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Jewish World Review
Nov. 28, 2006
/ 7 Kislev, 5767
Space: Our ticket to survival
Over the last generation the U.S. economy has performed as well as at any other time in its history. Productivity growth is excellent, and vast numbers of highly skilled immigrants are finding jobs in this high-employment environment. America seems on course to reach a population of about 420 million by midcentury, by which time the U.S. economy will have expanded many times.
The flourishing economy is best left alone, and government must be wary of adopting any of the interventionist philosophies currently in vogue. The latest and most fashionable emanating, of course, from low-growth Europe is that if the industrialized countries fail to adopt vast state programs to combat the consequences of global warming, the world will be hit with a 1930s-style depression. If we are entering a long period of warmer temperatures a big if I believe we should react to this calmly, systematically and on the basis of actual evidence, not theoretical projection.
Individual businesses that have to plan for the future in a hardheaded manner are more likely to get things right than are governments staffed by bureaucrats who have no business expertise or politicians who are competing for headlines. Policies are most likely to be wrong when they emerge from international conferences, at which governments angle for media attention through gestures of compassion and concern.
The Final Frontier
While it is true and salutary that governments should in general leave economics alone, it is, however, right that from time to time they offer leadership and/or encouragement. Currently there are two areas in which such leadership from the U.S. would be prudent. The first is in the push for increased use of nuclear power in preference to other fuels, especially oil, which is volatile in price and entails many political ramifications. I've written about this before: Increasing the use of nuclear energy, along with developing more advanced methods of generating it, are legitimate goals for Washington to pursue.
Space is the second area, the importance of which seems to have faded into the background in recent years. The Bush Administration is well aware of space's importance in military terms and has recently issued new rules governing what it will not permit likely enemies to do there. But I am thinking more in the long term, particularly in regard to large-scale space travel, colonization and commerce. If the human race survives, I have no doubt that it will eventually colonize space. But will working actively and purposefully for such enterprises actually help us to survive? I believe so.
Gloomy Greens argue that unrestrained human activities can, by changing the climate, doom humanity to extinction. But they've yet to prove their case, and it looks increasingly improbable that they ever will. However, large-scale natural disasters though rare and well spaced out in time undoubtedly have that power. Such an incident took place about 65 million years ago, when an object about 6 miles across hurtled through Earth's atmosphere and landed in the sea off the coast of Mexico, releasing energy equivalent to billions of A-bombs and a fireball hotter than the sun. After 150 million years of triumphant existence the hardy dinosaurs, unable to withstand the resultant climatic changes, became extinct. The human race would have suffered the same fate had it then existed.
Bill McGuire, professor of geophysical hazards at University College London, has written a book entitled Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction in which he calculates the size of objects big enough, if they struck Earth, to end life as we know it. This book is a good read (though I disagree with the professor about man-made threats). Depending on whether an object hitting us were a fast-moving comet or a slower asteroid, it would need to be about 2.5 miles across to set in motion the process of reducing light and destroying photosynthesis, without both of which Homo sapiens and the other forms of life on our planet could not survive.
Obviously, at this time there's little we can do about such a monstrous threat to our existence, except pray. But in due course provided we pursue our space efforts resolutely three progressive forms of action should be possible. We must develop the means to secure the longest possible warning of an approaching object, as well as its likely trajectory and impact zone. We're well on the way to securing this knowledge, but the process could be much accelerated.
With early knowledge our chances of diverting such an object obviously increase. But we also need to acquire and perfect the technology to detonate a nuclear explosion in space that would be sufficiently powerful to alter a huge object's course and send it into unpopulated space. Thanks to America's efforts, our capabilities are heading in this direction, but there is much more to do.
As well as being able to detect and deflect objects, we need to have a workable planetwide evacuation plan. We must stop thinking of space travel as a childish fantasy or a movie or television plot and recognize it as a serious project that may at some point become an absolute necessity. Practical space travel is one answer to all calamitous danger man-made or natural and I would like to see Mr. Bush give it serious consideration during the last phase of his presidency. It is the next great adventure for man, as well as his survival ticket.
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04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
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© 2006, Paul Johnson