January 20, 2004

Platinum asteroids...

John Kalb wrote a comment to the "What use is a newborn child" post below, that made me think. (I hope he will be flattered by that and not mind that I think he's wrong.)

The issue is that space will only become a source of resources in the distant future. No one doubts that there are valuable minerals on the moon and Mars, but the cost of bringing them back here now would be prohibitive, and it will stay that way until at the very least we have factories on those planets to refine whatever raw materials we find there and then send the finished products back.

China's rhetoric about mining the moon's riches for the benefit of humanity is just that. For now, the only place in space of any strategic or economic value is low Earth orbit.

First of all, the idea that minerals and resources are what we are short of, and need to go hunting for, is wrong. It's a holdover from the Industrial Age, when coal or oil or iron ore were limiting factors to a nation's success. But the more we enter into the Information Age, the less important they become. Which is why their prices (adjusted for inflation) have been falling for the last hundred years or so. And why, despite dire predictions, we don't run out of any of them�in fact we find our reserves growing. And why the countries that specialize in providing them tend to be among the poorest. All this is a byproduct of the Information Age and its technology. NOTHING we are doing now is hindered by lack of minerals!

[To help understand this, reflect on a similar change that happened when Humankind went from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age. The previous limiting factor had been agricultural production. Countries were often stopped dead in their tracks by famines. And all progress was limited because most people were of necessity poor peasants and farmers. And armies were limited by the number of available peasant recruits. Once industrialization hit, all was changed and agriculture was no longer a bottleneck. Industrial nations don't have famines. And they are able to drastically reduce their farm populations and put those people to more productive work, while producing more food�often to the point of awkward surpluses. And Krupp's cannon trumped any number of infantrymen on the battlefield.]

Even if (getting back to question of space), even if there are platinum boulders ready to be plucked from low orbit which will pay for NASA's budget, that's not the point. That wasn't Pedro's point. John is thinking like those 16th Century chaps who though the New World would "pay off" in gold and silver. There was a lot of gold, but in fact (to name just one of many many items) the humble potato was a far more valuable discovery, allowing Europe's population to increase by tens of millions. And the ideas that have emerged from this hemisphere are incalculably more valuable yet.

Spain took the lion's share of the silver, and it impoverished her. Japan, a country with no resources, adopted a collection of American ideas on business management, and used them to become stupendously wealthy. Ideas, inventions, wisdom, increased human happiness and potential, those are the payoffs from new worlds. And there's no way to predict when and where they will happen.

Businesses need to consider short-term payoffs. As a nation, we should be pushing ourselves into space because we need to grow�our souls need to grow. There will be payoffs from that, probably bigger than we can imagine.

Posted by John Weidner at January 20, 2004 8:27 PM
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