’s hard to miss the schadenfreude in The Economist’s editorial stance, but it was even harder to overlook the bluster and denial splashed across the blogosphere in its wake.

A little perspective might be useful here. When the space shuttle first came off the drawing boards, the much-repeated theory was that it would be the first of a new breed of spacecraft that would make a flight from Cape Canaveral to orbit as commonplace as a flight from New York to Chicago. The next generation would swap out the shuttle’s disposable fuel tank and solid-fuel boosters for a fully reusable first stage that would take a shuttle-equivalent most of the way into orbit, then come back to Earth under its own power and get refueled for the next launch. Further down the road, but already in the concept phase, were spaceplanes that could take off from an ordinary runway and use standard jet engines to get to 50,000 feet or so, where rocket engines would cut in for the leap to orbit. Single-use rockets? In the minds of the space-savvy, they were already as outdated as Model T Fords.

Yet here we are in 2011, the space shuttle program is over, the replacements weren’t built, and for the five years of scheduled life the International Space Station has left, its crews will be getting there via the 1960s-era technology of Soyuz space capsules atop single-use rockets. As for the rest of the steps toward space everyone in the 1960s assumed we would have taken by now—the permanent space stations, the base on the Moon, the manned missions to Mars, and the rest of it—only the most hardcore space fans talk about them any more, and let’s not even discuss their chances of getting significant funding this side of the twelfth of never.

Mind you, I’m not cheering. Though I realized some years ago that humanity isn’t going to the stars—not now, not in the lifetime of our species—the end of the shuttle program with no replacement in sight still hit me like a body blow. It’s not just a generational thing, though it’s partly that; another large part of it was growing up where and when I did. By that I don’t just mean in the United States in the middle decades of the last century, but specifically in the triumphant years between John Glenn’s first orbital flight and Neil Armstrong’s final step onto lunar soil, in a suburb south of Seattle where every third family or so had a father who worked in the aerospace industry. Yes, I remember exactly where I was sitting and what was happening the moment that Walter Cronkite told the world that Apollo 11 had just landed on the Moon.

You didn’t grow up as a geeky, intellectual kid in that sort of setting without falling in love with space. Of course it didn’t hurt that the media was filled to the bursting point with space travel—turn on the tube any evening during my childhood, and if you didn’t get Lost In Space or Star Trek you’d probably catch The Invaders or My Favorite Martian—and children’s books were no different; among my favorites early on was Ronnie Rocket and Suzie Saucer, and I went from there to The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree—well, you get the picture. (I won’t even get into science fiction here; that’s a subject that deserves an entire post to itself.) Toys? The G.I. Joe accessory I treasured most in those days was a plastic Mercury space capsule with space suit to match; I also played with Major Matt Mason, Man In Space, and plenty of less efficiently marketed toys as well.

The future that most people imagined in those days had plenty of options primed to catch a young boy’s imagination, to be sure. Sealab—does anybody remember Sealab these days?—was the Navy’s attempt to compete with the romance of space, complete with breathless National Geographic articles about "a new world of limitless resources beneath the sea." (Ahem.) For a while, I followed Sealab as passionately as I did the space program, and yes, my G.I. Joe also had a wetsuit and scuba gear. That was common enough, and so were my less scientific fixations of the time, the monster lore and paranormal phenomena and the like; when you’re stuck growing up in suburbia in a disintegrating family and the only source of hope you can come up with is the prospect that the world isn’t as tepidly one-dimensional as everyone around you insists it has to be, you take encouragement where you find it.

You might think that a kid who was an expert on werewolf trivia at age ten would have gone in for the wildest of space fantasies, but I didn’t. Star Trek always seemed hokey to me. (I figured out early on that Star Trek was a transparent pastiche of mid-1960s US foreign policy, with the Klingons as Russia, the Vulcans as Japan, the Romulans as Red China, and Captain Kirk as a wish-fulfillment fantasy version of Gen. William Westmoreland who always successfully pacified his extraterrestrial Vietnams.) Quite the contrary; my favorite spacecraft model kit, which hung from a length of thread in my bedroom for years, was called the Pilgrim Observer: some bright kit designer’s vision of one of the workhorse craft of solar system exploration in the late 20th century.

Dilithium crystals, warp drives, and similar improbabilities had no place in the Pilgrim Observer. Instead, it had big tanks for hydrogen fuel, a heavily shielded nuclear engine on a long boom aft, an engagingly clunky command module up front bristling with telescopes and dish antennas—well, here again, you get the picture; if you know your way around 1970s space nonfiction, you know the kit. It came with a little booklet outlining the Pilgrim I’s initial flyby missions to Mars and Venus, all of it entirely plausible by the standards the time. That was what delighted me. Transporter beams and faster-than-light starflight, those were fantasy, but I expected to watch something not too far from Pilgrim I lifting off from Cape Canaveral within my lifetime.

That didn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen. That was a difficult realization for me to reach, back in the day, and it’s one a great many Americans are doing their level best to avoid right now. There are two solid reasons why the future in space so many of us thought we were going to get never arrived, and each one provides its own reasons for evasion. We’ve talked about both of them in this blog at various times, and there’s more than the obvious reason to review them now.

The first, simply put, is that the United States has lost the space race. Now of course it was less a single race than a whole track and field competition, with the first event, the satellite shot-put contest (winner: Russia, with Sputnik I), followed by the single-orbit dash (winner: Russia, with Vostok I) and a variety of longer sprints (winner: much more often than not, Russia). The run to the Moon was the first real US gold medal—we did half a dozen victory laps back out there just to celebrate—and we also scored big in the planetary probe toss competition, with a series of successful Mariner and Voyager missions that mostly showed us just how stunningly inhospitable the rest of the solar system was. The race that ultimately counted, though, was the marathon, and Russia’s won that one hands down; they’re still in space, and we aren’t.

Behind that unwelcome news is the great geopolitical fact of the early 21st century, the decline and imminent fall of the American empire. Like any number of empires before us, we’ve gotten ourselves wedged tightly into the predictable downside of hegemony—the stage at which the costs of maintaining the economic imbalances that channel wealth from empire to imperial state outstrip the flow of wealth those imbalances are meant to produce. Once that stage arrives, the replacement of the failing empire by some new distribution of power is a foregone conclusion; the only question is how long the process will take and how brutal the final cost to the imperial state will turn out to be.

The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was a standard contest to see which empire would outlast the other. The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that the loser of that contest was pretty much guaranteed to be the winner in a broader sense. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had an empire wrenched out of its hands, and as a result it was forced to give up the struggle to sustain the unsustainable. The United States kept its empire intact, and as a result it has continued that futile but obsessive fight, stripping its national economy to the bare walls in order to prop up a global military presence that will sooner or later bankrupt it completely. That’s why Russia still has a functioning space program, while the United States may have trouble finding the money to launch cheap fireworks by the time its empire finally slips from its fingers.

It’s our decidedly mixed luck, as discussed here more than once in the past, that America is entering on the downslope of its imperial decline just as a much vaster curve has peaked and begun to arc in the same direction. That’s the second reason that the space age is ending, not just for us but for humanity. In the final analysis, space travel was simply the furthest and most characteristic offshoot of industrial civilization, and depended—as all of industrial civilization depends—on vast quantities of cheap, highly concentrated, readily accessible energy. That basic condition is coming to an end around us right now. Petroleum has already reached its global production peak as depletion rates shoot past the rate at which new fields can be found and brought on line; natural gas and coal are not far behind—the current bubble in shale gas will be over in five or, just possibly, ten years—and despite decades of animated handwaving, no other energy source has proven to yield anything close to the same abundance and concentration of energy at anything like the same cost.

That means, as I’ve shown in detail in past posts here, that industrial civilization will be a short-lived and self-terminating phenomenon. It doesn’t mean, or at least doesn’t have to mean, that future civilizations will have to make do with an equivalent of the much simpler technological suites that civilizations used before the industrial age; I’ve argued at some length here and elsewhere that an ecotechnic society—a civilization that supports a relatively advanced technology on a modest scale using the diffuse and limited energy provided by sustainable sources, without wrecking the planet—is a live option, if not in the immediate future, then after the dark age the misguided choices of the recent past have prepared for us.

Still, of the thousands of potential technological projects that might appeal to the limited ambitions and even more strictly limited resources of some future ecotechnic society, space travel will rank very, very low. It’s possible that the thing will be done, perhaps in the same spirit that motivated China a little while back to carry out a couple of crisp, technically capable manned orbital flights; ten thousand years from now, putting a human being into orbit will still probably be the most unanswerable way for a civilization to announce that it’s arrived. There are also useful things to be gained by lofting satellites for communication and observation purposes, and it’s not at all impossible that now and then, over the centuries and millennia to come, the occasional satellite will pop up into orbit for a while, and more space junk will be added to the collection already in place.

That’s not the vision that fired a generation with enthusiasm for space, though. It’s not the dream that made Konstantin Tsiolkovsky envision Earth as humanity’s cradle, that set Robert Goddard launching rockets in a Massachusetts farmyard and hurled Yuri Gagarin into orbit aboard Vostok I. Of all people, it was historical theorist Oswald Spengler who characterized that dream most precisely, anatomizing the central metaphor of what he called Faustian civilization—yes, that’s us—as an eternal outward surge into an emptiness without limit. That was never a uniquely American vision, of course, though American culture fixated on it in predictable ways; a nation that grew up on the edge of vastness and cherished dreams of heading west and starting life over again was guaranteed to think of space, in the words of the Star Trek cliché, as "the final frontier." That it did indeed turn out to be our final frontier, the one from which we fell back at last in disarray and frustration, simply adds a mordant note to the tale.

It’s crucial to realize that the fact that a dream is entrancing and appeals to our core cultural prejudices is no guarantee that it will come true, or even that it can. There will no doubt be any number of attempts during the twilight years of American empire to convince Americans to fling some part of the energies and resources that remain to them into a misguided attempt to relive the dream and claim some supposed destiny among the stars. That’s not a useful choice at this stage of the game. Especially but not only in America, any response to the crisis of our time that doesn’t start by using much less in the way of energy and resources simply isn’t serious. The only viable way ahead for now, and for lifetimes to come, involves learning to live well within our ecological limits; it might also help if we were to get it through our heads that the Earth is not humanity’s cradle, or even its home, but rather the whole of which each of us, and our species, is an inextricable part.

That being said, it is far from inappropriate to honor the failed dream that will shortly be gathering dust in museums and rusting in the winds that blow over Cape Canaveral. Every civilization has some sprawling vision of the future that’s destined never to be fulfilled, and the dream of infinite expansion into space was ours. The fact that it didn’t happen, and arguably never could have happened, takes nothing away from the grandeur of its conception, the passion, genius, and hard work that went into its pursuit, or the sacrifices made on its behalf. Some future poet or composer, perhaps, will someday gather it all up in the language of verse or music, and offer a fitting elegy to the age of space.

Meanwhile, some 240,000 miles from the room where I write this, a spidery metallic shape lightly sprinkled with meteoritic dust sits alone in the lunar night on the airless sweep of Mare Tranquillitatis. On it is a plaque which reads WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. Even if no other human eyes ever read that plaque again, as seems likely, it’s a proud thing to have been able to say, and a proud thing to have done. I can only hope that the remembrance that our species once managed the thing offers some consolation during the bitter years ahead of us.

213 comments:

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idiotgrrl said...

The only thing I can say to that is from a better pen than mine:

Hope Eyrie

Copyright ©1975 by Leslie Fish
Copyright assigned to Random Factors
Lyrics posted by permission

Worlds grow old and suns grow cold
And death we never can doubt.
Time's cold wind, wailing down the past,
Reminds us that all flesh is grass
And history's lamps blow out.

But the Eagle has landed; tell your children when.
Time won't drive us down to dust again.

Cycles turn while the far stars burn,
And people and planets age.
Life's crown passes to younger lands,
Time brushes dust of hope from his hands
And turns another page.

But the Eagle has landed; tell your children when.
Time won't drive us down to dust again.

But we who feel the weight of the wheel
When winter falls over our world
Can hope for tomorrow and raise our eyes
To a silver moon in the opened skies
And a single flag unfurled.

But the Eagle has landed; tell your children when.
Time won't drive us down to dust again.

We know well what Life can tell:
If you would not perish, then grow.
And today our fragile flesh and steel
Have laid our hands on a vaster wheel
With all of the stars to know

That the Eagle has landed; tell your children when.
Time won't drive us down to dust again.

From all who tried out of history's tide,
Salute for the team that won.
And the old Earth smiles at her children's reach,
The wave that carried us up the beach
To reach for the shining sun.

For the Eagle has landed; tell your children when.
Time won't drive us down to dust again.

Shamba said...

A bittersweet post .... and I do remember Sealab!

peace, Shamba

John Michael Greer said...

Grrl, I used to sing that along with others at SF conventions. It was around the time I realized that time will drive us down to dust again that I drifted out of the SF scene. (More on this next week.) Still, a lovely song.

Shamba, glad to hear it!

Ryan said...

You punched me in the gut again. Of course the space program has been dwindling, but the private venturers would pick up where NASA left off. It didn't quite dawn on me that the private space ventures are really small hobby projects by comparison.

So... that's it! Whew. Adios space!

Bill Pulliam said...

The eagle has landed... back on its nest in a tall tree by a lake, where the water, land, wind, and sun all come together to make the only world that it can actually inhabit. It's not such a bad planet to be stuck on, really.

So today, listening to the chatter from mission control about the apparent failure ("anomaly") of the launch of the latest unmanned ISS service capsule... and the chatter was in Russian. I wonder how big an ego blow to the collective American psyche this will prove to be? Will they actually even let us hear the Russian chatter when they are launching "our" astronauts?

Small bit -- I thought the Obama administration had agreed to extend the ISS lifetime to 2020?

I hope we can keep the unmanned probes and orbiting observatories going up for a while longer, seeing how much cheaper they are than the manned stuff. I want to see estimates of the atmospheric chemistry of some extrasolar planets before I die.

As for the inhospitable solar system, I have been keeping my fingers crossed for Europa and Titan since I was a teenager. Titan at least still seems to be in the running as a possible home to "exotic" life. I am dearly hoping to see this settled before we lose the ability to find out. Even if it has no "practical" value, philosophically I think it would make a great deal of difference to know that we resided in a cosmos full of life (or not).

Who woulda thought back there in the days of Apollo that the Space Race was really a race against time?

Kieran O'Neill said...

In an interesting bit of syncronicity, Bruce Sterling was pondering yesterday the ethics of NASA's drive to recruit sci fi authors (announced this week) to write "realistic" stories to sex their image up. Some thoughtful commentary arose out of that, and I imagine more will come.

This coming from NASA feels ... piteous. It certainly betrays a sense of desperation.

Sterling has coined the term "Gothic high tech" to refer to the grand, decaying projects of the 20th and 21st centuries, in contrast to "favela chic" -- a kind of high-tech slumming it (perhaps best exampled in the ubiquity of cell phones among the world's poor). It bears a strong similarity to your image of a near future made up of a mixture of scarcity industrialism and scavenging.

hadashi said...

Was enjoying a fireworks display last night, as you must have been doing the final edits, JMG. Peak Space Age.

Blue Proteus said...

I'm always amazed when I hear from the comments of the "pro space" crowd that space travel is vitally important, and one of the main reasons seems to be that we need to find new resources.

Have they not seen what we've done to this planet? Why would you want to perpetuate that continuously?

I think Agent Smith was right in The Matrix, when he said that humans are a virus.

mtngirl said...

I appreciate the way you rattle the cages of beliefs, perspectives, and myth. It's a necessary part of human and planetary evolution ... and devolution.

As I read this post, I realized I already knew the Space Age was over, without having fully recognized it. The pictures from Hubble have helped to blunt that knowing -- seeing what human eyes will never see in person and pretending that maybe, someday, future humans will be there.

Looking back, the space age dreams of the 60's and 70's ended for me when Challenger blew up. Columbia confirmed it. Those two explosions took the fantasy and glamour away, replacing them with the reality of human frailty and the fact that our inventions reflect that very frailty -- they always have.

At the same time, I feel a relief. We can no longer divert ourselves with dreams of adventure on strange new worlds. Expansionist human history (including the Space Race) was based on myths of a species equivalent to the divine right of kings. That story still runs strong ... and I remember the few times when I've been in an area of natural disaster. Strangers came together. People who wanted nothing to do with each other were suddenly active parts of a momentary community of mutuality. There was heightened awareness of the actual workings of the ecosystems and environments around us. We knew we weren't in control. As a species, we are capable of that. Perhaps that awareness, along with knowing that once our kind walked upon the moon, can help us in the devolving years ahead. We are human ... and our saving grace may be that we do know how to laugh and how to hope.

Avery said...

I was waiting for this post ever since you announced it last week, and I'm happy to see such an articulate lament for the failure of the last industrial dream. In the future, trash pickers sweeping over Florida will find the ruins of Cape Canaveral and write a heart-wrenching poem. For someone who lived through the space age, this will suffice.

Just as the material ability of the American empire peaked and curved downwards in the 1980s, and just as the world's material capacity for building and launching space rockets has only just peaked, there were a vast curve of the imagination throughout the 20th century; science fiction that did not just fulfill people's desires for excitement and distraction, but charged their imagination with the mystery of space. And the way it started was pure thrill: space is next, we're on our way there for sure, and we're going to have fun!

As the century went on, what we wanted to see in space became more mysterious, anticipatory, and religious: Lensman and Skylark were over the top, the original Star Trek may have been a little too silly, but the promise of unknown intelligences, challenging the human race with risk, knowledge, danger, became all the more important, and the space and SETI programs became the means to get these important sci-fi futures started in real life rather than ends unto themselves. This ended with Carl Sagan in a decidedly non-fiction series of books and films bidding us to go to space, not because something good was out there, but because it was our teleological duty. It is his distilled and perfected form of space worship that shows no signs of abating in 2011, and will likely still go on even after the Chinese space program fails.

And perhaps Saganism is not such a bad thing. Maybe, by the twists and turns of the human mind, it will lead to a happier society more aware of its nature and the nature of the world around it.

Matthew Heins said...

The Space Shuttle was always kind of a booby prize version of the Space Age wasn't it?

I'm from a different generation.

The first thing I remember about space is being taken from my first grade classroom to watch a teacher fall from the stratosphere to the ocean because the machine trying to get her and her companions into near-pointless orbit blew up beneath them.

Not so romantic.

So space has always been about the satellites, the probes, and the possibilities for the -perhaps distant- future for me.

The satellites are around for a while longer for sure, and there's no reason to stop the probes just yet (outside of the fact that they often get paid for by tricking people into thinking they are paying for other people to be near-pointlessly flung into 100 mile-high orbits for a week or two).

As for the possibilities for the future,... well, it has seemed fairly obvious for most of my life that space exploration is something humanity should leave off putting much (if any) effort into until we can make that big shift and see ourselves as one species on one planet. Nothing has changed from that perspective.

Recall that Star Trek, in addition to being a pastiche of U.S. foreign policy, presupposed a United Earth.

Put next to that -seeming- impossibility, the -seeming- impossibility of a human future in interplanetary and/or extra-solar space seems more reasonable. ;)

-Matt.

Tony said...

This is one of the reasons that I've wished for some time now that NASA would get off its laurels and launch a dedicated telescope for asteroid finding - I've seen concepts of one looking in the infrared and in a solar orbit inside the Earth's, looking outward - and survey the the asteroid belt like crazy. We've found all the REALLY big rocks in the inner system, but we're still finding lots of sub-10-km rocks that can ruin your continent's (or sometimes your biosphere's) whole day if they're aimed just right. That way we could tell once and for all if there was something with a non-negligible chance of whacking us in the next ten thousand years or so (models get iffy after that), and just maybe take steps to prevent it while we still could. This is one of the few astrophysical catastrophes that you can do a darn thing about if you have enough decades of warning, and seems like one of the worthwhile uses we could put our finite unrenewable resources towards. Low probability of a high payoff if you find something headed our way early enough to head it off with a tiny nudge.

Surio said...

@JMG,
I don't know how, but someone needs to submit this post to the literary awards committees around the World for a prize or honourable mention, even!

You've written the growing up experience of every cold-war boy/girl around the World that was drawn into the "Space Age" propaganda (Yes, like all other myths, this one too is clever propaganda, no matter what body blow it might deliver). I too was not spared, and growing up, space was all that was, and I wanted to be a "rocket scientist"!

In India, Soviet space books were all the rage! Skylab, not sealab was etched in our collective imagination due to the helicopter blade look of the satellite and the controversy regarding its "splash". ;-) (Ironically, there were many others planned, but never materialised!)

......and Rakesh Sharma added fuel to fire with his spacewalk. I "grew up" (metaphorically and realistically) and realised that if our track record of how we managed terra firma is anything to go by, I do not want us to be going anywhere at all!. Years later, I realised that Bill Watterson, one of my heroes had actually done a strip echoing my innermost thoughts with a Calvin and Hobbes' "trip to Mars"!

Still, it is a good article. I really hope it gets a prize/honourable mention because, this writing sums up the collective growing up of all people of the World in the cold war period, regardless of caste, creed, colour, race, religion and whatever other division mankind has devised.

You wrote:
It’s crucial to realize that the fact that a dream is entrancing and appeals to our core cultural prejudices is no guarantee that it will come true, or even that it can.

Try telling that to all those commentators on the Economist article...... Oh my, such fire and brimstone... Oh how much we hate the bearer of bad news....

Dmitri Orlov proved to be a very admirable in his reading of human beings in this interview:

I think you’re too hard on American politicians because look at the people they’re governing. If you tried to rule these people you would probably end up just like them. It’s a completely thankless task unless you find some benefit in it for yourself. So the politicians are hard pressed to make it worth their while to be politicians. I can commiserate with them about the quality of the populace because democracy is really for people who are capable of self-governance.

Now Americans at large are not capable of self-governance. They expect to be protected from each other. They expect to be provided for. They expect for things to remain the same even when this doesn’t make any more sense. And those are their expectations. So they expect to be lied to.

If you stop lying to Americans they would kill you. That is the bind that our national politicians are in and we should feel sorry for them.

And my view is, it sums up vast swathes of human beings today. And the economist comments did lend his remarks lot of credibility!

Vic said...

JMG, the post has brought back many memories. I was a seven year old when Apollo 11 landed. My room had models of the lunar and command and service modules hung from the ceiling with 4 pound test fishing line. Major Matt Mason equipped with a string operated back pack was strung from another corner. I had a subscription to a monthly publication from the Science Service,Science Program published by Nelson Doubleday oh, I was smitten believe me. I still have the books they were about 60 pages long and had a centre insert of stickers that were pasted at designated places throughout the book.
I won't bother quoting from the books on the space program your essay about covers it.So, here's a passage from the 1970 book Atomic Power: "The atom also carries with it the promise of a new age in which we will have complete control over our environment. With new structural materials from which spotless, airy buildings may be spun, and with the availability of tremendous supplies of heat, power and radioactivity,we may one day build germ-free, air-conditioned cities." p.61

Thanks for the memories though they were beginning to fade.

Phil espin said...

I've been following your writing for a few months now and have always found it thought provoking and full of hope for the future. Reading this brought a tear to my eye,all that genius, hard work, hope and dreams, coming to nothing, a true epitaph for the industrial age.

Ironic then that yesterday the BBC reported an ISS provisioning rocket burnt up following lift off and the entire fleet is grounded for the forseeable future. The end could come much sooner than even you suggested.

If all that effort could be put into building an echotechnic future our civilisation could evolve into a way of life we could all be proud of.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

JMG,

Like you, I was a wide eyed geeky kid watching the moonshots. And I had the toys too. But even as a seven year old, I thought the finest hour of the whole amazing venture was the miraculaous recovery of Apollo 13.

C02 filters using duct tape, careful managment of suddenly very limited supplies and a steady determination. With the co-ordinated response from the teams on the ground, having to innovate and quickly decide courses of action with few pre-planned contingencies. It's rightly considered a classic disaster recovery.

And in the excellent Tom Hanks film, one scene struck me in particular - where hastily reworked trajectory calulations are read over by the crew, double checked by mission controllers - all using those old fashioned slide rules. No pocket calculators back in 1970..!

kulturcritic said...

James Michael Greer -

The Russians not only won the space race. Even in collapse and reconstruction they have shown themselves to be hardy, flexible and suited for survival in ways that may elude our capabilities and national character here in America. We do not have the same relation with the earth that the average Russian has. We are culturally more attached to the conveniences of industrial civilization than the Russian people were. Even today Russia is home to substantially more village dwellers than urbanites. As a people, they understand (in a profound sense) their environment - the forest, the river, the wind, the sun and the rains, far better than we do here in our artificial bubble. They are more accustomed to travel by foot and by bus and by rail, than we are. And they are accustomed to doing without, and making do with what there is. Again, we here in the Empire are not. Thanks for your ever articulate and engaging posts. sandy krolick, kulturCritic

ChemEng said...

Thank you for a rather poignant essay. I wonder if a core reason for the demise of interest in space travel is that we have never worked out how to travel faster than the speed of light. Hence we are limited to exploring the "stunningly inhospitable" solar system at great cost without much obvious benefit.

There seems to be no prospect that we will be able to travel to other stars on round-trip journeys that last just a few hours - an predicate on which so much science fiction (and hope for a new world) is built.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

Sigh.

Isaac Asimov... Larry Niven... There was such a sense of hope and idealism in those books I loved reading so much... Space would open up vast opportunities and our horizons would be endless...

As a geeky intellectual boy, yes, this gave me hope. I was ten when the first shuttle launched, and I think I still have a box in the garage somewhere with an almost complete set of "Space Flight Illustrated" magazine... I used to write to NASA asking for some of their free promotional material; imagine the excitement when the strangely-shaped envelope came through the door with glossy photographs of spacewalks, wallcharts, and other such material. ("The USA" then seemed almost as mysterious and other-worldly as the moon...)

And now it's gone. Some of us, a few, will remember. Sadly, I think that our culture(s) at large will soon forget that any of it ever really happened, confusing it in their memories with sci-fi TV series they once saw.

The Russians will remember longer what the dream was about.

The Chinese will pursue it for a while (a couple of years ago, I stood in downtown Beijing, watching China's first spacewalk on a big outdoor screen, surrounded by hundreds of Chinese shoppers. I was choked up, partly by the pride and patriotism radiating from the crowd, but also because the dream of space was still real, at least for a short time).

tubaplayer said...

Wow JMG! That was an unexpected turn in the series, but what an eloquent valediction to the age in which I too grew up.

I fear for the billions in the Western world who are, and will remain, in denial that it is all going away. At what speed it goes away we do not yet know. It takes me back to one of the earlier posts long ago in which you asked the question something along the lines of "How do you tell your children that this is as good as it gets?".

I think that your blog should be complusory reading and discussion for those in their formative years - say the equivalent of sixth form pupils in the UK. Maybe that way we can prepare a generation for what is to come and prevent them from becoming denialist sheeple.

lsjarvi said...

I mourn for the little boy who achieved escape velocity from a boring existence through his lively and fertile imagination. I wish, for that boy's sake, that there had really been room for a 400+ pound Lunar Rover in the Lunar Module (in which there wasn't supposedly even enough room for the astronauts to sit). But hey, it folded, right? This, I think, is the clearest proof (among many) that the lunar landing was a glorious group fantasy, a prop erected by Hollywood East on an elaborate set of the epic film, "American Superiority". Too bad the pride couldn't have been earned, but it is typically American, isn't it, that we conduct our lives as a virtual reality exercise? That we arrogate to ourselves the capacity to create reality rather than merely live in it? Until people gain the capacity to emancipate themselves from identification with Americanism, they won't be able to place this fantasy event, or any other, into the psychological contexts where they really belong. Until then, murdering these myths, dreams and fantasies, once they have exceeded their useful lives, remains a delicate business. Apropos of this, the lunar landing fantasy is being quietly mothballed with as little fanfare as possible amid mumbled assurances of privatization.

Ichabod said...

I'll just give a few quick reactions to this piece.

I've always viewed space exploration as a collective cultural fantasy - even a mythology - of human potential without limits. Apart from whatever factual realities, the space program has been the ultimate icon of unlimited progress through technology. "We can and will conquer all limitations, go anywhere, do anything we please". As you so well note this is coming to an end. Big surprise, there are limits. So, what are the implications of this for the our collective identity and the stories of who and what we are? I think you've nailed a lot of it.

But one other quick thought: The space program was also part of leaving nature and also the local - or at least it was indicative of the shifting trend. This is gets into a discussion that's too much for a comment, but certainly traditional people lived with an experience of the sky, of the stars, that was central a feature of the natural world. But I think that we have been living with a different sort of sky. For us it's been a sort of sterile "frontier to be conquered" and not a place of natural wonder.

I think the space program has also been part of our having left an awareness of nature. From within the sterile, artificial, consumer world, we looked to a sterile "space" as the latest project, "the final frontier" as you note. By the late 20th century homo suburbus was no longer noticing the myriad subtleties of, for instance, the insects in the world. By that time, the various subtleties of the local, slow, wonders of the natural world were lost . By 1960 (I was 6) consciousness was already mostly colonized by the stuff of television, and space was a central piece of the emerging collective mythology. It is true that a few of us were still playing in the creeks and thickets, noticing the subtleties of dragonfly wings and decaying racoon carcases, but I'm afraid that now even that is lost to the I phone and lady GaGa.

I don't post much JMG - but I do love reading your blog every week. I'ts been very good lately. From the Mississippi delta.

andrewbwatt said...

I stopped reading SciFi, too. It was at about the same time that I realized that NASA was spending about $10,000 a pound to send something to space. That was too high a cost to do anything, for very long. Not sustainable. Not likely to last long enough to get any other technology going. We're not getting off the rock.

I am minded, too, of the ways in which the airlines are increasingly finding ways to add additional charges to the costs of flights. Part of the effect is to discourage people from bringing bags, or at least bringing them as "carry-on" luggage rather than stowing them in the hold... but ultimately these extra charges are symptoms of an industry that can't maintain the ticket and cost structure necessary to keep their planes in the air.

First we will be shut out of space, and then we will be shut out of the atmosphere. As my mother says (with a delighted smile at the joke) from the time I was very small until now, "If God had meant for us to fly, he wouldn't have invented buses."

Karen said...

Space was a dream that helped me through the dark days of my childhood but I, thankfully, outgrew such dreams.

I salute those that were a part of that dream called Space but I shed no tears as my fate has always been on this planet we call Earth.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Vale shuttle program.

By the way I liked Star Trek.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

JMG - Err, I hope you can indulge me. Regards. Chris

This is in response to the issues Bill raised last week:

Hi Bill,

I have kept your words in quotes so that you have some context. I'd appreciate yours and others thoughts as the issues you raise are important.

“By the way, one thing I have noted in all this in recent years that may become very significant -- young men are feeling increasingly emasculated and at a loss to even identify what "masculine" is anymore. Watch your headlines for the backlash against this in the not-too-distant future, I expect.”

Agreed in part. The term masculine has little contemporary meaning. Traditional masculine roles bear little relevance to most males lives in industrial countries. I beg to differ though about the backlash and my reason for this is that a lot of males put themselves in a sole provider role within the family unit. Once unemployment inevitably creeps up they will not be able to conform with their accepted standard of this provider role. I reckon society is based upon conformity. Aren't people trained to conform from an early age? People in general seem to have difficulties adapting to new roles and situations. It's my observation that they hang onto the familiar beyond its use by date. The unfortunate outcome of this situation is though: despondency; dependency; and domestic violence. Backlash – no. My reasoning for this, most people tend to internalise their distress rather than externalising it – unless hope is lost and then all bets are off. A further reason for my thinking about the lack of a backlash is that most males will not depart from this provider role from fear and really, they lack the skills to see the bind for what it is. If you still don't believe me, have a look at what's become of traditional indigenous cultures – why would the middle/working class act any differently to them once their culture is undermined?

In most traditional cultures the female role is as highly valued as the male role – although they are different. One of the worst uses of fossil fuels was the emasculation of females. In contemporary culture, the household economy has apparently little value and this situation has been encouraged in order to boost consumption and increase workforce participation (ie. Workforce labour productivity). This benefits the few at the expense of the masses. What other society can indulge in this sort of behaviour for half of the population without adversely affecting their food production?

“JMG -- True; in the 1970s in response to feminism, young men just grew facial hair and wore their shirts open at the neck to reassert their masculinity.”

On the feminism debate – Wasn't the whole issue about being able to choose differently from your antecedents for women? Well, they do, but they also don't. I see few women opting to choose a different style of living over their parents. Women now tend to delay choices however, they still seem to opt for the same choices as their parents. Perhaps it's because they have few role models or they get little in the way of support if they do choose to do something different? Sounds much like your concerns about masculinity really. I’m thinking that you are looking at one side of a two sided argument. I also wonder whether when you speak about “reasserting” you actually mean “confusion” because fashions such as facial hair, whilst symbolic actually serve little purpose. Whilst we are discussing fashions, it's worth pointing out that the latest rebellion trend is tattoos on women. The problem with fashions is that it quickly becomes passe. It's also worth noting that many women now are competitive mothers. Have you noticed the one up man ship of natural births, breast feeding and pram size/brand over their peers choices? Is this any different to the, my job is more important / earns more than yours questions? I don't think so.

cont...

Cherokee Organics said...

“Right now men seem to be just hanging back in confusion, wondering what happened to all the things that used to define manhood for them (well-paid jobs in the essential trades for some, corporate climbing and financial success for others, big cars, etc.); mostly they seem to be just watching TV or playing video games. I will be extremely curious to see what happens when they start stirring from this semi-slumber...”

The definitions of manhood that you describe are only possible when there is an excess of available resources and energy. Once these are depleted then the majority of people remaining will have to involve themselves in agriculture. There really is no alternative. Survival depends upon the individuals and their families adaptability. TV and video games are an anaesthetic that allows individuals to escape from their present existence – I've had plenty of mates that indulge in this activity to the detriment of their real life.

“The typical American male is heavily defined by his job. Take away the job and you take away the masculine identity. I think hypermasculinized super heros and gansters are an attempt at fantasy escape from the reality of being dependent on others to support you instead of you supporting others. Like everything else in the present day, image is used to attempt to substitute for unsatisfactory reality.”

Agreed. Early in my work life (1992) I was made redundant and it was a good life lesson in not putting your self-esteem in the hands of your employer. The problem with Super heroes is that they work as individuals, whilst successful long term cultures tend to work on co-operation. The super heroes are a myth whilst co-operation is considered a female trait in Industrial society and thus of little consequence. This is the old divide and conquer strategy writ large in our culture. How many males do you know that can ask for help, even when they really need it? The image of the lone cowboy as a cultural icon has run it’s course.

“I have long maintained that the mass culture plays the same disempowering game on men as on women, but using different strategies. In both cases it creates an ideal gender definition based on standards that inherently cannot be achieved by any but a small minority. For women this has been the beauty queen, June Cleaver, the supermodel, and now the supermom. For men the game is played out as power -- a real man is the one who is on top of the hierarchy, be he the gangster, the CEO, or the pro athlete.”

Agreed. It is a myth that is promulgated to either: sell us stuff; keep us busy; keep us out of mischief; or keep us docile. I'm not suggesting that evil overlords are responsible (or space lizards for that matter), it's simply a case of death by a thousand cuts. It's only sustainable whilst the energy and resources are flowing, beyond that it will have to revert back to an equilibrium and won't that be interesting?

Regards

Chris

MacroTech said...

Hello JMG.
This is indeed a sad post.
And it saddens me even more because i agree with you.
I am a retrofuturist, meaning that I long for a present that is as bright as the future we dreamed in the past.
I still can't shake the notion that if people have made the proper choices in the past (avoiding the cold war, saving energy and oil,fighting poverty and developing the 3rd world nations according to ecological standards) we could be in a far better present and with a bright future ahead of us.
But longing for what never was makes little sense (although I couldn't avoid to feel robbed when the space shuttle made it's last voyage)
As a green wizard I do my best to prepare me for the innevitable collapse.
I prepare myself for the worst. But deep inside me, I still hope that someone, somewhere, somehow will find a new powerful, safe and cheap energy source that will avoid collapse and zoom as back into the stars.

Andy Brown said...

We might have done it. I don't think it was necessarily inevitable that we would squander the fossil fuels in a clutter of pointless and destructive materialism - or that the human capacity for vision and delusion would lead us to couches and cubicles rather than to Titan or Io. I'm certain future generations will scratch their heads about that. How embarrassing.

Les said...

JMG: another fascinating post, thank you.
“the fact that a dream is entrancing and appeals to our core cultural prejudices is no guarantee that it will come true, or even that it can.”
When I was a kid of perhaps ten or twelve, I dreamed of inventing a new power source for spacecraft and aeroplanes. I had it all mapped out: a solid state power plant based around conical electromagnets and a fundamental misunderstanding of electromagnetism and thermodynamics :-)
I don’t know whether to be amused by those that never grew out of these fantasies (c.f. http://www.lutec.com.au/invest.htm) or angered by their ability to garner funds from those too naïve to know they are being taken for a ride.
Oh well, I presume we’ll see loads more of these sorts of things as people thrash around trying to find some way, any way, to keep business running as usual.
These days I’m dreaming of a small machine shop, with an overhead shaft drive from a Lister type diesel and a hectare or so of olives to provide the fuel to make it all go when it’s needed. It may not be the only (or even a good) way to preserve the ability to make things for the ecotechnic future, but it’s one I can put together with my own hands. Plus those of the rather large number of friends that seem to want to help make it happen. That last bit at least helps me feel that I’m doing _something_ useful.
Cheers,
LD

Odin's Raven said...

Will it really be remembered?
How long will the museums last, and for how long will credence be given to stories of science and technology?

After a few generations of stories around flickering camp fires, will there be more than a vague feeling that 'there were giants in those days', who tried to build a Tower of Babel to the heavens? Tatooed Savages may have a tale of a great eagle who lifted a hero into the sky. Clever academics, if there are any to take an interest in such folklore, may make comparisons with Gilgamesh, and speculate on the psychology underlying such tales.Others may refer to winged images of Persian kings, or Indian stories of flying machines and think the more recent American stories must have been derived from them.Perhaps the current understanding will be rejected as excessively ridiculous and incredible.

Did it really bhappen?
Already there are people who say that the moon landings were faked, and even that the Russians were not entirely honest either.

Whatever the truth, the interesting thing is that such suspicion and scepticism about authorities and all aspects of the culture seems to be spreading, and may be as important in it's decline as any diminution of physical resources.

gregorach said...

Yeah, my childhood fantasies too were all about space, and I still love science fiction... But the time comes to put aside childish things. I still think we could have made it (at least in theory), if we'd really tried - but it would have taken several decades of sustained, focussed effort of the sort that could never have been mustered in the face of the Cold War, or by a "free" market economy. To borrow from Knustler, SUVs, Cheez Doodles, and plastic salad shooters turned out to be more attractive, at least in the short term.

But still, the fact that my expectations of the future seem to have gone from "Have spacesuit, will travel", to something more like "Have scythe, will travel" is a bit of a kick in the teeth... ;)

At the end of the day, what space mostly had to offer was dreams. Now, I'm certainly not one to underestimate the importance of dreams, but once we got there, it turned out that dreams alone weren't enough. We haven't really colonised Antarctica, or the remote reaches of the Gobi desert - so why would we colonise the Moon? The fact that stories of space travel make gripping reading for geeky teenagers doesn't necessarily mean that it will turn out to be practically viable. Which brings us back to the need to put aside childish things...

Still, it was a nice dream while it lasted, and a good deal better than many of the other dreams our species has spent its time on over the millenia. It would be good if we could salvage something of that dream, even as we recognise that we will never live it. The image of the Earth seen from space is one of the most powerful, evocative, and important artefacts our culture has ever produced. All life, all human history, right here, on this pale blue dot, this mote floating in a sunbeam... That's an image worth salvaging.

Sixbears said...

My wife and I caught one of the last shuttle launches back in Feb.. We had to witness the end of an era.

Like you I grew up with stars in my eyes. The narrowing of humanity's vision of space ate away at my heart.

Looks like man will be stuck in the gravity well. Due to our inability to solve the problems of energy limits, the vast riches of the solar system are out of reach.

For me, the end of the space shuttle program definitely was a sign of the fall of the American Empire.

idiotgrrl said...

Speaking of science fiction - there are two very well-regarded novels that could have come straight out of your writings: David Brin's Earth and Neil Stephenson's Anathem.

"Earth" is near-future (2038), scarcity industrialism; postwar but not post-toastie. The war is background; the problem is declining resources and how the culture is making every effort to meet the problem. All right - so Brin's characters pull a technological rabbit out of a hat. That's not the theme, it's just the plot, and the rabbit is a side effect of them trying to solve another problem.

"Anathem" is far-future, not-earth-but ... and shows a fully developed culture, roughly late 20th C level, where fuel comes from fuel trees and "mining" is salvaging ruined cities, and civilization crashes have punctuated their recent (past 3500 years)history the way it did China's. And the theoreticians or anyone who wants to become one are herded into self-sufficient monasteries living on a very simple but healthy level. The makeshift that gets the heroes into space to meet an alien menace are what you'd expect of such a culture, and quite clever - and scary, unless you're 19 like the hero. One reviewer wrote of Anathem "*Weaponized* Platonic epistemology!"

I have those next to Steve Stirling's Emberverse stories (what is the ecotechnic future but Stirling's Change in slow motion?) as part of my Important library, second only to the reference books.

Lloyd Morcom said...

I too was a space nut, and remember watching one small step for a man at my science teacher's house in country Australia, then slowly realising over the next few years that it represented for me the end of my belief in heroic materialism.

It was obvious that the Shuttle was a very expensive PR exercise that never came close to fulfilling its promise, while the space station just managed to limp through the budgetary approvals and has failed to engage the public ever since.

I have always felt that the space program was a triumph of human will and organisation over the recalcitrance of dumb materials, but that in the process, it exhausted the civilisation that gave it birth.

A great pity in some ways. I think what we would have learned if we had made it as far as living in space permanently is that we are just a part of a larger living whole, because we would have had to take a functioning ecosystem up there with us in order to survive.

Siani said...

My friend...excellent.

The space program drove much of what I did, including military service. I dreamed of the stars..still do I might add.

It hit me terribly hard watching that last shuttle flight end. For a terribly shy, frightened and rather abused child, space was an escape, a lure, a shining doorway out.

Long ago now I realized stellar exploration by people wouldn't happen...but the dreams never died, not really. :)

Thank you.

LeavingTheCircus said...

The men who walked on the moon are old now. I sometimes wonder how it will feel when no-one alive has walked on the lunar surface.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I also had the G.I. Joe Space capsule :-) We were supposed to be flying around like the Jetsons too now, and remember "2001: A Space Odyssey" with people flying between Earth and Jupiter on space jetliners? That was supposed to have happened ten years ago, a decade!

I remember when T.V. used to sign off at night; they had a short film of a jet pilot climbing higher and higher into the realm between sky and space, to "touch the face of God."

Which brings up another unspoken narrative that merges with the Manifest Destiny narrative that expanded from the frontier of the west to the frontier of space.

It is the ancient narrative of the Gnostics (and even older than they), the escape of the spirit from the material, the scientific afterlife. The idea that the material (aka the flesh, aka Earth) is polluting and a trap to the "real us", the spirit itself. In this case, to speed away from the "spirit trap" that is the drab Earth, and flight into the realm of spirit: the stars, the Milky Way, the Native American Road of the Dead, Heaven, the hosts of Angelic Hierarchy, the Planetary Spirits and the Zodiac and Constellations of heroic immortality.

And yet even if the dream had come true, and we had traveled the stellar realms, still we cannot escape Earth, for we ARE Earth. Although we are star stuff, our substance, our history, IS Earth. We can never escape Earth, for we cannot escape ourselves.

So different from that narrative, the speech of Chief Seattle (and yes, I am aware of the controversies of its origins and variations/editing), ...authentic it may not be, yet of truth it is:

"Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.

...Ever part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless."

Mister Roboto said...

A lot of people on the liberal Democratic-Party-oriented blogs I used to frequent, cling with the proverbial white-knuckle death-grip to the idea that we're going to travel to the stars in order to escape the fate of our solar system's star going nova in the distant future. It really is sad to see otherwise intelligent people clinging to notions every bit as fanciful as so many of the speculations and assumptions of the Middle Ages. Growing old and dying is the way of all things on this plane of existence. And trying to argue with them about it is useless, because as superficially intellectual as they are about it, you quickly realize when you so foolishly endeavor that you are dealing with a matter of religious faith.

And speaking of medieval lore, I've long thought that the "extraterrestrials" that are said to be visiting our world in sundry flying vehicles are really just the Faeries playing their usual tricks on us silly humans. And also, I see no inherent contradiction between my first paragraph and this latter one. :-)

phil harris said...

JMG
If I did not know it to be true, your little history would read like a very good SF short story. Congrats.
phil

GreenStrong said...

When the tale of industrial civilization is told, it will be a grand tragedy of collective hubris. It will be particularly poingnant because the protagonists were so bold as to literally reach for the stars, and may have been actually been able to gain a foothold there, if we hadn't wasted most of the Earth's fossil fuels on amusements.

In earlier editions of this blog, JMG has pointed out that the defining Mythos of our age was the belief in constant human progress. This incllded a hope for collective transcendance of our Earthly limitations, when our descendants finally leave the planet. There are many adherants to that belief system, and it will be a bitter pill when they have to acknowledge that the energy needed to fuel those dreams was squandered.

Lance Michael Foster said...

"High Flight" was the name of the poem. This was the 1960s version. It continues to be the signoff for some TV stations I hear, or a later filmed version (there were many)>

Mary F said...

The shutdown of the space program has left me quite sad.

Here are some lines from Garcia Lorca. If you're interested, these are set by George Crumb in a haunting piece called "Night of the Four Moons."

Cuando sale la luna,
el mar cubre la tierra
y el corazón se siente
isla en el infinito.

When the moon rises,
The sea covers the land,
And the heart feels itself
An island in infinity.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I'm looking forward to your SF analysis next week. SF&F are still favorite genres. As I've gone through your older posts, I read the one "Butlerian Jihad" about Frank Herbert's Dune books, and how those might have more to offer us than typical space opera. Still I think the thought experiments that can come from SF are very worthwhile.

It's also interesting to note that hard SF is no longer as popular. Fantasy is in the ascendant now (or perhaps always was due to to the popularity of Tolkien).

The SF thought experiments that might help us best now are those further envisioning ecotechnic futures. ...or those dealing with the decline of the Empire and showing peoples responses to it...

nodsavid said...

To dream the impossible dream costs money; yet I was a dreamer. Many of us from that generation will not stop imagining. Hopefully, someday, somewhere, someone will dream again. Maybe the dream will become actuality. Who knows what lurks in the recesses of a dark, dismal appearing future?

Timbo614 said...

If I remember correctly, Arthur C. Clarke forecast that we humans would not carry out any massively manned interplanetary missions due to the monetary costs being too high. He calculated centuries for world GDP to grow sufficiently to provide the actual cash & resources to build such spaceships. Which of course would be built in space (hence the space elevator was needed, I think!). Of course he omitted to mention the finite-world against infinite resource requirements which is surprising, but he would have written it when world population was half what it is now.

But I concur, sadly, as en ex- sc-fi young reader myself that for now, possibly as you say, for centuries, it is over. It was part of the great dream as the reality seemed to be unfolding in 60s. I too remember the moon landing (we had a colour T.V. (fairly unusual in the UK at the time) all friends were there and the family stayed up all night listening to the beeps and watching really fuzzy pictures!

The end of Concorde is a another indicator of the decline, We used to be able to fly London-New York in 3 hours Now we are back to 8:(

Industrialisation is definitely on the decline and it is starting in the west, the east will follow eventually. I quite admire China & Germany at the moment - they are polluting for sure, but they seem to be frantically building solar PV and windmill capacity. I believe China now has the ability to power a solar production plant from solar power - a big step! I think they see the resource shortage/collapse coming so are building what they can, while they can. If they can build enough, they will start shutting down the polluting stations. Like Germany's voluntary shut down of nuclear.

In line with advice from yours and other sites, I am paying down debt(which might be foolish if the financial system actually collapses and there is a general debt jubilee?), investing in off-grid power and reconfiguring my garden (yard) for food production.


I discovered your site a few months ago and have been lurking ever since. I really appreciate the insight contained in your posts. Thank you for writing them.

P.S. How is he next chapter of Star's Reach coming along? :)

sgage said...

I share your wistfulness at the fading of our space endeavors. I'm a few years older than you - I remember seeing an animated presentation of what the first US Mercury-Redstone suborbital flight was going to be like, at the Museum of Natural History in NYC.

Space travel WAS the future, the buzz, the expectation. The whole competition with the USSR fueled a huge push for math and science education that I benefited from. For a while I wanted to be an astronomer...

Down the road from me a few miles stands a full-scale model of a Mercury-Redstone stack, in honor of Alan Shepard - a New Hampshire native son. It graces the grounds of the McAuliffe Planetarium, built after the Challenger disaster in honor of another New Hampshire native. It's all very poignant now.

(And yes, I too remember SeaLab. In fact, I was besotted with undersea exploration as well as space, Cousteau, the whole bit. I built a great model of SeaLab for a science project when I was in 6th grade.)

hawlkeye said...

Admitting that the Space Age is over is the same thing as recognizing the end of unlimited growth of anything, which is why it's so difficult to choke up that blue pill and let go of the space-suited future. There is simply no Where else to go for a culture that has always had the hope, in the back of the collective mind, that there was always another Somewhere, so we wouldn't have to grow up and take care of our messes.

Somehow, the absurdity of "living on Mars someday" must begin to equate with the pervasive fantasy of living here the way we do, that they are both unachievable from now on, and so now what?

Generations of thinking that there will always be new worlds to plunder is probably the biggest handicap to stewardship of the one world we have. Why bother?

That's a lot of cultural momentum to overcome, what it would term "pedal to the metal". The kinds of widespread enthusiasm that once supported the space race, or earlier, built Victory gardens on every block; what could cause such a common groundswell today for "living in place"? Or is unified anything even possible as things dissolve into confusion, chaos and calamity?

I suspect food and water, or the lack of them, to be among the many boosters of cultural trajectory correction. And I think plenty of folks are aware of this in their bones; they know their freeway has a big wall around some next bend being painted with a 3-D mural of happy motoring forever; how do we put on the brakes, much less pull over in time? Most of us simply don't know what to do about it, how to remove our embedded selves from the manifest absurdity, dependency and insanity of the current life.

The core body-blow of disappointment that you felt is part of the gateway, I suppose. A gate that remains locked for most by distractive entertainments, anti-depressants, high fructose corn syrup and other such multiple addictions commonly celebrated among the clueless.

The Race to Space was actually Circling the Drain...who gets flushed first?

Glenn said...

My father's first job as a Metalurgist was with Hughes Aerospace. He used to get my brother and I up at 3:00 a.m. to watch the Mercury and Gemini launches. Apollo 11 landed on the moon one year to the day after his untimely death.

I have sometimes wondered if non-human eyes will ever see the message we left in the Sea of Tranquility. And, if so, what they would find on the planet below. A short story by Arthur Clarke concerning the origins of the appearance of a star over Bethlehem comes to mind.

One of your finest, and most poignant posts, sir.

Glenn
Marrowstone Island

Planner said...

Hi JMG,

I've always found it interesting in an odd way that people (and countries) seem to judge their level of success not by the highest average or median acheivements, but by the highest single acheivement. For example, in an age of access to unbelievable quantities of available energy, I find it shameful that this largess facilitated great single-serving technological feats like space exploration while millions of American citizens - let alone the millions more in the developing world - went hungry, homeless, poorly clothed, and un-immunized. I include the lyrics to the song "Puttin' People on the Moon" by the Drive-By Truckers here as a poignant illustration of this phenomenon:

Mary Alice had a baby and he looked just like I did
We got married on a Monday and I've been working ever since
Every week down at the Ford Plant but now they say they're shutting down
Goddamned Reagan in the White House and no one there gives a damn

Double Digit unemployment, TVA be shutting soon
While over there in Huntsville, puttin' people on the moon

So I took to runnin' numbers for this man I used to know
And I sell a few narcotics and I sell a little blow
I ain't getting rich now but I'm gettin' more than by
It's really tough to make a living but a man's just got to try

If I died in Colbert County, Would it make the evening news?
They're too busy blowin' rockets, Puttin' people on the moon

Mary Alice quit askin' why I do the things I do
I ain't sayin' that she likes it, but what else am I gonna do?
If I could solve the world's problems I'd probably start with hers and mine
But they can put a man on the moon
And I'm stuck in Muscle Shoals just barely scraping by

Mary Alice got cancer just like everybody here
Seems everyone I know is gettin' cancer every year
And we can't afford no insurance, I've been 10 years unemployed
So she didn't get no chemo so our lives they were destroyed
And nothin' ever changes, the cemetery gets more full
And now over there in Huntsville, even NASA's shut down too

Another Joker in the White House, said a change was comin' round
But I'm still workin' at The Wal Mart and Mary Alice, in the ground
And all them politicians, they all lyin' sacks of s***
They say better days upon us but I'm sucking left hand t*t
And the preacher on the TV says it ain't too late for me
But I bet he drives a Cadillac and I'm broke with some hungry mouths to feed

I wish I was still an outlaw, was a better way of life
I could clothe and feed my family still have time to love my pretty wife
And if you say I'm being punished. Ain't he got better things to do?
Turnin' mountains into oceans Puttin' people on the moon
Turnin' mountains into oceans Puttin' people on the moon

bbcomm said...

Not to forget Fermi's Paradox and the physical unlikelihood, considering fossil-fuel depletion,and the physics of traversing galactic distances, of our civ's ever finding either a new place to inhabit or from which to import new resources. In just a few decades, it'll be nearly impossible to justify using precious fossil energy to pursue space travel and exploration, even by private companies, anywhere on earth.

Brad K. said...

JMG,

I remember the Mercury and Apollo programs. It was apparent they were science projects, stepping stones to gather knowledge, to build infrastructure.

The shuttle program never had that spark, for me. It was a government transport project. Any claims that were made that the shuttle program was to advance science, seemed, to me, as empty as the claim of WMD in Iraq -- platitudes to persuade the masses to go along with "the program" du jour.

A week or two ago I caught the PajamasMedia/InstaPundit interview with Jerry Pournelle over his take on the end of the shuttle program. Here is one instance of that interview.
http://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2011/07/dr-jerry-pournelle-on-us-space-program.html

I find it telling that his recollection, about 7:15 into the video, was that the shuttle program was a complete and immediate success from the beginning -- it was designed and created to occupy the 22,000 Apollo government scientists. Since that was the goal, anything else was gravy.

Gravy is nice on potatoes and roast beef, but I seldom get excited about it.

A part of me hopes that enough energy can be harnessed to pursue some less profligate launch scenario. Jules Verne envisioned a gunpowder-powered capsule; I would think the electromagnetic rail launcher, or even space elevator concepts might prove energy efficient enough to return to space.

But I doubt the public will is there, nor the political will, and the resources are ever more dear.

No, I won't step on the moon, with my own foot.

Thanks, sir.

The Unlikely Mage said...

@idiotgrrl As a young (31) filker I know that song well. For those who don't know filk, it is by one definition the folk music of the SF/Fantasy community.

Most filkers are at least 15-30 years older than me. The songs about the hope of space are plentiful and thick. As a reader of this blog and a person of my generation I admired the romanticism but never thought we had the political will, and later the resources, to attempt the things they sang about.

Though there was a time when I was younger that I was quite romantic about space myself. I cannot remember the title now, but I had a book from the 70s that talked about space station theory. The idea of building huge spoked wheels at the Lagrange points really fired my imagination. I remember plans to build mass drivers on the Moon and Earth and launch material to these stable points where workers would build these massive structures.

Perhaps I will work on writing an elegy, though even with the legendary tolerance of filkers I doubt it would be received very well! Still, it's something that needs to be done, if only to add another voice to the narrative.

B-man said...

I sure wish I did not think you were correct on this issue.Giving up on the current mode of progress is dang hard. We live on a diverse 70 acre farm that provides well for us on a basic level. That is good.But,the dream of a better future out there...that was cool while it lasted. Oh, well, better go slop the hogs.

John said...

One of the proudest moments of my life was, as a college student, when I landed a co-op job with Draper labs working on the navigation system for the Apollo lunar lander. It was an engineering students' dream and to this day it fills me with pride and a certain idealism.

Today I work for a defense contractor, not so much by choice as by a confluence of circumstances. This job fills me with unease, in part because of impending layoffs that I know will be coming in the not too distant future, but even more because I came to realize a long time ago that every extra dollar spent on defense, including the dollars that pay my salary, actually weaken the country rather than strengthen it.

How times have changed.

Zach said...

Mark Shea has been noting for a few years now "we're not getting off this planet, deal with it" and taking the expected heat from techno-triumphalists.

He also notes (as I'm sure you've also noticed, although you didn't mention it in this essay) that the Conquest of Space™ as a mythic quest to give Meaning To It All™ is really Christian eschatology dressed up in secularist drag. Which is kind of funny, if you think about it.

peace,
Zach

P.S.: I remember Sealab!

P.P.S.: The conversation of Weston, Ransom, and the Oyarsa in "Out of the Silent Planet" seems appropriate here...

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG--

You have written a beautiful, affecting elegy for the age of space, full of nostalgia, full of poetic (and literal) truth. For myself, thinking of the Voyager spacecraft cruising ever further, carrying their golden records, brings a lump to the throat--I remember so well the process of deciding what to record, and what it said about our conception of ourselves as humans at that time.

Yet my favorite part is,

"...the Earth is not humanity’s cradle, or even its home, but rather the whole of which each of us, and our species, is an inextricable part."

This speaks directly to our condition, as we Quakers say. It expresses my own sense of the deep reality of interconnectedness, the awareness of which helps engender mindfulness in one's thought and actions; and the hard reality that species survival requires our allowing this overriding ecological truth to govern our behavior.

(BTW, another example of decline: NOAA losing funding for future weather satellites--which, given the state of climate damage, would be more useful than throwing those funds in the military money pit--bankrupting us indeed!)

Mean Mr Mustard said...

A correction, if I may.

"Some future poet or composer, perhaps, will someday gather it all up in the language of verse or music, and offer a fitting elegy to the age of space."

To read: "A poet has gathered it all up in fine language, offering a fitting elegy to the age of space".

JMG, Your post is inspired from start to finish. If there's a Blog Oscars out there, you'd better get your acceptance speech ready soon.

GHung said...

Again we come to circa 1970 as the peak of many things. After the last moonshot, all things 'space' seemed a bit anti-climatic. It was around that time that I began to understand that the immense amount of energy and resources required to realize our conquests of space were very much representative of the predicaments we faced maintaining our obscenely consumptive society. It was a tough pill to swallow; to that point I believed that we were "On The Threshold Of a Dream. It was also when I began collecting album art.

It wasn't long before I rejected religion (at least as I knew it then) and it occurs to me that the whole space program was tantamount to religion; a search for God, perhaps. No wonder the 70's were tough for me. Lost childhood, lost virginity, lost religion, lost dreams of a future in space. After studying in the USSR and Europe, and our loss in Viet Nam, I even lost most of my faith in American Empire, such as it was. Even music began to suck. I was In Search Of The Lost Chord (cord?).

Anyway, it also occurs to me that, as the rising seas eventually cover the Space Coast, perhaps our distant decendants will will tell stories of our Atlantis lost. Funny how our myths echo our dreams....

Yupped said...

To be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time as a kid thinking expansively about space flight. I was struck more by the incredible cost and effort required to get a few folks to a not-too-distant orbiting rock, than by the grand possibilities of going much further. Basically, it seemed like everything worth visiting was ever so far away and you can’t do much about those sorts of distances, except be overwhelmed by the bigness of it all.

It’s probably a good thing that we won’t be going much further than planet earth, at least until we get our heads together a bit. So for all those missing the possibilities of visiting the stars, here’s a bit of Auden (from The More Loving One):

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Eric said...

Here's the song to go with your lament about the Space Race:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTEugaK9q9I

Billy Bragg singing "The Space Race is Over".

Great song and I thought you should hear it if you haven't.

Carmiac said...

I wasn't alive during the height of the space race, but the dream of space meant so much to me growing up, reading Clarke, Asimov, and watching Star Trek.

I've been slowly letting go of the dream of space, and yes, it is a body blow to know that I person will never visit Mars, Europa or probably even the Moon during my lifetime.

JMG, you brought tears to my eyes this morning.

lagedargent said...

This post is different, JMG, of a distinct literary quality.
A moving introduction: the thundering of mighty engines now silenced, the inviting vastness of space now out of bounds, the piles of fire now extinguished, forever?
The sad truth, slowly dawning on most and a consolation offered in a last paragraph, a monument for humankind never to be set eyes upon again, but by imaginary aliens on a reconnaissance mission.
Xein' angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti teide keimetha tois keinon hremasi peithomenoi...
Great post.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Also related, though with a mildly pro-space message, is this XKCD comic. The analysis is pretty poignant -- all things proceeding as they are now, by 2035 (2034?) we can be 95% confident that no human being who has set foot on another world will be left alive.

rsuusa said...

Thank you for the great post. I was a great fan of Star Trek not so much because of the hokey space as a final frontier science fiction and accompanying low budget special effects but because it portrayed a world in which people, or at least the crew, overcame their differences to work together for the common good. It was one of the few programs that was openly progressive and presented a world (overly Cartesian perhaps) in which logic and common decency always prevailed and cynicism was nowhere to be found. On the other hand I won't weep much for the loss of manned space flights as I will soon be joining, under duress, the bold new no careers and no recognizable middle class economy. Having lost my position at a community college and unable to find other work I will soon be living on a very small farm owned by a close relative. From middle class professional to nearly penniless tenant farmer and I count myself lucky to even have somewhere to go. It's tough out there and, as you suggest, funding manned space travel simply isn't possible anymore.

Kevin said...

Some people never liked manned space flight. Tom Lehrer, for instance, has said it makes him angry. I suppose he must consider it a waste of resources.

I agree with Bill that philosophically it would be a very important discovery if we found signs of life elsewhere in the solar system. I fancy Giordano Bruno would have thought so.

Kenaz Filan said...

Of all your posts on this blog, I think this may be the one that has hit me the hardest. I remember hearing in Kindergarten that we were going to have colonies on the Moon and Mars by 1980. I'm still not ready to give up hope that some day, somehow we will reach the stars or at least a couple of our local planets. But I know now that will not happen in my lifetime, and that saddens me tremendously.

Interstellar travel or even long-term interplanetary colonization may be a silly pipe dream. But as far as silly pipe dreams go, I'd rather waste my resources on an impossible journey to the stars than throw them away on our current wasteful course.

William said...

JMG,
Thank you for the eloquent obituary for the Space Age. It's time has gone, and rightly so, but it had moments of brilliance.

I read your column eagerly every week, usually on Thursday morning, and I always appreciate it. I wonder if you read any of Wendell Berry's writing? He has a different perspective, but one that seems compatible. I am reading "What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth."

I don't think he means that to be eternal growth. He deplores the voracious greed that makes us all serfs. He celebrates love of land and place and human scale activities and community. The foreward by Herman Daly argues that economics could be, but isn't, the study of how to produce, distributed and maintain goods for the household over the long term. I think that's what you're about, too. I see hints of love of the land in your writing, but perhaps I misread.

Cheers

Petro said...

Coincidentally, yesterday I put up a rather snarky and mean post at my place regarding the "space hotel" ambitions - this essay moved me enough to update that post with your more mature thoughts.

Along with @Adrian Ayres Fisher, I too feel this passage:

"...the Earth is not humanity’s cradle, or even its home, but rather the whole of which each of us, and our species, is an inextricable part."

I respond (excerpted):

"This passage evokes another objection to space... colonization... I do wonder if the human race could survive at all if separated from Mother Earth, regardless of the technical wizardry and support that we might muster. Would this separation, in fact, fatally deprive the would-be colony of something... ineffable?"

Petro said...

Oh, and...

We can look forward to another installment of Star's Reach in 6 days, right?... Right?

:)

John Michael Greer said...

Hmm! I didn't expect this one to get a response on this scale. Because of time limits I won't be able to respond to everyone this time around. Some comments, though:

Ryan, understood. It has to be said, but it's no fun to hear.

Bill, I'm quite sure Titan is quite hospitable to whatever's living there -- and I hope there is something chemosynthesizing, or slithering, or even having a conversation, there in the methane swamps. Still, part of the dream of space was the hope that the universe would be hospitable to us, and it's not. As for 2016, I didn't find a confirmed date change when I searched the point; we'll see.

Mtngirl, I hope more people take the end of the space age the way you have.

Avery, I'll be talking about a lot of that next week.

Matt, no, the shuttle -- at least in theory -- was the first step toward the transformation of space travel from a risky experiment to an ordinary part of life. Of course there were failures and casualties -- air travel involved similar risks at first, and jets still fall out of the sky now and then. It's just that the wealth and the resources to follow up on those first steps weren't there and, in the final analysis, couldn't have been there.

Surio, I wasn't aware that space was as big a thing in India, though I'm not surprised. Dmitri's quote is priceless--and of course he's quite right; in America, as elsewhere, we have exactly the politicians we deserve.

Vic, I got that same program!

Mustard, I like pointing out that most of the numbers that put human footprints on the Moon were crunched using slide rules. You want rocket science? A good log/log slide rule, that's rocket science.

Isjarvi, I've always thought of the "fake moon landing" business as the least convincing and, if I may be blunt, the most despicable of the various giddy conspiracy theories fashionable these days. I've known quite a few people who worked on the Apollo project and other space projects. Since it's a choice between your handwaving and innuendo and their detailed, consistent accounts (backed up with plenty of documentation) and full of pride in a difficult job well done, well, let's just say I have no doubt who to believe.

Ichabod, I'm not sure that the quest for a sterile cosmos played all that huge a role in it, though it was there. Do you remember when the first images of the moons of Jupiter came back from Voyager -- how awestruck the space scientists were, looking at the dazzling landscapes of a dozen little worlds? That was the same fascination you turned toward a dragonfly's wings.

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, true enough. I don't think we'll be entirely shut out of the stmosphere -- hot air balloons are cheap and sustainable, and I'm guessing that once people stop thinking of airplane engineering as a matter of using lots of energy to force something through the sky, and get to work on the lessons learned by sailplane pilots and ultralights, light planes may be part of the human heritage for the long term. Certainly I hope so.

Macro, just don't let that dream blind you to the hard work ahead of us here and now.

Andy, I think we could have done more than we did. The great migration into space? Not a chance -- but it would have been good to know a little more about the solar system before the Long Night (if I may borrow an Asimovism) closes in.

Les, excellent! That sounds like a first-rate project; please keep the Green Wizards forum posted on hos it goes. It would be good to see a bunch of shops like that scattered around the world.

Raven, presumably you've heard of Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain, for example. It's been a lot more than a couple of generations since then!

Grrl, thanks for the tips. I've read very little recent science fiction for the last couple of decades, largely because the obsessive rabbits-out-of-hats and the future cliches (how many more times do we have to sit through yet another cyberpunk corporation-run geek future?) that seemed to obsess so many writers. Still, I've been considering Stephenson, and may break down and read a thing or two of his one of these days.

Siani, you're welcome. And you're right, of course; the dreams don't die, even if they don't come true.

Lance, whoever wrote the Chief Seattle speech, it's worth reading in its entirety, and thinking about, hard.

Mister Roboto, did you ever have the chance to read Jacques Vallee's Passport to Magonia? It's one of the UFO books nobody in the UFO scene these days talks about, precisely because it asks the hard questions about the parallels between UFO lore, faery lore, etc.

Mary, thanks for the quote!

Nodsavid, dreaming the impossible dream is free; it's trying to make it happen that costs. Whatever the future may hold in the very long term, right now our job is to make a successful landing here on Earth, and establish a sustainable colony on this strange and challenging planet.

John Michael Greer said...

Timbo, it'll be up by the end of the month. Thanks for asking!

Planner, thanks for the song. Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon" said much the same thing from a different perspective.

John, you've just sketched out the classic trajectory of an empire in freefall -- from high hopes and ideals to survival at any cost, until the cost becomes too much.

Zach, excellent! Yes, Lewis was as uaual on top of such things; it's not often remembered that he and Tolkien were both avid readers of pulp science fiction between the wars, and wrote much of their own work in response to it; that's how the standard "the stars are ours!" rhetoric got so efficiently parodied in Weston's mouth, and how Tolkien ended up putting Madame Blavatsky's Atlantis, hook, line, and sinker (by way of scores of heavily Theosophy-influenced fantasy stories) into Middle Earth.

Adrian, thanks for catching that. To my mind it's the one really important suggestion in the post. As for weather satellites, good gods. If there's one thing that would be worth keeping from the age of space, that's it -- but of course an empire in decline can't see things that way.

Mustard, thank you, but it's going to take something a little more on the scale of The Iliad to do justice to the theme.

Eric, thank you!

Kenaz, oh, granted. It's just that neither you nor I have much influence on what silly pipe dream the last resources of the industrial world get wasted on.

William, you don't misread. I haven't addressed the same issues Berry does, but that's at least in part because he's done such an unanswerable job of speaking to them already.

Petro, quite right. It's already in process.

fyy said...

The space era depicted in human lifetime terms:
http://www.xkcd.com/893/ (Check the alt text for the author's viewpoint.)

I had a children's book about 1961 called "You Will Go to the Moon". I thought a lot at age 8 about how I would handle that. :-)

To segue to the SF discussion - I see SF as about two things: 1) how we *feel* about the future, and 2) making the spiritual into something visible and concrete.
On that basis I can continue to enjoy it despite changing times.

Rudi said...

Your last paragraph is a thought I've had many times, and it brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for this post.

Greg Belvedere said...

I have always found it absurd when promoters of space colonization talk about terraforming other planets once we have trashed earth. This has always seemed contradictory. If we can't take care of this planet, why do they think we could make a barren planet into a new home?

One of the aliens in Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End states that "The stars are not for man." Indeed.

Mike in Cincy said...

I went through the engineering program at the University of Cincinnati in the late 70's, when Neil Armstrong was on the faculty. One afternoon I walked into the ninth floor men's room and lo and behold, who should be standing there taking a leak but Neil himself. He shot me a test pilot's look that very effectively said 'Don't say one small step, kid'. I nodded, he nodded, and my brush with greatness was over.

I've always thought this encounter was a perfect end to my infatuation with spaceflight.

Jon said...

JMG,

I live in Titusville, Florida, the closest town to Kennedy Space Center. Close enough that we watch launches from our yards. Most of the folks who work at KSC live in and around Titusville. Most have now been laid off. My small neighborhood has 10 houses that are either for sale or outright abandoned. If you want to see a place that epitomizes the end of empire, come to Titusville. The place was once vibrant, now it's rapidly crumbling. The City can't afford to pave the roads and there is serious discussion of de-paving and making dirt roads.

By the way, this is my first post. I've been reading this site for awhile now, and I bought your last book for some enjoyable reading on a recent vacation to Spain.

Interesting occurence: a couple months ago I was reading one of your older blogs that mentioned slide rules. That sparked a memory that my father gave me his (a 1964 model) about 30 years ago and I was wondering whatever happened to it. That very day, my wife handed it to me (found it under the bathroom sink) and asked me if I knew what it was. Fun world sometimes.

Ric said...

Of all the essays you've written, this was probably the most painful for me. Being born in 1964, I grew up assuming that humans would live and work in space. I knew enough physics to understand that Star Trek was never a possibility, but at least we would establish ourselves on the moon, near-earth asteroids and at the earth-moon L2 point, with Mars as a distant possibility. While I mentally accepted that this wasn't going to happen a while ago, watching the last shuttle launch really hammered it home: Ain't gonna happen.

I remember SEALAB III and all the strangeness surrounding it until it was finally scrapped. I seem to recall Cousteau messing about in a submerged soup can that looked similar to the original SEALAB as well. And of course, Hello Down There. I always assumed that sea habitats would exist before a space station or moon base, at least as bases for resource extraction. But then again, I was 5.

Bill Pulliam: Small bit -- I thought the Obama administration had agreed to extend the ISS lifetime to 2020?

Doesn't really matter what the US wants now that we're stuck hitching rides from our former sworn enemies. I expect we'll see a little payback after we blackmailed Russia into dumping their space station into the ocean so it wouldn't distract from the ISS. I recall from the chatter on the sci.space.* newsgroups at the time that the Russians were somewhat less than happy about how things turned out.

Don Mason said...

In October of 1957, Sputnik I was launched. On the evening of my seventh birthday, our suburban neighbors gathered in our no-longer-gravel, now-asphalt-paved suburban street and pointed up at the shining Russian satellite as it passed in the blackness overhead – and the adults called it Russian, not Soviet. The Russians were up there, over America.

The adults were very serious. This was an unacceptable development, and the adults were going to do something about it.

Part of the adult response was when Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) resulted, and major changes were made in science education.

My high school friends and I were the beneficiaries of that change in science education, which was based on hands-on experiments which rigorously taught the scientific method, unlike today’s memorization and endless test-taking which leaves "No Child Left Undumbed".

At the time, though, it didn’t seem to be working for me.

I was one of thirty students in Mr. Hunt’s Honors Physics class. Over the blackboard hung a five-foot long, fully-functional Pickett slide rule. Years earlier, Mr. Hunt had taught Pickett physics, and Pickett had built and presented the tool to the school in appreciation, and to help us learn to be good scientists.

I was sick one day, and when I came back to school, my classmates said, “Boy, was Mr. Hunt mad at you! He said that he’d just learned that you were about to be named a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist, and he said that you hadn’t done any work in his class all year. He said that you were the worst underachiever in the history of the school!”

Since we had over 1,000 kids in our graduating class, and Mr. Hunt had taught for decades, I felt quite honored: I was outstanding in a crowd of 30,000. At least I wasn’t average.

The scientific method must have sunk in by osmosis, though. I eventually won some research awards and got a patent, although I never made much money - not even the debt-backed, unreal paper that we currently refer to as “money”.

But as an adolescent teen-ager, my priorities were different.

Priority #1 was learning about girls; and priority #2 was learning to play bass guitar, since playing in a rock band was a great way to meet girls – not necessarily the sort of girls that you would want to marry, but interesting girls nonetheless, in their own way; exciting, adventurous girls that you could do exciting, adventurous things with and make your adolescent mistakes with so that when you finally met a nice, sensible adult woman who you could have a mature relationship with, then you would already have gotten the adolescent mistakes and immature craziness out of your system, and you could enjoy a happy, stable marriage.

Sort of like the American space program: As adolescents, we Americans did exciting, adventurous things for a while and some of those things were spectacularly successful and some of those things just totally blew up in our faces; and now we have to settle down to the mature realities of living here with Ma Gaia, where you learn that as an adult, you have to limit your exciting, adventurous activities for your own good.

But as long as you stay within those limits, you can still have lots and lots of mature, adult fun.

Within limits, of course.

Robert said...

I have forwarded your post to the Vineyard of the Saker, who is a former military analyst for a European country and is now based in Florida. He will appreciate the spiritual and philosophical lessons to be learned from the fact that America's space dream is most likely finished.

http://vineyardsaker.blogspot.com/

I personally am not convinced that it is finished. If the US can show abject and true remorse to Russia for the misery that its Chicago doctrine of market fundamentalism inflicted on that country and ditto to India then it is possible that the combined resources of Uncle Sam, Her Britannic Majesty's commonwealth and our Russian and Indian allies will one day reach Mars. China will doubtless be our chief competitor. The history of the space race means we need to have a serious competitor to inspire us to reach for the stars.

The beautiful poem quoted by Grrl in the OP helped me to come up with the following tribute to the heroes who have fallen in the fight to liberate both your Republic and our United Kingdom from the shame of Empire:

Estarriol's hawk flies from belfry to belfry
Even to the Twin Towers of Notre Dame
Past the golden spires of Cascadia's bridge
Over sea and under sky to the great bay's gate
Merovingian's frozen core melts at the warmth of his shadow
The dead bird falls
The cross of Spartacus does rise
Even to the Twin Towers of Notre Dame.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Someone mentioned the Concorde. I was working for Walden Books when they were going through their "store a week" expansion in the LA basin. Usually, they'd all in any manager who wasn't otherwise occupied to help out.

I'm heading up the San Diego freeway (I think) and was getting close to LAX when the radio announced that the Concorde was going to land for the first time, there. All traffic stopped on the freeway, people got out of their cars as the great, preying mantis like craft touched down. A collective "Ohhh!" rose from the crowd.

(I also saw Nixon's motorcade heading down the freeway on his way to exile in the Western White House. I waved good-bye...)

I guess it hadn't sunk in that space exploration is pretty much over. At one point, while other Walden managers were bucking for our one Hawaiian store, I wanted to manage the first one on the moon ... or mars.

Yeah, I was a Star Trek junkie. Up to, but not including, Deep Space Nine. After that, I kind of lost interest. But, when they harken back to the early days, filling in the gaps, I'm still a bit interested. In "First Contact" when the alien pod lands on earth, the mysterious figures glide down the ramp, throw back their hoods and you see the ears ... well, talk about a thrill. Silly, I know, and I wonder what that's all about.

Right now, I am so looking forward to my move to the boonies. No small part of that is because I'll be able to see the sky. Even in this small town, the light pollution washes out any celestial event I want to see. Or, our cloud cover makes an untimely appearance.

I've set aside a couple of basic astronomy texts to take with me. To me, this will be as thrilling as anything I've seen in a movie.

Ares Olympus said...

http://www.pcworld.com/article/236822/international_space_station_will_be_sunk_into_the_ocean_in_2020_update_not_quite.html

Thomas Daulton said...

Greetings JMG,

I figured out the trajectory of today's column back when I first started following your "Star's Reach" (and briefly discussed the Fermi Paradox and Drake Equation with you.) The sadness hit me at that time, since like you apparently, I grew up a total sci-fi geek. Still am, to be truthful. But as a sci-fi connoiseur, I will soldier on; there is still quite a lot of excellent futuristic fiction to be read (and written) which doesn't involve passing beyond the Earth/Moon Trojan Points. And yes, I remember Sealab quite fondly.

I survived the sadness of your implications here. Just like I did with D&D so many decades ago, I am ready to draw a line and say that fantasy is on one side, and reality is on the other. I will enjoy reading (and also writing!) a good sci-fi yarn for years to come, but you have convinced me that the Columbus-like interstellar voyages belong in the realm of fantasy, not fiction. Convincing me of that is no small feat, I assure you.

Ironically enough, all you have really done is prove how apt the imagining of Star Trek really was. The Columbus-like interstellar voyages of discovery I just mentioned, the space wars and alien alliances, all those tropes and memes throughout almost all popular sci-fi from Asimov to the present day... those memes were products of the optimism and the politics of the late-'50s/early-60s. Therefore it is only fitting that the iconic image we have of space travel is the original Star Trek, where 52% of the crew went out into interstellar space dressed in a uniform of beehive hairdos, low necklines, micro-mini-skirts, and go-go boots with stiletto heels. If the meme of human interstellar travel is to be forever chained to that bygone decade, then isn't it only fitting that we envision those clothing fashions and the "I Grok Spock" hippy sixties culture when we think of space travel?

:D

guamanian said...

Thank you for this, JMG.

The same week that I read the seminal peak oil essay "The End of the Road", I also read Michael Flynn's "The Wreck of the River of Stars", a beautifully written novel about the fate of the last solar sail spacecraft and its crew.

The parallel tragedies of a real civilization and a fictional space freighter have been intertwined in my mind ever since... the themes of hubris, blindness, fateful choices, lost opportunities, and non-negotiable physics are central to both.

John Michael Greer said...

Fyy, I think I had the same book -- was that the one with the classic von Braun wheel-shaped space station midway there?

Greg, and of course that's an excellent point. I've noticed that it's the engineers and technology buffs who talk about terraforming as though it's child's play; people with an ecology background know better.

Jon, a visit to Canaveral has been something I've wanted to do for a long time; if it ever happens, I'll arrange a swing through Titusville. As for the slide rule, keep it and learn how to use it! There are good sites online with detailed instructions.

Don, that may turn out to be a very useful metaphor indeed.

Thomas, I rather like the idea of retro space travel, complete with beehive hairdos!

The Peak Oil Poet said...

when all of what we are today
is dim dim distant past
a racial memory mostly myth
known to the shaman caste

i wonder what they'll think of us
when sitting by the fire
and hearing of the things we did
like gods but so much higher

"the great great gods of long ago
they walked upon the moon
they drank the very blood of earth
from death they were immune"

"they did not walk upon the ground
but through the air they flew
and everything there is to know
the ancient gods they knew"

i guess the stories that they tell
the children will devour
they'll dream that they were just like us
and had enormous power

i doubt they could imagine though
the real truth to tell
of how we raped their planet
and we made our lives a hell

they'll never know the polar bear
the tiger or the crane
and countless other creatures
to which we were the bane

they'll also never know the stars
because we stole their chance
because we'd rather party on
and live upon advance

oh what a sad sad species
we "gods" of planet earth
we stupid kings of overshoot
what really are we worth?

just look around at what you see
and ask yourself "where now?"
and if you have an answer
it better tell you how

'cause i can't see a future
that is anything but grim
and even bare survival chances
often seem so slim

i hope that future stories
are told around the fire
that kids enjoy just living
and old folk just retire

i hope we're not the last of us
i really really do
i hope that there's a future
for our sons and daughters too

pop

Stu from Rutherford said...

The space race allowed me to do a lot of things that children would *never* be allowed to do these days - like mix rocket fuel in the basement and actually *ignite* it outside! ("Isn't it cute - he wants to be a rocket scientist!")

Sadly, it might have been different if the approach had been several generations long in vision. Another commenter mentioned this, too; first devise a way of getting a lot of mass into orbit cheaply (relatively), etc., etc.

But if we had that kind of multi-generational vision, we would not be in so many pickles at once.

Thanks to you, JMG, for this fine essay, and to the comments for the great song lyrics and anecdotes.

Matthew Heins said...

@ JMG,

No offense intended, buuuut...

That's just the "sell".

"Let's have a spaceplane operated by the Government till we get all the bugs worked out and then we can have Space Hotels and stuff."

I realize that the actual sell put out at the time for adults was more effective than my distillation above. But I still think the above qualifies as an accurate distillation.

Since -without fusion or some other form of near-limitless sci-fi energy source- that kind of "Space Age" notion of a future where folks are constantly whizzing around orbital, sub-lunar, and inner-solar for some vague reason- wasn't feasible, and never made much sense, I tend to focus on the practical reasons for the thing.

Basically, my take is that the "Space Race" had been an excellent catalyst/cover for aerospace, missile, and general "high" tech development during the "hot" years of the Cold War. So the Money Boys and Military Boys, demonstrating one of their unfortunate mental habits, figured the "Space Shuttle" and "Space Stations" could do the same for aerospace, space-warfare, and "high" tech development in the waning years of the same pseudo-war, and so they threw their weight behind it.

By the '90s it became clear -to them- that "computer" tech negated the need for human operators of space machines/weapons and the Cold War wasn't coming back as a raison d'etre for near-pointless research budgets. Also, the worthwhile research - potential impactors, potential lifeforms, general surveys of objects, data for astronomers, physicists, etc.- did little or nothing to secure second homes in the Hamptons nor non-combat promotion.

So they drop the "Space Shuttle".

Other interests try and hold it together for awhile, it carries the momentum of a Government program, 15-20 years later -and over late- it's dead.

(Please note that I am not imagining shadowy conspiracies in the above, just the separation between funds generation and allocation and public and participant enthusiasms and dreams.)

You all talk about an "elegy", but I feel like I'm at a wake for a dummy! :)

Seems to me that the Space Shuttle, NASA, and the older generation's concept of a "Space Age" ran into an insurmountable wall of "Why Bother?" when I was 7 years old, and now they have finally given up and stopped bashing themselves against that all.

But, nice essay in any case. :)

I agree with a poster above that these last two have had a special quality in the writing. Not that your prose and what-have-you is not always top notch, but there is a... force... to these two essays that is not always there. Really good stuff IMHO.

And lastly I would highly recommend Stephenson to you -he has grown much since "Snowcrash".

But I wouldn't start with "Anathem" if I was you. I found it to be one of his best, but it presupposes a world of -generally, there are historical collapses - current tech sustained for 3,000 plus years. There are clever tricks employed to make this work. But in the end, a couple of arbitrary-feeling ancient achievements in genetic engineering are necessary to provide the world with, amongst other things, the "Fuel Trees" that substitute for Fossil Fuels and "Allswell" a chemical inserted into food crop DNA that induces background contentment in the people that eat that food.

I would recommend "The Baroque Cycle" though. Since those books are set in the historical past, his writerly abilities can shine without possible LOL tech-utopia moments.

-Matt.

sgage said...

Speaking of Wendell Berry and space adventures...

Back in the mid-70's, there was a blip of interest in the notion of... wait for it... Space Colonies! This was being hawked primarily by one Gerard K. O'Neill, complete with lavish artist's conception illustrations and all.

These things were going to be enormous, and mimic whatever climate zone you wanted! One scenario, for engineering reasons, had these things in pairs, and O'Neill blithered on about how one would be Hawaii and the other Colorado, with a brisk traffic in tourism between the two. You know, go surfing in one, skiing in the other. No kidding, it was over the top.

Stewart Brand, he of Whole Earth Catalog fame, got on this bandwagon whole hog in his followup to the WEC, the CoEvolution Quarterly. Wendell Berry got wind of it, and was absolutely appalled that his ol' buddy Stewart had fallen for this pie-in-the-sky nonsense (as did many others).

There followed a stately series of open letters between these two over the next year (pre-Internet, my friends!). I lost my admiration for Stewart Brand during this exchange - I couldn't believe his enthrallment to this thing, and to this day, you can see the guy is a rank techno-cornucopian. You know, "we are as gods, we might as well get good at it". Hubris, anyone?

Anyway, I don't know if this exchange is on the net anywhere. As far as I know it is only recorded in those few issues of CQ. But the lines were drawn right there in 1976-7.

I should add in the interests of full disclosure that Wendell Berry, in my opinion, is a national treasure.

Hos said...

"A budget gap may soon leave a hole in the U.S. weather-data system used to make predictions in severe storms. The $12 billion Joint Polar Satellite System originally planned to launch a replacement orbiter in 2014. The craft won’t get into space until 2017 or later as a result of a funding cut in the federal fiscal year 2011 budget.

“A loss of polar-orbiting satellite observations will result in some degradation in hurricane track and intensity forecasts in the important three-to-five day coastal evacuation planning period,” John Leslie, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an e-mail."

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-25/fema-put-to-test-as-hurricane-supplies-moved-to-new-jersey-massachusetts.html

A timely post JMG, thanks.

sgage said...

@Greg Belvedere

"I have always found it absurd when promoters of space colonization talk about terraforming other planets once we have trashed earth. This has always seemed contradictory. If we can't take care of this planet, why do they think we could make a barren planet into a new home?"

One of the ugliest bumper stickers I've ever seen said "Earth First! We'll rape the other planets later!"

:-(

Steve From Virginia said...

Thank you for an interesting take on the bankrupt 'progress narrative'. Of course, space travel is not out of the question, both of us and the rest are traveling through space right now!

Of course, we don't think of our dirt ball as a space ship so we have managed life support badly with unpleasant consequences to come, no doubt.

Check back in a thousand years. We might not be here. We're learning spaceship management as we go along ...

Perhaps we humans can reconcile our carefulness regarding 'rocket-powered space flight' with our ongoing carelessness regarding our collective interplanetary orbit. Our space exploration has been notably free of casualties compared to sailing across oceans or atmospheric flight for example. Clearly, we know how to travel through space in metal cans and on planets: we've allowed other outcomes: profits first for the least scrupulous.

Failure in space becomes more of a piece with the other profound failures of popular culture. Despite the hardware, the culture has relentlessly put itself forward as more important than any of its parts. Space failure is no different from failure of auto transport to solve the (massive) problems created by auto transport.

Cue the failure clutter removal process ...

One way to look at the dynamic is to insist on humans getting their spacecraft routine in order here on Planet Terra, first. Having done so making more than tentative steps into space -- or into the oceans or wherever -- might have a better chance of success.

Matthew Heins said...

One thing about the Star Trek stuff:

In the fictonal history of that "universe", a brilliant and driven eccentric and his team of survivor-scientists invent "warp-drive" and test it by modifying a disused and forgotten ICBM. The Vulcans -who coincidentally are in the solar system doing that endless research that Star Trek crews are always doing- notice the "warp signature" and come to check it out.

Human civilization in this imagined 21st Century is even more imperilled than in your "Long Descent" scenario. The world has been devastated by a Global Nuclear War. Only after the "warp" test flight and the Vulcans arrival do things turn around and it is another century before the world is as we see it in Kirk and Spock's time.

Deus ex Machina to be sure.

But no huge -intact- industrial base required, just a likely impossible theoretical and technological breakthrough and friendly aliens that did better with their home planet's resources.

Oh and some time-travellers.

Just sayin'. ;)

-Matt.

G Ruda said...

The Dream, eloquently rendered:

JANUARY 1999
ROCKET SUMMER

ONE minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.
And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer's ancient green lawns.
Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground.
Rocket summer. People leaned from their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky.
The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and oven heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land...

(Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles; also published as The Silver Locusts)

Now the Dream, with all its implications, is lost. So sad.

Glenn: Yes, "The Star" (also published as "Star of Bethlehem") by ACC. My first real SF story; I read it when I had just turned twelve. It made quite an impression - and it still a good read. (It won the Hugo in '56.)

Greg Belvedere: In "Childhood's End", even if the stars were not for the children, i.e. man (a.k.a. Homo Sapiens), they were for man's successors. Implying a kind of evolution - a more hopeful view of the future. Now gone. Alas.

Bob said...

I dunno. Maybe as someone who is old enough to have been alive for the first moon landing, but far too young to remember it, I've just never been that enthralled by the whole endeavor. For a long time' I have held the attitude that all of the resources and talent involved in manned and unmanned space-flight was at best misdirected, and would have better served humanity working on clean renewable energy, cheap desalinization, or, heck, jet boots (which at least might benefit somebody!). I am aware that much has been learned from the various successes and failures of NASA and others, and I am not so clinical as to reject ideas such as inspiration or hope, but it really did seem to be mainly just for show.

Jeff Gill said...

For me, probably the saddest post you have written.

kayxyz said...

First paragraphs are prose poems, which would make a great home school lesson on teaching the difference between poetry and prose (one of the questions on a master's degree English exam). The space program reminds me American have been achievement junkies. We just have to achieve and do it.

However, one of the problems is when we got up into earth orbit, we turned those "science payloads" as telescopes on planet earth, and for military purposes. How much in danger do we still have to be from "terrorists"? How much software, hardware, weapons, generals, admirals, materiel, and personnel does the US still need to have? We spend more than all the rest of the world put together, so we have grossly misplace priorities that have cost us.

Will we ever get to a place where we have an intelligent counsel figuring out the Pentagon budget? After all, Taliban don't have a Coast Guard, an Air Force or a Navy. Should we have taken out nukes the way we have smallpox reduced to one container? I think so. We should have got to the stars, then kept on building a ladder. I guess we settle for the Hubble and other telescopes.

Tully Reill said...

As the saying goes, the light that burns twice as bright burns out the quickest.

We had quite the potential as a species to unending marvelous things with the resources provided to us here on earth, we just jumped into the thick of things without giving even a slight thought to the repercussions. We pushed too hard, too fast, and now it catches up with us.

Could we have one day reached further out into the stars? As a child and even in my teens I would have said there was no doubt we would, and even within my lifetime. As I matured, so did my worldview and I realized the growing chance and impracticality of the possibility. I saw the Shuttle Program as a wonderful attempt to rekindle humanity's passion for reaching for the stars, but felt it wouldn't (and couldn't) last.

Do I feel that if we hadn't squandered our resources that we could have had a Clarke/Heinlein/Roddenberry-esque future? Highly possible. As The Great Bard wrote; "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...". While filming a guest spot on Star Trek the Next Generation, Stephen Hawking was given a tour of the sets. As he stared at the warp core prop in the engineering set he said "I'm working on that."

Will there be a miracle last minute technological breakthrough that will solve all our current and upcoming problems, such as Star Trek's matter-antimater reactors or Doc Brown's Mr. Fusion to power his flux capacitor equipped DeLorean? I'm certainly not going to hold my breath in anticipation. But, I do believe that mankind, with our truest and best natural resource-our ability to overcome adversity-will continue on. We shot for the stars, landed on the moon, and will endure. We're on the border of a true "Undiscovered Country", the future unknown.

John Michael Greer said...

Poet, thank you.

Matt, yes, I'm familiar with the sort of explanation you've offered; I find it hopelessly simplistic. The diverse and constantsly squabbling assortment of power centers and pressure groups that make up imperial America's political class don't have a single agenda -- and if they did, the chance that they'd keep to it for decades at a stretch is less than minimal. I'll be discussing at some length, down the road a bit, the popular fantasy that a single, well-organized "them" is responsible for all the dumb decisions of the last half century or so.

In the meantime, I'd suggest instead that back in the 70s, when the space shuttle was first funded, the coalition of interests that wanted a major space program -- for a wide range of reasons, to be sure, many of them venial as all get-out -- was able to build enough of a base to make a major step in the direction they wanted to go, but then lost momentum and support, and weren't able to keep opposing interests from diverting the funds to other pet projects. That's the way the game is played.

Oh, and thanks for your advice on Stephenson! Anathem and , though, were the only things on the shelves at the local public library, and I just don't have the stomach for yet another piece of hacker skiffy, so Anathem it is.

Sgage, when Brand started praising Herman Kahn, I figured it was time to look somewhere else for useful ideas. Have you seen his latest offering, insisting that greens really ought to love nuclear power, genetic engineering, etc., etc.? Not an impressive spectacle.

Hos, I suppose we can hope that the storm now drawing a bead on NYC will inspire some second thoughts.

Steve, no argument there.

Matt, in a future of that kind, Earth would have been an impoverished backwater planet receiving interstellar foreign aid for centuries, not the headquarters of the Federation. (Roger Zelazny did a good version of that in the backstory to This Immortal. Still, at least they made the gesture.

G Ruda, I remember it well.

Bob, I think you had to have been there at the time.

Jeff, it was pretty painful to write, too.

Kayxyz, the gargantuan military budget is there to prop up the imperial system that enables the 5% of us in the US to use a quarter of the world's energy and a third of its raw materials and industrial product, even though we basically don't produce anything for sale any more. (Britain had the same sort of gargantuan military budget when it ruled a quarter of the earth's surface and funnelled its wealth home to London.) That's not to say that it's a good thing, but it's not simply there for show -- and when it goes away, expect the equivalent of an 80% cut or thereabouts in your standard of living.

sgage said...

@JMG

"Sgage, when Brand started praising Herman Kahn, I figured it was time to look somewhere else for useful ideas. Have you seen his latest offering, insisting that greens really ought to love nuclear power, genetic engineering, etc., etc.? Not an impressive spectacle."

Oh yes indeed - we need to embrace nuclear grandiosity, and the Universe is our oyster.

In my opinion, Stewart Brand left the path of wisdom several decades ago. He still calls himself an ecologist! Feh!

Bill Pulliam said...

Not to belittle anyone's feelings here, but I have to make an observation...

I find it interesting that so many people are expressing a profound sadness here, beyond that triggered by many other essays about the ends of things we have known. I went through my own mourning of the end of the space age, though it was a while ago when the forces were already clearly well in motion. And yes I was a space freak as a child, too. But it is perhaps revealing that people are saddened more by the loss of a dream, by the death of a fantasy that never really was, than by the impending end of much of what constitutes our real, hard, firm, everyday reality.

Human minds are intriguing things. Which will you really miss more: manned space flight, or reliably-stocked grocery stores?

Shining Hector said...

Yeah, that was eloquent, but the near unanimous wailing that everyone's dreams have been shattered forever seems a little odd. That's all it takes to shatter your dreams, really? Must not have been much of a dream to start with.

I dunno, sometimes I start to think. We really don't have a terribly good practical reason for space exploration, and our approach hasn't been terribly good. Actually it's been hideously inefficient, because it never really had to be anything else. We took the simple-minded, inefficient, bureaucratic, pour-incomprehensible-amounts-of-money-time-and-energy-into-it approach because that was the path of least resistance. It hasn't needed to be anything else, because NASA is pretty much a jobs/money-diversion program as stated.

You don't strictly need fossil fuels: rocket fuel is hydrogen and oxygen, products of hydrolysis, old-school fuel.

You don't need computers: as stated, slide rules got us there.

You don't need to take such extreme safety precautions that in the end you create a degree of complexity that winds up being the biggest source of danger in itself: in the final analysis life really is pretty cheap. We spend a great deal of our mental energies trying to tell ourselves otherwise, but that don't make it so. Conk someone over the head and shove them in a capsule galley-slave style or offer an actuarially laughable premium in salary to put their life on the line fisherman style and you've got yourself an astronaut, if they don't sign up just for the thrill. It's always somebody else's rocket that's going to blow up, not mine, at least if I made the choice to get on it.

You don't really have to manufacture everything here and launch it and it's fuel up the gravity well: there are some pretty good raw materials up there relatively untouched by entropy for the past 5 billion years to work with. It doesn't necessarily have to be pretty, it only needs to work. Again, we never really went down that path partly because we never really needed to.

We took one specific, kludgy, doomed-to-failure approach to space because that was the path of least resistance given the current situation. Don't mean that's the only way.

Twilight said...

Yes, I remember the dream and I always will. I'm but a few years younger than you. Dad was an engineering professor, and I was a kid with my face in sci-fi and fantasy books. I built model rockets. I worked on an astronomy minor in school. Of course I knew we would go to the stars someday.

I don't know exactly when I gave up that dream - it was not a sudden thing, but it's been a long time now. It's just that as I began to see how difficult it was to survive here on this ship where we evolved, the time spans and distances involved, the impossibly inhospitable environment, it became so obviously unachievable. Also, as I came to understand the seedy, earth-bound politics that hid behind the space race the shine wore off quite a bit.

But we did make it to the moon, and our rovers drove around Mars. On my laptop I have a rather haunting image of the sun as seen from Mars in my screensaver images. It's still a thing of wonder, and we've wasted far more energy on things of less worth.

hadashi said...

Yesterday, I saw something that referred to ‘the top 10 Peak Oil books of 2010’ http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-12-27/top-10-peak-oil-books-2010 But I wonder if another isn’t needed. I’m thinking along the lines of, not so much an Elegy for the Age of Space but for the way of life that we’ve been living.

More and more people are going to realize that, just like the end of the rocket ship era, the world as we know it has gone. Most are going to be caught flat-footed. “What the h*ll happened?” they are likely to ask to varying degrees of belligerency. I don’t know if such a book has been written, but I predict that it will become very, very necessary to have some sort of a primer out there that explains retrospectively, just what went wrong.

No, the politicians are not to blame. It isn’t the super-rich who have colluded. There are no scapegoats out there, and very few true conspiracies. But those are the lines along which people will think – and then act – unless a clear, well-written text is available to them which rationally explains the nature of our systemic collapse in terms of self-organizational principles. Someone like – oh, I don’t know, John Michael Greer or Dmitry Orlov.

In the interview with Dmitry that Surio linked to up above, he was asked why he cared about helping people. Mr Orlov answered: “I don’t know what else there is to do. I could help myself but that is a very sort of self-limiting sort of activity. Helping people is a very pleasurable activity. So I think it’s its own reward.”

Something tells me that JMG is that sort of person.

MaineCelt said...

I devoured space fiction as a kid, loved "The Mushroom Planet" books, and was spooked utterly by The Martian Chronicles. Anne McCaffrey's space books remain favorites, especially "The Ship Who Sang" and The Petaybee (sp?) series.

That said, I never shared the popular passion for the U.S. space program, even though my Boeing engineer father did his best to enchant me. Two events sealed my choice to focus my energies on Earthly efforts: first, the Challenger exploded. Second, I learned about sonnets.

The peculiar beauty of a sonnet is that, by imposing incredibly strict limits, the form seems paradoxically to focus and free our linguistic power. Within the strictures of that tight, terse form, something alchemical happens and words begin to shine with a greater power and beauty.

We have just the one planet, then. Good. Let our lives upon it be like sonnets--powerful in focus, shining at the interstices, held in place with all the wisdom and passion we can muster.

John Michael Greer said...

Tully, well, maybe. Stephen Hawkings may think he's working on a warp drive; when he comes up with a unified field theory that tests out, then we can talk.

Sgage, the problem with Brand, as I see it -- and it's a problem he shares with a lot of other celebrity intellectuals -- is that he's trying to have his planet and eat it too. For those Sixties radicals who sold out in the Reagan years, that's an easy trap to fall into.

Bill, a grocery store isn't a source of meaning, purpose and identity. For much of American society and a great many Americans, the dream of space travel was. If it wasn't for you, understood.

Hector, I really don't think the surly tone helps your argument any. As for the argument itself, the US and (especially) Russian space programs made extremely efficient use of the available physical and technical resources. They were extravagant where they could easily afford to be, sparing where they had to be, and got the job done. Of course it looks clumsy when compared to currently popular vaporware, but then real technology always does; compare early aircraft with the fictional alternatives. (And I have to say that I'm not exactly made comfortable by hearing a physician talking about how life is cheap...)

Twilight, no argument there!

Hadashi, have you read Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over? That's the book I always recommend to newcomers to peak oil, and it basically fills the role you've suggested, at least if I understand what your'e suggesting.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

I have to agree with everyone else that spoke of a great literary quality in this post. It is very, very good, and it shows that you wrote it from some inner depth, that the subject truly mattered to you. I second the motion that you should be awarded some sort of Blog Oscar or something.

My view of the subject is colored by the fact that I'm much younger then the "space generation" and that I'm not American (or Russian), so the whole space exploration thing was always something that "other people" were doing, or had done. I am a pretty serious sci-fi buff, though, and I've read the classics, Assimov, Clarke, etc.

While it is sad to think that space exploration is dead for the foreseable future, because it plainly is, there's no way of knowing what will happen father into the future. I still think there could be advancements in certain scientific areas in the future. And it doesn't take sci-fi pseudo-science to envision a utility for space travel. The main problem is the gravity well, i.e getting enough payload into orbit. If that can be done in the future in a cheaper way, or if someone in the future is willing to do it on a longer time-frame (think hauling components for a spacecraft for 20+ years, to be assembled in orbit), there are a lot of things that could be done, even on the inhospitable solar system. There's a lot of energy in outer space, both from potential large solar panels, as well as the possibility of using nuclear power withouth fear of pollution, and a lot of raw materials. In a way, perhaps the dream of colonizing space with human habitats (a parallel of the colonization of America and other parts of earth), which is as difficult as to be pratically impossible and of doubtful utility is something that we ought to leave behind, replacing it with a more prosaic vision of space as a complementary part of earth, in the role of factory floor, perhaps.

There's also something to be said about the philosophical side of space travel, as Bill said it.

Freelander said...

Sorry but you lost me on this one. I realize that the US manned space program is ending at the serendipitous moment when energy and economic constraints make it easy to envision an abandonment of extraterrestrial dreams, but I look to the ideas of Gerard K. O'Neill and the prospect of building a new world or two at the orbital "Lagrange points" and find myself with new hope for humanity outside of Earth.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

For me the ending of the manned space program isn't that much of a deal. I'm of a younger generation, but I still was quite into space exploration fantasies when I was a child. I was also interested in any other stories that involved strange and unusual (from my perspective) ways of living, which included primitive tribes as well as space exploration.

However, I pretty much lost all my interest in space when I realized that the solar system was inhospitable to human life and traveling beyond was pretty unlikely because if interstellar travel was feasible the galaxy would likely have been colonized long ago. At the same time, I was realizing the immense ecological impact of space travel and decided that the exploration of all the undervalued aspects of planet Earth were more interesting than any space fantasy. I haven't kept up with anything space-related for years with one exception, I do still think the ongoing discoveries about extrasolar planets are interesting enough for me to check up on every once in a while, even though we'll never go there in person. However even that knowledge I'd trade for greater wisdom about ecological matters any day. Radio communication such as the Star's Reach scenario would be pretty interesting, but I'm not betting on it.

The end of the manned space mission however has little emotional impact on me, and I admit my bafflement similar to what Bill said that so many here, who've read other posts concerning things that will have so much more impact on all our lives than the end of a space program that only involved a small percentage of people, choose to say this post is the saddest one they've read.

Matthew Heins said...

Looking forward to that explanation. Especially since I obviously didn't make mine very clear. ;)

And you may very well like Anathem, I love it.

But I am curious how you came to know how "the game" is played so well?

dragonfly said...

Not long after the first shuttle was built, NASA produced a poster print of a photo of the shuttle's cockpit The viewpoint of the photo was as if you were standing between the pilot and co-pilot's seats, looking forward. Myriad switches, dials, readouts, levers, indicators. A geek's wet-dream. I taped it to the ceiling above the top bunk that my brother and I shared. Many an hour I spent looking at all the details in that image, imagining what it would be like to actually sit in one of those seats.

The sadness that strikes me now is not so much for the loss of the dream of space travel. Rather it is for the further implied loss of some things that have touched me in a deeper way. I am thinking about certain forms of music and visual art, of the sort that transcend the technology used to produce them. Works that, despite their basis in some form of technology, still manage to be beautiful - to inspire awe and wonder.

I mourn such a loss of beauty from the world.

But, as an artist, I'm also taking this as a source of inspiration - to explore strange new (old) mediums, to boldly go where no engineer-turned-artist-turned-gardener has gone before. Between bouts of weeding and planting, I might just find some time to spend in the studio...

Thank you for this. I has catalyzed a shift for me.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Forgive me if I'm turning into a crusty old cynic.

Are you conducting subtle experiments on commenters?

The reason that I ask is that I've noticed a pattern when you blog about the fall of higher ideals/empire etc. and at the same time don't ask anything practical from your commenters other than to change their perceptions. The pattern I've noticed is that the volume of comments goes through the roof.

I'm assuming that these blog posts are about raising awareness of the predicament in a way that also lowers peoples expectations of the future? This sounds like magic to me.

Regards

Chris

Thijs Goverde said...

Funny. Maybe it's because I was born after '68, but space travel was never a dream, a hope or some kind of frontier-thing to me. (I very European, I'm afraid, and the whole frontier-business is rather lost on me.)
Space travel was a thing that was just there. Some people did that. They apparently enjoyed it. Good for them.
Better than a whole lot of other occupations I can think of.
Actually, the few Dutch astronauts there have been are now very active as science communicators/enablers, combating global warming and doing other very useful stuff.
They all speak of the same experience: how seeing the Earth from space has given them a deeper understanding of the miracle of our species' existence, of the fragility and interconnectedness and beauty that comes from inhabiting that tiny blue ball in the vast infinity of space.
I think that perspective, even more than all the wonderful technolgy and scientific understanding, is the greatest gain of the space program.
And I also think that it's that perspective, more than the science or technology, that will be with us for a long time to come.
So in that sense, even if space travel may soon be a thing of the past, the Space Age isn't over. It's just begun.

Oh and by the way; my lack of understading for the dream-and-hope-and-frontier aspect of space travel isn't to say that I was not a very hungry SF reader. Vonnegut! LeGuin! Zelazny! Wolfe! Oh yaisss...
And Herbert, before the horrible fascism of Dune dawned on me. Couldn't stand it after that.
I liked Asimov too, of course, but he was never as important to me as Vonnegut or LeGuin. I guess these last two place less emphasis on technology than Asimov and his ilk, which leaves more room for literature.
Which is, presumably, where my allegiance lies.

tOM said...

@tony - I agree - even if we give up the dream of colonizing other worlds, we still would profit from the capability of detecting and diverting big space objects heading for Earth. Witness Schumaker-Levy crashing into Jupiter. Detect it soon enough, and maybe an ion drive run for years by a nuclear reactor can alter its obit enough to change a hit into a miss. So space travel would become an insurance policy...

I read Astounding/Analog because of the science in science fiction. The "what if" effects on society, on individuals. F&SF was all F(fantasy) and played with one's feelings, but not one's mind. SF got you thinking.

The BIG moments may indeed have passed, at least until we figure out warp drive or receive an interstellar vist. But NASA still has many projects on the go, exploring the universe not with human flesh and all the attendant support stuff, but with remote and intelligent machines.

In the past, you needed people to keep ships sailing and headed for their destination. Now you can design machines which can operate in hostile environments and send back useful data. The "Humble telescope" is packed in a microsatellite the size and mass of a suitcase.

@gregorach Yes, we haven't "colonized" Antarctica - but the Arctic is being heavily mined and drilled and the Arctic Ocean is being divied up for exploitation. All it takes is for the benefits to exceed the costs. The Antarctic has been under a ban of any commercialism for 60 years or so. Still, information is the ultimate product - high production costs but very cheap distribution.

@timbo614 The Chinese are going great guns on solar and wind - they have bought in to the climate change problem. They are also building 25 nuclear power reactors - to replace the coal generating plants they are building every week.

@greg Terraforming would seem to be good way to make new homes for us, but might need an eon or two... Sometimes it's easier to start afresh!

@JMG @peakoilpoet One reason I rail against your rampant pessimism is the deadening effect it has, however realistic. The polar bear, the orange toad, and many other species may and have gone extinct. But they have hardly lived longer than we have. We face new challenges in a different future. It doesn't have to be bleak. Bikes are healthier than cars. Cleaner air will come from less burning. There are many upsides even in one's current state of knowledge.

@sgage Mark Lynas has a new book out, the God Species. Maybe Genetic Manipulation and nuclear power can prolong our profligate ways even in the face of climate change and the extinction of fossil fuels. Sometimes it's scary to jump even from a sinking boat.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- sure, but... the fact that much (clearly not all) of the world has enjoyed many decades in which water and food were so plentiful and safe that most people didn't even think about where they came from is arguably a far greater achievement of industrial civilization than having put a dozen people on the moon for a few days each. I'm just comparing the psychology to the reality here, and finding the contrast very interesting and an excellent illustration of the dominance of our cultural myths over our material realities.

Personally (and as I mentioned before) of course I was a space nut as a kid. I'm very close to the same age as you, male, and a science geek, so that goes without saying. But now what gnaws at my gut isn't the realization that we will never have a colony on Mars, but the open questions about how we will eat for the remaining decades (hopefully 3 or 4 if I get really lucky) of my life. Hey, there are FOUR (!!!) total solar eclipses happening in the southeastern U.S. in the next 41 years, all within reasonable journey range of my home even in an energy-scarce world; I want to live to see as many of them as possible!

Kenaz Filan said...

@Bill Pullman: Grocery shortages are not an immediate clear and present danger. There are good reasons to expect disruptions in our food supply and our way of living: there are great reasons to prepare for said disruptions. But as of right now they are still in the more or less distant future.

The fall of the space program is happening right here and right now. There's no way to deny that we have given up on our 1960s era goal of colonizing the stars. Grocery shelves may be empty tomorrow: the launchers are empty today, with no plans for restocking.

Rudi said...

On reflection: part of what impresses me about the whole project of manned space exploration was the physical courage of the astronauts: their willingness to put themselves in the way of incineration, suffocation, or dismemberment for the sake of achieving a high and noble goal of discovery. In a way, not so very different from what the crew of Leif Ericson's longboat did when they crossed the Atlantic and planted a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows -- another achievement which was, if you will, equal in its context to our space program in brevity and brightness. I feel somehow a commonality in that dream from the Viking navigators to the dauntless test pilots. I suspect this is not the end of a dream, but simply the end of one manifestation of a dream.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

Magnificent and very moving piece, very fitting for the slow demise of one of the most extra-ordinary feats of science and engineering of mankind. It is always amazing to think that people went out into space and came back alive!

It is fascinating to see the reactions of readers about this demise, although in very far away Mauritius, young boys were fascinated by space exploration in my time (early 80's), it always were as by-standers, for under no circumstances could our small and pretty insignificant country could in anyway be part of it. So very little nostalgia for space exploration round here. Indeed, amongst the younger generation in Mauritius I can only note the near total absence of interest for space. It's just a prop for science fiction films, full stop.

It is also interesting to note that civilian supersonic travel has quietly died away with the concorde and that dreams of hypersonic crafts whizzing across the planet are also not getting off drawing boards any time soon.

In short order, it is highly probable that we'll have to write elegies for the age of air travel too!
In that respect, I frequently have fantasies about airships and the roles they could have in a post peak oil world. One could even think of airships as platforms to launch small rockets to reach near space!
If we set our sights lower (no pun intended), some useful remnants of the space age might even make it into the ecotecnic age.
That's something to fantasize about!

Hal said...

I remember when the first space shuttles were being tested thinking that someday they would look to us like '49 Studebakers, compared with the Model T's of the Mercury program and A's of Apollo. They looked clunky even then, but it was understood that this was just a waypoint on the way to the Corvettes of the future. By that time, the romance of the whole thing had worn off for me. I was generally supportive, but I thought there were much better things to put our energy into.

sgage: Gerard O'Neill. Now there's a name I haven't thought about in a loooooong time. He and Timothy Leary and a few other ne'erdowells did get me back into the idea of space migration for a while. OK, maybe 10 minutes. I guess if he wasn't useful to the technocopians Stewart Brand would be lying in the same scrap heap. (NOT meant as a conspiracy theory...)

Tyler August said...

I'm with Shining Hector-- we won't give up that easily. The Dream is too powerful to just roll over and die. And, frankly, I'm still holding out hope that it'll get us out of this mess.
In the 1970s, O'Niell spelled out in a book called "The High Frontier" a vision of a future where we spread out in giant space stations, funded by solar power sent back to Earth to maintain industrial civilisation. It was a conscious plan to short-circuit the Limits to Growth that were being acknowledged then, and if we hadn't collectively turned our backs on reality in the 80s, we'd likely have Island One instead of ISS.
Thing is, that plan isn't dead. As long as there's a glimmering of industry on Earth, you'll be dealing with the dreamers. Those billionaires? It's not gilded age copious consumption. I've met people who travel at the top of New Space circles, and they all dream the dream. It's mostly true believers.
There's a few sci-fi titles dealing with resource-constrained space programs. Niven-Pournelle's "King David's Spaceship" and Poul Anderson's "Orion Will Rise" both have visions of how we can get back Up There, even with civilisation knocked back.
Orion, in case you've forgotten, is Dyson's plan to launch a ship with atomic bombs.
Speaking as a spacer, we can get our hands on some nukes, we'll use them. A little more fallout (a few more bombs on top of the ~2000 already tested) is a small price to pay to save the civilisation that's keeping most of us alive, we think.
Wang's Verne Gun would harness an underground nuclear test (no detectable fallout) to launch 280,000 tons to orbit; more than enough to kick-start an orbital economy. One bomb, and we get enough space-solar-power to save Western Civilisation.
I know, this is way too techno-triumphalist for this blog. You'll say I still buy into the myth of human progress; maybe I do, though I think that every major decision since at least the 1900s on was in error... some progress.
I just haven't given up. You know how the Captain goes down with the ship? More often than not, the Engineer goes, too. Trying to the last to patch the breach and save all.

sgage said...

@ tOM

Given the worst possible eco-catastrophe on Earth imaginable, it would be orders of magnitude easier to rectify than to "terraform" some other planet. If we can't terraform a broken Earth, there is no way we could terraform, say, Mars.

@ Freelander

Dream on about Space Colonies at the LaGrange points. On no level of physics or economics is it possible - just run some numbers instead of dreaming. GKO completely papered over the engineering, thermodynamic, and economic aspects of his little fantasy.

Again, if you can find those few issues of CQ from the mid 70's, the theoretical engineering limitations are discussed quite clear - the back and forth was not just between SB and WB, there was lots of very thoughtful feedback.

sgage said...

@ Tyler August

O'Neill's "High Frontier" is a fantasy. It can't be done, at least not the way it's presented there. It's not a dream, it's a hallucination.

Just because someone has a dream doesn't mean it's remotely possible. Sometimes you just have to face reality in the face.

Bill Pulliam said...

Just my own personal experiences, and some thoughts for those who still hold on to hope of a space-traveling destiny for humanity in some distant future...

My own hopes for that future pretty much dissolved when I first encountered the Fermi Paradox in high school (mid 1970s). To me that made it clear that either we are the first technological civilization to arise in the entire galaxy, or that interstellar travel is impossible. The first seemed extremely unlikely, so I accepted the second as the likely truth. This still left the option for interplanetary travel within our own solar system, of course. As the years went on and I began to understand better the fundamental thermodynamic limits on civilization, however, that began to seem less likely as well. Couple this with what had become of manned space flight (short haul space-truckers never leaving low earth orbit), and the odds of other-world travel as anything but an extreme and rare accomplishment seemed to vanish.

I did have one brief resurgence in those hopes, though: cold fusion. When that was first announced, I thought if it panned out that really could be a fundamental game changer about everything in the near and distant future. But that all evaporated much too quickly, and the Fermi Paradox still looms large.

Recent discoveries about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life actually seem to make the prospects even bleaker. We now know that planets are everywhere, it seems just about every star has a whole herd of them. Just within our own solar system, measurements of the atmospheric chemistry of Titan show signs of some exotic processes taking place there, that might be consistent with biological activity of some new and exciting form. Two living worlds around one unremarkable star! Very recent studies on the jump from unicellular to multicellular life are suggesting that it too might be evolutionarily a fairly easy leap, not a huge chasm. Put all this together and it suggests we are likely living in a galaxy swarming with living beings. Yet, no sign of space travelers when we look to the heavens -- just our own aircraft and low-orbit satellites. The silence is deafening.

Unrelated note - I now actually have a bottle in the pantry labeled "Snake Oil." It is for oiling snake skins, of course (really mostly glycerine). Works great, too! I thought that would amuse you, JMG.

Ric said...

One of your best-written posts. Among many felicities, the casting of space missions as track and field events really tickled me, the metaphor carrying the deeper point in lovely fashion.

Unlike many commenters, this baby boomer was never a wide-eyed space geek, but the space narrative is deeply embedded in our broader story.

One commenter hurled a accusation of pessimism. I disagree: good writing and better understanding are spurs to current enjoyment and future progress, in the best sense.

Interesting how many commenters push back against the prediction of space travel decline, which I would count among the most bankable predictions made in this forum.

Ric Merritt

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Grrl and Matt, I look forward to reading Stephenson--hadn't heard of him before.


@Zach and others

Re Tolkien and Lewis SF influences:

(JMG, that's interesting info about pulp SF, Madame Blavatsky and Atlantis.)

They were also influenced by Victorian fairytales and various utopian writings, especially those by anti-industrialists such as John Ruskin, the Fabians and members of the Arts and Crafts movement such as William Morris.

There's a fairytale, "Charlie Among the Elves" in which Charlie's experience with the elves among the trees is almost identical to Sam Gamgee's and is described in similar language that he used when talking to Frodo about it.

What I love is the wildly disparate influences, classical and medieval, religious and not, high and low, esoteric and popular that went into their worldviews and writings. They, too, were big fans of Wagner, because of the Nordic myth/epic connections. (This was before Wagner's music got taken up by the Nazis.)

BTW, no one writes sentences like John Ruskin when he's in full flow!

As you can see I've spent way too much time reading and thinking about this stuff! ;)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Thijs

Thanks for bringing up LeGuin--she has been one of my favorites. I have taught The Word for World is Forest as a way for students to enter consideration of environmental ethics. Have you read it?

@Petro and Lance Foster Wallace: yes!

x said...

The space thing wore off me quite quickly when young. Mystery and earth bound adventure novels did it for me. Yet, when I read the third to last paragraph, I received a gut punch. The mental flash was as vivid, poignant and visceral as a real thump. I felt no loss, per say, when reflecting about my reaction but instead a realisation that the well trod path can no longer be followed.

Strangely, I keep thinking of Richard Nixon, and laterly Jimmy Carter. Nixon seems, given the light of time, to be like a tragic Greek hero; personally flawed but with redeeming features. Carter had the ability to tell the truth as he saw it, with a clarity and well supported data, but tragically held office when the world decided the truth was too hard to follow. Both people, imo, had some larger vision or sense of responsibility - a sense that their efforts in office were more than the sum of themselves. They expressed the energy of their era.

It is all too easy to contrast them with self serving politicians of today who have no agenda above what they can personally benefit from holding office, or so it seems. Across the world politicians and other types of leaders fail to inspire. Cynicism manifests itself with every word our so-called leaders utter.

I suppose the "thump" was a realisation that real and profound change has occurred, coming into focus with a bit more clarity. The human world is not only facing a physical shortage of energy but also a corresponding loss of directional energy. There is a tangible ebb.

And maybe this ebb might be a redeeming feature because us suped-up monkies have a whole heap of manners to learn before we go off visiting our celestial neighbors. The idea, as proposed by some people, that we need to populate the universe and take yet more resources from distant worlds is surreal beyond belief. How about we clean up our own back gardens first. Maybe the humility signpost is the first one we should be looking for as we begin our new directional trek on earth.

slán agus síocháin, make do and mend

John Michael Greer said...

MaineCelt, you've just tapped one of the reasons I like very little in the way of modern poetry. Not a bad metaphor for our current situation, either.

Guilherme, I don't doubt that any future human civilization that has the technical chops and the spare resources to try the thing will at least look into getting a few satellites into orbit, and it's always possible that things will go a bit past there. Beyond that, well, I've posted here at length about how the supposed economies of space miss the fact that three-quarters of all economic value used by human beings on Earth come free of charge from the biosphere, and you don't have that advantage in orbit; the additional costs make any good or service that can be produced onworld much more economical.

Freelander, I read O'Neill when his stuff first came out. You'll notice that he paid zero attention to the economics of the thing. Sure, if you have a few quadrillion dollars to spare, not to mention equivalent stocks of energy and resources that don't have any other use, you might be able to attempt the thing; care to suggest where you're going to get those? (And don't tell me you're going to get the resources from space, either; that happens only after a huge, and hugely expensive, infrastructure is built down here and hauled into orbit.)

Ozark, well, maybe it was just a generational thing, then.

Matt, it's hardly a secret. Ditch both the conventional wisdom purveyed in the media and the equal and opposite version heavily marketed to the fringe; track what happens to pressure groups and power centers as they move in and out of coalitions, and gain and lose power; notice how often the conspiratorial fringe has to change its nominees for Secret Masters of Everything because the previous candidates are pretty obviously on the outside looking in this year; study historical equivalents that have been dead long enough that historians have had the chance to spread out everybody's dirty laundry for all to see, and you'll soon get a working grasp of how the branch of primate dominance behavior we call political power actually works in the real world. I highly recommend it; over and above its practical uses, it's highly entertaining to watch.

Dragonfly, excellent! Glad to hear it.

Cherokee, I've noticed the pattern too, and find it irritating. Mind you, I'm nearly out of practical suggestions -- the toolkit I know well enough to propose to others, the Green Wizardry of the Seventies appropriate-tech era, has pretty much been covered over the last year and a bit -- so I'm probably going to have to focus on ideas and perspectives for a while. Getting your hands dirty building or digging or doing something is still probably more useful.

Thijs, fascism in the strict sense -- that is, populist authoritarianism with a taste for flashy uniforms -- was very nearly the default option in American SF from the 30s through the coming of the New Wave in the 60s; there were notable exceptions, such as Asimov, but the genre was chockfull of square-jawed heroes brushing aside such feckless bourgeois nitpicking as the rule of law to blow up the baddies, save the world and become Grand Gorgonzola of Everything. Dune is par for the course; it's more blatant about it because Herbert was a more systematic thinker. I can still read Dune with enjoyment, just as I enjoy Tolkien despite the ghastly racial ideology of Numenorean herrenvolk and Orcish untermenschen that pervades the whole mythos; it's a matter of making allowances for an author's time and culture.

John Michael Greer said...

tOm, yes, I thought you were an Analog reader. Straining at gnats and swallowing camels was a habit John Campbell communicated to that whole end of the SF continuum. Still, pessimism? Not at all; I'm an optimist -- I think that humanity has enormous potentials ahead of it, once it gets past the childish notion that big fast noisy machines are what matters in life.

Bill, oh, granted -- and of course I've talked about groceries before, and will be talking about them again.

Rudi, that was indeed one of the things worth celebrating. As I've mentioned, I'm sure that people will do fascinating, daring, and epochal things far into the future -- just not the kind of thing that involves leaving the atmosphere.

Karim, true enough. The hurricane rolling its way up the Atlantic coast of the US right now, under close watch from satellites, is a reminder of the ecotechnic value of a good view from orbit.

Hal, all too true.

Tyler, well, let me ask you this: what are you personally doing to make that dream happen? If you're willing to commit your own money, time, and effort to it, more power to you; I think you're dead wrong, as wrong as the folks who think they can make an upgraded Farnsworth fusor (aka Bussard reactor) solve the energy crisis; but I have nothing but respect for the people who are building fusors in their basement, or helping to fund the ones who are. If you're not doing anything for the sake of the dream but arguing on the internet, though, you're wasting your breath and my time.

Bill, it took me longer to work through the logical implications of the Fermi paradox -- less of a math background, probably -- but yes, that's a pretty solid argument; it was interfacing that with The Limits to Growth and a good basic knowledge of thermodynamics that brought me to my own conviction that interstellar travel is unavailable to intelligent life forms due to energy limits.

Ric, I was frankly surprised not to face a mass invasion of techno-triumphalists insisting that we are, too, going to the stars! Yes, there have been a few, but I think the awareness that the dream is over is becoming more and more widespread. It's a good thing; once we accept that here we are, maybe we can get to work dealing with our problems, rather than trying to run away from them into space.

Adrian, one of these days I have to write a book on the occult and the Inklings. (Gareth Knight did one years ago, but I found it very unsatisfactory.) Tolkien borrowed extensively from the Theosophists, Lewis displays a great deal of familiarity with practical occultism in his space trilogy -- the summoning of the Oyarses in That Hideous Strength is for my money the best description of a planetary evocation in print -- and then there's Charles Williams and Owen Bsrfield, who were occultists plain and simple. It's only the fact that most contemporary Christians insist there's no such thing as a Christian occultist that keeps all that from being widely discussed.

Kieran O'Neill said...

I'll second Matt in being grateful that you picked up Anathem -- there's a lot more to it than just a post-oil future world novel. For one, the model it lays out for a future monastic style of academia is very interesting, and comes complete with computer-free means of doing some very sophisticated stuff. For another, the sci fi is pretty solidly on the hard side. But the icing of the cake is the thoughtful integration of the sci fi with a good healthy dose of well-reasoned Platonic realism, and even just a tiny bit of magic.

I do think you will enjoy it.

Tyler August said...

JMG,

I'm currently working on my MSc in Planetary Science at the University of Western Ontario; my thesis work is analysing an asteroid survey. My side project (because you can't get this stuff funded) I am working on it, at least on paper. Ways to 'bootstrap' our way up using the smallest-possible terrestrial investment so we won't need those trillions and thousands of launches we don't have the energy for.

I'm not in denial, though. Offworld resources are as much of a Hail Mary at this point as fusion power. It's funny you mention that, though; I ended up working in astronomy because I couldn't find gainful employment working on fusors. If I had employment gainful enough in a normal job, I'd probably be one of those basement tinkerers. The heroic, desperate last stand has always spoken to me, in my readings of history; my overactive romantic imagination pictures these efforts as a sort of technological Thermopylae.

... but for all that, I'm more Athenian than Spartan. I don't really intend to go down with the ship. My balcony is full of planters and my pantry filling with home-made pickles and preserves, and follow the Green Wizard's discussion with great interest. Thanks very much for kicking that off, by the bye.

Thijs Goverde said...

Of course, these days, what bothers me most about Dune is the silly 'water-saving' suits the fremen wear.
Walking around in a hot desert and not allowing your sweat to evaporate?

That's a quick way out of the desert, and out of everything else, too.

Shining Hector said...

JMG: "As for the argument itself, the US and (especially) Russian space programs made extremely efficient use of the available physical and technical resources. They were extravagant where they could easily afford to be, sparing where they had to be, and got the job done."

On the micro level, certainly, on the macro, not so much. Take a step back and see the forest.

We've spent $100 billion on a space station that still isn't finished and is due to be decommissioned in less than 10 years last I heard. This is not an efficient use of resources, regardless of whether or not clever engineers can figure out how to cut 10% of the mass of the joiners by using a different alloy and thereby save on launch costs. Which factor in the end has really consumed more of our limited resources in regards to advancing the cause of space exploration, physics or politics? Call me an idealist, but I'm not ready to sound the death knell quite yet.

"(And I have to say that I'm not exactly made comfortable by hearing a physician talking about how life is cheap...)"

I sometimes have that effect on people. To me, fulfilling my desire to help people doesn't necessarily involve checking my intellectual honesty at the door, though. If I might be so presumptuous, I'd say you don't either, otherwise you probably wouldn't be posting away here week after week.

I've seen firsthand how cheaply people are sometimes willing to sell their own lives as well as the lives of others, and read about it more. If that and my previous post sounds overly callous, consider that ambition, excitement, and love are really pretty cheap in monetary and physical terms. Cheap means cheap, not necessarily of little value. Hasn't that been the gist of a not entirely insignificant amount of your recent posts?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I appreciate and respect your honesty.

When there's a bushfire around these parts, you always get a large precentage of the population crying out, "we didn't get enough warning". This is despite having days of warnings about severe weather increasing the likelihood of a fire.

The warning they are actually speaking about can be interpreted as meaning: we wanted someone to contact us individually at the very last moment - preferably multiple contacts in case we weren't paying attention - so that we can make a safe escape and be as inconvenienced as little as possible. We also expect to be told which way to go. Then after the threat has receded why can't we go back immediately to the way things were before the fire?

It's a good analogy for this whole project.

For your interest too. People fall into three categories according to studies. Those who are prepared; those who acknowledge the risks but haven't prepared accordingly; and those who have no idea. Sadly, most people fall into the no idea category.

Apologies for my outburst.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey all,

Anyone who dismissed my earlier comments regarding women in the workforce should have a look at this timely article in today's newspaper:

http://www.theage.com.au/national/a-call-to-get-more-women-working-20110826-1jem1.html

Sadly, no mention of the household economy and it's contribution.

Regards

Chris

Lance Michael Foster said...

Perhaps if we focused on our inner development, as individuals and eventually as a culture, then in the not too distant future, we may find that through our minds rather than our bodies we can indeed explore space and the stars...?

shiningwhiffle said...

What a moving post!

Having been born in 1985, I'm probably among the younger members of the audience here. I grew up on diet of both classic and contemporary sci-fi: Isaac Asimov, Babylon 5, Ray Bradbury, Star Trek: TNG, Star Wars, etc. I was enchanted by the vision of a future in space.

Somewhere along the way, though, I increasingly came to regard that vision as superficial. The vision of high-tech and super-science machinery carrying us to new frontiers certainly has a "Wow!" factor, but not much more. It doesn't address our needs as social beings, and it certainly doesn't address our spiritual needs -- with a lot of sci-fi implicitly rejecting the idea that we even have the latter needs, all the while setting up the leap to space as a kind of secular soteriology.

When the last space shuttle mission was launched, I knew I would regret not paying more attention, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It wasn't a lack of time so much as not wanting to have to face the fact that, between its failed promises and my own disillusionment, the space program had already lost all of its charm for me.

And that's definitely something to mourn, because once upon a time, it really was something grand.

John Michael Greer said...

X, that lack of direction is a very good sign -- it suggests that we've begun to wake up to the fact that we've dug ourselves into a hole, and that digging with more enthusiasm may not be the best option.

Kieran, well, it's more or less next on the list; just finished a book on the subduction quake/tsunami that will likely level the Pacific Northwest one of these days, and the book on Middle Platonism I also have open is purely bedtime reading. I'll mention my response in a comment once I've finished it.

Tyler, if you're doing something practical about your vision I have no further complaints; get out there and prove me wrong. It's the people who think that arguing on the internet is an effective response to the crisis of our time that I can do without.

Thijs, well, of course there's that. To my taste, it's still a ripping good story, and the glimpses of an approach to human potential that doesn't involve just replacing it with machines are good as fodder for thinking.

Hector, that's funny, because my immediate response to your example was to suggest you look at the forest rather than the trees. Of course the ISS turned into a boondoggle -- it ended up serving to give the space shuttle somewhere to go, just as the shuttle ended up serving mostly as a way to get to the ISS. You get such boondoggles in a corrupt and decaying empire. Look at the broader picture.

To get a relatively small object into orbit with minimal infrastructure already in space, and a relatively simple industrial technology, a chemical rocket isn't a bad tool at all, and if you need people in space, neither are space capsules, whether we're talking Soyuz, Shenzhou, or Apollo. The more exotic means of getting into orbit that have been proposed from time to time are vaporware, and like all vaporware, look very good in theory; whether any of them will work in practice, or can even be tested without outlays on a scale we can no longer afford, is quite another question.

As for my comments about your attitude, I wasn't doubting your intellectual honesty, I was questioning your compassion. A willingness to see human lives casually sacrificed for the sake of space travel, or anything else, suggests a lack of concern for the lives of the people you say you want to help that I find less than comforting.

Cherokee, no apologies needed. Those who won't listen, won't listen; those who will listen but won't do anything, well, some might squeeze through by chance; the ones who listen and act are the ones for whom these posts are written.

Lance, we can certainly do some very important exploring, though I'm less than impressed by what I've seen so far of attempts to explore physical places by nonphysical means. More on this in a later post.

Whiffle, excellent. I'll be discussing the evaporation of meaning from popular SF in an upcoming post; for now, let's just say that I think you've got hold of one end of a very important clue.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Thank you for being you, JMG.

WHD

hadashi said...

Hi JMG

Yes, absolutely. I've read Richard Heinberg's (now why do I always make the mistake of thinking Heinlein) The Party is Overwhen it first came out a few years ago (it made me want to offer the man a place in my lifeboat), but having in quick succession read a few dozen more on the same subject , I can no longer claim to be familiar with its contents. I'll go back and check.

I realize that Richard has expanded his boundaries to write more broadly. He now delves into economics and so forth, so one of his later books might fit the bill even better. I guess that what I am stumblingly trying to express is a wish for a book that makes everything clear in retrospect. All other books seem mainly to be about convincing their audience prior to the fact -- what happened, is happening and will happen. However, I'd like to see a book that explained what has happened to our civilization after the fact - one that assumes that its audience already knows that their way of life has crumbled, but has no idea why,and who are the verge of pointing fingers.

I note what you had to say to Matt in a previous comment, and I personally look forward to gaining "a working grasp of how the branch of primate dominance behavior we call political power actually works in the real world". Looking forward to that future post. That is exactly the sort of 'debunkory' matter that my envisaged book would be packed with. (It would make a great title too, but at 21 words . . .)

I can just imagine you reply, "Very well. That sounds like a great project for you (Hadashi) to get involved with." Oof! Well, at least I'd know where to come for ideas ;-)

hapibeli said...

If only American leaders would listen;
"A smaller America could be a stronger America"
http://blogs.reuters.com/nader-mousavizadeh/2011/08/25/a-smaller-america-could-be-a-stronger-america/

photonX said...

I have to admit I did not read all 139 comments, so excuse me if this has already been mentioned, but you might be looking through the wrong end of the telescope on this one. The national space program, as it is presently constituted, may be winding down, but there is a real possibility that the ball has already been picked up by the other side. Space may well come to us. And we might discover that is where we came from.

Give it a little time.

Ron Broberg said...

I too dreamed those dreams. I too mourn the closing of the space era. But there is more to it.

The end of space exploration is the end of a certain line of scientific inquiry and exploration. There is some knowledge that could only be garnered by going there (in person or by proxy) and looking. As the space age closes, that knowledge will be put out of reach, possibly forever.

So not only the end of an era, but also a hard limit to certain types of scientific knowledge.

LewisLucanBooks said...

JMG - So, which book on our upcoming subduction quake in the Pacific Northwest did you read? Have I missed one?

A short sketch - According to the geological record, every 300-500 years, we have an 8 - 9 point earthquake. The ones that roll on for 5 minutes or more. The last one was in 1701. Soooo ... we're over the threshold and any time in the next 200 years ... Of course, in the meantime, we can have any number of big rumblers. The last was the Nisqually Quake in 2001. That was quit a ride. Lasted almost a minute. Some damage here in town (Centralia, WA.) but most damage was north of us in Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle.

Within 5 months, I'll be out of this unreinforced brick building that is over 100 years old. At night I lay in bed and listen to the mortar pop out of the walls in large chunks.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG-

Yes, I've read The Inklings, and agree with your assessment. There's room for a more exhaustive treatment.

It's odd--during the 19th and even early 20th centuries plenty of Christians were interested in the occult--just not the puritanical/calvanist kind of Christians that so influenced the later evangelical right (who have, in turn, so highjacked the meme of "Christianity.") Yet, some of these same churches talk about "demons." So there's some kind of belief in some kind of occult going on.

My understanding is that 19th cent. Christianity became so identified with the (at the time) new industrialists and oppression of workers that an alternative way of expressing humanistic, non-materialistic values had to be embraced.

This subject is much too complex for a short blog comment!

So: it would be interesting to read your writings on the subject of Tolkien/Lewis and the occult.

***

I looked on the map and it's hard to tell whether Cumberland will be much affected by the hurricane or not, so I hope not. Best wishes to anyone living on the East coast.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Just finished Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Talents."
Set in the 2030s against a backdrop of global warming, epidemics, economic chaos, societal breakdown and the rise of a corrupt theocratic leader. In other words, the Long Descent.

It applies to this weeks topic, in that it ends with mankind beginning a voyage to the stars. Sigh. I'm afraid I agree with JMG. Ain't going to happen. But most of the book deals with The Descent.

Weather satellites are all fine and good, but I'm tickled as heck that we're just getting a new doppler station on line out on the coast. Before, the doppler up on Puget Sound couldn't "see" through the Olympics to report the incoming weather that most affects my immediate area. And, with our ever more frequent flood events, this will be invaluable. We will get more warning and better assessments of incoming storms.

Red Neck Girl said...

I was entranced by the 'space age' but realized below conscious level it wasn't getting anywhere. There wasn't the fire of exploration or invention needed to get us beyond low earth orbit.

I've always loved SciFi/Fantasy and as I mentioned before Andre Norton was an early addiction. The Witch World series was a favorite as was the Time Traders and Beast Master but I also loved her two Janus novels. Which was an eco-technical society. Space ships aren't always the answer, although they make good props.

Unlike a lot of future casualties I do realize that I am a part of the earth, just as much as parasites and symbiotes, predators and prey.

I'm saddened at the failing of a bright, technical/mechanical future but I'm not depressed. The thought of a world in balance with people integrated into that balance puts a smile of contentment on my face.

I'm tempted to post a poem I wrote nearly twenty years ago about how I feel in regard to civilization but I think I'll not distract from Idiotgrrl's "Hope Eyrie."

Wadulisi Tsalagi

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Space hotel to give rich a thrill that's out of this world

sgage said...

photonX said...

"Space may well come to us. And we might discover that is where we came from."

What are you talking about? Please, say what you mean.

"Give it a little time."

How much time? Decades, Centuries, Millenia?

8/27/11 8:22 AM

John Michael Greer said...

William, thank you.

Hadashi, excellent; you've grasped my methods. I think you should get working on that book right away!

Hapibeli, even so, it's good to see the word getting out.

PhotonX, I'm not sure if you're aware that I wrote a book a few years ago on the UFO phenomenon, somewhat unoriginally titled The UFO Phenomenon. It deals in quite a bit of detail with the fantasies, if I may be blunt, that you're proposing. I'd encourage you to read it; you won't enjoy it, though you may be interested to know that skeptics hate it just as much as believers do.

Ron, good. That's a major factor these days, too -- there are quite a few branches of science in which further research simply costs too much to be an option.

Lewis, Cascadia's Fault by Jerry Thompson. I've been keeping an eye on that for some time now, since the first word got into the general-science media; when it happens, it's likely to be a whopper, and I'll be glad to be on the other side of the continent.

Adrian, Christian occultism goes way back -- you may be intrigued to know that "Quaker wizards" were much talked about in colonial New England, and with some reason; there were a fair number of 17th century Friends who felt that books like Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy spoke to their condition. The fading out of that tradition is unfortunate. As for the hurricane, we're getting an ordinary wet and windy day, so not to worry!

Lewis, yes, I saw a review of that and was most disappointed. To my way of thinking, it's one of the standard copouts. Saving the technology needed to keep weather radar functioning would be far more useful.

Girl, I'd all but forgotten about the Janus books! Thanks for the reminder.

Mustard, you know, there's an old saying about a fool and his money...

Kevin said...

Hi JMG, love your stuff. Been reading for a while, but this is the first time I have posted.

I agree with you on the future of space – it was always a beautiful but expensive dream, and one that society can no longer afford. However I am curious as to why your future for the Internet is so similarly bleak. Estimates of energy usage for our worldwide IT infrastructure is about 1.5 -3%. So relative to say something as mundane as space heating, (I believe about 15-30%) it's a fairly trivial amount. Unlike heating the energy used for the internet saves energy else where - just think of that saved by the replacement of snail mail as a small example, also unlike say transport the form of energy it requires has many sources available several of which are renewable.

One of the first outcomes of the upcoming age of scarcity will be a keen focus on the value of any energy usage. Information technology has been always rated highly in this regard. I remember flying over the low rent section of a town in Indonesia years ago. The houses were basically hovels yet each was adorned with a satellite dish. A not inconsiderable expense for the people who lived there. That's a pattern seen again and again in impoverished economies. I would expect no less emphasis when it's time for our world to make the crunchy decisions peak oil will demand.

In summary the EROEI for the Internet is orders of magnitude higher than many other activities we use energy for today and I would expect it will be one of the last things cut as we slide down the depletion curve.

You obviously believe differently. I would appreciate hearing why.

Cheers

Kevin

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, I've discussed this in detail at least a dozen times here, and in two of my books. I've found that very consistently, when I present the reasons why I expect the internet to come gradually apart in the decades ahead of us, the e-faithful simply talk right past the points I make -- they don't address them at all, and try to change the subject to something for which they have an answer. I'm going to take the chance that you won't do that.

The electricity cost of the internet is a tiny fraction of the inputs needed to maintain it. Over the long run, the ability to repair and replace hardware is far more serious an issue, since much of what goes into computers and the net has to be manufactured to extraordinarily demanding specifications, using a dizzying range of specialized raw materials and processes; all that requires the maintenance of a highly expensive global infrastructure, and a global economic order capable of funding that infrastructure.

The internet also has to pay for itself -- a crucial point almost always ignored -- which requires, among other things, an equally complex and fragile economic structure in working order, capable of spending billions of dollars annually on what amounts to a fancy advertising medium. There's also the need for a global political order stable enough that cyberwarfare doesn't overwhelm the capacity of the net to adapt, and a range of other conditions of the same kind that are rarely considered.

Your Indonesian example is a very good comparison here, because those satellite dishes were not being made by hand in those slums, nor were the satellites, nor were the programs they were watching. All of that was outside infrastructure into which, with a modest investment, the Indonesian poor were able to tap. If poor people in Indonesia had to build and deploy their own TVs, antennas, satellites, video cameras, etc., etc., from scratch, using resources on hand, they would not be watching satellite TV. One of the central points I've been trying to make all along is that the world of the future is going to resemble that Indonesian slum in a great many ways -- massive shortages of resources and energy among them.

This won't happen overnight, of course. My take has always been that the internet will sunset out gradually, as rising costs, parts shortages, and the impact of cybercrime, -warfare and -terrorism reduce its efficiency, while economic contraction and fragmentation narrow the circle of people who still have access. There will doubtless still be some kind of internet fifty years from now, but it may well be roughly what DARPANET was originally intended to be, a secure communications net linking government, military, and big business. Outside that narrowing circle, nets using packet radio -- a good transitional technology you might want to investigate -- will morph, as computer parts and peripherals become less and less available, into a less technically complex form of multicentric radio net which will probably retain some of the core functions of the internet -- for example, sending messages -- for a very long time to come.

There's your answer. I'll be interested to see if you address it, or evade it.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- re: the Big One: well, yeah, but now you are over here east of the Rockies where the New Madrid seismic zone is on a similar schedule. You are far enough east to avoid major direct impacts (though you'd still likely get a shaking), but with the heart of the midwest and midsouth put out of commission for a substantial period (much infrastructure would likely never be repaired), you'd definitely feel the aftermath! As we just saw in Virginia, thanks to our good resonant bedrock and lower engineering standards in this half of the continent, a 7-8 shaking here will yield about as much destructive potential over as large an area as an 8-9 on the west coast. And last time it was a series of three 7-8s over several months. No tsunamis, but huge seiches running up and down the Mississippi with similar results. Throw in a dam failure or two and it'll look very similar, except with 100,000,000 people in the affected zone.

Don Mason said...

Chris @ Cherokee Organics wrote:

“Are you conducting subtle experiments on commenters?

The reason that I ask is that I've noticed a pattern when you blog about the fall of higher ideals/empire etc. and at the same time don't ask anything practical from your commenters other than to change their perceptions. The pattern I've noticed is that the volume of comments goes through the roof.

I'm assuming that these blog posts are about raising awareness of the predicament in a way that also lowers peoples expectations of the future? This sounds like magic to me.”

JMG wrote back:

“Cherokee, I've noticed the pattern too, and find it irritating. Mind you, I'm nearly out of practical suggestions -- the toolkit I know well enough to propose to others, the Green Wizardry of the Seventies appropriate-tech era, has pretty much been covered over the last year and a bit -- so I'm probably going to have to focus on ideas and perspectives for a while. Getting your hands dirty building or digging or doing something is still probably more useful.”

The volume of comments probably goes up because many people may have a strongly-felt personal opinion about the space program, but not nearly as many people may have a strongly-felt personal opinion about, say, how to add additional insulation to an old house.

Plus dreaming about the sexy, exotic space program is fun, whereas physically installing fiberglass insulation is itchy and sweaty and about as sexy as rolling around naked in a patch of poison ivy all by yourself. You just grit your teeth and do it because it’s a job that has to be done.

But discussing ideas and perspectives are – to my mind – at least as important, and probably more important under the current circumstances.

These Green Wizard appropriate-tech tools have been around for decades (Chinese sustainable ag techniques for millennia), but have been tragically underutilized precisely because the ideas and perspectives of the average American have become so disconnected from the reality of our predicament. From Utopian wishful thinking to wild-eyed, snarling, black-helicopter paranoia – you name the craziness, and American public discourse is suffering from it.

People are going to need the hardware, but they also need the software: A common language of ideas and perspectives that have some hope of helping to cushion the fall.

- Continued Below -

Don Mason said...

- Continued from Above -

It’s much too early for any real political organizing; the average American is still much too delusional. But a reasonably coherent worldview seems to be gradually taking shape, and at some point it will become mainstream thinking, and with a political vengeance.

I personally witnessed this in the 1960’s when the public’s view of the War in (on) Vietnam changed radically in a very short period of time. In the first half of the 1960’s, opposition to the war was regarded as being on the extreme, traitorous fringe; and then in the political equivalent of a split-second (from roughly 1967 to 1969) opposition to the war went mainstream. The political impact was enormous: one President (Johnson) declined to seek the second full term that he coveted, and the new President (Nixon) was soon under so much stress that he impulsively overreacted, did some politically foolhardy things, and was forced to resign.

So public thinking can change, and sometimes quickly. But prior to that rapid change in public consciousness is a long gestational period where the basic outlines of a different and more useful replacement perspective are slowly and painfully hammered out. And during that period, the people involved in developing that new worldview are widely regarded as crazy/traitors/doomers/etc.

We’re approaching another one of those high-leverage turning points, and developing a reasonably coherent political agenda is essential to having a fighting chance of making the best of a very bad situation: namely, that we need to fall back to minimize the number of casualties.

If the issue were the Vietnam War, then I think that we would be living around 1962 or ’63: the public is beginning to realize that things are not going according to plan, but isn’t yet prepared to admit that the whole idea is unworkable, and will have to be abandoned.

And Vietnam was easier, because at least we could get out of Vietnam.

This mess we can’t get out of.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Forgive me for bypassing the whole topic of the post and responding instead to a passing comment: "you may be intrigued to know that "Quaker wizards" were much talked about in colonial New England, and with some reason; there were a fair number of 17th century Friends who felt that books like Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy spoke to their condition."

There were Quaker Wizards? COOOOOOL! This Friend is off to find Agrippa's book. :) Any hints as to where I can find more about this fascinating idea would be most welcome. (I am having visions of a guy in Plain Dress casting runes, and I have a feeling that's off the mark...) :)

DIYer said...

The Quaker wizard's method consists of quietly contemplating $DESIRED_EVENT, waiting for its emergence and realization... (no offense to any friends reading this, it's a Perl joke :-)

JMG, that last paragraph had my hair standing on end. I mean that in a good way, it was some hella good moving prose.

david k said...

Thanks JMG, great post!

It brought back memories of a day in the late '70s when my neighbors took me to Lambert airport in St. Louis to get an up-close look at the Space Shuttle perched atop a 747. I can't remember but I suppose it was on a "lay over" on it's way to or from FL or AZ. The Space Shuttle and the other wonders from NASA, from the Moon landings to the incredible images of Jupiter and her moons brought to us from the Pioneer spacecraft, piqued my interest in science. So I too felt a bit of a body blow as I listened to the radio reports about the last Shuttle mission a few weeks ago. But for me it's more than a sense of loss of a dream. I couple this circumstance with another product of the decline of empire which JMG has written about: the coming collapse of Higher Education, and that makes me shudder. The Space Program was a great boon to education and so I fear its demise may only hasten the demise of science education in America. Things look even worse when one notices that an entire wing of the Republican party seems to be operating in an alternate reality where there is no global warming and the earth is only 6000 years old. I fear that if the Rick Perrys and Michele Bachmans of the world ever come to power the only schools we will have will be of the Sunday School variety.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Apple Jack--greetings, Friend. I hope thee are well this day. (And your "vision" makes me laugh, right out loud.)

and JMG,

Thanks for the reference--Like Apple Jack, I'll have to look up Agrippa. He's not mentioned in my standard Friends' histories.

DIYer said...

Sorry, should have capitalized, some of my best friends are Friends. Though I haven't studied the philosophy, I have attended Meetings and found them moving. Then there's this mental image from the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Fantasia. The Wizard with the long white beard and robes and books of spells. The dissonance between the two was ... funny.

As for the Internet, JMG, I want you to be wrong. But when I think of the Roman pottery analogy, and the incredible level of technology required to make semiconductors, I can't refute the logic. It is clearly a fancy advertising medium, and the economy has turned a corner recently, not the corner most folks wanted it to turn. No economy, no advertising. (although it's worth noting that Google is not the Internet) Blogger and Youtube and Facebook require electicity-hogging server farms and are likely to be phased out early. You could have connectivity, and simple things like email, so long as microprocessors exist. Personal computers have gotten quite small and energy-efficient.

I'm not sure packet radio will outlast the microprocessor -- one would still need the processors to form up the information into packets. Something like an AM radio gossip network could be achieved with one-tube low-powered ham rigs, but packets are a bit more tricky.

Solar cells are somewhat simpler semiconductors, and can conceivably be made with medium-tech metallurgy, but charge controllers and inverters again require advanced silicon designs. Not sure what will become of that. I keep thinking of the James McMurtry song "Can't Make it Here".

A lot depends on whether semiconductor (specifically VLSI: millions of transistors on a speck of silicon) technology can survive in essentially its present form. Will the knowledge be lost as plants are closed down due to declining markets and soaring material and energy costs? Will a few small "boutique" semiconductor shops survive, perhaps to serve military / government, and to support what remains of the general communication infrastructure? (with the caveat stated above, that the smallest microprocessor factory still requires advanced cryosystems, ultrahigh vacuum, exotic chemistry, and abundant ultra-reliable energy)

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, oh, granted. Still, we'll get at most a good strong shake here, and be left with plenty of viable transport routes from the east. When the next Cascadia subduction quake hits, if it follows past examples, everything along the west coast from the northern end of California to a good bit of the way up British Columbia, reaching a good 200 miles inland, is going to get flattened, and then the tsunami comes in. The last one of them, just over 300 years ago, split the entire fault zone from end to end. Not something I want to watch.

Don, you may well be right -- and I'll be going on at quite a bit of length about the theoretical issues over the weeks, months, and years to come. Still, I find the hands-on work fun and fulfilling, and can't help but wish that more people would get into it now, while we've still got ample resources.

Apple Jack, I got that info from researching occultism in colonial America -- it's been a long time and I don't have the sources handy, but some of the more conservative Meetings toward the end of the colonial period imposed a lot of disciplinary measures on Friends who were practicing various kinds of occultism, and (if I recall correctly) Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about an elderly Quaker wizard his family knew, whose book of spells was the classic 17th century English translation of Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy -- that was the manual of magic among English-language wizards, curers, and folk magicians of all kinds until the revival of occult philosophy in the late 19th century, so it was by no means unique to Friends.

DIYer, thank you. I wanted to communicate something of what the failed dream of space meant to me; good to hear that I succeeded, at least in part.

David, good. Now comes the hard question: what are you personally going to do about it? One of the things that's given the Bachmans of the world their current position of relative influence is precisely that they've been willing to put their money (time, etc.) where their mouths are, even when it wasn't popular to do so. I'd like to see more people who care about, say, science education set out to do something in their own lives and communities to further their cause -- there are plenty of ways to do it. (One example: a lot of amateur astronomers go out of their way to host "star parties" at which people who've never had the chance to peer through a telescope get to see the rings of Saturn and the mountains of the Moon up close and personal' professional astronomers and science writers have traced their careers back to such an event in childhood.) You've defined a real need; how will you fill it?

Adrian, you won't find it there. The Quakers, like the other surviving groups to come out of the 17th century English radical scene, had everything to gain by cleaning up their history, and much to lose by not doing so. Histories of popular religion and occultism that focus on the 17th century in Britain and America will give you a glimpse at the occult wing of the Quaker faith in those days, along with much else. Enjoy!

SophieGale said...

I think I did my grieving for the space program last summer when I read The Ecotechnic Future--though I didn't grieve very deeply. I'm 60 and on a limited income. I'm not likely to ever see the Louvre or the pyramids at Giza, and that makes me sadder. --And I get sick on carnival rides. Outer Space would be soooooo much fun!

I've never liked "hard" SF or military SF. I've always like SF that spoke back to social issues (and the original Star Trek did that). I think when history sums up the space program, I think it will have to talk about the global shift in consciousness that began when we able to see Earth floating in space. If seeing is believing, we all know at our core that we are all sharing a finite planet. Billions of people are in denial, of course, but we've seen the smoke from the Amazon basin. We've tracked hurricanes and tsunamis and watched the desert eat Sub-Saharan Africa...

Without the pictures of that blue marble rotating in front of that dark curtain, would we have had Earth Day or naked hippies writing the books that we are collecting today? So we've lost the cold, dark reaches of space, but you know what? We are going to have another shift in consciousness...

Get ready: Earth is about to become huge once again! There will be no more fly-over places. Distances will be measured in days rather than hours. Far-fetched stories will be full of wonder and mystery once again.

I recommend John Crowley's fantasy novel Little, Big. It's been my bible for 30 years.

"The further in you go, the bigger it gets."

re. Quaker wizards--William "City of Brotherly Love" Penn laid a doozy of a curse on Lodowicke Muggleton, the leader of a rival religious sect: “To the bottomless pit are you sentenced, from whence you came, and where the endless worm shall gnaw and torture your imaginary soul to eternity.”

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, well, the last thing I want to do is wade back into the question of the internet's survival -- that's been hashed and rehashed here, with no result other than the hardening of existing opinions. Just one clarification, though. I expect packet radio to survive only so long as personal computers can either be bought or pieced together from scraps. VLSIs are one of the major bottlenecks, precisely because they demand so many subsidiary technologies and inputs. Still, when those run out, message handling used to be a major part of ham radio activity, and a lot of hams still remember how it's done; given a few handbuilt tubes or a sturdy old transceiver here and there, you've got a communications net that can keep continents in contact with each other, and move a lot of information at what (in pre-computer days) was considered quite a respectable speed. (Morse code operators invariably beat the stuffing out of teen text messagers in speed-of-sending competitions.)

Speaking of which...

Kevin (offlist), yes, I figured you'd argue. You asked what my reasons were; I told you; if you don't agree, well, that's your right, but the whole issue has been rehashed 1.3 godzillion times on this blog already, and it's not a useful expenditure of my time to go over the same ground so you can insist "But that doesn't matter!" The question isn't going to be settled by arguing online; over the next two decades or so, we'll see who's right -- and in the meantime, it's in everyone's best interest to see to it that somebody, somewhere, is thinking about what to do when the internet shuts down, so that there's at least the first sketch of a fallback in place.

John Michael Greer said...

Sophie, good to hear that you're a Little, Big fan -- a stunningly good book, and curiously enough, one that touches on a number of issues I mean to bring up in forthcoming posts. Crowley's vision of the gradual sunsetting of the industrial age, there and in several other of his books, is to my mind one of the best and most evocative.

Robert said...

For one Quaker wizard, see John Greenleaf Whittier's _Supernaturalism in New England_ (1847) and his (somewhat later) introduction to his 1866 poem "Snowbound." The poem itself gives just four verses to the wizard and his book:

"We stole with her a frightened look / At the gray wizard's conjuring-book, / The fame whereof went far and wide / Through all the simple country side,"

In Whittier's "Introduction" to that poem, he tells how his mother had described the strange people of her childhood between Dover and Portsmouth, NH, including "Bantam the wizard."

Earlier, in _The Supernaturalism on New England,_, he says a little more about this "plain, sedate member of the Society of Friends, named Bantum. He passed, throughout a circle of several miles, as a conjuror, and skillful adept in the art of magic. To him resorted farmers who had lost their cattle, matrons whose household gear, silver spooks and table linen had been stolen, or young maidens whose lovers were absent; and the quiet, meek-spirited old man received them all kindly, put on his huge iron-rimmed spectacles, opened his "conjuring book," which my mother describes as a large clasped volume in strange language and black letter type, and after due reflection and consideration gave the required answers without money and without price. The curious old volume is still in the possession of the conjuror's family. Apparently inconsistent as was this practice of the Black Art with the simplicity and truthfulness of his religious profession, I have not been able to learn that he was ever subjected to censure on account of it."

This man can be identified as Ambrose Bantam or Bampton, of Dover, NH. He is listed in the 1790 census as the head of a family of 9 people, and he can be found in other records, too.

Whittier thought that his conjuring book was a copy of the 1651 English translation of Agrippa's _Occult Philosophy_. He is probaby right, but that volume was printed in Roman type, not black letter.

Robert said...

PS For other cunning men in ealy America, see Peter Benes, "Fortunetellers, Wise-Men, and Magical Healers in New England, 1644-1850," pp. 127-148 in _Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900_, ed. Peter Benes, Annual Proceedings 1992 of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife (1995).

Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, thank you! I'd misremembered the source of the story -- of course it was Whittier, not Hawthorne.

Looking at the story now, with the benefit of some years' further study of the history of occultism, I'd say the wizard's book might have been Agrippa in a Latin or German edition, but it might also have been something more colorful. Pennsylvania got a lot of German Rosicrucians fleeing from the religious troubles of the time; that whole movement combined deep Protestant piety with a great deal of magical practice. Some of them ended up taking on apprentices from among the "English," as Pennsylvania Dutch folks still call their neighbors, and there's still quite a bit of old German wizardry running around in American folk magic as a result.

Robert said...

All the early Latin editions of Agrippa that I have seen are in Roman or Italic type. If there was an early edition in German, that would very likely have been in black-letter.

Or, as you say, it may have been some other title. A very large number of esoteric or magical books were printed in England between about 1640 and 1680, since there was no censorship of the English press at all during most of those forty years.

The geography of early New England occult science is fascinating. There are, of course, the three Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Neew Haven, and Connecticut; but even there a considerable number of alchemists and hermeticists flourished. And they made up less than half of the settled land of New England, and less than half of the pre-Revolutionary Colonies.

Plymouth Colony was Separatist, not Puritan, during the 1600s, and it was much less doctrinaire in theology. (There is even a little evidence that the Separatists encouraged or permitted women to speak in church as well as men.) Rhode Island, like Pennsylvania, was famously tolerant of all religious opinions, and even witchcraft was legal there, so long as it did not harm people or summon demons or employ familiar spirits. Saybrook Colony, short-lived though it may have been, was almost as tolerant as Rhode Island.

And the vast Northern Fringe of New England (New Hampshire and what later became Maine and Vermont) had neither the political machinery nor very much inclination to exert any control over a person's studies or thoughts at all.

One old story, possibly apocryphal, from the Northern Fringe tells how a minister from Massachusetts was brought in to fill a vacant pulpit in Portsmouth, NH, in the very late 1600s. He preached an inaugural sermon in the Puritan vein, and claimed that the ancestors who had founded New England came there to create a Puritan Commonwealth. Up rose an old fisherman from his pew in the church and interrupted the minister: "I don't know about your ancestors, sir, but up here our ancestors came to fish and to trade, and not for religion at all."

There are early rich networks of communication between Rhode Island and Pennsylvania that go as far back as Johannes Kelpius, some of whose letters to Rhode Islanders are sre still extant. Very likely something similar once existed between Pennsylvania and the "Northern Fringe." So your suggestion that Bantum's black-letter book may have been in German strikes me as right on target.

Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Re: the New Madrid fault, I hear many people saying it's overdue for another mega-quake, but the research I've done makes it seem that isn't so, that prior to the 1812 mega-quakes there were ones around 1450, 900, and 300 AD. That pattern seems to suggest the immediate risk is not that great. A smaller but still significant earthquake is more likely. I'd be more concerned about that if I were down in the Mississippi valley.

The maps I've seen for damage potential are also contradictory. The most detailed one I've seen (which I tried to find again through google just now but with no luck) showed because of underlying geology some areas much further from the fault would see worse damage than other closer areas. For example where I am in the central ozarks would see similar shaking as Chicago and Indianapolis, even though those places are significantly further from the fault. The Mississippi valley would have it especially bad for hundreds of miles north and south of New Madrid, but supposedly the geology of the Ozarks absorbs seismic waves better than in any other direction from the fault so only the Eastern Ozarks would see severe damage from even a mega-quake, although I'm sure we'd get a good shake where I'm at.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: The Big One, true, Maryland is not too vulnerable. We, on the other hand, live 170 miles from the New Madrid Seismic Zone (yes, I knew that when we moved here). So I am figuring out how to retrofit our house to withstand Mercali XIII shaking (lateral accelerations about equal to 25% of gravity) -- the high end of what is estimated to have happened here 200 years ago. It looks feasible.

I wish more people in the middle of the US were aware of this seismic risk. Everyone is concerned with tornadoes; understandable as they come through every year, and everyone has seen the aftermath uncomfortably close to home in person at some point in their lifetime. But if you look at the odds that any given individual house will get hit by a destructive tornado (1 in 200 to 500 per year) versus another New Madrid earthquake series (1 in 200 to 500 per year), well, it's pretty much the same. Except that this "tornado" will hit everyone all at the same time over a huge multistate area, and with no warning. People install storm cellars, but they don't put in cripple walls or seismic braces... I've said it before people: while you retrofit for energy loss, retrofit for earthquakes and windstorms too. Your biggest energy saving in your lifetime is NOT having to rebuild your house!

Don -- having done (and continuing to do) all those nasty jobs, there is one big difference though. I get huge personal satisfaction from having done things myself and then being able to enjoy the fruits of my itchy sweaty labors for many years. The space program is/was a spectators sport for nearly all of us. I prefer to do, not just watch. This is a nearly lost attitude; it will have to make a comeback in future generations.

david k said...

Yes, this is a hard question: "You've defined a real need; how will you fill it?"

I suppose the first logical step would be for me to dust off my old telescope and get reacquainted with the night sky, such that it is here under the city lights.

Laura said...

I was born 6 months before the first shuttle launch. My daughter was born six months before the last.

I was a space travel geek, too, but I guess for my generation it took a different flavor. For you, it held the excitement of participation; for me, it held the pride of achievement, tinged always with nostalgia.

I wanted to be involved in a project with the scope, energy, and synergy of Apollo. For awhile I thought that our future in space would provide this; that ambition motivated me through engineering school. But as I realized the truth, I slowly lost interest.

My generation's great endeavor lies elsewhere; my daughter's lies elsewhere still. Most likely, they will be more closely linked to means of human survival.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Bill, I live a similar distance from the New Madrid zone as you do, but in the opposite direction. Did you mean mercalli VIII rather than XIII, because I just haven't found anything that supports that kind of intensity, XIII is literally off the charts. The Missouri DNR has put together a map of the expected Mercalli intensities in Missouri for a 7.6 New Madrid quake at http://www.dnr.mo.gov/geology/geosrv/geores/techbulletin1.htm

I'm solidly in the VI intensity area, and even the epicenter is at X intensity, very damaging but far shy of XIII. The map doesn't include Tennessee but I don;t imagine the intensity would get worse anywhere there than in the Missouri bootheel. An earthquake stronger than 7.6 is possible but I still don't see any scenario like you propose, I haven't yet seen evidence to convince me that any structure at least moderately well-built in the central ozarks is in much danger from the New Madrid zone, but if you have a source that indicates otherwise I'd love that information.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ozark -- certainly not "overdue." But that is not a whole lot of samples to calculate an average interval and provides a really poor estimate of the variability. The estimated intervals range 350-600 years (up to 800-900 if you include some of the even earlier estimated dates). Sample size = 3. That is not at all strong evidence that a 200 year interval is unlikely. Plus I have always been troubled by the fact that the more recent the interval, the shorter the interval. This suggests either (a) coincidence, (b) increasing activity, or (c) some dates are missing earlier in the series hence the estimated average interval is likely substantially too high. Two of those three options would suggest that something big in the coming decades is quite possible. The most important fact is that the nature of New Madrid is very poorly understood, hence its future behavior is extremely hard to forecast.

As for estimated shake maps, there are so few contemporary accounts it is all guesswork. By the way, of course I meant Mercalli VIII not XIII for my place; XIII is off the top of the scale! Just remember that the recent 5.8 in Virginia was felt in southern Canada and central Georgia, around 500-600 miles away. New Madrid was roughly 100-fold stronger, and happened three times. If I were anywhere in the Ozarks I would take precautions for a major temblor. Even if most of the energy is absorbed or deflected, the fraction left over would still be substantial.

The geology of the Ozarks is similar to that of the Highland Rim which lies between New Madrid and Nashville; still Nashville experienced quite a jolt. The surprisingly active East Tennessee Seismic Zone is about the same distance from us in the other direction, also across geology similar to the Ozarks. It throws a 4 every few years; these rattle our windows, wake sleepers, and freak the dogs out. Multiply that by 1000...

The eastern U.S. is actually full of these small, poorly-known seismic zones. Long-term trends would suggest that any one of these can whip up an occasional 6-point-something even if it has never produced more than 3s and 4s historically. This may not seem great on a continental scale but if it happens in your neighborhood it could be a pretty major incident. It only takes one fallen chimney or collapsed foundation pillar to ruin your whole day...

John Wheeler said...

JMG, this article fills me with both pity and amazement, how you can live in such a dark world. For certain, the industrial dream of conquering space is dying, and good riddance. But that does not mean an ecotechnic age can not have its own space dreams.

"Global warming" will destroy the planet completely, via the expansion of the sun, in 5 billion years or so. In just 1/10th that time, the oceans will boil away. In possibly as little as 1 million years, the CO2 levels would need to be zero to compensate for the extra energy from the sun. If we had any solid evidence that life exists anywhere else in the universe, I would be content to just let go and let nature take its course. But for all we know, this is it: the Earth is the only home for life in the Universe, and we have been entrusted with keeping its flame alive.

Of course we can't continue as we have been and use up other worlds. And there will be no mass exodus from this planet in the foreseeable future. But look at ships like the Mayflower that brought colonists over to America. A small group with appropriate technology can learn to survive and grow on other worlds, teaching us in the process how to live wisely on this one.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Little Big is in my top 10. It's haunting and worth a few posts on its own. Every re-read brings out more meaning and substance to the story. Thanks for mentioning it Sophie!

Hey Don,

I'd like to agree with you, however, the problems that we are all facing is that it requires a fundamental shift downwards in the standard of living. This differs from the late 60's - early 70's because those protest movements were aimed at very specific issues as distinct from the present where there needs to be an acknowledgement that the race has been run and lost.

PS: As to our electrical infrastructure, one of the strange things that I have noticed in comments elsewhere is that people have this level of disconnect (excuse the pun). The disconnect arises because if their electricity is sourced from somewhere else they seem to think that they are invulnerable and that supply is guaranteed. This thinking seems to ignore the fact that large scale power stations have finite lives just as photovoltaic panels do. In a strange coincedence too, the life span tends to be around 50 years each between a gas/coal plant and a PV panel.

I wouldn't bother wasting the energy in my off grid PV system trying to send packets via a ham radio when you could either talk or use morse code. Most people around here use UHF CB's - although a ham radio will punch an enormous distance. Things to do for later.

Regards

Chris

RainbowShadow said...

Personally, I don't look on the end of the space program with even remotely any satisfaction, and this quote by Arthur C. Clarke is why:

"It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars."

Is anyone else familiar with this quote? What Clarke was trying to say, I think, was that if humans could see Earth as merely one planet among many, many celestial bodies (which the space program, for all its faults, allowed us to actually SEE by showing us how vast space really was), we could get OVER ourselves to some extent. Differences of religion and race would cease to matter, and all these wars would stop once we realized how insignificant our differences were compared to the vast, vast, VAST size of the universe.

But if we lose our astronomical knowledge (specifically the knowledge that the universe is much, much, much more vast in scope and the Earth is just a small part of it), and the earth gets "huge" again, then once again our racial and religious and ethnic and what-have-you differences will again assume cosmic importance, since there won't be an outside "bigger perspective" to reign them in.

I am probably alone on this one, but I don't even remotely consider that a good thing.

Am I making sense, John Michael Greer, or have I not expressed myself properly?

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Thanks for the clarification, Bill. I appreciate your input.

John Michael Greer said...

David, good. Happy skywatching!

Laura, that's a very useful way to think about it.

And where would we be without the touching faith of the true believer? John, if we have to wait until we successfully colonize another world before we learn to live on this one, you might as well kiss your species goodbye. I've got a better idea; let's figure out how to live with the limits of the biosphere we've got, which is the one to which we're very well adapted, and then we can talk about your fantasies of metastasizing to other planets. (By the way, your global wsrming science is about 30 years out of date, too; might want to check up on that.)

Rainbow, I certainly don't find the end of the space program a cheering prospect, either -- just an inevitable one. Still, I'm not sure Clarke was right; we've had just as much nationalism since the Earth was seen from space as we had before it.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ozark -- one final comment then I'll stop filling the blog with this little digression... the actual magnitude of the New Madrid quakes (once again, remember, there were three of them in just a few months) is unknown. Same for all historical major quakes, including 1906 in SF. It's inferred from spotty and sketchy reports of the effects. Some of the New Madrid tales (like huge seiches traveling up the Mississippi carrying boats with them and leaving them wrecked on shore) sound bigger to me than the high-7-point-something magnitude that is currently thrown around.

Also, one of the biggest mistakes in seismic planning has been to just plan for a repeat of what has already been historically documented. Many nukes in east TN and N AL were only engineered for a 6.0, even though they are in eastern North America's second most active seismic zone after New Madrid. A very poorly known and mostly inactive zone in central Virginia just threw a 5.8 out of the blue, with no prior history of anything close to that. So plan for the worst historical scenario plus 1 (at least) if you really want to ensure that whatever you build has a lifetime of centuries not just decades. People are not accustomed to thinking in those time scales in the U.S., but I am spending the 21st century in a house built in the 19th, and am working on ensuring it has a shot at still being here in the 22nd and 23rd.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Robert (and JMG)

Oh drat! Just when my reading list was getting a little shorter (ha ha), along you come with irresistible suggestions! For whole lines of inquiry!

Have found Snowbound and Agrippa in Google Books. Supernaturalism in New England is on order from the library. (Something I'll miss: electronic library resources.)

@SophieGale--For another side of Penn, I suggest Some Fruits of Solitude, which he wrote in prison. Have you read it? (George Fox was also a good one for curses.) Little Big I've requested from the library.

Re Practical Green Wizarding vs. The Abstract --I think the relevant posts have given many of us inspiration and suggestions enough that my family, at least, is continuing to change the ways we do things; and once you start thinking and doing along these lines, the possibilities for practical preparation for the future spin out endlessly for any thoughtful, active person.

Yet while we are doing, thinking about and discussing theory/issues/history/philosophy, etc. helps us understand context, perspective and how to chart a course for the future.

And such interesting, thoughtful, and learned people contribute here.

OK, time to go check for tomatoes, pull weeds, and sow some endive and lettuce.

RainbowShadow said...

JMG said earlier:

"Still, I'm not sure Clarke was right; we've had just as much nationalism since the Earth was seen from space as we had before it."

Maybe that's because the majority of Americans turned away from science or education or pretty much any "habit of mind" that would have allowed them to understand the true significance of our infinitesimal position in the cosmos.

In other words, we DID have the capacity to make Clarke right, we DID have the capacity to see how similar humanity really is from the perspective of the stars, but we sold out for American Idol, televangelism, beauty contests, video games, and the hyper-macho-bravado stance that every problem must be solved with force and bombs instead of learning.

You said in an earlier post that there was no point pretending that we couldn't have done something and we had no options, that such a thought was just a sour-grapes way of avoiding deal with grief.

That's the sentiment I'm trying to express, I hope I'm saying this properly. The space age DID give us the chance to end wars and endless divisions, but most Americans deliberately chose not to take advantage of the opportunity, in favor of their "beliefs," and we have to acknowledge that if we're going to avoid ever REPEATING that mistake in the future.

Cathy McGuire said...

No need to post this if someone already has (I'm too rushed at the moment to read all the comments and check):
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Astronauts may need to temporarily abandon the International Space Station this fall if last week's Russian launch accident prevents new crews from flying, a NASA official said Monday.

If Russia's essential Soyuz rockets remain grounded beyond mid-November, there will be no way to launch any more astronauts before the current residents are supposed to leave, said NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini.

A space station supply ship was destroyed last week following liftoff from Kazakhstan. The failed upper stage of the Soyuz rocket is similar to what's used to launch astronauts.

The launch of the very next crew already has been delayed. It had been scheduled for Sept. 22.

To keep the orbiting outpost with a full staff of six for as long as possible, three of the current residents will remain in orbit for at least an extra week. They were supposed to return to Earth on Sept. 8...

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, bwahahaha! My evil work is done... ;-)

Rainbow, oh, no question. One of Clarke's endearing qualities is his tendency to assume that people would more or less do the right thing more often than not. As it is, the image of the whole earth has had a huge impact on modern culture -- just not as large as it would have had to have in order to fulfill his hopes.

Cathy, I hadn't seen that -- thanks for the update!

Zach said...

@RainbowShadow,

The space age DID give us the chance to end wars and endless divisions, but most Americans deliberately chose not to take advantage of the opportunity, in favor of their "beliefs," ...

Disagree.

"What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war ..."

I don't believe that getting off-planet is enough to change this aspect of human nature. "Wherever you go, there you are," as Buckaroo Banzai said. I don't know how JMG does it, but this is the third or fourth time in a row he's reminded me of something from C. S. Lewis, whose "Religion and Rocketry" essay should be required reading for anyone philosophizing about the spiritual effects of the Space Age.

While I love Star Trek, this is one thing Roddenberry and his successors got completely wrong. Babylon 5 gets this better, I think. Humans in space are still messed-up humans, in that story.


peace,
Zach

John Michael Greer said...

Sharon Astyk has just published a very useful post on the limits of technical feasibility, which makes some of the points I've been trying to make and does it with admirable clarity. Might be worth a look.

Zach, somehow I missed that Lewis essay -- can you recommend an anthology or other source?

Zach said...

@JMG,

"Religion and Rocketry" is collected in The World's Last Night: And Other Essays.

I have not read the titular essay, "The World's Last Night," in many years, but I recall that it takes aim squarely at the Myth of Progress™. So, that one may also be applicable to this week's discussion.

I'm sure you will understand how amusing it is to find myself encouraged to re-read Lewis by the writings of an Archdruid! :)

peace,
Zach

phil harris said...

CS Lewis
Religion & Rocketry; essay, I see Zach has answered already. If you are interested this essay collection can be obtained just now, very cheap paperback, greenearthbooks.com (Portland, OR, U.S.A.) Also available from amazon.uk.

John Michael Greer said...

Zach, many thanks. As for Lewis and archdruids, one of the things very few of Lewis' Christian fans grasp is that he was a significant figure in the history of Christian Platonism, and a very close student of the medieval Platonists -- you may well know that most of the setting of the space trilogy was lifted straight out of the 12th-century Platonist philosopher Bernard Sylvester. Platonism was also a major influence on the Druid Revival of the 18th and 19th centuries, which is the movement to which the order I head traces its lineage, and it's a direct influence on my thought as well -- I've yet to find a thinker who makes more sense of spirituality than Plotinus, for example. If Lewis and I could ever have had the chance to sit down over a couple of beers and talk, after a few pro forma harrumphs over the different religious symbolisms we use, we'd very quickly be talking the same language and saying many of the same things.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

One last earthquake question if I may, since Bill and possibly others with a lot of knowledge about this issue are here. I've heard a theory around recently that global warming may eventually lead to a period of increased seismic activity due to the melting of the large icecaps and rising oceans shifting the weight on the Earth's crust. Small earthquakes in greenland have increased with the relatively minor melting of the icecap observed so far, so would major melting lead to more earthquakes? I guess it that's true then there would have also been an increase in earthquakes at the end of the last ice age, but I'm not sure how far back evidence of ancient earthquakes can be found.

idiotgrrl said...

"If you and Lewis could sit down..."

That's one of the themes of the novel "Rainbow Cadenza", (late 2000s setting) in which a priest of the "Mere Christian Church" and a Wiccan who is also, you should pardon the expression, a Randite (a combination actually quite rare in the neopagan community. neoheathens, now...) find they actually have much in common when you file the serial numbers off.

(It also has a hilarious fallacy, put in the writings of one of the baddies, about the habitat that "has no taxation...but finds a way to make the tourists pay for everything...". Hah. Having paid two Nevada hotel bills recently, I say it's taxes and to hell with it. And laughed my head off. But I digress, as always.)

LewisLucanBooks said...

John James Audubon was an observer and reporter of the New Madrid Quake. Good old Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on the event.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_New_Madrid_earthquake

phil harris said...

I just read Sharon Astyck's very useful post. She is right to refer to "what John Michael Greer correctly calls the whole systems cost of maintaining that infrastructure".
I worked off and on in Macedonia until 2006: a poor country not yet integrated in to the European Union: per capita GDP 4,500 usd, perhaps 20% of the average for OECD countries. But now more than double what it was on my first visit in 1999. It illustrates perhaps both Sharon's concern over what can be achieved, and perhaps at the same time surprises us that life can be worthwhile and reasonably secure on less than we might think. Yes the new sewage system for Skopje where most people now live was heavily subsidized for political reasons by the EU. I remember though that the pharmacy system seemed to function reasonably adequately: we are talking drugs for hypertension, heart arterial disease, diabetes, as well as antibiotics and painkillers. Maybe for reasons of low cost, generic out-of-patent drugs were available? I am guessing. Hospital just about worked. Public health controls and veterinary controls (rabies for example; also control for epidemics in farm animals) worked surprisingly well, (again though with support from EU). Education produced some well-informed very smart skilled people. They had 30% unemployment but a very large gray economy. Self-build housing and maintenance and improvement was a pretty obvious vernacular activity. Electricity worked. They had a world-class soccer team. Music was great. There must have been considerable corruption but local illegal drugs did not drive the scene. The streets at night were the most secure that I have walked in a largish city. They lived still on a political volcano, being in the Balkans with a large ethic religious minority. But families still worked as extended support units. I keep my fingers crossed.
The CIA factbook economic overview is worth a scan.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, thank you also!

Ozark, isostatic rebound -- the rising of sections of the Earth's crust that were shoved down a bit into the mantle by having a few trillion tons of ice on top of them -- has been linked to very large earthquakes and tsunamis; I don't have the data handy but my book on the Atlantis legend discusses it. If we lose the Greenland ice cap in a hurry, the results are likely to be very difficult for the Northeast.

Phil, that's an important point, of course: poor doesn't necessarily mean miserable. Learning how to get by comfortably on very little is an important skill now, and will become an essential skill down the road.

Thardiust said...

Your latest post reminds me of a recent Richard Dolan interview. Though the space age is over, I think this video clearly reflects humanity’s yearning to continue questioning and exploring no matter what we’re up against. It's also interesting to see how singularian's are taking in the fact that peak oil will put a dent in previously planned deep space missions since, now we'll all have to refocus on exploring the real world which already exists around us instead of far off, imagined, universes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fEcBmpdUGqw

dltrammel said...

Of all the things that will will lose in the days to come, Space makes me the saddest, since in so many ways I'm a child or that race.

My father worked for McDonnell Aircraft and was John Glenn's crew chief on his Mercury mission. Growing up at Cape Canaveral, Glenn and the other astronauts (and their families) were frequent visitors to the barbecues held at our house. There was a real sense that Space was there as truly the "next" frontier.

Now with next year being the 50th year since Glenn's first historic flight, I look back and sigh. My father passed away several years back and I inherited his memorabilia. Sometimes I will thumb thru the notebooks filled with pictures and cut out newspaper articles and wonder why?

Why didn't we suceede in conquering Space? Why don't we have colonies on the Moon?

I can only hope that out there in the Deep, there are civilizations who aren't infected with greed like we seem to be. Who understood the limits of their oil resources, and used them wisely to break free of their earthly home to venture out among the Stars.

Maybe, just maybe when we've gone thru our own soon to be Dark Age, and have learned some humility they might land and say hello...

---

Just to let you know, JMG, we just had our first local meet-up of green wizards in the Saint Louis, Missouri area. While it was small it went well. We agree to meet again in early November.

Small steps...

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Don Mason said...

@ Bill Pulliam wrote:

"Don -- having done (and continuing to do) all those nasty jobs, there is one big difference though. I get huge personal satisfaction from having done things myself and then being able to enjoy the fruits of my itchy sweaty labors for many years. The space program is/was a spectators sport for nearly all of us. I prefer to do, not just watch. This is a nearly lost attitude; it will have to make a comeback in future generations.”

I think I know how you feel: if I’m not doing something, then I feel like I’m just a bump on a log. Who wants to passively watch when you can actively do something constructive?

Installing fiberglass insulation is just about the only construction job I don’t look forward to doing. The worst part is trying to sleep when my wrists and neck are raw. I’ve never found a good way to keep the tiny glass fibers out; and unfortunately, my skin is very sensitive to them.

When the wall is opened up, though, there’s really no alternative to using fiberglass batts. But I wish that someone would come up with batts as cheap as fiberglass that don’t itch. For blown-in insulation, I use cellulose. Dusty, but not itchy.

I agree that the DIY attitude has largely disappeared. A lot of people in my parent’s (First) Great Depression generation had it, but somewhere along the line, it got lost - probably as a result of too much affluence. Why go to all the time and trouble of doing it yourself when you can buy it cheaply because it’s made by slave labor in Asia?

Maybe the kids coming up will start to enjoy building things themselves. At least I hope that they enjoy it. Because whether they enjoy it or not, they aren’t going to have much choice: as abundance disappears, it’s going to be “Do it yourself or do without.”

Re: Retrofitting an Old House for Energy Efficiency, and Earthquake/Tornado Survival

These old houses around here in Northern Illinois are on 18” wide limestone foundations, but the sill plates aren’t bolted down – and that’s the way old houses are in most of the country. So the houses can be shaken or blown off their foundations. Plus the sills leak air like crazy, and solid rock is a poor insulator.

To remedy it, I’ve been removing the bottom siding board and digging down another 8” to 12” into the soil, and then adding 2” extruded polystyrene foam sheets to the outside of the foundation wall. I add a layer of galvanized expanded metal lath to the outside of the polystyrene, and nail it to the sill plate and studs.

Then I plaster on a couple of layers of stucco to the metal lath, with the last layer stained to match the siding. I cap it with painted galvanized steel flashing angled down 45 degrees to shed water, and then put the building wrap and siding back on (both lapped over the upper edge of the flashing to shed water, with the building wrap taped to the flashing).

The technique 1) adds about R-10 of insulation and a tight air barrier to an area that is a major source of heat loss through convection and conduction, 2) helps keep water away from the sill plates (which, in these old houses, are often starting to decay), 3) keeps insects from burrowing into the insulation, and 4) adds a strong ferrocement “skirt” around the perimeter of the house to keep it from shifting laterally from either wind or earth movement.

Materials run about $3 a lineal foot, and it’s very time consuming to install. But it’ll last a long, long time. (You can buy pre-made polystyrene panels covered with a thin stucco coating, but they don’t really add any structural strength.)

Don Mason said...

Chris @ Cherokee Organics wrote:

“Hey Don, I'd like to agree with you, however, the problems that we are all facing is that it requires a fundamental shift downwards in the standard of living. This differs from the late 60's - early 70's because those protest movements were aimed at very specific issues as distinct from the present where there needs to be an acknowledgement that the race has been run and lost.”

I agree that a lot of the late 60’s – early 70’s protests were aimed at very specific issues. And the fact that those protests achieved their goals has made things worse in many cases rather than better.

Example: The women’s movement wanted to get women out of the household economy and into the money economy. They succeeded. Now there’s a couple of women who are making obscene amounts of money, a small group of relatively overpaid functionaries, and millions of female wage-slaves who are earning less money than they are spending on transportation, day care, and additional taxes. These women are literally paying money to be employed. This is called “female empowerment”.

Example: People who were concerned about energy were able to get a U. S. Department of Energy established to help us deal with the energy crisis – and it became a department that has never, ever allowed the word “oil” to be preceded by the word “peak”. This is called “energy planning”.

One of the movements from that time that had a lot of long-term potential was the back-to-the-land, homesteading movement. It largely fizzled out, however, and the main reason (as you’re noted in some of your posts) is that homesteading requires a large amount of hard, physical labor. Most people who tried it gave up because it was easier to just get a regular job (and good jobs were abundant in those days).

Some of us were trying to point out that the whole system was headed to a bad end, but we were overruled. The public adamantly refused to reduce consumption.

One of the problems with the ‘60’s was the lack of a coherent political agenda that appealed to a majority of the American public because it could help them in their daily lives. The political agenda was sort of a mish-mash of Timothy Leary’s LSD-based “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and Stewart Brand’s tie-dyed techno-cornucopianism and Abbie Hoffman’s tongue-in-cheek attempts to levitate the Pentagon. The mainstream of America simply could not relate. Just too far out, man.

It was enough to get us out of Vietnam, but not enough to institute a whole new system.

But as abundance disappears, we could see a shift. I’m not sure how people felt over there in Oz, but until Vietnam, Americans believed strongly that “By definition, American is the country that has never lost a war.” So for people to accept that we were bogged down in an unwinnable war was a wrenching transformation in their thinking. And the transformation started slowly and painfully, but eventually the change spread rapidly.

Likewise, the perspective has been that “By definition, American is the country where the standard of living improves for every generation.” As more and more American families are getting wiped out – disappearing jobs, evaporating home equity, unpayable college loans - that belief in perpetually increasing prosperity is gradually starting to change. Once a critical mass of impoverization is reached, the public’s attitude could change rapidly.

It’s important to have some sort of reasonable agenda hammered out so that when the public is ready for a different direction, a direction that has some hope of helping is available.

Otherwise, a vacuum of constructive ideas could develop. We could descend into political craziness. Extremists are already starting to emerge.

America is inevitably going to go in one direction or another, and it would definitely be better if America doesn’t spin off into dark political extremism that tries to sustain the unsustainable through increasingly self- (and other-) destructive methods.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ozark+JMG - There is much thought that the ongoing present-day seismicity in eastern North America is in part be due to continuing isostatic rebound from the last ice age, 10,000 years after the fact. The wikipedia article has a good, but fairly technical, overview of the whole phenomenon:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-glacial_rebound

The idea is that the ice is not heavy enough to make new ruptures (faults), but it can cause old ones to reactivate as it flexes the crust up an down. Think of flexing an already-cracked dinner plate.

So yes, if the melting of the huge icecaps is still helping to trigger earthquakes up to magnitude 8 ten millennia later, even a relatively small icecap like Greenland could well cause interesting things to happen in the northeast (and North Atlantic -- tsunamis, anyone?) if it melts rapidly.

So the pleistocene ice sheets just put cracks in the Washington Monument... think about THAT when you contemplate the interconnectedness of everything through time and space!

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