In my last blog post I suggested that overcrowding on Earth isn’t sufficient reason to colonize other planets because there are still lots of alternative places we could inhabit right here on Mother Earth, like the deserts, the oceans, or even Antarctica. But getting a little more creative, there are still more interesting options to look at.
Underground: There aren’t a lot of practical reasons we can’t live underground, more or less in giant skyscrapers that go down instead of up, at least in places amenable to digging deep holes (not in flood plains or coastal areas). A lot of SF books, including the hugely popular Wool series by Hugh Howey, have suggested that we might have to live that way in the event that some catastrophe makes the surface unliveable. We can get water, air, and energy down there, and the temperature is consistently warm. We just don’t like living where we can’t see the sun. But it’s conceivable that we might be able to manufacture sun lamps whose rays are very close to the real thing. Or even develop ways to channel real sunlight deep into the ground without much loss. Colonies on our Moon or the moons of the gas giant planets would likely be underground too. Even surface habitats beyond Mars would get very little sun.
Up in the Air: One of the most exciting visuals in SFF movies is the floating city, which would probably require the discovery of antigravity. But there are other ways to live the high life. Airship technology using Kevlar fabric and recent energy and motor developments enables the creation of some truly gigantic platforms that can ply the stratosphere up above all that inconvenient weather, where solar power is abundant. The first commercial applications will probably be the stratellites being built by Sanswire and Tao Technologies for wireless communications, but who’s to say we won’t see stratospheric luxury condos sometime soon? It might not be feasible to house large populations that way, and access to staples other than energy (like food and water) might be problematic, but the available space is there.
Mountains: There’s a lot of territory that’s unpopulated because flat floor space is at a premium. That said, we have lots of experience with construction on slopes (as opposed to, say, in a vacuum), and the main difficulty, as with airships, would be delivering food, water, and other goods to the homestead. But perhaps some improvement of the old pneumatic tube mail delivery system used in early office buildings could serve. Or maybe a variation based on magnetism. I’m not an engineer, but transportation and delivery of commodities is something we also have a lot of experience with, and the invention of new technologies might not be necessary.
Digital space? Maybe Ray Kurzweil and others who herald the coming Singularity are right, and humanity will at some point dispense with physical bodies and merge with artificially intelligent machines or otherwise upload our consciousness into digital (i.e. virtual) real estate. Our physical space requirements would certainly drop (though no one really knows how much hard drive space a human would take up!) Especially if quantum computing becomes reliable, including storage media. You may say that’s much farther off in the future than Martian colonies but I’m not so sure. Information technologies have been developing at a faster rate than space tech lately, and its impossible to predict what sudden breakthroughs could arrive in either field and change the picture overnight.
Even if you’re someone who’s intent on seeing humans colonize other worlds, futurists like Marshall T. Savage, author of the book The Millennial Project—Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps suggest that creating self-sustaining colonies in Earth environments like our oceans is important practice before we take the big step beyond our friendly ocean of air. Let’s make sure we can get it right here before we put lives at risk “out there”.
From the perspective of a science fiction writer, I’ll still write about space colonies. It’s fun! But I just might direct a little more imaginative focus toward the creative ways we could use to keep calling Mother Earth home.