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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Here's a thread about how Polynesian war canoes prove that humans are never going to colonize space in any foreseeable future:
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The Polynesian expansion is a great natural experiment in how human culture adapts to different environments. At the dawn of the Age of Discovery, Polynesian and Austronesian people had by far and away the most widespread culture on the planet.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
At one extreme, the Malagasy people of Madagascar speak an Austronesian language: At the other, the sweet potatoes that were a staple crop for Polynesians appear to have been carried from South America.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Some recent studies challenge this sweet potato thing, for what it's worth: Either way, they made it to Rapa Nui/Easter Island which is most of the way to South America.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
What's fascinating is that the core suite of technologies was pretty similar across this vast region: yam crops, coconut, chicken, pigs, fishing, pandanus, navigation, outrigger sailing. But it produced vastly different results in different places.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
On the large, mountainous, young volcanic islands like those of Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, and Aotearoa/New Zealand it produced complex, hierarchical, warlike and technologically-advanced societies.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
You know those huge oceangoing canoes at the end of Moana? They're not a Disney exaggeration. The largest Polynesian proas carried 200 people and were 30 metres long, much bigger than the ships Magellan and Drake used to circumnavigate the world
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
On the other extreme you have a place like Tikopia, a tiny island in the Solomon group where subsistence was so tough that infanticide became an accepted part of the culture to stop the population exceeding its natural limits:
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The explanation for this would be obvious to an old-style economist: the factors of production (land, labour, capital) are vastly different. Land and the labour it can support will be abundant on a fertile island like Hawaii and scarce on Tikopia.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
As a result, Hawaii can grow and develop economically and technologically, while Tikopia is stuck in a stagnant equilibrium.
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David Fickling
But Tikopia is an *insanely abundant* place by the standards of space. You can breathe, for starters. The seas teem with fish. Throw a pawpaw seed in the ground and you'll have a food tree in a few years.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
This is why 2001 and Gravity may be my favourite space films. So much sci-fi is about what a thrilling place space is for a human mind to traverse. So little captures the indifferent Lovecraftian horror of the place for a human body.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
What even is "land", economically speaking, in the context of space? The concept economists talk about embodies ideas of subsistence and natural resources that simply don't exist on even the geologically-richest asteroid.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
People talk about mining nickel from asteroids. There are large high-grade nickel deposits just hours' drive from Perth (one of the world's capitals of mining investment), that haven't been developed *because they're too remote*
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
That's the whole problem with space. Theres no land. There's no labor. The costs of transporting people and equipment to space are astronomical, if you pardon the pun. Even SpaceX has only brought the cost of moving a kilogram to low-earth orbit down to about $2,000.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
For the same price you could profitably move a shipping container carrying about 25,000 times that amount between any two points on earth.
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David Fickling 2 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
That's why I doubt we'll see sustainable exploration of space under any foreseeable future. It's not really about technology. It's about return on investment. That's likely to be a far more binding constraint, long-term. (Ends)
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
I'm going to do a small postscript to this because lots of people have been making points along the lines of, "Sure, but the reasons to move to space will go beyond simple economics" and/or "technology will change this". Here's why I doubt that:
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Take the example of the Soviet Union. From the 1950s and early 1970s its challenge to the west was not just military and ideological but economic. A conventional view was, as it is of China now, that its economy was on track to overtake that of the US:
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The Soviet economy was far better suited to space colonisation than the US one. In particular, allocation of capital was under political control, so the entire nation was able to spend heavily on things that a green-eyeshaded banker would dismiss as uneconomic.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Here's why return on investment matters. It can sound like a dry finance term but ultimately it's an answer to the question "Why are you spending all our money on that?" It's the answer that says, "I'm not pouring it down a bottomless pit, I'm actually producing more money."
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Answering that question in an undemocratic command economy is easier than in almost any other system, and the Soviet Union in this period was really rich. The space the USSR tried to colonize was Siberia, and those investments may have been the reason the economy collapsed.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The parallels with space exploration are quite striking. The main reasons the USSR invested so much in Siberia were military, ideological, and resource-based. Ideological because for centuries Russia had romantic notions of Siberia much like a scifi nerd's ideas of outer space.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Yakutsk, one of the capitals of the far east that's further east than Beijing, was founded by cossacks all the way back in 1623. Transportation to Siberia is how Raskolnikov achieves redemption in Crime and Punishment. There's clear nationalistic reasons to develop Siberia.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The resource argument gave a way to pay for these nation-building investments. Siberian oil is why Russia produces about as much crude as Saudi Arabia. Siberian diamonds and platinum-group metals similarly overturned southern African monopolies on those minerals from the 1970s
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
There's a load of nickel there too, for what it's worth. Resource development is the best argument for space colonisation. The mining and oil towns of the Russian, Canadian and Alaskan arctic really are a decent analogy to space stations: Remote, expensive, hard-bitten.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Here's the thing though: It didn't work. The vast sums spent developing Siberia in the 1970s and 1980s -- 20% of national capital spending, for a region with only a tiny fraction of the population -- gradually undermined the Soviet economy.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Productivity fell as capital was invested in low-return Siberian development rather than higher-return projects further west. Moscow could keep the plates spinning thanks to the rivers of cash flowing from its petroleum exports. Then in 1986 Saudi Arabia crashed the oil market.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Sick of supporting other oil-producing nations by holding back supply, Riyadh opened the spigots. As the lowest-cost producer it was able to survive the crash in prices from excess supply. Higher-cost players -- including the USSR -- were wiped out.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
There's a tendency to think about space mining as if the prices of minerals are set by some sort of eternal law, but that's not true. Theyre set by how useful they are to human economies, how scarce they are, and how difficult it is to find substitutes.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Take platinum-group metals. There's apparently a lot of these on some asteroids and they tend to be very scarce and costly, so they're a favourite of space-mining speculation.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
We've been thinking we were running out of platinum-group metals since the 1960s but we have more than ever. Platinum is currently cheaper than gold and at a 14-year-low:
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
One reason for that is that most platinum is used in the oil industry to remove impurities -- at refineries, but mainly in diesel car catalytic converters -- and demand is forecast to fall because of the diesel emissions-testing scandal and the rise of electric vehicles.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
When an essential resource becomes seriously scarce, human ingenuity starts to get really, really good at finding substitutes. Chemists are already making huge strides in minimizing the use of cobalt in lithium-ion batteries:
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Or consider plumbing. Pipes used to be all lead but then we realised we were poisoning ourselves. So we switched to copper, but then mid-century the nascent electronics industry needed more copper and the oil industry had leftover polymers, so we switched to plastic instead.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The problem with space-mining scenarios is that to colonize space it's not sufficient for a resource to be abundant in space: It's necessary for it to be scarce, un-substitutable, and un-recyclable on earth.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
Given that our planet is a huge gravity well which attracted an amazing cornucopia of elements in its formation, that's a pretty massive advantage for Earth. Human civilization depends on chemicals and we're sitting on the most chemically diverse piece of rock out there.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
This thread has gone on way too long but that's why I'm sceptical too that "technology" will make space a more obvious option than it is now.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
The problems of extracting platinum in South Africa are largely on the scale of "digging a really deep hole is difficult" and yet we talk quite sensibly about absolute scarcity. Digging holes is many orders of magnitude easier than mining asteroids!
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
When sci-fi scenarios talk about resource scarcity they mean "there is literally none left on earth so we must go to space". But there is no industrial element that is not super, super-abundant in that sense.
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David Fickling 5 Aug 18
Replying to @davidfickling
When economists and miners talk about resource scarcity they mean "it's hard to justify new investments at current long-term prices". And the Siberian example shows why it's so hard to imagine a resource so attractive that it could justify the capex of space colonisation.
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