Friday, October 30, 2015

Eating Seed Corn

Eating Seed Corn

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

At the end of this shift, we’re going to space two of the crew. This will be our first “culling.” Everybody understands why this is necessary. It’s a matter of optimizing the chances of survival for the others. I just found out who we’re going to lose and I need to take a few minutes for myself before I make the announcement to the crew that is gathering in the Commons Hall.

I never imagined I might have to make decisions like this. I am Chairman of the “Deallocation Methodology Committee” that designed the selection algorithm. The calculation includes a dynamic model of functional and social interactions and involves factors such as individual resource loads and contributory potential.

The first thing I insisted on was that all members of the Committee sign “opt-in” papers that increase their selection weighting by four percent. I also insisted that there be no secondary review process where power plays could corrupt the impersonal fairness of the calculation. I insisted that the deallocated personnel not be present at the meeting where their selection was announced but that the announcement and a memory service be held after the fact. The rest of the algorithm is kept in confidence, but is approved by Council.

The view out my portal is stunning. You never stop being amazed by how really big space is. And, in contrast, even from near-earth orbit, our former home seems so small and fragile. I can see entire countries and enormous swaths of the planet in an endless panorama. Large cities blossom in the moderate climates — rooted in fresh water and spreading themselves greedily from dense centers across favorable geography and ever-more-tenaciously across unfavorable.

All the good spots were taken long ago. Governments eventually concluded that the rapidly-warming empty spaces of Canada, Iceland, and Siberia would provide a habitation-capacity buffer. But, they discovered that developing these frontiers produced additional climate problems, rather than solving them. Something more has to give but, so far, no-one on earth has the will to make (or authority to enforce) the really hard decisions.

That’s how our experimental colony ended up in orbit. It finally occurred to governments everywhere that our planet was a closed environment and did not have indefinite resources and capacities. Our orbiting station was intended to discover and improve methods for living successfully and sustainably with the necessarily-constrained resources of a closed environment. We were to be a model for political decisions to be replicated back on earthside. We were going to figure out how to enforce austerity and compromise for the good of the entire community. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

We just passed over the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh. It is obviously in flood stage. It used to support massive rice and wheat production. Now, rising sea levels and ground water salinity, with seasonal super-floods, continues to reduce harvests and push refugees inland. We’ll pass over the deforested mountains of Borneo soon, and then, during our meeting, the shockingly hot, desiccated and empty deserts of Australia.

Humans never quite caught on to limits. They behaved as if they could always harvest from limitless abundance and then move on. When abundance no longer sufficed, they learned how to manage crops for improved production. Mankind invented technology to protect themselves from hostile environments and went on to change their environment itself — always with unexpected consequences.

This orbiting habitat was a product of that technology and now I am charged to deal with the consequences. My mouth is dry and my stomach is knotted. Magellan One (“M1”), our habitat, was never actually completed, meaning that it is as built-out as it will ever be. As the M1 project went on, diminishing resources gave it a precarious start with a little margin for the unexpected. And so, it was eventually deemed “sufficient for its purpose.”

Up here, we don’t have the options of early earthside explorers. There are no open vistas of trees to cut, expanses of land to plow, rivers of water to divert, pits of minerals to collect, or herds of wildlife to slaughter at will. Nobody here sings of spacious skies, waves of grain, or Pilgrim feet beating thoroughfares across the wilderness. By necessity, we find our souls in self-control and liberty in law. We crown our good with brotherhood from bulkhead to shining bulkhead.

We only have the materials that have already been sent up and sunlight shining on our collectors — that’s about it. We constantly and intensely invest, nurture, cultivate, husband, and shepherd our resources. Every breath is precious and every soul is responsible to every other… either that or we shall all certainly die. Of course, that situation is true on Earth too… in theory. The big difference between us and our cousins on the planet is that we experience the consequences of our choices so much sooner.

Now, M1 is as big as it will get for any imaginable future. Our hydroponic gardens and waste processing systems are working well but they are approaching capacity. Much sooner than anybody expected, we turned into an honest-to-god community-of-the-finite. We have no way back and only a narrow and tenuous path forward, if we are very, very careful.

Already, there are some “headache” days when the carbon dioxide levels temporarily elevate above our tolerance levels. The embargoes on aerobic exercise (to reduce oxygen consumption) have been renewed so often that everybody understands to expect ongoing muscle atrophy. There has even been talk of allowing M1’s spin to slow to the point that it only produces 0.8 gravity. This would reduce the skeletal burden of Unity-G.

The colonist shuttles stopped coming two years ago after we absorbed the crew of both Luna stations. Now, even supply ships have stopped. The people back home have been forced to “reevaluate their commitments.” They are past investing in our socio-political experiment. They have collapsed into their own desperate battles for immediate survival. They are eating their seed corn. We continue to exchange information with our sponsor organizations on earthside and they still take our experience as instructive but, as far as physical resources go, we are now entirely on our own.

Although the idea to deallocate crew sprang from a careless and casual remark during a salon about “voting someone off the island,” Council did not create and appoint our committee casually. They consulted the best philosophical resources available. Because our issue hit so close to home, there were a series of deadly earthside riots, most involving some combination of Deist protesters and Survivalist militias. One popular earther vs. earther meme was “Let them fight. Their gods can sort it out. Fewer mouths to feed. Problem solved.”

Onboard M1, there was a near-even split between two positions. One group maintained that there were moral absolutes of good and evil that bound us. This position led to the conclusion that, because deallocation was unthinkable and unacceptable, we were not responsible for whatever subsequent consequences arose. That is, “Life is sacred and we can’t decide to deallocate individuals even if it results in more deaths sooner.”

The second group eventually prevailed. They concluded that, as individuals and a society, we were responsible for both our decisions and the resulting consequences. The deciding argument had been that earthside would not now be in such crisis if humankind had acted from a posture of responsibility and accountability during the past few centuries.

The fact of the matter is that we are not going to actually put two people in an airlock and “space” them. Once it was clear that the spacing decision vote would pass, Councilor Salinger pointed out that spacing would actually be a waste of resources and offered an “optimization” amendment directing that no exception be made to the usual practice of returning all waste organic material to the bio-cycler.

However, Council had trouble coming to terms with the idea of terminating two crew members and rendering them directly into the food supply. The matter went to a full-crew referendum that produced a surprising 68-22% vote in favor of recycling. This was a defining shift in favor of our collective pragmatic solidarity. I wonder if our decision-making model will ever actually be replicated back on earthside.

We’re going to miss Elsie. Laura Cantrell was a civilian structural engineer who was shuttled-up and allocated to the station years ago as we began receiving the framework for the outer ring. Within days of joining the crew, her cheerful optimism put everyone she met at ease. At first, we just shortened her name to “L.C.,” but in no time she was showing up as “Elsie” on the schedules. Now, we have no additional structures that need engineering. Elsie retrained and transferred to work on our hydroponic projects. But, for several years, Elsie has struggled with an autoimmune disease that is attacking the myelin sheath material of her nerves. Her prognosis is not good. No one, least of all Elsie, was surprised when her name came up for “deallocation.”

We’re going to miss Michael. I was surprised when our algorithm selected him for deallocation. At four years old, he is healthy, active, and a genuine social treasure. However, the fact that Michael will require another full decade of dependency before he begins to contribute significantly to operations was factored-in more-heavily than I expected. So, it seems we’re already eating our own seed corn, just like earthside. I’ll guarantee that our experience here will provoke some serious debates down there.

This is really hard. I’m determined to keep my composure. But, I need just a few more minutes to look at the stars. Then, I need to tell Michael in person before taking him to join Elsie at the Medplex. Michael is my only begotten son.

He who knows nothing, loves nothing.
He who can do nothing understands nothing.
He who understands nothing is worthless.
But he who understands also loves, notices, sees …
The more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love.
~Paracelsus, (1493-1541)

David Satterlee


Shortly after I wrote this story, I shared it on a forum and received some serious criticism about it being a 'pointless downer doom story.' However, I also got this startling reply:

“I am Elsie. I used to fill a role building things that society requested. Now, after several years of struggling with an autoimmune disease that is attacking the myelin sheath material of my nerves, I've begun retraining myself to garden productively, with the awareness of worsening food insecurity and resource depletion.

“Reactions to doomerism will always range from "That's just demoralizing" to "That reminds me, I gotta buy more ammo." Somewhere in that continuum are those who might respond by doing something useful. Science fiction is the perfect medium to invite speculation about consequences and alternatives. Good story.”

I wrote back:

“Thank you for your comments on my SF story. I went back and read all of your diaries and want to add some personal and story comments.

“I also used to be a maker and doer but now have disabilities that limit me. I have peripheral neuropathy that makes both lower legs almost totally numb. Also, the bones in my left foot "turned to chalk" during an infection and rearranged themselves in bad ways before fusing back together. I had a stroke in 2011 that impaired my left-side motor functions. And so, I mostly read and write. I found a specialty keyboard that still has those high-quality clickety switches for tactical feedback. I am so grateful to (gradually) be able to type again. I am also grateful to still be able to walk (several blocks at a time), although I'd wager that some in my small town see me lurching around and think I'm the local lush.

“My background for Elsie was the Multiple Sclerosis portrayed by Martin Sheen as President Bartlett on "The West Wing."

“I am intensely moved by your stories of kindness, persistence, and gratitude. I am thankful that you were able to see past my (deliberately callous) disregard for Elsie and Michael's less-quantifiable virtues. I REALLY regret that, in the story, I gave such light weighting to the social contributions of individuals; it would have, otherwise, lost its focus. I'm holding my breath and praying that no one concludes that the story is about eugenics; it is (mostly) a screed against the limitations of earthside conservative values.

Another reader criticized the cynicism of “yet another dystopian future.” My reply to them was:
“Yeah, this story was a button-pusher all around, but I saw it as a triumphal story of a band of heroes, rather than an all-is-lost tragedy. Actually, I'm proud of the crew for being able to manage their personal emotions in service to their community. I think the crew is going to survive long enough to make it. I think the example of their leadership behavior will (as intended) move their brothers, earthside, to finally start pulling together.

“And, the final twist is a pointed reminder to Christians that the core of their faith is all about personal sacrifice. John 3:16 anybody? Even the timing of the post (on Christmas day on my blog) was symbolic. The story is a prayer for peace on earth among men of good will.

“This beats frequent historical precedents where crisis precipitates degeneration into the most primitive levels of personal-survival-at-any-cost behavior. Give us just a 48-hour blackout and stores will be looted. Frankly, I expect climate change to create sufficient regional famine, floods, and desertification that entire populations will take to violence against their better-off neighbors. It won't be pretty.

“We need to be constantly persuaded into the general acceptance of the fact that we are now facing a true-life end times scenario. Nothing else but such a shared stark realization will have sufficient capacity to provoke adequate transformations in our behaviors.

“I believe that advances in energy generation, materials properties, data analysis, and social organizing will be sufficient to allow mankind to find solutions. It will be more a matter of shared purpose (with a willingness to make personal sacrifices) that makes survival of our species possible. Call me an optimist.

“We sometimes forget that not everyone shares the same attitude about the scope of their personal responsibility. Western civilizations tend to promote individual and private interests as primary. Even so, we often hold self-sacrificing heroes in the highest esteem. I would be interested to see how people more-comfortable with Oriental social-obligation culture respond to the crew's decisions.

“Because our lives pass so quickly, compared to geologic and evolutionary time scales, we tend to not notice gradual changes. We remain complacent until we perceive a threat strong enough to motivate us to make changes and take risks. Truly, we tend to not think about things until we are involuntarily obliged to think about things.

“I agree that a uniting positive vision from our leaders is inspiring and vital to giving us meaning, hope, and direction. However, I learned in business that there was nothing like a good crisis to galvanize groups into incredible paroxysms of focused collaboration.

“There are several functional groups that collaborate in any productive organization. Not everyone will be a visionary leader, but strategic thinkers are critical. Another group of creative enablers invent the resources and tactical methods needed to achieve the vision. The bulk of the rest of us sometimes just hope for a better future. But it cannot arrive from passive expectation. We must get up and move – sometimes willingly – sometimes not.

“The drum I am banging has a suite of tones: 1) We must abandon nostalgic fantasies of better times past. 2) We must wake up now to the urgency of real and present dangers. 3) We must take the initiative to work together to create a better future.”