Monthly Archives: June 2021

High atmosphere greenhouses. Silent Running 2.0:

I wrote in 2013 about an idea for graphene foam, comprised of tiny graphene spheres with vacuum inside, making a foam that would be lighter than helium and could float high up in the atmosphere:

Could graphene foam be a future Helium substitute?

A foam like that has since been prototyped and tested, and not only does it not immediately collapse, but can actually withstand high pressures. That means it could be made light enough to carry weight and strong (and rigid) enough to support architectural structures.

Since then I wrote about making long strips of the material to host solar powered linear induction motors to enable hypersonic air travel with zero emissions:

Sky-lines – The Solar Powered Future of Air Travel

and more recently about using such high altitude platforms as a subsitute for satellites:

High altitude platforms v satellites

Today, I have another idea – high altitude (e.g. 75,000ft, 25,000m) greenhouses. These could act as an alternative to space stations for the purpose of housing human communities in case of ground-based existential catastrophes such as global plagues or ecosystem collapse. Many scientists have realised that it’s a good idea to have multiple human outposts, and currently explored solutions include large space stations (as suggested by the Lifeboat Foundation) or Lunar and Mars settlements. By comparison, high altitude stations could be made considerably cheaper and larger, and still be immune to ground-based problems such as nuclear winter, pandemics, severe climate change etc, though they would still be vulnerable to other existential risks that affect ground-based life such as massive solar storms, nuclear war, large asteroid strikes, alien attacks. They might therefore form an important part of a ‘backup’ plan for human civilisation.

Imagine a forest-sized greenhouse. My inspiration for this idea is the 1970s film Silent Running (well worth watching), where the Earth has been made into a dystopian sterile world, 72F everywhere, with no plants or animals. The last fragments of rain forest were sent off into space in large domed greenhouses attached to a spacecraft, tended by a tiny crew and a few drones. More recently of course, we see the film Avatar featuring large floating islands covered in greenery.

A large floating graphene foam platform could support such a forest. It could be avatar island shaped if desired, but is more likely to be a flat platform covered in horticultural style poly-tunnels or some variant, but they would need to be strengthened, UV-resistant, and pressurised to provide a suitable atmosphere for a healthy ecosystem. Being well above the clouds, the greenhouses would have exposure to continuous sunshine during the day, which would help keep them warm, with solar power collection used to provide any extra heat and power needed and obviously to charge batteries for use during the night.

A variety of such greenhouses might be desirable. Some might closely replicate a ground environment, others that only house cereal crops might prefer a high CO2/low O2/low N environment, but might not mind being much lower pressure, useful to save cost and weight. Some aimed at human-only habitation might be more like a space station.

To act as a backup human colony, the full-ecosystem environments would be needed to provide food-diversity, but it would in any case be a worthwhile goal to act as an ark for other animals too, as well as the full variety of other life forms we share the Earth with.

Problems such as high radiation exposure would mean these would not be aimed at permanent residence for people or animals, but act more as temporary research outposts, staging posts for off-world evacuation. Plants and animals intended to be permanent residents might be genetically enhanced to deal with higher radiation.

I’ll finish here instead of outlining every conceivable use and design option and addressing every problem. It’s just an embryonic idea and we can’t do it for decades anyway because the materials are not yet feasible in bulk, so we have plenty of time to sort out the details.

Why the growing far left and far right are almost identical

The traditional political model is a line with the far left at one end and the far right at the other. Parties typically occupy a range of the spectrum but may well overlap other parties, sharing some policies while differing on others. Individuals may also support a range of policies that have some fit with a range of parties, so may not decide who to vote for until close to an election or even until inside a voting booth. That describes my own position well, and over four decades, I have voted almost equally for Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative. On balance, I am slightly left of centre, but I support some policies from each party and find much to disagree with in each too.

Over the last two decades, we have seen strong polarisation, with many people moving away from the centre and towards the extremes, though the centre is still well-occupied. Many commentators have observed the similarity of behaviours between the furthest extremes, so a circular model is actually more valid now.

The circular model of politics

Centre left, centrist and centre right parties have traditionally taken it in turns to govern, with extremist parties only getting a few percent of the vote in the UK. Accepting that it is fair and reasonable that you can’t always expect to make all the decisions has been the key factor in preserving democracy. Peace-loving acceptance and tolerance lets people live together happily even if they disagree on some things. That model of democracy has survived well for many decades but has taken a severe battering in recent years as polarisation has taken hold.

Extremists don’t subscribe to this mutual acceptance and tolerance principle. Instead, we see bigoted, hateful, intolerant, often violent attitudes and behaviours. The middle ground and both moderate wings have reasonably sophisticated view of the world. Although there are certainly some differences in values, they share many values such as wanting the world to be a fairer place for everyone, eliminating racism, tackling poverty and so on, but may disagree greatly on the best means to achieve those shared goals. The extremes don’t conform to this. As people become polarised, selfishness, tribalism, hatred and intolerance grow and take over. At the most unpleasant extremes, which are both rapidly becoming more populated, the far left and far right share an overly simplistic and hardened attitude that frequently refuses civilised engagement and discussion but instead loudly demands that everyone else listens. We often hear the expressions “educate yourself” and “wake up” substituting for reasoned argument. Both extremes are heavily narcissistic, convinced without evidence of their own or their tribe’s superiority and willing to harm others as much as they can to attempt to force control. The far right paint themselves as patriotic defenders of the country and all that is right and good. The far left paint themselves as paragons of virtue, saints, defenders of all that is right and good. A few cherry-picked facts is all either extreme needs to draw extreme conclusions and demand extreme responses. Both are hypocritical and sanctimonious, with astonishing lack of self-awareness. Both often resort to violence. Both reject everyone who isn’t part of their tiny tribe. It is a frequent (albeit amusing) occurrence to see the extreme left attempt to label everyone else as far right or racist, while declaring that they love everyone. Both accuse everyone else of being fascist while behaving that way themselves. With so much in common, is therefore entirely appropriate to place the far left and far right in close proximity, resulting in the circular model I have shown. Any minor differences in their ideology are certainly dwarfed by their common attitudes and behaviours.

I have written often about our slipping rapidly into the New Dark Age, and I think it has a high correlation with this polarisation. If we are to prevent the slide from continuing and protect the world for our children, we must do what we can to resist this ongoing polarisation and extremism – communism and wokeness on the far left, omniphobic tribalism on the far right.