The Key to Large-Scale Space Colonization? It’s Not Overpopulation

Nader Elhefnawy has an interesting essay over at The Space Review today about how space advocates who see space as a safety valve for overpopulation may be getting it wrong. It’s an interesting argument that is well worth a read.

The population explosion of the 20th century and the increased concern about the planet’s ecological limitations have kept these concerns alive and well, figuring prominently in visions like Gerard K. O’Neill’s 1976 book The High Frontier, and a great deal of space opera.

Today the world is still seeing large-scale migrations, but it seems highly unlikely that they will translate into a “push” off-planet, even were the technology to become available in this century as O’Neill (and many others) have predicted. An important reason is that the affluent, technologically advanced states that are most capable of conducting the effort seem least likely to generate space colonists, given their tendency to receive rather than export immigrants in recent decades. This pattern is reinforced by the fact that their populations are aging, and appear to be either stabilizing or gradually declining—not the demographic picture usually associated with such dramatic expansion.

I think he’s got it mostly right here. However, I would add one more thing to the argument about why large-scale space colonies may not be develop very soon. It’s an overlooked issue that comes down to one word: infrastructure.

The sort of physical and organizational infrastructure that one needs to support a population of any significant size is not small. You need housing, transportation, municipal services, schools, power, law enforcement, waste disposal…The list goes on.

Most space advocates have underestimated the complexity and cost of the infrastructure that underlies our modern lives here on Earth. They have equated infrastructure with transportation – as soon as it gets cheap enough to launch things off the Earth, everything will follow easily. Cheaper launch costs would certainly help by reducing costs and creating profit opportunities, but I think what you would find is that it’s only the beginning.

Why have space advocates overlooked these infrastructural needs? I think it’s largely because they take it for granted here on Earth. The infrastructure that underlies life in industrialized nations has changed little in 40 to 50 years. I grew up with: trains, planes and automobiles; indoor plumbing; schools to attend; stable local governments; a land line phone system; and a whole host of other things I never thought twice about. Most people don’t give much thought to what it took to build, or how much it costs to maintain and expand.

I have, however, spent time as a journalist covering local issues and studied policy issues at the national and international levels. The one thing that every elected officials from the mayor of Princeton to the President of the United States worries about is infrastructure. How to build, how to maintain it, and how to expand it. And it’s not cheap.

I’ve always admired O’Neill for his vision, audacity and his deep concern for humanity. But, he was a physicist who thought on a very high plain, not an urban planner. We need more of the latter to give our plans in space a more solid base in the real world – even as we go off-world.

You can read Elhefnawy’s essay here.