A Revolution in Recycling is Coming to Earth … and it is Coming from Space!

Nature doesn’t plan well. In fact, it doesn’t plan at all. What it does is it reacts and adapts. It throws a bunch of things on the wall and waits to see what sticks and what doesn’t. It plays a very long game that is built on chaos and luck and bets on odds that are calculated in trillions over billions of years. Scientists think there are about 5 million trillion trillion (or 5 x 10 to the 30th power) bacteria on Earth. It is believed that there are 200 billion trillion stars in the universe. NASA estimates there could be 1 billion ‘Earths’ in our galaxy alone. Just for the fun of it, let’s speculate and say there is a 0.000001% chance of a star with a planet like ours out there. Given the staggering presumed number of stars in the universe, that would give us 60,000,000,000,000,000 possible Earths. (60 million billion) Now many Earth-like planets could have life without having intelligent life (dinosaurs did live on the planet for 250 million years but they were far from being “intelligent”) So let’s push the totally unscientific speculation and say that 0.000000001% of those Earth’ish planets could have intelligent life. That gives us 600,000 possible worlds with smart aliens.

Let me say it again, those numbers have no value other than to illustrate the magnitude of the scale nature is working on.

We, on the other end, even though we are a product of nature, work on a minuscule timescale and can’t manage more than 150 connections at a time. We seek predictability and stability. Why? Because we can plan and build on it. In fact, it is the reason why we have managed to rise above the chaos of nature and evolved into what we are today. We have been able to engineer our way forward. We have been able to defy the limitations imposed on us. When our species was nomad, we were at nature’s mercy, always playing catch up. But when we settled down, we took matters into our own hands. We took control of our destiny and transformed the world around us to fit our own needs.

While we are good at conceptualizing the future, most of the time we can’t act on it. The reason is ingrained in nature. You see, we know failures are part of success. We know mistakes are involved in finding solutions. We know that being stubborn will sometimes get you past the impossible. How many times have we heard the story of mountaineers pushing themselves beyond any limit to successfully reach the summit? While the next team doing exactly the same thing ends up dead. The dilemma is that there isn’t a life equation that dictates how many failures one must do to succeed. How many mistakes must be made before the solution is found? Or how many times it takes to knock on the wall before it collapses. How far can you push before it is too late? Unfortunately, the only difference between failure and success is the outcome, because the road to each is the same. To our great dismay, the biology of failure is built within nature.

But what we lack in action on concepts, we compensate when incentivized. That is the key to our success. We rise when the shit hits the fan. We bluff and puff until there is nothing to bluff and puff. Then we get to work. When faced with the inevitable, we will accomplish the impossible, even if it means raising a city. In a previous F.O.S. article “Yes, today’s Age of Space Expansion is like(ish) yesterday’s Age of Discovery”, I wrote:

In 1833, when 200 people decided to form the Town of Chicago, they didn’t think sewers were necessary or would ever be an issue. But Chicago grew at an unprecedented rate and became the world’s fastest-growing city. The lack of drainage created horrible living conditions. The standing water turned into a pathogen factory and for 6 years, the city was plagued with numerous epidemics, including typhoid fever and dysentery. Then in 1854, a cholera outbreak killed six percent of the city’s population. The impossible needed to be achieved and over the next 46 years, the city raised itself by 14 feet (the entire city literally, using hydraulic jacks and jackscrews), building the United States’ first comprehensive sewerage system. It also reversed the flow of the Chicago River so that instead of flowing into Michigan Lake, it flowed away from it.

Side note: religions understand this about us. That is why they created the ultimate incentive – eternal damnation!

At this point, you must be asking yourself why the title is about recycling and here we are 787 words into this and all I have shared with you is that nature sucks when it comes to preventing disasters. Stay with me I am getting there.

Because of the abundance found on the planet (well, up to now) and our resourcefulness in hiding our trash, there have been few incentives to behave in a civilized and respectful manner with the planet. Which is kind of understandable. The homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years and as recently as 500 years ago we were still throwing our shit in the street. So our brains are really just waking up.

From the point of view of biology, the default mode is the path of least resistance. Nature simply doesn’t take detours unless it is forced. We are no different. We don’t change unless someone or something is making us change. Living in a world where being environmentally friendly is more expensive and demands more effort, it is little surprise that we find it hard to do the right thing.

But in space! Well, the incentive will be massive. The idea of being wasteful or throwing out garbage from our spaceship will be as ludicrous as emptying a bottle of water in the desert. Why? Because other than on Earth (or on other Earths) you can’t find what is needed to live. Meaning you can’t find in space these atoms of carbons we depend on to survive. Each atom of carbon that gets on the spaceship will be priceless. Therefore we will have to find technologies that recycle and reuse those atoms over and over and over. Once onboard, the carbon will never leave. When you embark on a multi-year trip or go to live on an inhospitable planet, coming back to re-supply will simply not be an option. These spaceships, Moon colonies, Mars colonies, or Venus floating cities will have to be completely and fully sustainable with zero waste. Everything will have to be produced from within and nothing will be allowed out.

Ten thousand years ago, we started to farm and turned the chaos of nature into something we could build on. In space, we will have to do the same. We will have to engineer our way forward, managing the scarcity and the chaos of space into something stable and predictable so that we can continue building and expanding. And guess what, all this technology will come back to Earth.