The Visioneers

How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

by W. Patrick McCray

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The Visioneers
How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future
W. Patrick McCray

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Book Summary

Tells the story of how scientists and the communities they fostered imagined, designed, and popularized such speculative technologies as space colonies and nanotechnologies.

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Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs boson on July 4, the long-sought building block of the universe. This image shows a computer-simulation of data from the collider. Barcroft Media/Landov hide caption

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Excerpt: The Visioneers


How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13983-8


List of Illustrations....................................................ixAcknowledgments..........................................................xiIntroduction: Visioneering Technological Futures.........................1Chapter 1 Utopia or Oblivion for Spaceship Earth?........................20Chapter 2 The Inspiration of Limits......................................40Chapter 3 Building Castles in the Sky....................................73Chapter 4 Omnificent.....................................................113Chapter 5 Could Small Be Beautiful?......................................146Chapter 6 California Dreaming............................................183Chapter 7 Confirmation, Benediction, and Inquisition.....................222Chapter 8 Visioneering's Value...........................................258A Note on Sources........................................................277Notes....................................................................281Index....................................................................325

Chapter One

Utopia or Oblivion for Spaceship Earth?

This is no way to run a spaceship. —Kenneth E. Boulding, 1965

When the Club of Rome released The Limits to Growth in 1972, it came as the culmination of growing ambivalence, confusion, and pessimism about the future and technology's place in it. In the United States, Americans' reluctant recognition that the planet had finite resources, coupled with fears of uncontrolled consumption and population growth, profoundly shaped this pessimistic context. The roots of this anxiety went deep, though, and tapped reservoirs of anger as well.

In 1964, Mario Savio, a leader in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, exhorted students to throw their bodies onto the "Machine" as protest. Savio's choice of metaphor was no accident. The figurative gears, wheels, and levers depicted by Savio represented what he and other critics saw as the dehumanizing effects of technology on people and nature. That same year, when President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the New York World's Fair, he extolled the remarkable accomplishments of scientists and engineers. Few people could have imagined a world, Johnson proclaimed over the voices of civil rights protesters, knit together by satellite communications, powered by nuclear reactors, or made healthier through wonder drugs, organ transplants, and agricultural bounty. But, as sodden flags moved limply in the chill April breeze, Johnson intoned that Americans and the planet itself stood at a crossroads of "abundance or annihilation, development or desolation." Despite its enthusiastic, even Panglossian, expressions of faith in the technological future, the Fair's ideological facade showed cracks. Even its motto—"Peace through Understanding"—struck many as questionable when the global nuclear stockpile topped thirty-six thousand weapons and chemical defoliants, napalm, and push-button warfare were part of an expanding war in southeast Asia. By the decade's end, this general sense of uncertainty was transmuting into widespread pessimism.

Americans' conversion from unabashed enthusiasm for technology to ambivalence and hostility did not occur suddenly, nor can we trace it to a single cause. Some Americans, for example, were concerned about the mortal dangers of the escalating arms race, while others worried about the pollution of the country's skies and waterways or questioned societal values that prized conformity, consumerism, and planned obsolescence. For others, the "plastic fantastic" futures depicted in corporate advertising weren't just banal and boring but appeared threatening. Whatever the direct cause, Americans' overall attitudes toward science and technology became more complex and questioning.

To be sure, not all Americans mistrusted technology. But more people were thinking, writing, and worrying about the future it might help create. They wanted and expected more from technology. In 1968, counterculture icon Stewart Brand anticipated this ideal on the first page of the Whole Earth Catalog: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." By the time the Nixon presidency ended in scandal and resignation, a new language of limits and scarcity replaced expectations of abundance. To begin to appreciate the unconventional solutions that visioneers offered in response to the challenge of limits, we must first look more closely at such sentiments.

Living on a Lifeboat

A major surge of ideas and issues that fed the mounting pessimistic outlook about technology and the future sprang from Americans' concerns about the environment, both in their own backyards and throughout the world. For those who opposed the war in Vietnam, images of bulldozers, defoliated jungles, and bomb-cratered landscapes made the conflict appear as much a war on nature as it was about the indiscriminate use of high-tech weaponry. The thought that the earth was merely a "tiny raft in the enormous empty night" amplified unease about the planet's finite resources and its surging population.

Atomic Age anxiety helped foster growing environmental awareness among scientists and the public. In 1958, while scientists and politicians debated technical details of a nuclear test ban, the Committee for Nuclear Information, cofounded by biologist Barry Commoner, announced it would start gathering and analyzing thousands of baby teeth. The headline-making project demonstrated that radioactive materials from atmospheric nuclear tests were entering both the global food chain and people's bodies. Oceanographers likewise detected the spread, via global ocean currents, of radioactive waste dumped at sea by nuclear superpowers. The publicity such studies received helped show Americans that distant events and actions could have consequences closer to home.

This point became impossible to ignore after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Serialized in the New Yorker in June 1962 and then presented as a book a few months later, Silent Spring forced Americans to question the beneficence of technological solutions. In Carson's case, the issue was the effect of chemical pesticides on wildlife and public health. This was no abstract subject but one that resonated in Americans' own backyards and playgrounds. It's worth noting that Carson herself wasn't antiscience, as she encouraged biological engineering as an alternative to chemical control of insects. Despite such niceties, songs from this era reflected the mounting sense of emergency, from Tom Lehrer's satirical song "Pollution" ("like lambs to the slaughter, they're drinking the water") to Joni Mitchell's folk hit "Big Yellow Taxi," which mourned a paradise paved over for parking lots. Even the site of the 1964 New York World's Fair, planned as a paean to the technological future, received critics' scrutiny, taking place as it did on a former wetland in Queens that engineers had "improved" to the point where it supported little wildlife at all.

Throughout the 1960s, politicians, writers, and activists blended scientists' notions of delicately balanced ecological systems with imagery derived from the burgeoning American and Soviet space programs. The result was a trope that gained in popularity throughout the heyday of U.S. and Soviet efforts to best one another in space exploration: "Spaceship Earth."

The idea's popularization originated with Kenneth E. Boulding, an economist at the University of Michigan. In May 1965, Boulding gave a talk titled "Earth as a Space Ship" in which he contrasted two economic models and their consequences for the future. For centuries, Western civilization had expanded via what Boulding called a "cowboy economy." Unheeding of limits and marked by a focus on consumption, it was prone to "reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior." Now, with environmental doom just over the horizon, society needed to recognize that earth was a "single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything." Instead of wasteful consumption coupled to relentless pressure to increase production, this "spaceman economy" must be commensurate with life aboard "a tiny sphere, closed, limited, crowded."

The burgeoning environmental movement adopted the metaphor of "Spaceship Earth," and the term entered the popular lexicon of the 1960s. Adlai Stevenson, for instance, told the United Nations that we are all "passengers on a little spaceship," while the phrase "Spaceship Earth" became the title of a popular book by British economist Barbara Ward. Futurist-designer Buckminster Fuller claimed some ownership of the phrase as well, and in his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth he urged engineers, scientists, and world leaders to steer the planet away from imminent ecocatastrophe.

To be clear, Boulding didn't insist that the earth actually was a closed system. He acknowledged, for example, that sunlight could be converted into solar energy. Nor did Boulding (or some other ecology-minded people) support actual human space exploration. Of the Apollo program's profligate use of the planet's resources, he said in his 1965 talk: "This is no way to run a spaceship." Instead, Boulding and other intellectuals who adopted his concept wanted to emphasize that people needed to think of the planet as analogous to a closed system. Adopting such a view would help foster more sustainable economic and social behavior. However, Boulding conceded that establishing this homeostatic "spaceman economy" would require sacrifices. This might mean restrictions on individual freedoms, limiting national sovereignty, or opting for carefully planned economies that placed less of a premium on free enterprise. A decade later, such sentiments prompted forceful reactions from free-market economists, libertarian-minded citizens, and, of course, this book's visioneers.

The idea that the earth might be likened to a spaceship became much less abstract when Apollo astronauts sent back the first color pictures of the whole planet from space. On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders captured the planet—white swirls of clouds, brilliant blue oceans, and russet-colored landmasses—emerging from behind the lunar wasteland, a jewel-like disk suspended against the blackness of space. "Earthrise," as the global media christened Anders's photo, became one of the most influential photographs ever composed and an enduring legacy of the Apollo program.

Coming at the end of a year that had seen the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, campus unrest, and the assassinations of King and Kennedy, "Earthrise" provided people with a new perspective of their place in the universe and briefly inspired hopeful sentiments for the future. For writer Archibald MacLeish, the image showed "the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence," and he hoped it would encourage people to "see ourselves as riders on the earth together." Photos of the earth from space became ubiquitous symbols for the environmental movement; Stewart Brand, who had lobbied NASA to release such photos, put "Earthrise" on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, his wildly popular publishing experiment.

However, bodings of an apocalyptic environmental crisis still surged underneath this sense of wonder and awe. For many ecologists and economists, the global environmental problem stemmed from a single intractable and pervasive cause: "dedication to infinite growth on a finite planet."

Fears of unchecked population growth already had a long history. In the late eighteenth century, for instance, Thomas Malthus presented a gloomy vision of humanity's future in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Demographic data convinced the English clergyman and mathematician that "premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race" unless restraints on population growth emerged. Read abundantly and attacked widely, Malthus's ideas provided a touchstone for future debates over resources and population and triggered spasms of debate throughout the twentieth century. After World War Two, books like Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt's Road to Survival stirred a new "wave of postwar pessimism" by proclaiming that "the Day of Judgment is at hand" because of overpopulation and competition for resources. Consequently, mounting concern about population growth stimulated the creation of organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and Zero Population Growth. The idea that famines in India and elsewhere might breed social and political unrest suggested a new national security threat, one very different from that posed by Soviet military might. As the United States committed more troops to fight in Southeast Asia, journalists bluntly stated that Western nations would have to decide whether to "feed 'em or fight 'em." Intimately connected with '60s-era fears of uncontrolled population growth were alarmist predictions of dwindling natural resources, which hungry populations and newly developing nations released from colonial confines only exacerbated.

Some academics expressed similarly harsh views. Garrett Hardin, an ecologist at the University of California, perceived direct links between overpopulation and ecological and social collapse. His 1968 essay "Tragedy of the Commons," one of the twentieth century's most widely circulated articles, depicted people's tendency to act out of personal self-interest and, in the process, destroy communal resources and swamp humanity's metaphorical lifeboat. In his grim analysis, Hardin called for more regulation, curtailed immigration, and reduced reproductive choice, extreme prescriptions that, not surprisingly, colleagues critiqued as faintly disguised "barbarism."

Another dramatic warning of overpopulation's perils came from Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. The opening of his 1968 book The Population Bomb places Ehrlich in a crowded Delhi street where the hellish "dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires" of the poor and underfed overwhelm him. Americans, he wrote, must recognize and empathize with their "less fortunate fellows on Spaceship Earth." Otherwise, Ehrlich predicted, millions of people in deprived nations would soon be starving worldwide, and the resulting humanitarian crises would threaten America's own domestic security. While some experts saw such claims as wrongheaded—ecologist Barry Commoner insisted Ehrlich simplified the cause of a much more complex set of social problems—his jeremiad, endorsed by the Sierra Club and promoted by appearances on television talk shows, was read by millions.

Even though scientists had made remarkable progress in increasing food output for the world's developing countries, solutions that relied only on technology offered no absolute answer. To Ehrlich and his supporters, even the vastness of outer space promised no safety valve. "We can't ship our surplus to the stars," he insisted. Some researchers agreed. In 1970, the Norwegian Nobel Committee presented its annual peace prize to Norman Borlaug for his work in helping foster the Green Revolution that was increasing food production worldwide. When the American agronomist accepted his award in Oslo, he reminded his audience that growing more food for a hungry planet was only a temporary solution unless societies curbed population growth and the overconsumption of resources. Failure to do this, warned Ehrlich, Hardin, and scores of other writers, would have catastrophic consequences for the future. But "where," asked Borlaug in 1970, "were the leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership, and the persistent determination" to make such hard choices? A few years later, a small group of influential global citizens stepped forward to offer their own answers.

Data In, Doomsday Out

The Limits to Growth originated in the research of Jay W. Forrester, an MIT professor once described by the Wall Street Journal as someone who "likes to play disturbing games with graphs." Born in rural Nebraska, Forrester moved to MIT in 1940 with the intent of studying electrical engineering. During World War Two, he worked in MIT's Servomechanism Laboratory, where engineers designed complex cybernetic systems to control the movement of gun turrets and radar antennae. After the war ended, Forrester helped design the first high-speed digital computers, getting rich from his innovations in the process.

In 1956, Forrester switched careers and moved to MIT's Sloan School of Management. He intended to apply what he knew about engineering systems, computers, and decision-making processes to corporate management. At Sloan, Forrester developed tools and techniques for modeling and manipulating economies and cities. One of his first projects was studying real-world factories as systems in which variables such as production, inventory, and employment were treated as interconnected streams of information. In the process, Forrester developed a methodology he called "system dynamics." His models typically portrayed what he termed "overshoot and collapse." In such scenarios, outcomes like productivity would rise initially, generating overproduction, and then fall back rapidly, creating factory closures and unemployment. Therefore, a desirable goal was achieving some state of balance and equilibrium. Forrester hoped his mathematical models would become the basis for rational decision making by business owners and policy makers.

In the late 1960s, Forrester broadened his focus from discrete industrial systems to entire cities, hoping to rationally tackle the processes associated with the decline of urban areas. Some of his computer-derived models for "urban dynamics" suggested, for instance, that low-cost housing actually increased poverty by encouraging poor and underemployed people to congregate in cities, which then suffered lower tax revenues. Some reviewers saw such conclusions as insensitive in the politically charged environment of the late 1960s, while others critiqued Forrester's tendency to eschew reams of empirical data or the work of urban planning experts in favor of computer-based models.