Technology in Solving Global Problems

Artist’s conception of a Space Solar Power plant. From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Solar_power_satellite_sandwich_or_abascus_concept.jpg)

Human problems have been perceived, historically, in a series of expanding perspectives, from local/individual, through local or larger polities, to a more modern “global” scale now widely advocated.

Technology has contributed to solving those problems. Although often accused of creating newer larger-scale problems, it has usually solved the targeted problems on the scale(s) currently perceived.

To solve “global” problems with technology, the first step is to identify them in global terms.

A “local” problem, for instance the accumulation of horse droppings (and corpses) in an urban environment, could be solved by introducing internal combustion engines to replace horses for traction.

This has normally solved the immediate problem, while planting the seeds for future problems such as air pollution and resource (oil) depletion. As the use of this technology grew, these seeds sprouted into new problems, which became more visible as the older, more localized problems were vanquished.

To solve problems at a “global” scale with technology, the problems must be defined in global terms, e.g. improving transportation without depleting “limited” resources, including the planetary atmosphere/hydrosphere as a “dumping ground”.

All resources have limits, including the global atmosphere, or the Sun’s light. When those limits are effectively infinite compared to the current perceived needs, they are typically ignored. When use of the technological solution grows to the point that those limits become important, either in perception or reality, then they, and the solutions that bump into them, become “problems”.

Use of “Space solar power”, for instance, involves an effectively infinite resource, the sunlight streaming through the Solar System (although the limits to sunlight within Near Earth Orbit (NEO) or Lunar orbit are much smaller and thus more visibly limited). But if the growth of the use of such power is projected to reach a scale of the full solar system, then even the limits to the sun’s energy can be perceived as a potential problem.

Framing a Problem with Population Limits

The availability of large amounts of power from space could plausibly solve many problems for the Earth’s current population, although those solutions could potentially produce their own problems for a much larger population. A rational limit to expected population growth should therefore be selected, while issues relating to growth beyond that expected limit can be deferred to a time (if ever) when population can be reasonably projected to grow to that extent.

Given the currently observed tendency for population growth to slow, stop, and even reverse as societies become more accustomed to the improvements in safety, convenience, and infant mortality provided by modern technology, a practical limit of around twice the Earth’s current population may reasonably be chosen for whether to defer consideration of growth issues for the future, rather than including their consequences in the definition of the current problem(s) for technological solution. For practical purposes, then, a rough figure of 20 billion for the needed carrying capacity of the planet may be used as the upper limit on population-driven demand for technological solutions to “global” problems.

Potential problems that might arise as the population grows beyond that limit should, reasonably, be deferred to the future. Solutions to current problems may be projected on that basis.

Perceptions of Scale

The very definition of “global” in this context offers an example: there are two definitions to the word “global” that are often assumed to be identical. It could mean “on a very large scale” (compared to the current scale), or “on a planetary scale”.

As mentioned above, considerations of Space Solar Power bump into this difference: collecting power in NEO or geostationary environments involves potential limits that could impact technological expansion. On the other hand, if energy demand grows beyond those limits, there’s plenty of room beyond the Moon’s orbit for power collection and industry (including space agriculture, etc.).

While some planning for expansion of solar-powered industry beyond Lunar orbital distances might be appropriate, there’s no real reason to build in limits to projections of growth of Space Solar Power when planning for current energy needs for a planetary population.

A failure to include considerations of scale can substantially interfere with efforts to address current “global” problems.

Historically, most of the problems solved through technology have been defined at a sub-global scale, although the impacts of those solutions have been perceived more recently at a “global” scale. This contributes to the perception that solving problems through technology “cause other problems in other areas”.

However, when we include the scale of the “areas” so referenced, we can see that historical problem-solving is not a good analogy for use of technology to solve current problems. By including planetary-scale issues in the definitions of the problems to be solved, we can avoid most of the problems raised by such historical analogies.

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