More on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Limits

Sharon July 7th, 2008

The other question I thought it would be interesting to discuss in reference to this book is the larger issue, which will keep coming up througout the discussion of “limits” vs. “no limits.” Heinlein is very clear (mostly in other books) that while he recognizes and believes in the idea of limits for any given planet, he sees the future of humanity as ultimately unlimited -we will be able to do everything we want, and while individual human beings will die or be lost, humanity as a whole has a great destiny.  For example he projects intelligent, “awake” computers, the transmutation of matter into any other substance, vastly extended lives.  And he’s basically a frontier guy – human societies can be really cool as long as they consist of small numbers, living in isolation – once they actually have to start self-regulating, things fall apart and it is time to head off to a new planet – thus, Mannie eventually heads off for the asteroids.

Now this question of what our limits are not only has a lot of present-day relevance, but it also is a larger philosophical question that I think we all have to answer for ourselves – what level of limitation do we believe is transcendable?  What problems can we leave to our descendents, for good or ill, and which ones do we have to fix (or even have the option of fixing) now? 

The truth is that even though we have no meaningful space program and no real immanent hope of going into space, most Americans at least are firmly in the no-limits camp, and my own opinion is that the idea that space is an option has actually underscored the inability of our populace to grasp the idea that we have to preserve this planet at all costs.  I’m not irrevocably opposed to going into space if the means magically appears to do it sustainably, but I do believe that the idea that there is another frontier out there that will allow us to blow the limits one more time is a dangerous one.

And yet, it is the no-limits crowd, overwhelmingly, that has had the courage to imagine the problem of limitation at all – for all the tendency of science fiction to become fascinated by the possibilities “Mass drivers!” “Van Neumann machines!” “Cryo-suspension!”  Oooh, shiny… these are also the people with the ability to imagine apocalypses at all.  That is, most of the world doesn’t see the double edge of the sword at all.

What do you think?


12 Responses to “More on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Limits”

  1. rdheather says:

    Just to drag another book into the discussion-I think Tepper did an interesting variation of the no-limits crowd in Plague of Angels.

    And since I waited too late to recall it, I’m having to do my best to remember what happens in The Moon…..but I’m checking out Lucifer’s Hammer today.

  2. Greenpa says:

    I tend to see most of the conflicts you’re pointing out here as part of what I call our “broken joint decision making processes.”

    Common sense, if we can invoke that myth, would easily decide that we should live within our current real limitations, while striving to find ways beyond them. But the real decisions made are that we should live as if our fantasies are guaranteed to become real.

    Repeatedly- and it shows no signs of stopping. Explaining that quirk is not a quickie.

    I maintain that it’s the decision making process itself that is dysfunctional. And nobody is offering new models, nor ways to change to them. (well, except me, but nobody is listening, so I’m pretty quiet about it…) :-)

  3. The way I look at it, we have no idea what the long term limits are. At the moment fossil fuels are the only game in town, and over time we may discover that they stay that way (in which case we will move to a post-industrial society in pretty short order). However, after a few decades or centuries as a post industrial society we might find something else that lets us either become a high energy society again, or lets us do an end run around the whole high energy thing.
    Of course, I haven’t read moon in a very, very long time so my points of view on the book itself are shaky. I remember Lucifer’s Hammer much more clearly.

  4. Sarah says:

    My first reaction to that was that I would love to see that as a panel at an S/F convention, and that I know people who chair S/F conventions. I’d need to find people who could speak on that panel, though…

    The problem with sci/fi looking at limits is that if you actually deal with the limits without technobabble or deus ex machina, the resulting solution is kind of boring, narratively (or a fascist dystopia). Or at least, the story about revolution towards a positive, limited society and the story about implementing and living that society can’t really be in the same book. WALL-E’s epilogue actually does a fairly good job of trying, if you ignore a couple of minor but glaring plot holes later in the movie.

    Limits are definitely something to contemplate. The fact that I was raised with a strong but empowering and mostly unspoken sense of limits, both morally and resource-wise, is one of the things I’m most impressed with about my parents.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Right now I might gladly take off for another planet if one was available! I think Heinlein was right in one essential fact: that once we get beyond a certain population level, things tend to go bad and we lose our freedom a little at a time. There is nowhere on this entire planet one can go right now to truly start over -and I think that more than anything is a sign of overpopulation.

    Sharon, isn’t it interesting how the human mind works? It is often those on the most extreme side of something that can see the other side at all. There’s an intereting twist in the mind whereby certain people can imagine such things and others can’t.

  6. Texicali says:

    I believe very strongly in limits, the difficulty is on agreeing with others on what the limits are. Look at the oceans, an enormous resource full of fish. There is a finite number of fish that you can sustainably consume. If you exceed that number, the population crashes. To this point the fact that we are omnivore’s has allowed us to exceed the carrying capacity of many individual species. Are the passenger pigeons and cod are gone? Not a problem there are chickens and salmon. Oh, the salmon are going too? We will eat something else. This does not mean there are not limits, it means that we can exceed more limits than most species. Other species are more closely held to a single food source. The classic example being many variations on the the ground squirrel/fox example. You start off with a lot of gs, all baby foxes survive and the population booms. Then there are too many foxes and not enough gs. Foxes starve, population crashes. GS start to regain population, cycle begins again. At some point we (humanity) will hit the bust end. What will be the cause? Could be anything, though peak oil looks like a good candidate. If not, then maybe peak phosphorus, peak natural gas, etc. Each of these resources have allowed us to expand the boom part of the cycle, but they have not eliminated the bust cycle. I feel very confident in the future of humanity as a species, much less confident in our future as a civilization with the current numbers of people.

    Space is something of a discussion point in our household. My wife started out in planetary sciences in college (she is a geo-morpholygist) and spent much of her early years watching the stars and reading sci-fi. I look at the earth and see something almost unexplored. Our oceans are like space, every time we look there is some new species, and not just microscopic ones. We should be exploring our own planet (and not just bouncing sound waves to find oil), not space.

    I don’t know what Rebecca means by truly starting over. Do you mean absence of society and government? Areas with no people? There are certainly some places without people, and there are places far enough away from government that if you ignore it, it won’t know.

  7. I have lived in some places that have little government and no technology. They aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Mostly, you still have the same stuff going on. Or do you mean the places where there are genuinely no people? If so, they tend to be places that are fairly inhospitable. All the low hanging fruit (in terms of easy survivability) is gone at this point, leaving us with just the spots that require a lot more work.
    That same theory applies to space though, there is no single place on the planet less hospitable to life than a vacuum. Space requires such a large amount of resources to get started that it will probably never be the kind of frontier place Heinlein and others imagine, instead it will be regulated and controlled if it is explored, and the first people living there all have military training combined with at least a masters degree.

  8. John says:

    I don’t think space and travel into it is an option at all. The energy required to lift an amount of mass beyond orbit and the earth’s gravitational pull is enormous. You quickly run into one of those scenarios where the weight of the fuel becomes more than the weight of the cargo being lifted; and because the fuel for the cargo is a weight too you require more fuel to lift it too, and so on.

    To have anything viable in space you need more than just a given quantity of people. The infrastructure needed to survive in space is vast. To be independent you would need plants to produce oxygen and food, and in turn soil for them, and in turn water. You probably want animals as food and companions. The support needed for all these is vast and a lot of mass.

    And not only do you need those things, you need some vast space ship or station to house them all in. Again, this would be large and involve lots of metal and other substances. The hull would have to withstand no gravity outside with one inside, retain air (no leaks), stop cosmic rays penetrating, and probably have niceties too such as windows, air locks for docking ships, safety doors to isolate zones in case of a hull breach. Lots and lots of mass.

    And all that mass would have to be lifted off the earth’s surface by rockets burning fuel and expelling it.

    Currently we send up about 5 people at a time into space, in a very cramped vehicle. I would liken the space shuttle to a large bus in its relative size (admittedly a guess on my part). It is cramped, one storey high, with minimal facilities. This technology simply does not scale.

    Where would you go in space? Another planet? It would take years and the nearest 2 planets are lifeless (Mars and Venus). The moon? Again lifeless, and it does not rotate either, so a day (light / dark cycle) is 28 days. Just sit in space? Not much of a life? Outside the solar system? You are looking at multiple years – at least 10 if you can get near to the speed of light, but probably multiple generations in reality.

    What about gravity? Where is that going to come from on the space station? And further travel after the initial launch fuel is used up? We have failed to invent any other viable fuel system to date.

    I think whatever future we have will be played out here on earth, and nowhere else. You can dream about space all you want to, but it is not going to happen due to a combination of humans not having invented suitable technology yet and some of the issues being insurmountable.

    Writers can imagine anything they want to, and ignore basic problems about fuel and the speed of travel. Unfortunately the real world will not let you get away with ignoring such things.

    Which also means that we should be looking to how life continues on earth itself for our solutions. And not assuming some magic ‘Get out of jail free’ technology will suddenly appear. Either we fix the many problems we have created for ourselves on this planet, or suffer the consequences one way or another.

  9. Rosa says:

    Personally i think the limits are where real human beauty shines. Look at our arts, music, poetry – for most of human history it’s about imposing a limited set of choices and then arranging the choices you have that human-made beauty comes from.

    When writers postulate limitlessness, what they are usually doing is doing away with the limits we’re familiar with to explore *different* limits that are usually invisible to us.

    And when we talk about “living within limits” for ecological reasons, we’re not talking about exchanging limitlessness for limits, we’re talking about changing the set of limits we recognize.

  10. Student says:

    Even if we could colonize other planets, what makes us think they are all empty and uninhabited – just waiting for us to land and start trashing them like we have our own?

    If we aren’t careful, some more technological spacefaring race might decide we’re not good stewards of this beautiful world and come and take it from us. Perhaps that would unite humanity at last…

  11. Lynnet says:

    I just finished reading the most amazing book, “Overshoot”, by William R. Catton Jr. Written in 1982, the logic is still impeccable. More years have gone by in which we could have done something significant to change the impending future, but as a society we did not.

    He talks about carrying capacity, and how humanity increased the earth’s carrying capacity for humans by: (1) takeover (taking resources away from other species), and, more recently, (2) drawdown (using fossil “acreage”).
    These techniques have allowed the human population to climb far beyond the capacity of the earth to support us all.

    Every species has the capacity to reproduce itself beyond the capacity of its environment to support it. More than that, in general, species change their environment in ways that diminish carrying capacity for themselves.

    This can be by buildup of waste products, or by extinction of food sources, or in fact by overuse of any other type of limiting factor.

    Technology won’t save us, and certainly won’t send us off-planet. When the petroleum becomes scarce, technology’s dominoes will fall one after another.

    I can’t resist a short quote (remember, this is from 1982):
    ‘It is high time to learn that the wisest “use” of coal and oil may be to leave them underground as nature’s safe disposal of a primeval atmospheric “pollutant”–carbon.’

    Well worth the read, and readily available.

  12. Gail says:

    I think that one of the myths that underlie the American way of life is that there are no limits, that there will always be a frontier. We just need to be brave enough to go out and get in. In my boomtown corner of the country currently the city fathers/mothers and the housing developers are struggling with the limits to endless expansion of housing and commercial development. The hope is that the current situation is “just” a cycle and that things will bottom out, turn around and come back. And what if they don’t? is a question that is just not asked.

    Living in space is just an absurd fantasy…. if the planet goes, then so do we. There have been mass extinctions before on Mother Earth. Life regroups and goes on. I believe there will be life on earth, but it is not for me to know what it will look like.

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