Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It's coming to take you away.....

When I get a burr under my saddle, nothing will do until I remove it.

Consider a piece of paper.  What did it take to get it into your hands?

Whatever the content of the paper, pulp or rag or linen, it started out as a plant.  Coming from plants and getting to paper means that, even at the very beginning, there was an industrial process in place.  Raising enough cotton or flax or trees to turn into a product like a sheet of paper that isn't as rare as the vellum monks used to write on in scriptoria, requires agriculture on an industrial scale.  And that doesn't even include the harvesting of the plants, and the steps to turn that plant into pulp or cloth so it can be converted into paper, another set of processes.  And then it has to be packaged and shipped to you, or to a store near you.

We are used to being abjured to not think meat comes from the store wrapped in plastic, but from animals in fields somewhere on the planet.  We don't quite have the same regard for a piece of paper.

And the energy required to harvest the raw product of that paper.  Probably much of it rests on chemical fertilizers, a product of the petro-chemical industry.  Which means the crop depends on the mining of petroleum products from the earth and processed into fertilizers just to be grown, much less to be harvested by diesel engines driving tractors and combines and hydraulic equipment to cut and harvest trees.  Petroleum is needed to transport those items to factories where they can start to become paper, and the factories are powered by coal or natural gas, or perhaps falling water or even nuclear fusion.  The process of creating fuel for a nuclear reactor is probably even more complex than that of refining petroleum into useable products.  If you don't think so, just ask Iran.

So the industrial processes necessary to put that piece of paper into your hands spiderwebs out from the sheet of paper at the center; it spreads like cracks in a pane of glass.  And it all rests on access to raw materials sufficient to become paper, raw materials that grow the plant that becomes the paper (set aside for the moment soil and water and oxygen), and all the industrial processes that, one way or another, contribute to or even make possible the production of that one sheet of paper.

And yet paper is simple; paper is old; paper is passé.  We are a paperless society now; or at least, we aspire to be.

I own two Pelican fountain pens.  Both pens are older than my daughter by several years, and she's in her early 20's.  Both pens need to be repaired again, but they will be.  They need repairs because they are old.  They are also products of an elaborate set of industrial processes: the bodies are plastic (oil), the inner and some outer parts plastic and metal (mining, smelting).  Then there is the ink.  And yet these pens are models of simplicity compared to the tools of modern life:  pads and smartphones and the like.

I don't know anyone who has a smart phone or a tablet computer that is over 25 years old.  Those devices are vastly more complex, from an industrial standpoint, than a fountain pen and a piece of paper; and vastly more fragile.  When a tablet stops working as desired, it is discarded; it is not returned to the manufacturer to be repaired and restored.  We have lots of raw materials for more, lots of industrial capacity to provide a ready replacement, and no incentive not to just toss it on the waste pile; especially since that waste usually winds up in a foreign country.  That adds to the "fragility" of our planet, of course, but out of sight, out of mind.  Besides, we'll just colonize another planet; right?

With what?  We can't even make paper there.  Electronics?  When they fail, do we just expect another shipment from Earth of the latest product?  But what about poor, old, fragile Earth?  Who will be left here to mine the petroleum, the metals, grow and harvest the plants, man the factories, drive the trucks, just so those devices can be made to be shipped to another planet?  Aren't there resources in space?  Isn't that the idea?

Probably there are, but how do we gather them?  How do we refine them, without the industrial capacity Iran needs just to refine the raw material of nuclear fission in order to have the energy industrialization demands?  Is there oil on Mars, and can we drill it and refine it?  What fuel will heat the refineries, the blast furnaces, need to turn raw materials into something useable?  What plants on Mars ever turned into coal?  How will colonists function without plastics, the stuff not just of fountain pens but of computers?  What precious water will be devoted to ink, so a literate society can flourish on an arid Mars?

Or will literacy be the first thing we have to give up, in order to survive as a species?  And what complex society can function without records and written communications?

We've come to think of the products of industrial society as normal and normative.  We try to remind ourselves meat doesn't come packaged in styrofoam and plastic wrap, but first existed on the hoof.  We don't think about how many resources from the planet are necessary to provide and sustain that meat on the hoof, much less turn it into the convenience food we buy at the store.

We easily and willingly forget that the energy that runs our computers and our lights and our entire world was mined from somewhere, that even the solar panels and wind turbines started out as raw material industrial processes had to convert into something we can use.  We forget that mining is just the start of a long process that ends with a light coming on at the flick of a switch.

And unless we can take those industrial processes to the next planet and set them down before the non-factory workers get there, then we are setting up colonies in the Stone Age, or maybe even earlier than that.  And much as they might wish to industrialize, they won't be able to.  Not without the raw materials and the fuel sources we have now.  And without fossils, without animal life from the dim past, you don't have fossil fuels.

Any planet with life already that might have been around long enough to create fossil fuels, might not welcome a new species with open arms.

The idea that we are ever going to leave this planet without inventing magical devices like the technology of "Star Trek" is simply, well,  magical thinking.  In ST:NG, transporter technology is used to create food and even manufactured goods almost ex nihilo, powered by...well, by what?  Beyond dilithium crystals for warp engines, what is the fuel source of the Federation?  It doesn't matter, of course; it's fiction.  The fuel source might as well be the Tesseract from the Avengers movies.

We can't travel to another planet and live as our neolithic ancestors did, unless we find a planet with a biosphere that supports human life, but doesn't have any advanced life forms or predators to overwhelm us when we get there (or just microbes).  Even if the raw materials are there, how do we access them, how do we process them?  We can't take the factories with us, and we can't print the factories from 3-D printers.  And what would power these devices, these factories?  We would need either a supply line back to the uranium mines and centrifuges of Earth, or we would have to fall back on the energy of slaves from pre-industrial times.  One alternative is unimaginable, the other makes "colonization" a farce.

So when is this magical mystery tour going to begin?

No comments:

Post a Comment