Last week China launched the Shenzhou 8 rocket, marking the first step toward its space station. The world’s population also rolled over 7 billion. Both things got me thinking about the future of mankind and how China could either rescue it or destroy it completely.
Fair Warning: From here this article gets very far-forward looking, theoretical and weird.
If you’ve never heard of the Kardashev scale, I highly recommend you watch this video, or read this excerpt from Dr. Michio Kaku’s book. It’ll be a few minutes very well spent. Basically, it’s a theoretical scale that rates civilizations (Earthly or otherwise) as Type I, II or III based on how much energy they consume.
According to Kaku, “A Type I civilization is one that controls the energy resources of an entire planet. This civilization can control the weather, prevent earthquakes, mine deep in the earth’s crust, and harvest the oceans. This civilization has already completed the exploration of its solar system.”
Type II controls the energy of their sun and is beginning travel between star systems (think Star Trek). Type III controls the energy of a galaxy (think Star Wars). Of course, this is all highly theoretical, but, unlike most future predictions, this is based on the laws of physics and realistic requirements for attaining the needed energy. In fact, many films and tv shows like 2001: A Space Odyssey have been based on this scale.
At this point, we’re Type 0. We get energy mostly from dead plants (coal and gas).We haven’t achieved Type I, but we’re well on our way and might get there in the next century or two.
Some probable pre-requisites for a Type I civilization are an international language, culture and political system. We can already guess that the language will be English, and, in all likelihood, the culture will be largely Western influenced. But we have little idea what the political system will look like and if it will even be possible. Blocs like NAFTA and the European Union are forming, but eventually, we’ll probably need some kind of authoritative international governing body that essentially tears down physical political borders.
This is important chiefly because, under the current international system, protectionism runs rampant (of jobs, currencies, resources, etc). If I’m an American leader, I care only for my American constituents and will do what benefits them…even if it’s at the expense of other nations. Every country is the same and it makes most everyone worse off than if every leader were internationally-minded. This is most obvious with climate change action. No country wants to be the first to seriously address it and put itself at an immediate competitive disadvantage. So everyone is looking toward other countries to take their baby steps first.
There are quasi-regulatory bodies like the WTO and UN, but they don’t have the teeth to enforce real political action.
The other important reason for an international authority is simple efficiency of people and resources. Developed countries are headed toward major demographic imbalances that will see labor shortages and an aging population while most developing countries will see population explosions leaving a whole lot of able-bodied adults without jobs. If borders were torn down and free movement was easy, migration would benefit just about everyone. Then there’s China ,which fiercely regulates childbirth while underpopulated Russia is paying people to have babies. This current inefficiency may not yet be critical, but it sure as hell will be in a world of 12-15 billion – which is where it’s predicted to be by century’s end.
The worrying thing for scientists is that they see no evidence of any type of civilization when they look into space. This could be because there’s no other intelligent life in the universe, but it’s much more likely that other civilizations have been wiped out by routine extinction events or destroyed themselves before they ever made it to Type I – where they’re basically safe from extinction (until their sun explodes or they make it to Type II).
So why the hell am I talking about this on a China blog? Because China could largely determine whether we make it to Type I or kill ourselves on the way.
How China might save the world
Controlling the weather – In the (nearly 100%) likely scenario that we fail to get a hold on run away carbon emissions, we’ll have to come up with another way to stop Earth from turning into Venus through the greenhouse effect. Research is already underway on a host of measures in the geo-engineering field, which uses science and artificial means to alter the planet’s weather. Measures include things like using steam-emitting boats to enhance cloud cover (and reduce sunlight), sprinkling iron in the ocean to boost carbon-eating plankton growth, sending up space-based reflectors to deflect sunlight and several other measures.
A cloud maker
None of these have been attempted yet as they’re all very controversial. Unforeseen side-effects and irreversibility are the main worries. However, China has already shown a ready willingness to tinker with the weather. For years cloud seeding has been routinely used in China to induce rain for fighting droughts and pollution. With its massive population and scarce resources, China is already feeling a lot of the effects of climate change, from drying rivers to the Gobi desert slowly advancing on Beijing.
You can bet that while western governments are debating the ethics and side-effects of mass geo-engineering, China will already be in the process of implementing it. This could be catastrophic, but if they get it right, the Chinese might just come up with a way to get the weather control part of a Type I civilization down and save the planet from Venus’ fate.
Making use of outer space – While the American space program has no real goal and is quickly losing support, China’s is just getting warmed up. China hopes to finish its space station by 2020, land men on the moon by 2025 and travel out to Mars thereafter. To be sure, nationalism plays a large role in all of this, but China also sees space as a long-term solution to its resource needs. They’re even considering trying to mine the moon for minerals.
Left: Part of the solar energy is lost on its way through the atmosphere by the effects of reflection and absorption. Right: Space-based solar power systems convert sunlight to microwaves outside the atmosphere, avoiding these losses, and the downtime (and cosine losses, for fixed flat-plate collectors) due to the Earth's rotation. (From Wikipedia)
However, the real prize in space is energy. To meet the energy needs of a Type I civilization, we need to give up our dependence on dead plants in favor of the ultimate energy source: the sun. But solar energy in its present form isn’t going to cut it. Ground-based solar collection is horribly inefficient. To get real energy returns, we need to put our solar panels in space where they’re unimpeded by clouds and ozone.
But getting panels into space with rockets at the scale needed would be horribly expensive and bad for the environment. This is where a space elevator comes in. Using an ultra-thin carbon nanotube ribbon attached to a counterweight in space, a climber powered by a ground-based laser pulls the “elevator” into space for less than 1% the cost per pound of using a rocket.
This system could get the solar panels into space and beam the energy back. It could also build spacecraft in space, preventing the need for them to waste fuel on breaking Earth’s gravity. This would enable the inter-stellar travel of a Type I civilization and China’s desire to mine the moon.
Here’s the kicker of the space elevator: If someone threw any kind of significant research funding at it, it could probably be started relatively soon. One problem is that the nerds backing this idea haven’t managed to get anyone excited about building it. But China can only exploit its own resources (and Africa’s) for so long before needing a new solution to its energy needs – which are growing right off the chart. Necessity is the mother of invention and China will have the necessity and resources (not to mention the penchant for over-the top, literally earth-shaking, engineering projects) to get it done.
But just because China could do these things doesn’t mean they’ll do them in time. There are plenty of…
Ways China might destroy the world before it can save it
Pollution – China already has the highest carbon emissions in the world, which are still growing in pretty much a straight vertical line if you look at that graph. The situation is already dire, but those emissions from China aren’t expected to peak for at least 20 years. The ways China could save the world could get drowned out in the pollution before they can ever have a chance to make a difference. The whole world is in a race with the clock on global warming and China’s attitude that it has a free ticket as a developing country is making that clock turn a lot faster. And it’s not likely to stop because…
The Communist Party will do anything to hold its power- Remember that part earlier about a Type I civilization being under a single international political system? The Communist Party will never sign on for that. They snap at the slightest hint of interference with China’s sovereignty. The government and the people alike are extremely unlikely to do anything that actually weakens their political authority – especially on the verge of their re-emergence as the world’s superpower. It pushes too many sensitive historical buttons.
And the CCP puts holding its power over the country ahead of all else anyways. While it may be possible to get resources from space, they’re just as willing to find them at the expense of the rest of the world if it means keeping “social stability” (Aka “their power safe a bit longer”). That geo-engineering idea can be abused. It can melt glaciers, steal rain from other countries or divert rivers. A Chinese scientist once even proposed using 200 nuclear bombs to punch a hole in the Himalayas in order to get some sweet air circulation from India.
There will be plenty of problems with an international political body outside of China and certainly plenty of other countries pollute much more per capita. However, the world’s most populous, energy consuming and carbon-spewing nation has been educated to be nationalists hyper-sensitive to sovereignty threats under a Party of crony-capitalists perpetually holding on to their absolute power just a little longer at any expense. Getting them to go in the needed direction will be a challenge to say the least.
So those are a few ways China could sway the future of mankind. Again, this is very theoretical. If you look for holes in this admittedly very strange and sci-fi-ish article, there are plenty. Any number of unforeseen wrenches could be thrown in for better or worse. Like there’s the fairly plausible idea of technological singularity, where artificial computer intelligence surpasses that of humans and figures out the whole mess for us (or takes us out Terminator style). So it could turn out ok, but I’m personally trying to make the most of my time right now and be thankful I was born in this generation rather than the next. Let’s just hope China gets its ducks in a row before it’s too late.