Okay, so I need to free associate on something to try and get it out of my head. That’s this.

I’ve had a very specific vision of a type of living on Earth that I’ve justified in a really weird, round-about way. That way is through autopoiesis and second-order cybernetics, which are totally explainable but unlikely to be appealing to all but the most jacked in netsurfers. There’s a better, much more understandable way.

Consider the task of interstellar travel. [The wide appeal of this is evident in and of itself.]

Several important points:

  • It could very likely be the case that the travel take tens of thousands of years relative to the travelers.
  • In order to carry enough people to handle the task, the spaceship should be huge, having an area the size of a metropolitan region.
  • Every single ounce of material in the spaceship requires a very large amount of fuel to get it up there. There must be next to no waste in what is taken into space.

What we are taking into space is then an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, the nutrients, the constitutive matter of organisms, are slowly cycled between different forms. The only input needed is sunlight. What is the waste product of one organism is the nutrient source of another organism, who is itself a nutrient source when it dies, and so on. The system is effectively closed by the actions of the constituent systems.

See those glass bottle ecosystems as an example of a closed functional ecosystem.

In order for this to work, we need to know what a no-waste metropolitan region looks like. We can’t figure it out once it’s up there, we need to construct it on Earth first.

It’s just this no-waste region that I wanted in the first place. That’s what second-order cybernetics tells us to achieve: integration and harmony with the biosphere.

Space Travel

Who doesn’t love space travel? This is the next frontier for humanity, it’s intrinsically exciting. Let’s consider the task of interstellar travel as an engineering project and see where it takes us.

The first constraint:

  • We should not waste a single drop of fuel.

We will have to use plenty of it to make this work. At every step we have to ask: is this really worth it?

The second and much more interesting constraint:

  • Travel may take tens of thousands of years relative to the travelers.

Other than fuel we cannot then take a limited supply of anything. A “consumable” cannot exist as we would need to take too many. What is needed is an ecosystem in space.

In an ecosystem nutrients, matter, resources, organisms, energy, all these things cycle around in loops. Were you to watch a single atom of nitrogen over tens of centuries, you’d see it float around the atmosphere, become a part of the soil, become a part of a plant, become a part of an aphid, become a part of a bird, become a part of a human, and then it’s back in the soil and out into the atmosphere.

We do need energy input in the form of the sun to make this all work, but all the structures are Earth are these inherently cyclical things. You gather all these nutrients from recently dead things to make yourself, and eventually you’ll return them to the ground.

This is exactly what we need to lift off the Earth. An enclosed ecosystem, something that is capable of sustaining itself under an artificial sun.

Let’s add a third constraint:

  • In order to carry enough people to handle the task, the spaceship’s usable land should be on the order of a metropolitan region.

We’ll need a lot of people to handle populating a new world.

To recap: if we are to take interstellar travel seriously, we need to be able to live and flourish for tens of thousands of years within a no-waste ecosystem. Here’s a good question: could we do that on Earth?

If we are to make interstellar travel work, we have to. Construction of a starship is something that will take generations upon generations of scientists and engineers to achieve. We need to have the ability to live, and to live well, on Earth for thousands of years before we can do so in space.

It is in this task that we must look to the past. We used to live in ways that were massively less disruptive to the surrounding ecosystem, while being massively less connected. Interestingly, we used to also live in ways where people were less miserable on the whole. Re-establishing routines that worked well in the past is a necessary part of establishing a society that can last for tens of thousands of years.