Running out of Ice on the Moon. The Path of “Resource Depletion” in the Memesphere

March 29, 2021

bookcover“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein, (1966), was translated into Italian in the same year as “La Luna è una Severa Maestra.” It was probably the first science fiction book for adults I ever read in my life, I still remember buying it in a stall in the town of Fiesole, where I lived, and taking it home in awe, as if I had in my hands a religious relic. It was one of the best novels by Heinlein, quite possibly one of the best science fiction novels of all time. Its fascination came from the variety of themes that it explored, one that was remarkably innovative was the concept of resource depletion: the lunar colony had a problem with the depletion of fossil ice. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” may have been the first piece of fiction in modern history to be focused on that subject. 

Thomas Huxley said that “it is the customary fate of new truths, to begin as heresies, and to end as superstitions.” It is a sentence that describes the cycle of ideas, — call them memes — which tend to have a life-cycle similar to that of living creatures. They are born, grow, and disappear. 

The popularity of ideas is not necessarily linked to them being true or not. The virtual world of ideas (the memesphere) may well be completely disconnected from the real world. So, the fact that an idea is forgotten or rejected doesn’t mean it is false or wrong — it is just the effect of memes going in cycles.

So, during the past few years, the idea that resource depletion was a serious problem for humankind became thoroughly unmentionable. In parallel, the memesphere got infected with a completely different set of memes. If things don’t go as well as they should, that’s now supposed to be due to such things as peak demand, the Russians, China, terrorism, capitalism, or whatever. But never-ever related to mineral depletion. Eventually, reality will get the upper hand, whether we recognize it or not. But, for the time being, that’s how things stand.

At this point, you may ask the question. If the resource depletion meme went through a cycle, when did it start to be recognized as a problem?

The idea that we could run out of some important resource started being discussed as early as in the 19th century. William Stanley Jevons, the British Economist,  was probably the first who had a clear idea of the depletion process of a mineral resource, coal. But, in this field, Jevons never really had an impact on modern economics. His ideas were too advanced for the times when they were expressed.

The possibility that we would eventually run out of oil or other mineral resources popped up occasionally after Jevons, but it never was part of the mainstream views. Things changed in the 1960s, maybe as a result of the space explorations of the time that produced many impressive pictures of a spherical and limited Earth. It was probably the economist Kenneth Boulding who first articulated these ideas in a well-organized form with his article of 1966, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” still worth reading today. It was Boulding who coined the well-known statement “anyone who thinks that economic growth can go on forever is either an idiot or an economist.”

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But an idea needs more than an article written by an economist if it has to make inroads into the memesphere. It needs to become a story. And, in the 1960s, science fiction was a lively area of literature that was dedicated to exploring the future. In principle, it was there that the concept of resource depletion could have had an impact.

That never really happened. Think, for instance of Isaac Asimov’s famous series “Foundation,” published from 1942 to 1953. Asimov dealt with the future history of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but nowhere in the story, you will find a hint that the Empire had a resource problem. In other publications, Asimov clearly stated that he was worried about human overpopulation, but it doesn’t seem that he ever articulated the concept of “resource depletion”

That was typical of science fiction. Not that, as a genre, it would always produce an optimistic view of the future. On the contrary, it widely explored themes such as nuclear wars, famines, pestilences, and overpopulation. Yet, science fiction was basically technology-oriented. It was hard for authors to include the finiteness of the resources of a single planet in a worldview that saw atomic energy and space travel as an obvious feature of the future. Overpopulation was seen as a big problem, see for instance John Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar,” published in 1968, but not because humans were running out of resources. It was mainly a question of overcrowding leading to all sorts of political and social problems. If humankind were to face a dire destiny, it was because it had failed to properly use the technological tools that were available: nuclear energy being the clearest example.

In the large number of stories that were published during the golden age of science fiction, (the 1940s-1970s), there must have been some that dealt with resource depletion. Most, have been forgotten, but one stands out: Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” published in1966.

Heinlein’s novel covers several themes, one is resource scarcity. The story revolves around an interplanetary conflict: the Earth’s governments have established a lunar colony to host criminals and undesirables. At the same time, the lunar dwellers, the “loonies”  are exploited to cultivate and ship grain to Earth to feed a population that would not survive otherwise.

Heinlein had very clear the concept of “overshoot” even though he didn’t use it in the novel. The problem of resource depletion was cutting both ways: the lunar colony was not as overpopulated as Earth, but it had limited water resources (in the form of mineral ice) that were being depleted. The revolutionaries of the novel who fight for an independent Moon do so because they realize that soon the lunar ice will run out and the loonies will face death by starvation.

The story is complex and fascinating with many twists and unforgettable characters. “Mike” is an artificial intelligence that develops moral views and fights alongside the revolutionaries. Although conceived in the 1960s, Heinlein perfectly understood the role of controlling the communication system for a political force to succeed in changing the status of a society. As for other stories by Heinlein, the novel also originated new terms that are still in use today. “Tanstaafl” (“there is no such a thing as a free lunch”) is a refrain that summarizes the message of the novel. It is not clear if Heinlein invented the term but, when it is used, it is often referred to his novel (see also “to grok“).

Yet, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” didn’t originate a specific line of stories exploring the theme of resource depletion, at least not until the late 1990s and the 2000s. It seems that the same rules that apply to economics apply to science fiction: depletion is a concept so hard to accept that it is normally ignored. And that’s the way we face the future.   


Photo by Angela Compagnone on Unsplash

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the study of peak oil) and regular contributor of "The Oil Drum" and "Resilience.org". His blog in English is called "Cassandra's legacy". His most recent book in English Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green”, 2014. He is also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

Tags: cultural stories, Resource Depletion, science fiction