Commentary on Why the West Rules for Now by Ian Morris

I read Why the West Rules for Now with great interest and have recommended it to many.   The book is a major achievement.  Morris erudition is impressive.  His inclusion of Gunder Frank’s ReOrient among other Jared Diamond, Pommeranz and Landes among the scholars that have addressed the significance of the patterns of history is noteworthy.  I was disappointed by the concluding chapter of the book pointing to a seeming end-point in the Singularity as defined by Kurzweil.  Apparently there is progress achieved not in some linear progression but rather in fits and starts as the species reaches a hard ceiling to further social advancement with collapse to lower states of social development more likely than success in surmounting the barriers through innovation.  Howard Bloom presents a similar mechanism in his The Genius of the Beast where booms and busts drive evolution.

I am not convinced that the alternative is between Singularity and Nightfall as presented in the concluding chapter.  There are other paths.  The clearest alternative is space development, first a solar system civilization then possibly steps beyond to the stars.  I taught a course Space Industrialization and National Priorities in 1977 that addressed this issue.  At the time it seemed like the US would not turn its back on space much as the Ming emperors turned their back on Zheng He in the 1400s.  Werner Von Braun envisioned a substantial Moon Base by the early 1990s.  Boeing was working on space – based solar power satellites to provide the Earth with power and Gerard K. O’Neill envisions massive space colonies in his book The High Frontier.  Yet manned spaceflight became a minor activity until the recent revival with people like Branson, Musk and others now promoting space toris

At this point we (globally speaking) are bumping against the hard ceiling in the ways that you outline – resources, energy, food, water, global weirding – but also in terms of jobs for educated people.  In many fields a PhD leads at best to a long career as a post doc with the risk of having to drive a cab or work in fast food or construction to make a living.  And the number of educated people is multiplying.  Humanity needs to expand its environment to be able to create the jobs needed by the ever increasing numbers of educated people being churned out by universities around the globe.

Recent developments suggest that space-based solar power (SSP) can address all of the concerns.  The sun shines 24/7 in orbit with an intensity about 9 fold of most points on the Earth.  Technical feasibility of large-scale SSP powerplants in orbit is accepted.   SSP can be directed to deliver power to almost any point on Earth.  Lunar and asteroid resources can be used to construct SSP facilities in space after initial bootstrapping.   Hundreds of documents discussing this are available at http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/.

With perhaps a one trillion dollar investment the global energy future could be assured that is carbon free and imposes much less stress on the environment.  Having made that investment humankind would have also created the infrastructure to make the solar system its broadened environment.  Think of the SSP as the steam engine that got the industrial revolution started.   Yes, the SSP will deliver many gigawatts of power dwarfing what was done in the industrial revolution.  But, that is the difference between a social development index of 1,000 and say 10,000.

The past President of India A.P.J. Kalam has called for making SSP a project of the G20.  It would be a fantastic opportunity for US-China-India-Russia and EU partnership.  See for recent commentary – http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=AviationWeek.com&id=news/awx/2010/11/04/awx_11_04_2010_p0-266929.xml&headline=Indian,%20U.S.%20Experts%20Team%20On%20Space%20Solar%20Power .


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