This is the second in a series of articles reflecting on a recent study which predicts collapse of industrial society within a few decades. In the first essay, Max Wilbert discusses how in the long-run, collapse will benefit both humans and nature alike. This second essay in the series explores a “solution” proposed by the original authors of the study—a “Dyson sphere”—and why it will not save us from a collapse.

By Salonika / DGR Asia-Pacific

A Dyson sphere is a theoretical energy harvesting, a metal sphere that completely encompasses a star, and harnesses 100% of the solar energy. The solar panels that form its membranes would capture and transmit energy to Earth’s surface through microwave or laser. A concept that originated from a science fiction, it has been considered to be the ultimate “solution” to an industrial civilization’s ever increasing demand for energy.

There are a lot of problems with this theoretical solution. The authors of the study themselves are skeptical about the possibility of building a Dyson sphere by the time of their predicted collapse. We are going to deal with this issue in later parts of this series. In this piece, I will explore the improbable scenario that a Dyson sphere is built to fulfill the fantastical visions of the technocrats and whether that could prevent the ensuing collapse.

Is energy crisis the only crisis we are facing?

The obsession of the current environmental movement with renewable energy could easily confuse anyone regarding the scale of the ecological crisis that we are facing. We now witness a mass delusion that the energy crisis is, in fact, the only crisis that civilization is facing. In reality, the energy crisis represents just a facet of the ecological crisis.

Let’s consider global deforestation, which was used in the model for the study. The authors assert that once the Dyson sphere is used to “solve” our energy problems, the global deforestation would halt, ensuring the longevity of human civilization on Earth. This assertion is based on an unstated assumption that forests are being cleared primarily for fuel. As a matter of fact, fuel is only one driver of deforestation. Forests are also cleared for agriculture, cattle ranching, human settlements, buildings, mining, and roads. Unlimited energy does not “solve” or remove these pressures.

The same is true for all other forms of ecocide. Ninety percent of large fish in the oceans are gone, not to exploit their bodies for fuel, but due to overconsumption of fish as food. Bees colonies are collapsing, not for fuel, but, scientists estimate, due to pesticides, malnutrition, electromagnetic radiation, and genetically modified crops. Two hundred species are disappearing every day. That’s one every six minutes. That’s a result of habitat destruction, climate change, overexploitation, and toxification, not the need for energy.

A Dyson sphere (if it is ever created) could solve only the  so-called energy crisis. All the other crises – habitat destruction, toxic environmental pollution, land clearing for agriculture, mining, overexploitation of species, and so on – would still continue. Indeed, the very existence of a Dyson sphere could increase the exploitation of the environment.

How is a Dyson sphere created?

First, a Dyson sphere would bemore massive than Earth itself. It would demands an astronomical (pun intended!) amount of raw materials, particularly metals. Procurement of these raw materials would require resource extraction on an unprecedented scale. Resource extraction (like mining) is one of the primary causes of environmental degradation, including global deforestation. Proponents advocate mitigating this harm by mining asteroids rather than planet Earth, but developing and building the fleet of spacecraft necessary for such an endeavor would necessarily begin on Earth, and would be incredibly harmful. In a single launch, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket emits 1352 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (That’s nearly 300 times what an average car emits every year.)

Once created, a Dyson sphere would also need to be maintained. On average, a solar panel lasts about 25-30 years, after which the amount of energy produced will decline by a significant amount. It means that in every thirty years, the entire Dyson sphere would have to be rebuilt again. Let’s assume that the solar panels of the Dyson sphere would be more durable than the ones we use now. Even so, they will be subjected to different risks, like damage from asteroids or comets. A Dyson sphere would create a perpetual demand for (and, inevitably, overconsumption of) nonrenewable materials.

Additionally, the Dyson sphere could not function on its own. A new set of infrastructures would need to be built in order to utilize the energy harnessed. These include laser beam or microwave transmitters for wireless energy transmission from space to earth, additional photovoltaic cells in Earth to receive the transmitted solar energy, transmission wires (and poles) to supply the energy to industrial areas, and batteries to store the energy for when clouds block microwave transmission.

These building blocks come with additional costs. Wireless transmission of such vast quantities of energy can potentially cause eye and skin damage and other harm to human health, change the weather, and are potential culprits behind bees colony collapse. And what about birds? Traditional transmission lines are a prime cause of deforestation. Photo-voltaic cells usually end up in landfills or are sent to a developing country with lax environmental laws. Creating, maintaining, and disposing of solar panels pollutes the environment at every step.

An Authoritarian Technic

Lewis Mumford distinguishes between authoritarian technics and democratic technics based on whether a piece of technology requires a large-scale hierarchical structure, and whether it reinforces this structure. The Dyson sphere can be considered an authoritarian technic based on both of these criteria. The Dyson sphere requires a massive hierarchical infrastructure to exist in the first place: only specific group of individuals – those who have access and control over these infrastructures – can control its creation. Once created, it will be used to perpetuate the very hierarchical structure that created the conditions for its existence.

A Dyson sphere could exist only in an explicitly human supremacist, and implicitly colonial and patriarchal, culture. It will require resource extraction (primarily mining), on a scale much larger than what we have seen before. Extraction is inherently an ecocidal practice based on forced labor. It has been responsible for the destruction of numerous biospheres, and displacement of both humans and nonhuman communities.

The beneficiaries of this so-called technological “innovation” would be those who are already on the upper rungs of the hierarchical structure. Those on the bottom, on the other hand, would face the consequences. The same is true for other forms of technological innovations that we use every day. Consider a cell phone, for example. For the “haves” of the industrialized society, cell phones are little short of a basic necessity of life, the cost of which are covered by the “have-nots” through perpetual conflicts over resources, forced labor in modern day sweatshops, or even their lives.

The Root of the Problem: Overconsumption

Most importantly, the Dyson sphere does not address the core cause of the civilization’s impending collapse: overconsumption. Despite the claims that technology contributes to efficiency of resource consumption, technology seems to have very little (or even adverse) effect on the global energy consumption. With the exception of 2009 (the year of the global economic recession), consumption has only increased each year since 1990. When the demand for a product is constantly rising, no matter how efficient the production process gets, it will lead to greater consumption of resources.

On the contrary, the authors present a Dyson sphere as a solution to their predicted population collapse. They assume that, the perpetual energy source would lead to a lowered consumption of natural resources, allowing a sustained human population of 10 billion. Even if the culture’s energy demands are met by the perpetual source, in face of a growing (industrialized) human population, we can only presume, the need for more food, more land, more “progress,” and – inevitably – more deforestation.

Furthermore, an implicit (yet obvious) motive for creation of a Dyson sphere is to facilitate our increasing levels of consumption. It will promote an energy intensive way of life. The more energy intensive a way of life is, the more it is based on (over)consumption. In fact, the very existence of a Dyson sphere would demand an exploitation of resources.

A Dyson sphere would not halt deforestation; neither would it stop the acidification of oceans. We’re facing an emergency: an imminent collapse. Many nonhumans have already faced its brutal reality (think about the last member of the species that died while you were reading this article). Now is not the time to indulge in fantasies of a non-existent technology that will salvage the civilization: it is the time to stop whatever is causing the collapse (hint: it’s overconsumption).

Salonika is a member of Deep Green Resistance Asia-Pacific. She believes that the needs of the natural world should trump the wants of the extractive culture.

Featured image: rendering of Dyson swarm by Kevin M. Gill, cc-by-2.0.