Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

From the space race to human race

John Manoochechri
John Manoochehri

Forty years on from humans reaching the Moon, it is time for another epochal moment in history, says John Manoochehri. In this week's Green Room, he calls for us to recapture the spirit that took us into space and use that energy to save the planet.

Apollo 11 (Image: AP)
A great idea did not put men on the Moon 40 years ago; a vast, risky, people-driven and hugely uneconomic undertaking did

In July, the UK government launched its Low Carbon Transition Plan, which it described as the best carbon plan of any developed country.

Unnoticed, it was unveiled 40 years to the day after the launch go-ahead was given for Apollo 11, the mission that put a human on the moon, and ended the space race in improbable, epochal success.

Enthusiasm for sustainability is everywhere. But is enough actually being done?

The day following the launch of the low carbon plan, operators managing the switchboards of the three departments responsible for the scheme said the same thing when I asked to speak to someone responsible for "sustainable technologies".

They asked: "Um, what do you mean specifically?" They then went on to tell me that there wasn't anyone particular.

Back to the future

In 2010, the future was set to arrive in style, in the form of the Dongtan eco-city, for at least 50,000 people as part of Shanghai World Expo.

They'll need to hurry up, or phone to tell the world's architects who still swoon over the artistic renderings, since not a single brick has been laid, and planning permission has been revoked.

Congestion in central London (Image: BBC)
So far, the low carbon vision has been going nowhere fast

Same for Europe's most spectacular eco-homes project, Mata De Sesimbra in Portugal. Five years after it becomes a rallying cry? Nothing.

Vision and feel-good are big parts of making change happen. But a great idea did not put men on the Moon 40 years ago; a vast, risky, people-driven and hugely uneconomic undertaking did.

Right now, the sustainability movement is heading for a monumental reality check, within the decade, as governments, businesses and people realise that the contemporary hullaballoo is built on no such undertaking. In fact, sustainability as currently proposed is unsustainable.

Back when the modern environmental movement was making waves for the first time in the 60s and 70s, the driving forces of change were big science, big government and big personalities. The Moon landings was no small part in such confidence at solving big problems.

Nowadays, sustainability is awash with fey compromisers, unburdened by brilliance. And the debate is not about grand governmental stances, or a world led by deep science, still less by ethics.

Rather the technical basis, and the whole worldview, of "planet saving", is essentially economics: if we can sell it (to industry, to a populace, to consumers), or if we can tax it, we'll have a go.

Sure, there's some science here - but it's pretty much limited to counting: enumerating environmental impact - such as the "eco-footprint" - and then trying to work out the "cost".

Specialist "environmental experts" now extol something calling sustainable development, which supposedly knits together environmental, social and economic development in one grand sandwich of wholesomeness.

Unsound foundations

Nothing is meaningless in this context, everything is possible. Leaders in this domain have perfected the art of saying everything and yet nothing.

But as it turns out, conventional economics and sustainable development are two of the most unsound foundations for grand societal change - the type required for sustainability - that have been devised.

Shoppers in London (Image: PA)
Cities need to be designed for conviviality and convenience, without so much useless infrastructure - transport, waste, parking - clogging everything up

Sure, investment, markets, and the consumer economy are possible that don't trash resources and people - in the way that fat, carbohydrate, and sugar don't have to have to make people obese.

Ideologies of social renewal are possible that are modern and inclusive; ie. not very ideological, and rather pragmatic.

Yet to build a sufficient sustainability movement requires much more truly scientific framework of economics, and much more rigourous formulation of sustainable development.

Today's economics is like Ptolemy's model of the solar system: devilishly clever, but oh so wrong.

Sustainable development currently is like a kaleidoscope: all you can do is keep going and enjoy the pretty patterns because there is no conceptual framework, still less a map or timetable that might tell you what it all means.

Both must be redesigned, and both injected with a huge new dose of basic, universal ethics.

It's time to relaunch the movement. The recent report from the Sustainable Development Commission - Prosperity Without Growth - ought to be a bomb under both economics' and sustainable development's easy chairs, with its tough message that growth economics is incompatible this particular planet.

But for the bomb to go off, a new generation of thinkers, agents, designers, and communicators needs to push the current "leaders" aside and set out a new, clear vision and build a truly grand project on truly robust foundations.

That would involve, as a start, colossal investment in a material economy that cycles everything, and compels industry (more than consumers) to design and produce things as part of that cycle.

Regions need to manage all their own energy and resources starting yesterday, through efficiency and building-integrated production.

Cities need to be designed for conviviality and convenience, without so much useless infrastructure - transport, waste, parking - clogging everything up.

Citizens need to take a break from worrying about recycling and climate change (which they have been unfairly dumped with solving) by taking time away from soulless work for unsatisfying consumption.

These are all the biggest, riskiest, most urgent projects the world has ever known. Rock on: who said history was over?

So near, yet so far

Enthusiasts - such as government ministers, hot-flushed with flabby economics and sustainable development rhetoric - will say they are taking steps in the right direction. The Low Carbon Transition Plan guarantees 1.2 million "green jobs" by 2020 - which leaves only 30 million "non-green" jobs.

Four decades after the West won the space race with crazy bravery, why can't we do something similar for the human race?

Sustainability isn't exactly rocket science, but if this plan is a step towards it, cobbling together a big firework is a step towards building a Moon rocket.

Right now, the euphoria of the summer has died down anyway.

The pre-Copenhagen climate talks in Barcelona have made it clear just how far governments are from really taking climate change seriously, let alone sustainability in any more systematic sense.

By all means, blame environmentalists and "sustainability experts" for their poor formulation of conception of change, but we must blame politicians for their disgraceful clinging to failed and outmoded concepts of perpetual, materialised, economic growth - and thus their inability to put any more substantial framework on the dynamics and direction of change.

The outcome from Barcelona, and raw data from so many sources, shows that things are not getting better at the scale that counts, despite the green enthusiasm buzzing in our ears.

The real deal of sustainability - truly massive reconfigurations of material culture - has sunk in a quicksand of ultimately unscientific economic mythology, and wilfully incoherent sustainable development generalities.

It's time, once again, to evoke an epochal response to an epochal challenge.

Four decades after the West won the space race with crazy bravery, why can't we do something similar for the human race?

John Manoochehri is guest researcher at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, and leads the sustainable design project studio, Resource Vision

He also wrote Consumption Opportunities, the policy on sustainable lifestyles for the UN Environment Programme, and the philosophical basis of the Green Party's manifesto

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with John Manoochehri? Is there too much talk and too little action? Are were missing the "can do" attitude of past generations? What do we need to do to ensure our long-term survival?

Sustained economic Growth! That's the key, and ultimately ridiculous, statement. Things will change when, and only when, a world leader has the guts to stand up and say that we should not aim for economic growth, just a sustainable economy and we will now focus are efforts on quality of life and not the size of peoples wallets.
Chris, Bristol

So many people pointing the finger at population.

I wonder, have you all had yourself sterilised without having children? or are you just hypocrite, who have had children (or intend to), yet think the solution is to stop other people from doing so?

Environmentalism is, at it's very core, a pursuit of the wealthy, healthy, well fed and educated, who seem hell bent on ensuring that the rest of the world do not get to enjoy the quality of life that they do... because that would be 'unsustainable'.

The problem is not population. The problem is distribution and governance. We could easily feed the world, have enough clean water, wholesome food - if the political will existed.

We need to stop hunger, spread knowledge and education - medicine, agricultural science and engineering worldwide to ensure the benefits of the modern age are available to everyone.

People who hanker for a mythical agrarian lifestyle are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Ian Lowe, Airdrie, UK

Aside from the fact that the article above is poorly edited and somewhat repetitive, where are the clearly stated alternatives/ ideas?

I agree with many of the contributors following the article, that we are heading toward massive overpopulation and that many lives are lived only to satisfy their own need to consume ever more resources.

Two fundamental issues are linked - wasteful overconsumption and widespread poor parenting, producing generation after generation of bigotted, self-seeking, underacheiving, non-contributing 'world citizens'.

To the dreamers who hope for a solution in transporting people to the stars - that will never happen. Even if technically and economically possible, whose decision would it be to infest the universe with our poor and needy billions?

The speed at which our world-wide problems are chasing us means, I fear, that the solution will find us - not we, the solution.
Mike Snell, Birmingham

40 years into the future?

Are you mad man? The very definition of 'singularity' on my computer's dictionary is "a point of time generally agreed upon to be 2030AD when overwhelming technological change makes future predictions impossible"

That's 21 years.

I became interested in this topic when I (as technology integration expert) wrote a powerpoint and showed it to my business partner for an idea I had. We believe it could cause a technological singularity (thou I didn't really understood at that time what that meant) - which is a full 20 years before its predicted; regardless - nobody wants to talk about it.

Why? likely it will alter the concept of money and bring about a better world.

Clearly not something the present world wants to consider - so my present efforts are to further the existing dystrophy we are presently building till eventually something gives.

Thus my new mantra to maximize profits regardless of social or environmental cost.

btw - I'm fully aware how fiat currency works and a whole host of other interesting topics - I'm a big reader...

Think I'm kiding? I've given you my name and my email address and I'm easy to look up but I assure you that I'm not going to tell you how to build this device.

Other eventualities are likely to be necessitated first. But if you think we need another space race - ok cool anything to speed up the present technological advance...
Matt Chaney, Hermosa/CA US

Thank you for this concise and o point assessment.

I work for NASA at Kennedy Space Center here in Florida.

It is a significant disappointment to all of us at NASA that most citizens of this world no longer see the value in space exploration.

I won't bore you with the endless stream of of trickle down technology that enhances all of our lives. Suffice to say that even if you do not believe in the noble exploration of our universe, you must recognize the technological, medical/biomedical and materials research that has vastly improved your quality of life, safety, and health.

Yes, we once again must undertake these endeavors "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills"
Mark R, Kennedy Space Center Florida

The US President should issue an emergency broadcast about the impending crisis; the perfect storm of issues building in intensity set to culminate in an environmental disaster the likes of which the Earth has never seen.. These are different times than when the race for space was thrown down as a gauntlet to bring the people together and inspire the brightest minds and the imaginations of a whole generation of both young and old alike. Clear thinking is needed now and a plan for action that does not cut corners.. It's going to take everyone's participation as nothing has ever done before to pull it off. These truly are the times that test people's souls as Thomas Paine said so brilliantly when a United States was in the process of being formed. When words could inspire men to put aside their differences and stand together, side by side, for a common purpose. This call to action should be considered part and parcel of the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen and bring to t!

ruth as the author pointed out the need to start yesterday in a venture so grand. It should ring loud enough in the ears of all who hear so all Nature can hear. Nature so beautiful it gives sustenance to the heartbeat of life will give strength and hope. It needs our participation and help to undo a destiny that should not be allowed to occur.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

I agree, sustainability as currently proposed is unsustainable. How often we hear the rhetoric calling for "sustainable growth", when growth and sustainable development are mutually exclusive. Conventional business and political minds need to change, but change is the one thing they fear above all else.

Yes, Apollo was "a vast, risky, people-driven and hugely uneconomic undertaking", but John Manoochehri is quite wrong to say "A great idea did not put men on the Moon 40 years ago". But for the insight of John Houbolt, we would all be commemorating a noble failure, instead of celebrating a triumph of human endeavour and the opposition he faced made him "a voice in the wilderness". I guess every forward-thinking, concerned environmentalist knows that feeling!

George Low, a top NASA leader in the 1960's wrote in 1982 "had the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Mode not been chosen, Apollo would not have succeeded."

James R. Hansen, the space historian wrote, Houbolt and his associates "were the first in NASA to recognize the fundamental advantages of the LOR concept, and for a critical period in the early 1960s, they also were the only ones inside the agency to foster it and fight for it."

It took them more than two years to change the majority conventional view within the NASA team and they had a common goal. To judge from the reaction of different political hues to the idea of 'Prosperity Without Growth', there's no prospect of even finding a common goal to aim for. Can the entrenched positions of opposing sides ever be reconciled?

What we need is a continual stream of great ideas to create innovation in technology, economics, business models and political thinking. Actually, I have some good ideas to contribute, but nobody will listen, not even the Minister for Science and Innovation.
Dave Smart, Vale of Neath, South Wales

Most environmentalists aren't scientists and have jumped on the CO2 bandwagon. There is stronger evidence that global warming is caused by sunspot activity. This is more likely since for the past decade the average temperature has cooled yet the CO2 level has risen, while sunspot activity has decreased.

Please focus on scientific facts rather than specultation.

The road to hell is lined with good intentions.
Selwyn Firth, Toronto Canada

The author of this article is 1000% right! It is time for a supreme, co-ordi- nated effort to save the future. Yes, we can!
Andreas Jaffe, Krefeld, Germany

firstly, there is absolutely no anthropogenic global warming, it is a complete hoax, used by politicians as a means of control. Secondly, the United States military and Russia are sitting Tesla technology for the past hundred years using zero point energy. These are established facts. So, even if global warming was real which it is not, save what is caused by the sun, we have the technology to allow every person on the planet to create their onw electricity for free.

I hope this answers some questions. All I have said can be easily verified from the appropriate sources, sadly we are stuck using carbon technology again to keep the power and money in the hands of the few. what a stupid backward species we are.

The population isn't the problem. Finite resources are the problem. We need to continue what we started last century and figure out how to colonise space. Otherwise we are doomed as a species.
Fred Harrington, UK

Yes, a space colony program will only be the beginning. At Mars, the real estate is vast, and so far unsurveyed . Little beyond Mars, the asteroid belt is half a million floating mountains made of nickel and iron and ices. Solar power is plentiful in at Venus and Mercury. Ten times more intense. We can harness these resources. We should begin with surveying Mars and parsing it into 100 km blocks that we can sell to invester guvs or unions or corporations who help at the ground floor, 'early days'. Early days are today. Mars is the new 'Americas'. Let's go .
Ron Burke, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Why don't we export the carbon to the moon or mars, creating/enhancing the greenhouse effect and also allowing a bit more space for the human population explosion.
Neil, Fulchester

I agree with Mr Manoochechri, and with a lot of the people bringing their ideas forward. Things to consider are 1) Even if the population could be reduced by reproductive laws, you would still have a growing population. As human beings there would always be a cluster of peoples who would either ignore the law or flaunt their wishes upon the rest of us without a care. This is all beside the fact that the population will still rise to 9 or 10 billion people by the year 2100. So control it or not we have a growing population. 2) Consumerism and consumption clearly have to be curbed. This is a pretty tough thing to do in a free market economy. Since corporations/governments survive on rising profits/taxes we will have to rethink the "normal" methods of doing business/government. Good luck. 3) Sustainable/renewable sources of power are out there and being developed. We are in a limbo of transition from a purely industrial society to a fully technical/scientific/environmental one.!

We can see the renderings and discuss the future, but our social economic structure is holding us back. We don't have another structure. We either have to scrap the current one or rearrange it to conform to a new way of life. In all, we are talking about a lot of time to make these things happen. I hope we get it right. This is the Human "Race".
Ed Szklarz, Olmsted Falls, Ohio/USA

Nice to see the overpopulation nazis out in force as is usual when someone attempts to speak rationally about issues regarding sustainability. Nevermind the fact that its the the wealthiest 1 billion people (a section of the population which hasn't changed much in recent times) that generates the majority of the resource depletion and environmental destruction. Oh no, must tell those wretched brown and black people to stop having babies!

I have to agree with both concepts posited above - but if we can't get anywhere with industry and politicans on vastly changing the way the world "does business" because the challenge seems so monumental, why aren't we taking the easier route of reducing the population? It seems ludicrous to me that you have to jump through so many legal hoops to adopt someone else's child yet any muppet with half a brain cell is allowed, and even encouraged through government handouts and a misplaced sense of human rights, to procreate freely? At what point are we going to say enough is enough - is the human right of an individual to have their third or fourth child really compatible with the overarching human right to survive at a species level? This will happen at some point! The question is will we do it of our own accord and scrap this human rights nonsense in a civilised way?
Simon H, Stirling, Scotland

Nice to hear a positive spin on this issue for a change! I must agree so many of our current schemes on the subject fall epically short of the mark; build things to last, not market cheap things that can be recycled. I often get called a cynic for criticising, insignificant 'green' thinking; but in taking part and feeling better about ourselves are we not all missing the point? Just because the answer doesn't seem achievable, doesn't make it the wrong answer, and now, as the author suggests, we have momentum on our side…
Reef, Liverpool

Population! Population! Population! Is anyone in governments listening? An eco-town is a contradiction in terms as is sustainable development, unless a non eco town is demolished to make way for it you are just developing more land perhaps destroying the planet more slowly, but destroying it nevertheless. These houses at present will be more expensive though technology will advance greatly and lower bills will be persuasive, I'm sure you would still have to convince the public to live in perhaps non traditional style houses. It's clear that 6 billion people, never mind the soon to be 9 billion cannot live to our standard of living even if we only use a third what we do now. The loss of wildlife should be intolerable to anyone with a thought for what we are leaving for future generations, but also the loss of quality of life as we are crammed into ever smaller accommodation in more congested and crime ridden streets should not be tolerable either. Freemarket fundamentalists talk of ever more growth but this is for the benefit of a few, it doesn't and can't make sense. We in the west cannot now increase our material living standards without keeping other peoples down, of course they won't be kept down!
steve johnson, whitwick,leics

It sounds very extreme but the only way we will make any difference no matter how much recycling, energy efficiency reviews and vegetarianism we carry out, is to control an already vastly too big world population. Without all countries agreeing to set laws to attempt to fix child numbers at 2 children per set of parents. While at the same time punishing those who chose to have large familes (no matter race or religion as this is a humanwide issue),we have no chance of stemming climate change. Not to mention feeding and watering the majority of the world population and preventing the human race reducing our earth to a burnt out shell and leaving ourselves the fate of the dinosaurs.
James Higham, Edinburgh

Nice! I totally agree! The catalyst for the moon race was the eagerness in beating the opponent - the communist Soviet union/the capitalist USA. Why is it that people don't realise that Death is the final opponent of our time? Shouldn't death make us eager to win over ourselves in this everlong spiral of doom? What I think needs to be done is to educate people that if we continue like this, we will die. All of us. It should not have to come down to a really bad scenario for us to take a stand and do something about it. To need to experience change before changing ourselves is bad.
Henrik Bejmar, Stockholm, Sweden

So the guy says transport and parking are relatively useless in a city? Funny idea. Wonder how i'll survive in a city where no food can be transported into. Guess i'll join the eco freaks in the countryside then; better than starving.
Karl Schlonz, Neustadt Am Rubenberge, Germany

Carbon is a smokescreen for what really ails the planet: massive human overpopulation that is taxing the limits of the planet's resources and crowding out the other species that inhabit the world. No politician has the guts to talk about it but the problem of overpopulation can't be solved by the developed world recycling or using renewable power nor by transferring wealth to the third world. Changing our lifestyle may squeeze out enough resources to add another billion or two but if the human species continues to breed like rabbits while stuck on this single planet then we're doomed.
Scott W, Port Orchard, USA

Too much talk and not enough action. Large scale, anonymous infrastructure and industry which is in the control of private companies will surely never change their policies for a sustainable future while it is not in their economic interest. It is also far too easy to blame consumers for all the problems, when the systems that deliver our resources are geared directly towards over-consumption. De-centralised systems are the only way forwards for people to manage their own consumption and waste
Richard Outhwaite, London

Seeking possibility in space, in such a short duration is going to be a very tough task. Controlling population and current trends of life styles, development and market based economy are comparatively less difficult options. Controlling population would reduce our shape and would provide strength to handle this challenge. 'Leaving planet earth after spoiling' is not the right approach. We are the ones who have spoiled the planet. Therefore, it is our duty to make everything in order.
John Manoochehri is not happy with the responses of the political leaders. An epochal response to epochal challenge is quite necessary. Either we must adopt 'radical changes' or some 'effective interventions' are needed urgently. Politicians should not try to place blame on each other on the 'frivolous issues' or for the things of the past. Anything which is obstructing efforts to reverse the climate change must be considered as 'frivolous'. In the time to come, politicians too, would not be able to promise moons when major problems would start surfacing.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Enthusiasm for sustainability is everywhere. But actual works are not done. How did the human being reach to the moon? What spirits are worked with them? The same spirits are to be need for sustainable development. We must have to put effort to save our rainforest, marine environment, biodiversity. That is world political leader must take initiative to reduce 25 percent green house gas emission by 2050 to avoid serious changes in the earth's climate system.
Engr Salam, Kushtia,Bangladesh

I completely agree with Mr Manoochechri - using outmoded ways to measure well-being (misused measures such as the GDP) and traditional cost/benefit analyses are leading us nowhere fast. Yet the change we truly need, a widespread use of cradle to cradle manufacturing (endlessly recyclable materials, no waste), and a more localized approach to energy generation and waste management (solar collectors, grey water systems anyone?) seem to far away from our current system. The task at hand is almost incomprehensible in its scope; we are facing the most wicked problem ever encountered by modern man. A wicked issue is so complex that we cannot fully comprehend the extent of the problem until we throw solutions at it, and learn from our mistakes. A wicked problem requires a shared understanding of the different facets of the issue in order for us to move forward. A wicked problem requires mankind to be infused with a shared commitment to changing their ways and moving forward with our history.
Philippe Mineau, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Nothing is worthwhile unless the human population is controlled. With effective population control, everything is possible. We can argue about how "clean" or "dirty" a lifestyle we want to live and set a target population appropriately. To live like we in the developed world do at the moment, we need to reduce our numbers to well under one percent of the current. 30 million - about half the current population of the UK - could probably live our existing lifestyle without wrecking the planet.
Brian Beesley, UK

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