Before I try to deal with the second restraint that our civilization is facing, I’d like to talk about space. Not how much I love it (and would much rather work for NASA or for Elon Musk than for my present employer) nor about the question of whether we should go to Mars or not – a question which will certainly come up later. What confounds me is:
Where are we on the space time line?
50 years ago, the space race had just begun and Kennedy made his famous speech about choosing to go to the moon. Not even a decade later (now that's a race!) this choice had already become reality. Mankind had made the giant leap.
But 43 years after Niel Armstrong made his one small step, we don’t seem to be even one milimeter further in physical space exploration.
Well, mostly because there’s nothing "out there" that we actually need. Vacuum. Space dust. Deuterium we could mine out on the moon as a fuel for fusion – IF we ever figure out fusion in a box. But (Space) 2001 and 2010 have come and gone without any resemblance to A.C. Clark’s books of the same name being apparent.
Where are the spinning space stations making centrifigal "gravity" for its earthly inhabitants?
When will we be finally able to book a trip to the moon?
And what are we going to do "out there" once we get there?
Well, getting out there has hardly changed the last 50 years. Chemical propolsion with an expanding gas being shot out the tail of a rocket while the rocket and payload experience an equal and opposite reaction – up through the atmosphere and into space. At least coming back to earth began working like using an airplane, btw still a 1970s’ technology, while the space shuttle was in commission.
But what now?
We still don’t have a better way to get off the planet than throwing stuff out the tail of a rocket. Without an existential goal (no, tourism just won’t do it, I fear), or an extremely cheap way of getting out there, we’re pretty much stuck on earth.
But let’s not give up on space. At the same time, we need to admit that we won’t be getting past drone probes being sent on scientific missions any time soon. At least we're finding out now a bunch about what's out there.
And let’s forget trying to put anyone on Mars for a good while. Instead:
Let’s colonize the Earth!
Its desserts, its high seas, its atmosphere, its (sometimes quite deep) underground. I’ll admit that this may sound rather boring, but it has a huge number of challenges that need to be solved, helping us with the task of colonizing much less hospitable worlds "out there". And we'll finally be making Jules Verne’s visions a bit of reality.
Why search for the new world when the old one has hardly been colonized/explored? Why not try (instead of building a space station) to build an "atmosphere" station at 30km, where this part of the world can be explored? And, of course, work on its self-sustaining characterics, planning missions that may someday be months and years from home?
Maybe it will end up being mankind’s first small step to moving to the atmospheric appartments of the Jetsons and let nature grow back onto the fruitful plains and forests we have been turning into suburbs and parking lots?
And in comparison to some of NASA’s manned missions, it is most certainly doable: constructable, reachable and somewhat affordable - we don't need to reach a speed of 7miles/second to reach it. Maybe it will end up even being profitable. A room with a view might just attract a new type of convention visitor.
And then, after getting these settlements going and having perfectioned transportation up 30-100km in the sky, then we can worry about building space elevators into the uninhabitable reaches of the Moon and Mars.
Island building -- somewhat closer to home.