Jeff’s premise is that because of our unlimited need for energy, we’re going to have to pack off to space eventually, and in the future, billions of humans will live in floating, spinning, constructed worlds in space. He even contends that heavy manufacturing will be done in space, leaving earth pristine and enjoyable for its residents (except for the mines, I guess). He claims that the vast majority of humans (perhaps as many as a trillion) will live in these floating “O’Neil colonies” lined up in earth’s orbit, the same distance from the sun as earth. He goes on to list the benefits and challenges and says it’s time to get started building these developments (at least there’s no property tax in space — yet). My guess is that Jeff really really wants to do cool space stuff, and he’s using the rhetoric in this video to justify it to himself and others. I also hope his ex-wife, MacKenzie, will want to work with me to solve real problems here on earth.
The Thought Process
First, Jeff is amazing, he has changed the world, and I use Amazon several times a week. I wouldn’t want a world without Amazon (though I think we might want to think more about the monopolistic aspects and look a bit more into how much data Amazon has on everyone). Jeff is smart, has unlimited money, and attracts many of the world’s brightest people.
So — how did he get so far off the rails with this scheme to create manufactured worlds in earth’s orbit path? He commits several logical fallacies. Let’s look at some of them.
Energy. Jeff claims our energy needs have increased three percent per year for many decades, and if you run that for hundreds of years, the compounding makes it impossible to meet the energy needs of humans. He says his team of smart scientists has taken into account increasing efficiency, population, etc.
He hasn’t taken into account that the future is never ever a linear extrapolation of the present. History is littered with brilliant minds predicting a future that never comes. What if we get fusion going in the next hundred years? What if our lives become more and more energy efficient? All we need to do is be three percent more energy efficient each year and the total energy requirements then only grow with population, which is leveling off and will probably peak around 10–11 billion. This is not apocalyptic. Even 15 billion is very (I emphasize very) manageable on a planet the size of earth. I will get into this topic in a later post.
Today, we use a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy hitting the earth. We have hundreds of years’ worth of natural gas in the ground. I would give fusion at least a 60 percent chance to work commercially by the end of this century. We can’t predict what innovations will be game changing, but we can predict that there will be game-changing innovations, because there always are.
Population. I’m going to cover this in another post. Bottom line: the population bomb was a dud, it fizzled, we benefit from having a growing population, and it is self-limiting anyway. I’ll break that down tomorrow.
Land area. We have plenty of room here on our favorite planet. The world is urbanizing quickly. We will almost certainly double the size of every city on earth in the next fifty years. So what? We don’t expect to double again after that. We need enough land to provide the calories for 10–15 billion people. We’re learning so quickly how to grow and synthesize food more effectively that I can’t imagine land area being the bottleneck. It would be nice if we didn’t destroy the remaining rain forests to provide grazing land for cattle, but that’s a solvable problem if we put some effort into it (rather than building space parks).
Food. We are already growing enough food — we just need to distribute it more effectively (I think it will help to stop eating animals so voraciously). The common narrative (spread by journalists) — that our land is ruined, we are malnurished, and we can’t possibly feed ourselves in the future — is based on assumptions that simply aren’t valid. Smart people are busy solving these problems: The Media Lab at MIT is growing food in indoor farms; Integrated farms are going around grocery stores; synthetic biology will increase productivity; crop yields continue to increase; vertical farms are crushing today’s yield numbers; and much more.
Payload delivery costs. According to Jeff, we’ll bounce back and forth between the colonies and earth, and we’ll truck our raw materials up to floating factories, then distribute goods from there. Huh? I don’t know what the energy calculation is, but it sounds like maybe the energy budget of a large country, or maybe a continent. But Bezos knows that the cost of putting material into orbit will come down. It will change. Why doesn’t he realize that conditions on earth will also change, and that earth has enough room and capacity to thrive for the indefinite future? Why will his favorite variable drop dramatically, while all the others continue to run out of control?
You can think of O’Neill colonies as cruise ships. Very large cruise ships. What happens if there’s a viral outbreak on one? What about dust and rock collisions? The earth absorbs the impact of hundreds of small projectiles daily, and those things are traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour. I guess they will recycle everything, which is probably doable. I guess clean water, food, and air are solvable problems — we are solving them today for future earth residents. Can we assume that Amazon will build the infrastructure for delivering future stuff from floating factories to space residents? What about returns?
Misunderstanding the problem in the first place
This is a perfect example of not knowing what the problem is, something most institutions excel at. It seems to me that the more money we spend to solve big problems, the less likely we are to actually understand the problem we’re solving.
Another problem to address would be: How can we best help improve the lives of the one billion people left at the bottom of society? This is just a suggestion, rather than playing golf with Elon Musk in orbit.
So here’s my message to Jeff: