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How to survive the next five billion years

'Five billion years' by Chris JohnstonNavigating a country through the sea of human desire is not easy. The essence of navigation is to find fixed points, like the stars, as a guide. Politicians have to deal with people's fantasies, but underlying everything is the physical reality upon which we depend for life. If we do not respect the nature of the world, we face extinction.

Modern science tells us we are a product of the sun shining on the Earth, and that our personal physiology and survival is intimately connected to global physiology.

Mystics tell us we should look at life through eternal glasses, sub specie aeternitatis. Science agrees. As far as we can tell, the sun will be good for another five billion years. People like us have lived on Earth for about 200,000 years. We have a long way to go.

In the last few decades, we have begun to see the intensity of our impact upon the Earth. There are plenty of scaremongers about to tell us we are doomed if we don't do something. But what? What should we do to to survive another five billion years? Here is a simple guide.

There are three categories of resource necessary for life: matter, energy, and information. If we can secure these, our lives will be secure (unless we do something really stupid).

First, matter. Steel is an important ingredient in modern society. Every year we mine about a billion tonnes of iron ore. If we keep this up for five billion years, we will have dug up the whole earth to a depth of about 10 kilometres. Not possible.

The clear answer for long term material supply is recycling. The policy required is dead simple: a refundable deposit on all material products. By increasing and extending the deposit, we can increase the rate of recycling until we get as close as we like to 100 per cent. We can make the old adage 'where there's muck there's brass' true for everyone.

People might whinge because they say this will put up costs. But your cost is my income. That is how the economy works. We make it bigger by finding more ways to earn and spend money.

Second, energy. From a five billion year perspective, fossil fuels are a flash in the pan. Nuclear fission also. Various governments have spent a few billion every year for decades on nuclear fusion, only to learn that practical fusion is hellishly difficult, perhaps impossible.

The obvious choice is the big fusion reactor in the sky. There is no shortage of solar energy. Every day about ten times as much solar energy falls on the earth as our total annual consumption. Capturing it is not that difficult. Wind energy is solar energy. Although the wind carries only a tiny fraction of the solar energy falling on earth, it has recently been shown that wind energy potential in China is seven times its current electricity consumption.

Solar collectors can use rooftops and barren lands without competing for soil, water and fertility. Only one policy passes the five billion year test: total solar energy. Investment in any other technology is purely transitional, a potential waste of capital.

The third essential resource is information. Information is what makes things definite. It makes us what we are. Information is closely related to entropy, the measure of possibility. While the wheel of fortune is spinning, every number has an equal chance. The entropy of the wheel is proportional to the number of numbers on it. When it stops, a number is chosen: the information revealed is equal to the original entropy of the spinning wheel.

On Earth, billions of years of evolution have picked the information of life out of the almost infinite entropy of the universe. Information flowing through our senses and processed in our minds is the source of all our pleasures and pains.

Information gains meaning through its connection to reality and becomes knowledge. A lover's tingling touch is what one lives for. Such touch is simply highly processed information given meaning by the long evolution of human sensuality.

We can state quite firmly and formally that life is information processing. Thomas Aquinas places the 'last end of man' (a bit of theological jargon) in beatitude, which in turn, he argues, can be nothing other than the vision of God, a flow of beatific knowledge into our hearts and minds.

Whatever you may think about an afterlife, most of us want a pleasant life on earth. At the moment much of our pleasure comes at the expense of the world, often at the expense of other people. We want big houses, fast cars and cheap labour. Long term survival, on the other hand, suggests that the most appropriate pleasures are those arising from maximum information and meaning for minimum global impact.

So optimisation of our collective social system and maximising our chances of blissful survival come down to three things: recycling all materials, getting our energy from the sun and establishing a respectful relationship with the world, which includes ourselves. If we do these things, we are on a path to peace and security that we can follow until the sun dies. 

Jeffrey NichollsJeffrey Nicholls was educated by the Sisters of Mercy, the Marist Brothers and the Dominican Fathers. He spent five years in a Dominican monastery. His principal intellectual interest is to explore the hypothesis that the observable universe is divine and that theology may therefore be a science, so laying the foundation for evidence based religion.

Topic tags: Jeffrey Nicholls, Five Billion Years, mining, sustainability, coal, fossil fuels, solar power



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Existing comments

"If we keep this up for five billion years, we will have dug up the whole earth to a depth of about 10 kilometres."

Given that the Sun will be a red giant in about five billion years, big holes in the ground will be the least of our worries.

HH | 05 July 2010  

I found the following entry at wikianswers.

"Although the Sun will continue to shine for billions of years Earth will be uninhabitable in roughly 1 billion years this is because as the Sun ages it gets hotter and brighter and in about 1 billion years the temp on Earth will be too hot for liquid water to exist on the surface."

Maybe the big holes in the ground are not such a bad idea after all.

Joseph Lanigan | 05 July 2010  

An interesting perspective Jeffrey. Another consideration will be population size and what we can practically maintain, assuming the other resources you mention are secured.

Richard Wilson | 09 July 2010  

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