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The Future I Was Promised [long]

by DeAnander Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 04:02:39 AM EST

Do you believe in "the Fall"?  The Jared Diamond Story, the collapse of Petro-Civilisation?  I can't not believe in it with smug assurance, because of all the inconvenient facts and numbers I know.  Yet all my life I've shunned the wild-eyed survivalists predicting the End of the World.  They've always been wrong so far :-) ["Just fine so far," the jumper said as he passed the 20th floor.] Yet I have such a bad feeling.   And I feel not only worried and scared, but angry:  cheated, actually.

My whole life I looked forward to the future; as a kid I was a big Star Trek fan, a big science fiction reader, and I believed whole-heartedly in that gaudy technocratic future of exploring other planets, of big clean space stations, a future of Solved Problems, when the miseries of our time would be looked back on with bewildered compassion.  I knew I was living in the Bad Old Days.  But the future, ah, the future would be some marvelous bouillebaisse of EE Doc Smith, Andersen, Asimov, Schmitz, Niven, Heinlein...

Promoted by Colman. Make yourself a cup of coffee, sit down comfortably and enjoy.

[Note:  most of this essay dates from three or four years ago.  It was glued together from old emails and I didn't have time to edit it into a really smooth final form, so please consider it a working draft for comment...]

Now I find myself facing the possibility that my lifetime occurred during an astonishing period of Good Old Days, an efflorescence of cheap energy and technoculture that may never recur -- a one-shot deal.  It seems hard to believe that anyone will be looking back on us with anything other than sullen rage, envy, blame, and hatred;, or perhaps in the best case an obscure and muddled religious awe.  We -- my parents' generation and my own -- will be the ones who "did it," who screwed everything up, who were so stupid that knowing what we know we refused to change our ways and sentenced our grandchildren to some very dysfunctional situation... at least that's what I fear.

I don't look forward to the future any more.  I was promised a bright Star Trek future, all shiny and clean.  Now I look at hungry Chinese ex-peasants sifting recyclable materials out of multi-acre, mountainous waste dumps with their bare hands and I think, This is the future we have made for ourselves, nice innit.  But the funny thing is, the more I look at where we actually are today... the less thrilled I am, on sober reflection, about that shiny Star Trek future I was originally offered.
 Futurism, the art or rhetoric of envisioning the future, is at the heart of all our politics.  What we believe about the future and the past fuels [ahem] our strategies and allegiances in the present.  The narratives with which we make sense of the world, our lives, and history are cautionary tales;  we direct our efforts to seeking certain outcomes and avoiding others, heading for "the happy ending" or as close as we can get to it, trying to "learn from the past" (or from the narrative our imaginations and prejudices have imposed on the past).

One of the most powerful narratives of Western industrialism has been Progress -- the storyline being that "in the bad old days" everyone was poor, sick, hungry, unhappy, stupid, bullied and short-lived, and by the continuous improvement of technology these conditions have been more and more ameliorated;  this trend will continue until we reach a Happy Ever After of abundance, freedom, health (maybe even immortality), luxury, high intelligence, universal leisure etc.  The Good Days are yet to come!  Nothing in the past is of the least value, because we have outgrown it and exceeded it in every way.

So here I want to talk about this narrative in the context of the Space Dream and the Jetsons Future, the Gernsback Continuum, the World's Fair and Tomorrowland:  the idea that our confinement to this ball of rock is the Bad Old Days, and we will look back on it from a future of abundance, when we mine the entire solar system for minerals and energy and colonise distant solar systems, finally transcending the limits of Earth.

Ironically one of the things we do (and spend a lot of money on) while pursuing the Space Dream, is intensive research into how to survive in a closed ecology.  Some years ago I commented that the failure of Biosphere was hardly a good advertisement for our progress in this area.  One futurist of my acquaintance, on hearing this cynical comment, protested:

The Biosphere project was a fraud from the beginning and is now no more then an amusement park. The real research on closed environmental systems is being done by NASA and the Russian space program.

To which, at the time, I retorted:

we all live in a closed environmental system.  the "real" research on this system is being done daily by thousands and thousands of scientists in meteorology, agriculture, entomology, oceanography, marine biology, environmental toxicology, epidemiology... well I'll spare y'all the directory of the Natural Sciences division of any major university :-) but to claim that only the space scientists are doing any real research on what makes closed environmental systems tick, seems to me rather, ummm -- partisan.

it isn't only "spacemen" who need to learn how to live in a closed system: we all do.  learning how very difficult it is to construct artificial viable closed systems, to recirculate oxygen and water and so forth, may be of some use in opening our eyes to the tremendous value and importance of the natural biotic systems that sustain our life;  so I don't say that these efforts are wholly worthless.  but every branch of the life sciences is about understanding a closed system.  it's our failure to realize this that has hampered our efforts so far and encouraged us in a fragmented, compartmentalized view of what are actually highly complex, interrelated subsystems of a highly functional whole.  I'd go so far as to assert that our economists' dangerous fantasy of "externalised costs" is a direct consequence of not understanding what "closed system" means, or that we live in one.

Many Futurists of the Progress Narrative present a grim choice for humanity: civilisation will burn out and fail here on Earth unless we make the jump into space.  This is the only path for our survival as a species.  Humanity can Colonise Space or Die.  We can invest the hugest effort and the most enormous resource-consuming binge of our collective lifetime on the effort to get into space (to the stars, even), or face a Malthusian disaster.  

I don't believe in this either/or dilemma -- any more than I believe that travelling by bike and/or train or bus means "losing one's freedom" or living a "penitential" life, or that if we don't have Twinkies and Big Macs and a Starbucks on every corner Western Civilisation will crumble overnight <grin>

Neither am I opposed on principle to orbital missions.  As my Futurist buddy expostulated indignantly:

We have learned vast amounts of knowledge about Earth by studying other planets. Just one example is forecasting large-scale weather patterns. Despite your disinformation, the ability to forecast the path of hurricanes and the formation of cyclones, largely due to space based technology, has saved countless lives and untold billions of dollars. To give up an advanced technology that saves lives out of some misguided morality is Luddism extreme.

To which I almost-as-indignantly spluttered right back:

hey, when did I say I was unalterably opposed to satellite monitoring of weather systems?  I didn't. I'm not.  I like weather maps.  I like sat maps.  I like IR and radar imaging.  I use them a lot.  my objection to the kind of propaganda, personality cults, and public expectations generated by the NASA manned space missions is very specific.  it is not a blanket objection to all orbital technology (though I do remain unalterably opposed to giant Coca Cola signs in orbit!).  it is a very specific objection to the kind of expectations and assumptions that have grown up around the "colonise space / explore space" culture.

Such as?

Well, such as this prospectus for space settlements.  I am not sure whether this is really an official NASA page :-)  but some of its proposed benefits of space colonisation include [direct quotes]:

  • Great views. Many astronauts have returned singing the praises of their view of Earth from orbit. Low earth orbit settlements, and eventually settlements near Jupiter and Saturn, will have some of the most spectacular views in the solar system. Of course, all orbital settlements will have unmatched views of the stars, unhindered by clouds, air pollution, or (with some care) bright city lights.

  • Low-g recreation. Sports and dance at low or zero-g will be fantastic. Consider circular swimming pools around and near the axis of rotation. You should be able to dive up into the water! For dancers, note that in sufficiently low gravity, always available near the axis of rotation, anyone can jump ten times higher than Barishnikov ever dreamed.

  • Environmental independence. On Earth we all share a single biosphere. We breath the same air, drink the same water, and the misdeeds of some are visited on the bodies of all. Each space settlement is completely sealed and does not share atmosphere or water with other settlements or with Earth. Thus, if one settlement generates air pollution, no one else must breath it.

  • The ultimate gated community. On Earth, it is essential that diverse groups learn to live in close proximity. It's hard to live with five or six billion homo sapiens, and some people can't seem to do it gracefully. Space settlements offer an alternative to changing human nature or endless conflict -- the ability to live in fairly homogeneous groups, as has been the norm throughout hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. Those who can't get along can be separated by millions of miles of hard vacuum, which in some cases seems necessary. All entry into a space settlement must be through an airlock, so controlling immigration should be trivial.

  • Custom living. Since the entire environment is man-made, you can really get what you want. Like lake front property? Make lots of lakes. Like sunsets? Program sunset simulations into the weather system every hour. Like to go barefoot? Make the entire environment foot-friendly.

Now, call me cynical (I am) but listen to that list of desiderata:  the ultimate gated community?  never having to deal with pesky POEs (People of Other Ethnicities) again?  fantastic views?  fully customisable environment?  complete environmental isolation? controlling immigration?  great recreational oppos?

This is the prospectus for an orbital Club Med or ultimate 'burban enclave :-)  and it is the fantasy (imho) of people who have given up on seriously addressing (or have never had the slightest intention of seriously addressing) urgent issues on their home planet.  This is White Flight taken to its final extreme.  I don't find it inspiring -- I find it depressing.  I cannot think of too many places I'd like less to live than a totally human-made, totally controlled environment populated by the kind of people who would actually enjoy living there.  <shudder>  Like being on an exclusive cruise ship... forever.

        The key advantage of space settlements is the ability to build new land, rather than take it from someone else. This allows, but does not guarantee, a huge expansion of humanity without war or destruction of Earth's biosphere.

In other words, space colonisation is the "solution" to our lack of reproductive discipline or foresightedness, and our moral failings as well (land-grabbing).  It's the only solution.  Never mind that increasing literacy levels and work opportunities for women lead very quickly to reduced family sizes, never mind that increased personal income and family security lead quickly to another step reduction in family size...  food and work security, improving the lot of women around the world, or the promotion of peace/diplomacy/negotiation as an alternative to war, are not on the radar of the kind of "dreamers" who write this kind of literature about space colonisation.  [And I'm not even dealing with the puerile assumption that "land" -- that is, terrain that can sustain human life -- is something we can "build", rather than a bogglingly complex biotic community and accumulation of biotic wealth that we don't even understand, let alone know how to manage or re-create.]

Alas, for better or worse this is the vision that a very large percentage of the fans of NASA and the US Space Program (reinforced by such cultural artifacts as the Star Trek TV series, Deep Space 9, Babylon 5 (etc) and decades of "hard" sci fi) tend to share, and it's a vision promoted and endorsed by corporate sponsors, by "space tourism," etc.

Another slogan popular among some of the space groupies I've met (online and in person) is "Mother Earth is not sick, she's just pregnant!".  This slogan is also mentioned at the URL above.  (I think I've seen it on a T shirt as well, but I could be remembering wrong.)  The author I'm quoting here with the machine inside NASA, says

        In the Mother Earth metaphor of space colonization:

        * space colonies are like children (a fetus right now)
        * the biosphere is like a pregnant woman
        * humanity is like the biosphere's reproductive system

OK, there are several assumptions here which I think anyone can pick up on.  the most glaring (to my ear) is an obviously dismissive, misogynist attitude to women, pregnancy, and birth:  it's OK for us to poison the planet, exterminate species, eradicate forests, impoverish topsoil, salinate aquifers -- "her" only purpose is to give birth to us, and it doesn't matter what happens to "her" after that.  Way to go, guys:  the Deadbeat Dad school of Futurism.

It's also a way to remain cheery, perky, and in deep denial about the state of the biosphere:  hey, it's just morning sickness, no problemo!  Again this can easily defuse any sense of urgency about changing our lifestyle, revamping our technology, weaning ourselves off the petroleum teat, etc.  The only thing we need to feel urgent about is Getting Into Space -- not giving up our cars or consuming less.  If we can just get into space, everyone (finally) can live the suburban dream.  [Just how different is life on the Enterprise (as envisioned in ST:TNG) from life in an upscale shopping/condo complex or Disney's prefabricated township?  Doesn't the Zocolo on Bab 5 remind you of the central atrium of a standard-issue US strip mall?  Why are there never bicycles in the future?  As usual, what science fiction imagines is not the future, but the idealised present, a fantasy of "how we are" projected forward, magnified,  rendered heroic:  the carburb, the shopping mall, the Jetsons, the WASP burbclave.  They say that generals are always fighting yesterday's wars;  are not futurists usually repackaging yesterday's dreams?]

Anyway, if you read the web page cited above [and from the headers I am beginning to think that it really does reflect some kind of official NASA POV, though perhaps that of only one working group], you'll find that space colonisation is also great because we can build prisons no one can escape from (oh good, gulags in space);  because we can locate our filthiest industries there (instead of having to learn how to produce useful Stuff without generating filth, or even <gasp> how to live with less Stuff or cleaner Stuff);  that religious extremists can construct separatist colonies without interference from world governments (oh good, Taliban in space, I can hardly wait)... etc.

Not everyone sticks to such pragmatic benefits -- Freeman Dyson used to say that our mission was to spread "life" to other worlds, (i.e. terraform other worlds and introduce earth-like life there) to "beautify" the universe.  He believed that all or most planets were "dead" and that humanity should "seed" them with life.  [hmm, rabbits in Australia anyone?  would we recognize non-terrestrial, alien forms of life when we saw them?  one has to wonder...]  imho a species that could invent the Edsel, Barbie dolls, glow-in-the-dark rabbits, and action figure advertising stickers to put on bananas, needs to think twice before it apppoints itself to "beautify" the Universe.

Hawking and some others have suggested that humans need colonies in space to protect our species from a potential supervirus that could kill us all off or at least topple our civilisations almost overnight.  But bioweaponry experts and epidemiologists tend to be less alarmist about the prospect of such global killer diseases, and at least one (Croddy from MIIS, perhaps? I can't remember the exact quote or venue) has publicly criticized Hawking for using such religious/apocalyptic imagery to scare people into space.  

Thanks to the US govt's need to justify militarising space, some kind of "atoms for peace" plan had to be found for space based superweapons;  so now everyone is supposed to be terrified of asteroids that might hit the Earth and seriously mess up our future.  Personally, I'm a lot more worried about nuclear proliferation, or about the US successfully militarising space -- but then, everyone has their pet fear.

I think it's MacKenzie of the NSS (National Space Society) who says it best (i.e. sums up what I don't like about the popularised version of the Space Cause) -- someone quoted him in an email to me a while

        "Those are all valid reasons, but they are not good long-term motivations," said Mackenzie, who stressed that he speaks for himself and not the organization. "I prefer positive motivations, such as the almost unlimited resources offered by asteroids, moons and other planets."

And there we have it, that wonderful word "unlimited" and the core of my objection to the "materialist utopian" vision that underlies much of the manned space program and the Star-Trek-based dreams of the 70's.

Relax folks, we will never have to have that difficult discussion about the American Way of Life, resource consumption, just allocation, environmental justice, sustainable technologies and lifestyles, etc. -- because we can just hop into space where there are Unlimited Resources... meaning industrial resources such as minerals, metals, etc -- again I note that we sure aren't likely to find good topsoil or potable water on any nearby asteroids, and these are two resources in which crisis seems to be looming, if not imminent.

Ironically, sat-based pictures have been very effective in showing us not only the beauty (and evident isolation and closed-ness) of the Earth seen from orbit, but also the rapidity and extent of deforestation and desertification, the presence and severity of algal blooms due to coastal pollution, extent and direction of spread of oil spills and forest fires, the extraordinary wastefulness of urban night time lighting, etc.  High industrial technology has enabled us to see, as never before, the real cost of high industrial technogy.

And in the end, I have to wonder how space colonies -- even supposing that we have the resources to create them and that they can be made viable/habitable for any length of time -- can ever solve the problem of unrestrained human fecundity combined with material desires.

Supposing our population (unchecked by any mitigation of circumstances that encourage overbreeding, see below) would double in, say, 100 years -- and supposing a perfect duplicate Earth were to magically appear in our solar system, within easy reach no less (a best-case scenario) [without disturbing the Keplerian dynamic either, now that's a real magic trick] and suppose we were to transfer half of us (say, 6 billion people by then) very quickly, before they could have any more kids :-) ...  we would still only buy another hundred years of run-time because both pops would then double again.

Whether we manage to put a Kmart on Mars or not, we still have to deal with the population issue and the resource consumption issue -- I don't see how running away from it into space is going to work.  It sounds nice in theory, but do we even have enough energy resources left to transfer several billion people into space?  [and what if they didn't all want to go?  who would make such decisions? how would such a "mass transfer" be organised?]

My futurist friend said grimly:

We are far past the point of sustainability already and are raping the planet of its remaining resources. No amount of sentimentality is changing that.  As rational population control seems to be beyond human capability, it's new resources or die.

But I considered my own view to be the less sentimental of the two, in that I think we have to face realities here on the ground instead of dreaming that an escape from all our human problems is right around the corner (or overhead, as the case may be).  I couldn't agree more that we are already into overshoot, though I would maintain it is at present more our consumption patterns than our gross numbers that pose the problem.  Within a century, if nothing changes current trends, gross numbers seem likely to become a problem even with more rational, less self-indulgent consumption.

And here's the fundamental disagreement in the open at last.  The "Space or Die" stance seems to me a counsel of despair.  I am not that despairing yet of our ability to govern ourselves.  I don't believe that rational reproductive behaviour is beyond human capability; in fact, in more than one of the European nations population has actually been in decline over the last decade or so.  It appears that, when certain basic needs are met and there is very little uncertainty about the survival of families, people have fewer kids -- more people remain single and never reproduce -- etc.  Breeding spikes when people are afraid and insecure, when child mortality is high or random, when women are de facto slaves, and/or when dictators are trying to breed lots of cannon fodder for projected wars.  Also when people are prevented from using birth control by arbitrary laws or fatwas or papal bulls or whatever.

But I think humans are -- given a chance -- smarter than cancer cells.  I think we have alternatives other than exponential growth, if we can clear away some of the artificial incentives to exponential growth... such as poverty, insecurity, warfare, economic theories which rely on infinite growth to look like they're working.

The potential of space based technology and industry is unlimited. The hope for a clean and unpolluted Earth is found in off planet manufacturing and energy production.

There's that word unlimited again :-) the cargo-cult promise of No Limits to which I have the strongest objections (both moral and practical).

How on Earth do we convince people (e.g.) that SUVs are a bad use of resources, if they all believe firmly that "we'll just go into space and mine the asteroids for unlimited resources, so it doesn't really matter and everyone on Earth can have a SUV"?    [Parenthetically: right now the only reason many minerals and chemicals are "affordable" is because of the glut of cheap petroleum we use to haul them around and process them.  How expensive would minerals and chemicals be that had to be hauled around the solar system, or trucked up and down the gravity well?  After the cheap petroleum party is over, that is?] I don't think this (don't worry, be happy, SUVs are fine) is the intention of the NASA dreamers -- I think they have far loftier ideals than that.  but it is (unfortunately) the message that gets through to the average Joe.  I've heard a lot of fairly well-educated people say that they have no real, urgent feeling of concern over the destruction of Earth's ecosystems, depletion of resources, pollution, etc -- because they "know" that "pretty soon we'll colonise the solar system and mine the asteroids and move all our industry into space stations, so it won't be an issue, these are just temporary problems."  Earth is just a phase we're growing out of.  We don't have to clean our room, 'cos we're going off to college soon.

I worry about technological promises that engender such complacency in people who are living on the edge of some rather serious infrastructure "issues".


Many years ago (a decade or more) I was at a mini-banquet after a successful CDR (critical design review) for a major new spectrograph.  I was lucky enough to be seated next to the PI (principal investigator), a person of considerable renown and a delightful conversationalist too.  We got to chatting about the world in general and the space program, and at some point I said something about [what I then believed in] the bright prospects for mining the asteroid belt, a good reason for backing the space station and related efforts.  This distinguished senior astronomer/physicist looked at me pityingly and said, "You don't really believe all that, do you?"

I was shocked, because if anything I expected a "Big Science Superstar" to endorse my ideas and even expand on them.  I thought I'd said something intelligent and likely to please, and instead I got this pitying stare and a rather crushing remark.  Ouch.

The followup remark from the Distinguished One was, "If you want to see civilisation survive longer than the next hundred years or so, throw your efforts into literacy and employment for women -- I think it's the only avenue left to us, to avert disaster."

This was a profoundly mind-altering (and unsettling) experience for me.  Here was someone from within the Citadel, from the highest echelons of the Big Science world -- the equivalent of a four-star general in military jargon -- one of the brightest and sharpest minds I've ever worked with, and the response I got to my space-groupie optimism was "Fuhgeddaboudit."

I started thinking a lot more deeply about my assumptions and beliefs around that time -- partly because of this conversation, but also because of a synergy of many other conversations, readings, and experiences -- and the end result was...  well among other things, I became carfree :-)  One small pedal for humankind, I guess...  Sometimes I sure do miss those bright, shiny Star Trek dreams.  At other times I feel that there's more to interest me, more alien life, more complexity and more sophisticated recycling systems, in one cubic foot of healthy topsoil than in any space station the most ingenious SF author could invent.

What do you think the future looks like?

Will humankind ever colonise space?
. Of course! I've bought my share in a Mars colonisation company already. 4%
. We'll be lucky if by 2100 we can colonise small islands using balsa wood rafts. 20%
. Not if the ETs see us coming -- our solar system's probably a quarantined zone. 12%
. Maybe L5 colonies, probably not as far as the outer planets. 4%
. Probably, but only so that the ultra-rich can escape the mess we've made down here. 8%
. (re)Terraform Earth First. 16%
. Sorry, I'm a lot more worried about the US colonising Iraq and Iran. 12%
. Probably... There goes the neighbourhood. 24%

Votes: 25
Results | Other Polls
What I am afraid most is that we will suck all the fuels on Earth in the next 50 years, and then the won't be enough energy to lift up a few rockets from the ground, even if we would desperately wish to do that for a few fit rich.

Star Trek?! It was a nice dream...

by das monde on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 02:25:08 AM EST
This is a side remark perhaps, but I start to like Japanese chronology. The punctuations by emperor accents seem arbitrary. But that gives a proper feeling that thing start and end. It makes it easier to notice how things change, to good or to bad, or just to something different. Compared to that, the practical Western chronology gives a strong illusion of always leaping forward, and allows great ignorance of changes, easy excuses like "war always was normal", and short historical memory.
by das monde on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 02:37:24 AM EST
What do you think the future looks like?

I think it looks like a rising tide of technology that expands capabilities toward limits set by fundamental physical law -- thermodynamics, strength of chemical bonds, and so on.

I think that this process will blow away the resource limits that almost everyone in this conversation imagines, and that (yes), these advances will enable cheap access to space, abundant solar energy, etc., etc. That is, all that stuff that becomes easy if you get really good at making things. Physics seems to say that we're very bad at this today.

And no, this won't solve all our problems. Expanded capabilities will instead create a vast tangle of unexpected problems that sensible people won't discuss  until it is very late in the game, for fear of being called Utopians or Cassandras (on alternate days).

Two queries, for perspective:

If we were near the limits of material technology, how could it be that the biological world produces gigatons per year of cheap, atomically precise structures, while modern industry spends billions of dollars on semiconductor fabs that spit out mere tons of chips per year, and these covered with big, blobby structures containing millions of atoms apiece?

If we were near the limits of information technology, how could it be that brains (based on <1000 Hz devices) are smart, while current computers (based on >1,000,000,000 Hz devices) are stupid?

Note that neither molecular technologies nor information technologies are resource intensive, and that both are moving fast. I think that the real limits to growth aren't where most people imagine. For better, or for worse.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 05:08:13 AM EST
You know the answer as well as I.  Biologic systems are complex, emergent, and non-linear.  Electronic devices are simple, dependent, and linear.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 12:23:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You state a good reason why it many biological systems are difficult to mimic (in the sense of designing new ones, rather than merely fiddling with ones that exist).

But does this mean that technology has reached its limits? Certainly not in a physical sense. Regarding design capabilities and the issues you raise --

  1. Hard problems have again and again been solved through the growth of scientific knowledge.

  2. Evolution demonstrates that hard problems can be solved with no knowledge at all, given enough persistence. (Evolution with a result in mind and with higher-level representations of subsystems can be much faster than the biological way accomplished.)

  3. Although intelligence is far from understood, manufacturing -- even at the molecular scale -- is in a different category. The problem here is a need for tool development and filling in details, not a need for new basic concepts.

I conclude that one or more huge transformations in technology can be expected. I strongly suspect that they will occur in the early (not mid or late) 21st century.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 06:49:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've long been worried about the apocalypse myself.  Not so much a rational worry, prompted by what I see in the papers and whatnot, but a deep-seated, gut-level sort of unease whenever I think about the future.

Although I've long been a fan of sci-fi stuff myself, and do happen to believe rather strongly that the colonization of space would be a good in and of itself, I've never really reconciled that belief with my gut-level fear of the apocalypse.  That is, I've never been able to really believe that that sort of thing could save modern society from collapse.

The big problem really is the unsustainability of the global capitalist system.  It just seems like it's headed off the cliff, and I'm really not sure if there's anything that can stop it.  Even if we'd been aggressively building space infrastructure for the past thirty years, I have trouble believing that what we could bring in would be enough.  Not that there isn't enough out there to supply our needs for a while.  There's all the energy we could ever need within easy reach, and a damn lot of raw materials not too far away.

But I also have trouble agreeing with the OP's idea that if we reduced, reused, and recycled enough, we could maintain at least some of the "good" things from modern life - like electric trains, computers, telephones, medicine, etc.  Say nobody had a car, nobody lived in single-family homes, nobody lived a long ways away from their place of work, and people somehow didn't accumulate "stuff."  Producing and maintaining a sort of bare minimum pseudo-modern society may well require too much energy and material to maintain given the resources remaining, even presuming no population growth.  Such a system would be vastly preferable to a post-apocalyptic world of biker gangs roving a blasted wasteland, I will not argue.  It wold likely be preferable to modern society.  But sustainable is another issue.

Furthermore, it's really hard to imagine a transition to such a moderate-consumption society and a more or less steady-state economy without also imagining the hard and violent crash of the current system.  People just don't like cutting back, and historically, they haven't done so without a fight.

One last thing.  It's a bit misleading to talk about Star Trek as a future of SUV's and mini-malls in space, as the whole future world of wonder and happiness of that fantasy was predicated upon a brutal apocalyptic collapse of global civilization.  From that experience, people became cooperative and non-materialistic, and from there, they went on to space.  None of the series really showed much at all of settled life on a Federation planet, let alone Earth -- probably because to do so, and stay true to the vision of the show and the supporting material written for it, would be incredibly subversive.

by Zwackus on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 05:38:07 AM EST
The future will look like "Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon. Well, not really, but when I read it a couple of years ago what unnerved me was the description of America that he gave. Replace airplanes with SUV's and he nailed it.
by det on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 05:41:14 AM EST
Just one comment on population growth - it aint.

That is, the explosive population growth of the 20th century is no more. According to the latest UN predictions population will peak at 7-8 billion in 2050 and fall to 6-7 billion in 2100.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 06:53:24 AM EST
Some interesting points.

Apocalypse Mythology has been part of the Western mindset since Christian times. It would be interesting to see what an absence of Apocalypse Mythology would look like. Especially given that Dubya's biggest achievement has been to poison the zeitgeist with an apparently bottomless pit of anxiety, hatred and paranoia. If we're not scared of the terrorists, we're scared of him. Something about this isn't how it should be. It feels like a win win for the bad guys.

So although we all do it, Doom Porn is just as crazy in its way as the shiny middle class suburban space frontier.

In terms of resources, with the possible exception of water, we're much better off than we think we are. Huge inefficiencies and a culture of waste mean that resource cutbacks are very possible. There would be major dislocation, but not necessarily major damage. Cities are full of people who waste two to four hours every day moving from one place to another and back again in outsized heavy metal boxes. Like many traditions this is clearly pointless and stupid. And like many other traditions it offers plenty of scope for resource savings by taking a more thoughtful approach to what's needed, instead of ploughing the same old groove forever.

What's really missing isn't stuff, or innovation, it's political intelligence and inspired and integrated social management. Socially, humans are't terribly bright. Humans who Get It usually seem to be in the top 10% or so of the intelligence spread. That means anywhere between 60% and 90%, depending, don't have the foresight to make intelligent long-term choices. Those are the ones who are also easy meat for demagogues and charlatans.

Unlike the resource issue, which is fixable, poor intelligence isn't. Education can help a lot, but there's still a point beyond which people are handicappred by a predictive horizon that clouds into grey before it should. If they can't see the issues they can't deal with them.

Dealing with that handicap is probably the single biggest challenge there is. I have no idea what a solution would look like.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 09:13:23 AM EST
Of course you can chalk it up to stupidity, but generally people are not stupid (in my experience) in one-to-one situations. Most people can understand most things if presented in an interesting and understandable way.

But yes, it is about political intelligence. But politics are about power. Why are there inefficiences? Not because people have not pointed them out but because it would hurt the one in charge of that particular ineffiency more to correct it then to let it be.

Maybe, just maybe, we can someday strangle the last king by some proper material and get rid of the stupifying power-structures. Then surely we can get to some nice society with efficient power useage and no waste. Unfortunately I think those in power will rather see it all crash and burn then give up on their power.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 04:46:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I oscillate between the doom porn stuff ThatBritGuy mentions and something rather more hopeful.

On the whole, whilst I do think that the situation of our civilisation is a little too close for comfort to the Easter Island analogy Jared Diamond uses in 'Collapse', I spend more days in an optimistic frame of mind than I do anticipating a Mad Max-esque apocalyptic wasteland. Partly this is because, like technopolitical, I have a gut-feeling (I'm not sufficiently close to the cutting edge for it to be more than that) that there is a strong pipeline of advances in materials science that will synergise with the emergence of ubiquitous, distributed computing networks and which will have a subtly profound effect over the next two or three decades on the way that our civilisation does things on a day-to-day basis; and partly because I have a healthy respect for the basic durability of the societies (complex and interdependant as they are) that we have made.

Luckily for us, the step change I mention seems likely to kick in at around the same time that the world community takes peak oil on board and starts to get serious about climate change - so there's a middling fair chance that we'll 'spend' the benefits of this transformation on adaptation/ mitigation of our energy usage patterns, rather than on suborbital flights to Cape Town for stag parties or similar.

Turning to the shiny future of Gernsbackian rockets and manly men solving problems with sliderules and superior firepower that DeAnander alludes to - I don't think that'll come to pass. Space seems to be pretty bloody unpleasant for a standard 'spam in a can' human. The high frontier will be colonised by our probes I think - why mine the asteroid belt in person if you can do it by directing a swarm of mining robots over an internet link?


-- #include witty_sig.h

by silburnl on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 12:32:09 PM EST
I don't see space colonization because there's no upside to it. If you want to live in outer space, or on Mars or something, why not just move to the middle of the Sahara desert, or Antartica, or Greenland? There are plenty of miserable places to live on Earth, so why go to Mars to be miserable?

Besides, all these the doom and gloom projections are way over the top. Plenty of people will die in plenty of big disasters--just like always, and mostly in the Third World. And some of us, mostly in the West, will have very nice futures with all sorts of new toys and food and futuristic stuff.

by asdf on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 03:46:37 PM EST
Space-wise, I think the goal should be exloration, not colonization or exploitation.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 04:52:17 PM EST
crosslink to my comment on Jerome's latest

I wanted to drop this meme in both this thread and Jerome's latest (Total Executive):  if innovation is our only way out of this fix, we may be in real trouble --  'cos innovation is just not what it used to be...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 09:05:23 PM EST
What do you think the future looks like?

I think Dune captured the feeling of an after technology future. Not in the sense that they did not use technology but that the technology was static, only for the uber-wealthy and geared military usages. And it was a world perceived as static in the social structure and technology. The emperors shift but the throne remains.

And this is what I see when I try to peer into the future. Ecosystems that can not take any more abuse, energy getting more expensive when oil and gas peaks, world wide transports slowing down, global change in weather patterns and ecosystems due to CO2.

Food crisis in poor parts of the world, as their food is transported to the rich (they had to kinds of salmon at my shop the other week: one from the Pacific Ocean and one from Norway, but the one from Norway was probably brought up on fishprotein form the Pacific). More wars over resorces. Starting as small wars, they might stay that way, but they might also expand into huge wars (remember world war one) and then we might all be dead from the nuclear bombs. But as I have a positive outlook on things I will assume that the world does not end in nuclear holocaust.

In the world rich enough to be represented on this site there will be no Mad Max style collapse , but slide towards a very strict partition into the uberwealthy with most of the technological gadgets of today, but not much progress or change in the gadgets. Their military class with todays weapons and some that are now in the labs (especially towards crowd control weaponry). A small technical service class that can make and repair the gadgets and weapons. And then the rest of us as manual labour, on the fields (mostly), in the mines and in some factories.

And I am quite young so I will get the chance to see if I am right in my lifetime. Did you all know that peak fish (in the maximum extraction sense) was in 2004?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 05:48:41 AM EST
I'm going to have to start writing cheerier visions just to offset you and DeA.

I don't agree that this is a necessary outcome. It's a possible one but I think we can do much, much better. Take a look at how appallingly wasteful everything we do currently is.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 05:56:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would be interested in a diary about peak fish.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 06:11:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
start here

75 percent of the big fish populations worldwide are "fished out".

when I was a teenager, I can remember, I read cheery books on deep-sea fishing asserting confidently that the oceans were an infinite reservoir of protein, and if we just ramped up our fishing efforts with the latest technology, hunger would become a thing of the past.  [infinite, oh gawd there's that word again.  "Djou keep using that worrd.  I do not tink it means, what djou tink it means."  IMHO any planner or economist who uses the word "infinite" should have his/her mouth washed out with pine tar soap.]

thanks to deep sea fishing with "efficient" technologies (that throw aside up to 50 percent of the biotic tonnage stripmined from the sea as "bycatch," mangled and dying), we have introduced hunger to Southern Hemi coastal villages with millenium-old fisheries, as vandalism of the marine food chain has devastated coastal as well as deep sea stocks.

the sentence I want to highlight in the article cited above is this one:  Today a 70 pound swordfish-which is too young to have even reproduced-is considered "a good sized fish" and can be legally landed in the US.

consider this sentence carefully.  we are catching top-of-food-chain species, long-lived species, so young that they have not had time to reproduce.  this is called extermination, not harvesting or even rational predation.  in a more agrarian metaphor it is eating the seed corn;  in my favourite analogy it is chopping down the orchard to get at the apples.  it is eating the future in one greedy gulp.  when you devour your food source before it has time to reproduce, this gives a whole new meaning to the word "stupid."

this is what I call looting.  smashing whatever gets in the way to grab what's grabbable and run, the hell with the consequences.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 05:26:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

And thanks for this diary, too.

I'm glad I waited till I was home from work to read it, because I kept saying "yes!" out loud, and my coworkers would have thought I was nuts.

when you devour your food source before it has time to reproduce, this gives a whole new meaning to the word "stupid."

There, I just did it again.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:00:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
my coworkers would have thought I was nuts.

And we can't have that, can we?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:54:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Now that you mention it, it's probably too late.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 05:02:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See? This is what happens when you go on holiday, you miss one of those rare occasions when DeAnander actually posts a diary instead of a comment. And what a diary!

Can it be recycled to the top of the front page again, for the weekend?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 12:20:29 PM EST

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