An Introduction to Building Better Worlds
The Seed Factory Project,
6485 Rivertown Rd, Fairburn, GA 30213
Author's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Premise and Key PointsEdit
"Building Better Worlds" is a two volume set describing a viewpoint and technical approach to building a better life for ourselves, our community, and the world. Volume I - Seed Factories and Self-Improving Systems covers the basic ideas and design process. It then presents a progressive series of projects on Earth using these methods. Volume II: Space Systems Engineering covers the very different environments and resources beyond Earth. It then continues the series of projects as far as our knowledge allows.
We can summarize our ideas in a few key points listed here. The remainder of this introduction talks more about them, and the two volumes cover them more fully:
- Resources and energy are abundant on Earth and in space.
- With enough knowledge and tools they can be used to build a better life.
- With planning this can have minimal side effects and be sustainable.
- Cooperation makes it affordable. Exponential self-improvement makes it scalable.
- Smart tools can do most of the work and make it easier.
- An open-source project exists to develop and demonstrate how.
Resources and EnergyEdit
There is a general feeling that the current economic system is pushing beyond the Earth's capacity, and therefore the future will be worse than today. We agree that there are problems that need solving, both now and in coming decades. But we disagree that the world's resources are "running out" in any sense. We just need to see what is around us and how to use it responsibly. To give a sense of what this means, lets take as an example 4000 square meters (about 1 acre) of average land in the continental US.
The soil and rock have a typical density of 2.5 tons per cubic meter (/m3). So the first 10 meters (33 feet) contains 4000 x 10 x 2.5 = 100,000 tons of material. US farmland averages a bit over $3,000 for this area, which works out to $0.03/ton, a very low number. The average US solar resource is about 4.75 kWh/m2/day. Modern solar panels can convert this to about 1 kWh/day of electricity. So in a year the land can supply 4000 x 365 = 1.46 million kWh. Wholesale US electric rates range from 2-4 cents/kWh. So the power produced is worth $29-58 thousand/year. The 842 kW solar installation is about $648,000 if professionally installed, or about $420,000 if self-installed. So the land is paid for in a month, and the equipment in 7-22 years. Their effective life is 40 or more years, so they continue to supply power after they are paid for.
Wholesale electricity is a low value use for the power. It is 18.5 times the total energy of all kinds per person in the US. So instead, lets put it to use serving their needs. "Embodied energy" is the total energy used to make a product, from mine to final delivery. It varies considerably by product, but a typical number is 30 MJ/kg (8 1/3 kWh/kg). So in 1 year our solar panels can convert 175 tons of material to finished products. The top 10 meters of ground would last 570 years at that rate. An average US house is around 150 tons in total, so in theory you can produce a bit over a house a year. Average US household size is 2.6 people, so in 6 years the energy could produce 7 houses for 18.2 of the 18.5 people, and then be turned to other uses. Average sales price of a home (Q2 2021) is $434,200, of which half is materials. So the production value of the energy is $253,200/year, and our example covers its cost in 20-30 months.
New solar panels have 20-25 year warranties, and 45 year old panels being field tested still work, though at reduced output. So after using them to build houses, the panels still have lots of life left for other things. Well-built houses can last 100 years, and if properly designed their materials can be recycled. You need other land to actually live on and grow food, but our point here is there is plenty of energy and resources on a affordable piece of land, and its use can be sustainable and non-polluting.
If the land is sunny enough, you can also use solar furnaces. They are higher efficiency and less expensive to build. If it is windy enough you can also use that power to increase output. The area under and around the power production can be used to grow things, or for production and storage buildings, so the land can be multi-purpose. Putting solar panels on houses or other buildings is a multipurpose example.
The ground doesn't stop at 10 meters. Holes have been drilled more than a thousand times deeper. Solar energy in space is nearly 7 times higher than our example land. There are huge amounts of materials in space that can be used without disturbing the Earth. So we can do much better than our average land with solar panels. It is not lack of energy and resources, or the cost of acquiring them, that prevents people from building a better life. What's missing are the knowledge, tools, and motivation to make the best use of them.
Knowledge and ToolsEdit
Recorded knowledge, such as books and instructional videos, are widely available today. Most people have access to a computer or smartphone, either personally or through a library. Printed books can be found used at low cost. Active knowledge in the form of skills and experience can be gained from these sources and doing your own projects, or by training and working with more experienced people. Practice projects can be useful and low cost. Learning from and working with experienced people can be free or even be a source of income. So the routes to gaining knowledge are affordable.
If you have the money, you can accumulate your own tools by buying them. Used ones can often be found for less, borrowed, or accessed from community sources. Larger tools are more expensive, and can be rented as needed or their cost split among a group. Modern civilization proves that tools can be used to make more tools. All the tools in existence can be traced back to simple ones made by hand, though nowadays most are made with better equipment. So with a starter set of tools, plus hand labor, powered tools, or automation, it is possible to build up to whatever tools you need. How to do this is a major subject of Volume I.
With material resources, energy, knowledge and tools covered, the only thing remaining is the motivation to make things better. You will have to supply that part on your own.
Planning, Side Effects, and SustainabilityEdit
We are suffering from problems like excess CO2 increasing temperatures, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. These happened because we didn't understand or care about the side effects of what we were doing. This can be avoided in the future with a "system life-cycle" approach. Our solar installation and the land it sits on is an example system. You then consider everything that enters and leaves the system over its entire life. That would include the reflected light and radiated heat that isn't converted to electricity, the rain that falls on the panels and where it ends up later, etc. Anything that can affect the the world outside the system is considered. Then you plan for and design the system to minimize or eliminate unwanted side effects.
Our solar example is considered large or "utility scale". The life-cycle energy payback time for such systems is about 2 years, including recycling at the end of life. In other words, it takes two years for it to produce enough energy to dispose of a worn-out system and build a replacement. Since they have a probable useful life of 50 years, they produce many times the energy needed to replace themselves long-term. So long as the replacement parts and installation can be made without pollution or other unwanted side effects, the whole system is non-polluting.
Long-term sustainability requires all the inputs to the system are not in limited supply or can be recycled. We expect the Sun to last as long as the Earth is habitable. The main materials in a solar farm are steel (support frames), aluminum and glass (panel frames), plastic (panel backs and wire insulation), silicon (the cells themselves), and copper (connecting wires). None of these are scarce, and all of them can be recycled or made anew. Thinking about sources and recycling, i.e. system inputs and outputs, can be applied to all kinds of projects and activities to make them sustainable.
Cooperation and Exponential Self-ImprovementEdit
It is difficult for one person to be completely self-sufficient. It takes a lot of knowledge, experience, tools, and access to various resources to provide a modern quality of life. Humans have always specialized and cooperated to live better than they could on their own. Businesses bring people and tools together for work, but often ignore improving their staff. They also extract profits from the work, which then goes to outside owners. Associations, cooperatives, and networks designed around self-ownership can do better by keeping the profits in the group. Working for a conventional business may be needed to get started, but then can supplement or transition to the better approach. This is especially useful for the under- or unemployed with variable or precarious jobs and few assets to fall back on.
Society is not static. Knowledge and tools have accumulated and improved, both at the individual level and across civilization. Intentionally following the self-improvement path both in ourselves, and using our tools to make better ones, can lead to exponential growth. This is how an acorn becomes an oak tree, which in turn can become a forest. Hammers and saws are not the only kinds of tools. So are computers, buildings, and brokerage accounts if you know how to use them. Anything which can be used to make life better can become a tool in the right hands. This is especially true when used to improve your set of tools.
Smart Tools and WorkEdit
Smart tools are those that use automation, robotics, software, and artificial intelligence (AI) to some degree. They have less or no need for human muscles and brains to operate and direct them. An increasing problem is smart tools replacing human jobs. For example, self-checkout scanners have already replaced some cashiers. Warehouse robots and self-driving vehicles are starting to replace physical movement of goods. The problem is our capitalist system assumes most people are working a job to pay for all the other things they need and want. Without jobs they can't pay for those things, and the places they buy from lose them as customers. In turn, governments lose tax sources, so public services and infrastructure also decay.
A way around this problem is for individuals and private groups to own and leverage the smart tools for themselves. The machines work for them, and deliver their products directly to the owners, without needing a job to pay for them. In the long run, most work can be replaced this way, and the remainder done by people who enjoy it, rather than people who have to work to survive.
Smart tools have parts like motors and electronics, which nowadays are low cost. Most of us already own multiple devices that include them. So smart tools should not be too expensive to make. Like any other tools, smart ones can be self-made given the knowledge and starter tools required. Once a private group of owners has something like an automated machine shop, they can then make as many smart tools as they need at low cost. So a life where work becomes optional and machines do most of it for us should be possible. Our books and other work are aimed at showing how to get there. The basic process is to bootstrap from simple and low cost tools to the advanced and smart ones.
My background is space systems engineering, which is popularly but incorrectly called "rocket science". Space projects were historically expensive because of the high cost of launching from Earth. One way to lower the cost is using materials and energy already in space. Most spacecraft use solar energy, but we haven't yet started using off-planet materials. That requires mining and production equipment, and launching all of it into space is itself a cost. Around 1980 the idea of a starter set of equipment to make more equipment was developed, but space technology of the time was not up to the task. This was called a "Seed Factory" by analogy to plant seeds as the starter set from which plants grow. Only having to launch the starter set lowered the cost of getting started.
In 2013 I realized several things. First, the laws of nature are the same everywhere. If seed factories could work in space, they would also work on Earth. Second, making them work here is easier. The environment is less difficult, and we have more people and existing tools already here to get started with. Third, the need down here is much larger. So I started the Seed Factory Project to develop and demonstrate the ideas. The project is open-source so anyone can contribute to it and use the results. That's why we are using Wikibooks to write and share material. I'm still interested in space projects, which are covered in Volume II. But those can wait until seed factories are proven on Earth.
Besides working on the books, the people who have contributed to the project, including me, have been doing several things. One is building a reference library of "how to" and technical books and articles to help carry out projects. We have also included a wide range of books on other subjects for general education and self-improvement. Second, we have been accumulating financial resources. Third is acquiring property and starting to accumulate tools and setting up a workshop for building things. We also intend to work with other local groups and individuals who already have tools, experience, workspace, and similar interests. Unfortunately the COVID pandemic has put a damper on physical activities, but we can continue to work online in the mean time.