Wednesday, 15 May 2013

End As a World

I read a Science Fiction story long ago, a story called "End as a World" by FL Wallace.

The narrator is a young boy, who writes about a day when something big is about to happen. Nobody is in the mood to do anything important, because anything they do today seems so insignificant. A sign on the street says it all: "This is the day the world ends!" People are walking about, looking up at the sky from time to time, because whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen with a flash and a bang.

I got a very similar feeling from some emails I read on an alumni mailing list. One person posted a depressing link about a book called "Scatter, Adapt and Remember" (How humans will survive a mass extinction), with scary predictions like this:

Over the past four years, bee colonies have undergone a disturbing transformation. As helpless beekeepers looked on, the machinelike efficiency of these communal insects devolved into inexplicable disorganization. Worker bees would fly away, never to return; adolescent bees wandered aimlessly in the hive; and the daily jobs in the colony were left undone until honey production stopped and eggs died of neglect. Colony collapse disorder, as it is known, has claimed roughly 30 percent of bee colonies every winter since 2007.

Are we in the first act of a mass extinction that will end in the death of millions of plant and animal species across the planet, including us?

Another person posted a similarly depressing article by futurist Jaron Lanier that considered another angle, which is that technological efficiencies are eliminating jobs at a rate that will end up destroying the middle class and democracy itself.

And earlier this morning, I had read another depressing article by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman on how policymakers and the elite had failed to learn lessons from history and to apply economic theory wisely, as a result of which our economic woes are likely to continue and worsen.

It certainly seemed like a time for the world to end.

But something didn't seem right with this picture, and I wrote back on the mailing list:

"Colony Collapse Syndrome was widely blamed on new-generation pesticides from Monsanto, Bayer and the like. After a long campaign (which was predictably opposed by the corporations concerned), Europe banned these pesticides for two years. Hopefully, this was the cause, in which case bee populations will recover and the ban will be made permanent."

And again:

"OK, we've been talking about all the scary things lurking right around the corner - financial crises, economically disruptive technology, ecological catastrophe, etc. Let's talk about that stupendously positive thing that's also waiting around the corner.

Over the next 5 to 10 years, energy is going to get really cheap and plentiful. We are on the cusp of an energy revolution. New sources of energy (coal seam gas, shale oil), less ecologically disastrous ways of extracting them, and a tipping-point in solar energy economics, will all contribute to an energy glut.

Energy is the ultimate currency. Energy is the enabler and the multiplier of prosperity. It's literally true that everything on earth came from the sun. Solar energy is responsible for everything that exists today around us, both natural and man-made. Now we're going to have much, much more of that energy at our disposal. What will that mean?

First, let's understand the current crisis that Jaron Lanier is talking about, of technological improvements destroying the middle class by eliminating their jobs. We're not talking about impending scarcity here. We're only talking about the breakdown of a system that connected us as producers to ourselves as consumers. If it now takes fewer of us to produce, how will the newly-superfluous among us consume? That really is the only question. The answer is that we will have to overhaul the economic mechanisms that connect production to consumption. In other words, jobs. Yes, they'll probably go, but it may not be a bad thing. Because we're not talking about scarcity. We're talking about a crisis of plenty, or drastically improved efficiency. That can't be a bad thing. Disruption is not destruction, merely adjustment.

We already have a model of how such an economy might function. It's called the oil-rich Middle East. Income tax is zero in the Gulf states, because the government doesn't need citizens' money. It controls oil, and the revenues from oil are sufficient to buy prosperity for all its citizens. Indeed, the citizens of such states get sweetheart deals - exclusive landlordship of real estate, compulsorily enforced sleeping partnerships of businesses run by expats, etc. Expats come in and do all the work. The locals drive around in BMWs.

This is what the future could look like with cheap and plentiful energy coupled with massive technology efficiencies. Instead of expats, we'll have automation. All of us will be the locals. There will be enough resources to feed and clothe everybody. We won't have to work much to get all that food, clothing, housing and entertainment. In other words, the middle class could disappear. We just need to rewire our economic systems to create more of a welfare state. It's the only way to stave off violent revolution. I could live with that :-).

The energy glut is going to do some wonderful things. It can turn the world's deserts into farmland within 50 years. Have you seen the size of Australia and the percentage of its area that is inhabited? The country is effectively just tiny slivers of coastline.


The difference is the clout that a populated interior delivers

Now deliver cheap and plentiful energy, enough to desalinate tons of seawater and irrigate the vast deserts in the interior. All of a sudden, we're talking about a continent that can house and feed 300 million people, up from 23 million today. This is what cheap energy means.

Yes, our world is going to end soon. And a better one will soon arise."

By the way, do you know how that story "End as a world" finally turned out? 
And then it came, a flash across the sky, a silver streak, the biggest vapor trail there ever was. It went from this side to that side in no time. It split the sky and was gone before the shock blast hit us. Nobody said anything. We stood there and shivered and straightened up after the rumbling sound passed.
[...]
In front of me, old Fred Butler [...] cracked his knuckles. "He did it," he whispered, "All the way to Mars and back. Safe and right on schedule." He jumped up in the air and kept jumping up. [...] Factory whistles started blowing.
[...]
It was just like the papers said:
This was the day the world ended. And the Universe began.

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