So, on April 24 a new company was unveiled to the world that stands a reasonable chance of changing the course of human history. Also, I had microwaved pad thai noodles for lunch that day… they were just okay.
The company I am referring to is, of course, Planetary Resources Corporation. Aside from the usual interesting space news that a recently-launched private venture like this would generate, the thing that really got my nerd antennae afluttering was their public and flagrantly unapologetic endorsement of a concept for the future of space flight that almost exactly mirrors my own (and has since I was 12 or so). This is namely that the inertia of our civilization will never be carried into space without a compelling economic motivating force behind it. The industrialization of space technologies for the extraction of valuable resources is just that incentive.
The concept of terrestrial resource scarcity has always been a bit mistifying to me. In the past, when discussions about resource scarcity and the perceived sense of certain doom facing modern industrial civilization has come up, I have been dismissed as a lunatic for suggesting that the scarcity problem is really only a problem so long as humanity insists on staying bound to our little blue planet. Until April 24, I’m sure that no small number of other self-professed space nerds have met with the same long-suffering looks. I don’t understand where it comes from, but there is a deeply ingrained and generally accepted level of incredulity at the notion that there may be a more useful approach to space exploration than simple scientific curiosity. Doubtless, while there are still some who lack the vision to see the obviousness of this critical next step in the march of human potential and snicker amongst themselves at the mere thought of it, a good number of people in a position to enact this audacious goal are not laughing any more.
This is exciting!
I firmly believe that the visionaries and pioneers at Planetary Resources, or a company very like it, are going to bring a new level of access to space (and the virtually limitless resource inputs it contains) to all of human kind within my lifetime. There are other examples of serious game changing developments in the recent history of our species, but in truth I think they all pale in comparison to the ultimate repercussions of cheap and routine access to space. There are very few scenarios in which this can have anything but a monumentally positive impact on the people of Earth. We could literally eliminate poverty and human conflict over shared resources within a generation or less.
You may be thinking to yourself, well this all sounds well and good, but what is to prevent this company from just becoming another Exxon or BP with the singular goal of accumulating wealth and resources at the direct expense of human dignity and environmental integrity? I will tell you, but you’re going to have to suspend your disbelief and expand your understanding of ‘things that can or possibly will ever happen’ for a moment. The reason that this type of resource exploitation will not repeat the historical errors and malfeasance of it’s industrial predecessors is that the the very nature of the economics in which they occur will be different. Corporate ‘greed’ has had an oftentimes destructive impact on general human welfare in the past because these organizations have opperated in an economic paradigm where resources are limited. In a system where critical resources are rare, the accumulation of those resources to one person or organization necessarily reduces what is available to everyone else. Under the new economics of a space-based industrial economy, resource inputs will be essentially limitless, and so their perceived material value will ultimately be reduced to something like zero. These resources will not be rendered completely without value though, because while the intrinsic value of the material goods will be low, there will still be value associated with the time and effort related to their extraction and transport to a useful application.
The economics that we take for granted today will have to adapt to this new reality. As a consequence, material poverty will basically disappear because resource availability will no longer be an issue of contention. There will be no incentive to hoard ‘valuable stuff,’ because the intrinsic value associated with that ‘stuff’ (based on physical scarcity) will no longer exist. Trade and commerce are built into the very fabric of our society and make up a critical component of our understanding of the world around us. I do not believe that these things will go away. The human instinct to trade and engage in institutional commerce will simply evolve to value different things. Instead of finding tradable/exchangable value in a lump of gold or a gallon of gasoline, we will have to trade something else that has perceived intrinsic value. I suspect this will be skilled labor units, unique technologies, and other non-physical units of value.
It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I wish all the best to Planetary Resources and their mission. Indeed, if they are successful it could usher in an incredible new era of peace and prosperity for all the people of Earth – and that’s something everyone should be excited about!
If you’re interested in Planetary Resources and other developments in the commercial space industry, check out the new site I’m launching at planetaryresourcesreport.com. I’m still in the process of building the website and I anticipate it should be officially launched in the next month or so. In the meantime, I am posting content daily at the following venues;
You can also reach me regarding this new side project at firstname.lastname@example.org