Lt Col Garretson — one of the USAF’s most farsighted and original thinkers — has been at the forefront of USAF strategy on the long-term future in projects such as Blue Horizons (on KurzweilAI — see video), Energy Horizons, Space Solar Power, the AF Futures Game, the USAF Strategic Environmental Assessment, and the USAF RPA Flight Plan. Now in this exclusive to KurzweilAI, he pushes the boundary of long-term thinking about humanity’s survival out to the edge … and beyond.
It isn’t enough just to plan for two or 20, or even the fabled Chinese 100 year periods. We need to be thinking and planning on the order of billions of years. Our civilization needs inter-generational plans and goals that span as far out as we can forecast significant events.
For instance, the most significant near-term external problem we can forecast is that we have only about one billion years before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Somewhere around that time, our Sun will have expanded and start boiling away our oceans. Truly, as the great space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky foresaw, “Unless mankind leaves the Earth, it will surely die there.”
It is a nasty reality that sometimes the solutions to significant problems take time, and last-minute crash programs can fail. It would be a darn shame to end life’s two billion year run (and humanity’s eight million year run) prematurely because of a lack of planning. Moving everyone and everything we value off Earth is likely to take some time. The same is likely to be true for any of the alternatives: uploading most of us to exist “in-silico,” putting a sunshade between Earth and the Sun, moving the Earth, or attempting to control the Sun.
The obvious solution available to us today to cope with Earth’s eventual non-inhabitability is to build O’Neill style space colonies from material in the Asteroid belt, which is estimated to have a carrying capacity of 10–100 trillion people (1,000 to 10,000 times our current population on Earth). Of course, to be able to exercise that option, we would need a space policy that recognized survival as the fundamental reason for the space program, with articulated goals of space development and space settlement explicitly stated, and a space program pushing the technology and logistical capabilities to be able to attain those goals.
Energy availability is a key constraint to human progress and mobility. Spacefaring and space settlement capabilities would need to be developed before some other crisis (such as peak oil) caused a new and likely irrecoverable dark ages, which would reduce the energy capital available to develop the pre-cursor technologies. Nature has provided humanity a bounty of easy energy in the form of fossil fuels, a sort of ”baby fat” for the Earth to grow to adolescence. Use it well to reach new energy sources and we transcend; use it poorly (use it up) and we collapse.