en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hevea_brasiliensis#/media/File:Hevea_brasiliensis_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-071.jpg, Public Domain
On a television series This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy, an episode was aired on the rubber plant. If you thought oil was an issue for the global economy, this video tidbit will open your eyes even wider. It seems that the rubber tree, hevea brasiliensis, was wiped out in Brasil due to a rapidly spreading fungal infection. As a result, only about tiny fraction of rubber in the world comes from that region of the world any more. Most of it comes from southeast Asia now, but is still susceptible to the same infection.
As noted in Wikipedia:
The majority of the rubber trees in Southeast Asia are clones of varieties highly susceptible to the South American leaf blight—Microcyclus ulei. For these reasons, environmental historian Charles C. Mann, in his 2011 book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, predicted that the Southeast Asian rubber plantations will be ravaged by the blight in the not-too-distant future, thus creating a potential calamity for international industry.
Calamity is a bit of an understatement. Although there are a few dandelion to rubber projects, if this blight were to hit the southeast Asian plantations/farms that have rubber trees, things might get dicey in modern society. Removing that one simple element, rubber, can cause a whole bunch of knock on effects that might bring modern conveniences and technologies to their knees. Yes, it is possible to make synthetic rubbers or analogues, but it takes a bit of effort, and the substitutes aren’t always ideal.
Taking this in mind, it is always laughable/sad to see the ideas of Moon and Mars colonies bandied about. Although it might be able to put ten, one hundred, or even a thousand people on the Moon or Mars in the next twenty years, unless you’ve got something like very cheap (think antigravity) transport, those colonies will be dependent on Earth for a vary long time, until they can manufacture everything that could be needed forever, in a sustainable way. If you don’t have basic elements like rubber, you don’t have a modern society, and you certainly don’t have a workable and self-sustaining off-world colony. Ultrapure silicon and gases for processing semiconductors, cobalt for touch screens, trace elements for a variety of technological widgets – all are required for high-tech off-world living, and therefore, those colonies will be tied to Earth for a long time. If these colonies are meant to be lifeboats for humanity, they won’t last very long.
Yes, it is possible that we get these colonies going in short order; Arthur C. Clarke once had a pithy quote:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
I’m not an elderly scientist, nor am I distinguished. I’m not even claiming it is impossible to get a colony of sorts going off world. The point here is that yes, it may be possible to get hundreds, or even thousands of people off-world. To do it sustainably, however, will be a real trick.
- Peak Oil. Peak Rubber. Peak (Fresh) Water. What other elements or resources can nip any of these high-tech schemes in the bud the fastest?
- What modern technologies are least immune to these resource limitations?
- If you did manage to start a Moon or Mars colony, would there be a way to keep a colony going indefinitely? What industries would you develop first in order to ensure self-sustainability? Would you go a biological route, say, basing your civilization on plants and plant derived resources?
- If we did start colonies on the Moon and Mars, how long do you think it would take to become self-sustaining? What sort of population minimum would be required? Some of these questions have been answered (based on interstellar colonization projects), and the answers aren’t too encouraging. If anything, having a livable world solves a great deal of these problems. Are we willing to terraform Mars, the Moon, or other solar system bodies towards this goal?