How do we clean up our power?

•February 20, 2008 • 2 Comments

Most of us are by now across the problems humanity faces around global warming and its most probable cause – humans burning ‘fossil’ fuels. basically we have been returning carbon to the atmosphere that had been sequestered deep in the crust during massive die backs in the late Permian at the end of the Paleozoic era. The Earth was far hotter in those days and it seems we are discovering in a massive open air experiment why that was. The atmosphere contained far more C02 and the greenhouse effect (which incidentally was only discovered by our study of the planet Venus) heated the planet far hotter than today.
So how do we clean up our energy sources so as to stop driving this effect? The solutions divide generally into

  • power-down – return to a simpler life with greater local and personal responsibility and productivity. See also Permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren,
  • relocalisation – softer version continuing more of current lifestyles but without most of the long distance transport that characterises our current economy and with a great many efficiencies to drive energy and carbon use down,
  • technofix – new discoveries and technologies that could make the problem go away without average individuals having to significantly adjust the way they live.

The more extreme versions of these have serious problems but anything but a major global concerted effort at this point would be courting catastrophe. There are no comfortable busines-as-usual options for humanity this century. Power down is almost certainly not realistic without major world famine with all the human dieback, war and destruction that would imply. It is usually presented as the soft, natural alternative – and I believe stringly that we have to adopt what Mollison and Holmgren are saying where ever possible – but the numbers do not fit this as a global solution on its own. We must do it but we must do more. Relocalisation is an implied subset of power down so obviously the savings on transport also need to be on the table. The sad thing is that while we need to implement every possible efficiency to eliminate energy waste and we need to do it with as many non-carbon, especially non-fossil, sources as possible. We cannot realistically expect our civilization to power down, cut production, food, heat etc without a global economic and martial spasm. We need to find technical solutions as well to finish off the portfolio of efficiencies and green energy sources. Fortunately there are some promising ones, although a lot of research is also going into not very promising ones such as geosequestration that may well never work but would be a tantalising magic bullet solution for the fossil fuel industry.

It seems that the most promising technologies for energy generation such as solar, wind, tidal, hydro and geothermic will be brilliant in limited applications but are bounded by time (when sun, wind & tides are available) and by space (where geothermal or hydro) are available. A heavy adoption of them through a good distribution grid – which we already have – can actually meet a large portion of current energy needs. But what of the sector that remains? This is what pundits usually call “base load power”. The power that we can simply turn on or off as needed, all the time. Right now that is nearly all the power we consume and it comes mainly from coal with a small amount of Uranium nuclear fission.
This leaves us with a number of concurrent courses to pursue:

  1. Bring ecological costs into the global economy with international carbon caps and trading:
  • End indirect subsidies of fossil fuel industries and even “penalise” them with carbon debits. This is not really a tax or a penalty. It is simply exposing fossil fuel energy sources to the full cost of ownership – including global environmental costs – so that sensible economic choices will guide us increasingly away from fossil carbon to less ‘costly’ energy sources.
  • Actively encourage green power sources but do not shelter them from their true costs – including environmental ones – so as to avoid distortions like forests being cleared (releasing megatonnes of C02) in order to grow palm oil as a biofuel ‘to save C02 release’ as is currently happening.
  1. Find ways to drive relocalisation of our economies and prefer goods and services with lower transport overheads. This may occur naturally with global carbon trading driving fossil based transport out of the reach of lower value distribution.
  2. Proliferate better use of all resources. Adopt more permaculture principles in our lifestyles and economies, utilise wind, solar, geothermal & other local power sources where ever available as well as adopting any possible micro-generation and grid sharing efficiencies possible so that any local heat source, waste outflow, garbage dump etc contributes power back to the grid.
  3. Identify and invest in longer term technology fixes that promise growth beyond the survival mode we must adopt in the coming decades. We can expect an ongoing *need* for power that is as cheap, abundant and clean as possible for the projectable future. I have written on these elsewhere but they include such projects as nuclear fusion power (especially He-3) cheap access to space resources (e.g. space elevators) geosequestration (OK maybe it could work one day but don’t bet our lives on it) along with a host of other projects that can deliver stepwise improvements.

The case for space

•May 31, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Not long ago someone dear to me who is not particularly future orientated (she is more concerned with animals and environment) turned to me and said “Why should we spend all that money trying to get into space?”. I was momentarily stunned that I had failed so miserably to make the case with her in a way that made sense to her.

Having run this problem by like-minded friends and colleagues I found that I am not the only one. Why humanity needs to expand into space may seem obvious to those of us who think about the future on historical timescales but it is no more obvious to even our many of our admittedly intelligent and educated peers than was the reality of climate change a couple of decades ago. (I was among those who became concerned about that early and am delighted to see it become a mainstream issue today). So in the spirit of the prophet both warning and revealing (and with apologies to the space geeks who are already convinced) here is an attempt to round up the major arguments for humanity putting substantial investment into expansion beyond Earth. I will also attempt to answer common objections as best I can. Refer your personal doubters here and if you or your loved ones are unconvinced them tell me. I will expand on any weak points you highlight.

The following arguments have mostly be made before and fall into major categories I have listed. I am indebted to such visionaries as Hawking, Sagan, Zubrin and Dyson, though my last point is largely updated from a host of more recent sources. I am also painfully aware that long though the post is, many of the following statements are in summary form and require unpacking for many readers. I make none of them lightly and all of them after some research. Therefore I would naturally welcome questions. They might even help me work the material up into print-publishable form so here goes.

Major reasons why expansion into space is critical to humanities future:

  1. Innate curiosity, drive to explore and learn – ‘because it’s there!’.
    Some people believe that our species *needs* to explore, to ‘go’ and to learn all it can and will suffer (does already) spiritually from the kind of bounded, inward looking, zero-sum thinking that our near mastery of one planet and-no-more produces. We can see signs of this in many modern human societies but mainly in the way we are steadily turning on our selves and one another as the realisation dawns that the majority of what is on Earth is already discovered and the benefits of the room, resources, knowledge etc are far from evenly or even fairly distributed. Those who believe this also expect that once we make the necessary technical and physical leaps, the ‘high frontier’ will open up not only more solutions to terrestrial problems (see 4) but also lead to a more open attitude to our possibilities and issues.
  2. insurance against many of the plausible scenarios that could wipe our species off the Earth. That we can at any time – and eventually must again – be struck by an asteroid, comet or other object capable of wrecking our fragile world is now widely accepted. The possibility that we could do it our selves with Hydrogen bombs has long been accepted & feared even though that risk has gone down a little post USSR. Spreading human habitation beyond this little bubble is an obvious way to avoid complete catastrophe. The capabilities we will develop along the way to mastering space and the broader outlook gained, are also our very best defence for protecting the Earth from both natural and political disasters.
  3. Economic benefits of space based trade. We are only now beginning to adjust to the idea of a post oil-production peak economy. Other shortages will follow. There is money and prosperity to be had by expanding our resource base beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, Asteroids, Gas giants etc. There are no natives to oppress this time. Such colonisation will take from no-one. We cannot *afford* not to do it.
  4. To contribute crucial elements of solutions to our seemingly intractable problems and so improve and protect life on Earth. In my previous post I listed many of the major issues that are about to become critical for humanity in a global way we have never faced before. If we do not want to be the last chapter of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” we must work a lot smarter and more sustainably than the industrialised world has ever done before. We also need to find new resources, places and ways of living. Space offers critical pieces of solutions to many of our challenges. I realise that this is one of the statements I promised which may need much unpacking and explaining but that is what this blog is about so I will not attempt it all here.

Answers to common objections

  1. Costs outweigh benefits, at least in the short term.
    Probably so but only in the short term. How short you may ask? Well much of the investment we need to make can be paid back in decades and some can pay back in the sort of discount-rate dominated investment scales investors think on. As a civilization though, we have to deal with our critical historical challenges with more vision than the investment community is structured to do. One does not save ones own neck in order to make a buck in the coming quarter.
  2. Chasing after space is a distraction from the problems on Earth.
    Not if it is a part of solving those problems. Can we agree that most of the great problems that face us can be solved if we have *enough * (abundant) clean energy and a few times the physical resources we have on Earth? Think about it, which ones cannot? If we can take most of our pollution out of the biosphere and supply new clean energy to replace and exceed that currently supplied by fossil fuels – and there is reason to think we can indeed do this – we can solve all of our energy problems, make significant inroads on our resource problems and so give us time and bandwidth to do more on our human/political problems. Hardly a distraction wouldn’t you say?
  3. Too dangerous in the short term.
    The dangers some brave souls may face in space are really up to their own informed existential choices so I don’t believe the danger to those who, like me, want to go amount to a serious counter argument. Dangers to Earth’s biosphere and or humanity definitely need mitigation. I have yet to hear one that has no mitigation strategy however and the social/political methodology of managing risk is well developed. I will mention only a short list here;

    1. Space based weapons, including dropping rocks on ground targets. This could happen but only if war between terrestrial states erupts. We already have all the WMDs we need for annihilation and access to space is not going to increase the root risk even if it increases the options. Space weapons are certainly not poor mans options so no-one who gets access to them would lack destructive means without space.
    2. sub-orbital nuclear disasters, Exploring the outer solar system needs more power than photo-electrics can provide so far from the sun. This means that some of the manned and unmanned ships we launch may be powered by radio isotopes or even reactors. The risk is low but measurable. The trick will be to minimise it. One approach should be to avoid the ‘flags and footprints’ approach of the past and concentrate on developing capabilities in the inner system – including power sources (e.g. based on moon or other extraterrestrial resources) so we do not have to take too many risks in Earths atmosphere. Another great way to mitigate such risks would be to build a Space Elevator so that terrestrial launches and recovery’s can be safely gentle.
    3. Space Elevator failure. Assuming one is built, some fear what could happens if an SE came down as it does in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. Actually this could never be a threat to Earth. Current designs are to light to do anything but fly outwards or burn up. You would not want to be on the SE at the time but it would not be a significantly destructive disaster on the ground.
    4. Polution from rocketry. Certainly a possible danger if not monitored but given the cost of rocketry it is unlikely that they will ever be used so heavily. Important though space is to our future, we will need to minimise their use by developing some alternatives. We also need to balance the critical need of space development against our relatively frivolous uses of polluting technologies and rationalise our use accordingly.
  4. Nowhere else in solar system to support us & stars are too far.
    This one needs to be answered on different time scales. In the short to medium term both are true but unimportant. One thing we will not be going to space for is housing space for our burgeoning world population. We will have to build and supply the habitats for those who do go and we can expect some of those populations to grow over time but we can live out there in habitats. Who would want to? Well me for one… & I am not alone. In the longer run we can terraform, build and transform any number of places in our solar system and in the end (1-2 Centuries?) even the stars may not prove to far. The point though is that we can go in what numbers make sense and that solving the problems of Earth as well validates going from any point of view.

So there is the case for space in general terms. For a more detailed plan I suggest some light reading, including;Entering Space by Robert Zubrin, The Space Elevator by Edwards & Westling.

Let me say that I don’t believe that access to space is all we need to do. We have to learn a lot more about how to live sustainably on the Earth and far more about how to govern our world without oppressing one another. I do believe though that in the long run no strategy that does not include going into space can serve us well. I for one am happy to embark on the adventure despite the many risks but that is not why I want to go. I want to go because humanity must and because there is too much out there that we have to explore for a host of reasons. You of course will need your own reason to come but at least now you cannot argue that we shouldn’t go.

(If you want to so argue though, please do me the honour of doing so here)

The reality and components of the *Spike*/*Singularity*/Crisis

•May 14, 2007 • Leave a Comment

There seems to be a general expectation among people who think about the future that we are heading into a critical period in human history. A significant number of factors seem to be heading away from what we might consider ‘norms’ we know how to manage and into areas we have trouble predicting and in some cases raising reasonable fears we may not be able to handle them. What seems to be lacking is a strong consensus on what the most important factors are.

The Club of Rome famously made dire predictions in the 70’s which largely failed to materialise so far. It turned out there were flaws in their modeling which have given a bad name to both modeling and prediction ever since, as well as much of the warnings that our way of life is not sustainable. Some of their main contentions still hold on longer time scales however. For example we have to acknowledge that anything we mine from the Earths crust forms over millions of years and so must eventually (on historical time scales) run out. No use that depends on mining on historical timescales can be considered *sustainable*. I use the literal meaning here as opposed to the watered down and self interested ones in vogue with mining and logging companies. Such low grade “sustainability” results from not even thinking on historical timescales, let alone the indefinite ones required for sustainability… what Brian Eno would call a “short now”. Eventually minerals deposits must run out and we will have only what we can reclaim from previous uses and what we can find new sources of. By definition ‘new’ here means not from Earth as opposed to deposits that are not currently economic.

In some cases such as energy, we can be quite sure this process will start soon if it has not already. There is still debate on whether world oil production has peaked but in terms of modeling the future this is beside the point. Per capita of world population it peaked decades ago, so we are currently only delaying the energy crisis by denying oil to the bulk of the world population & concentrating it in the first world. By force if need be it would seem.

So I would certainly still say energy is one of our critical issues not only availability but type since carbon cycle energy (fossil fuels in particular) are feeding other problems like climate and global political stability – just ask the Iraqis. Thus I would have to include;

  • energy availability,
  • energy cleanliness and
  • natural resource sustainability,

as major factors remaining from the Club of Rome agenda for at least the medium and long term.

Colin Mason points to a number of factors all likely to create critical problems for us around 2030 including;

  • energy,
  • population,
  • climate,
  • food,
  • water and
  • disease,

in his book ‘The 2030 Spike’. He makes a very good case for all of these, though some counter cases can be mounted. Population pressure in particular may be less of a problem than 70’s trend extrapolation indicated (See Hans Rosling) – but not if some predictions of human life extension are even part right.

Bjørn Lomborg, who earned the ire of the entire conservation movement by writing sceptically about green orthodoxy in general and debunking the Club of Rome predictions in particular, cites a number of critical problems with his Copenhagen Consensus group. His list, which represents a fairly mainstream view as you would expect from his economist contributors, includes;

  • climate change,
  • communicable diseases
  • conflicts and arms proliferation
  • access to education financial instability
  • governance and corruption
  • malnutrition and hunger
  • migration
  • sanitation and clean water
  • subsidies and trade barriers

Another major prophet I cannot exclude is Ray Kurzweil.

I do not mean to run others down by ex but these three raise most of the issues with the most widely admired arguments I can find.

Ray has an excellent track record of prediction and a strong claim to expertise as a technologist – where he makes his predictions. He is also very influential and has spawned a host of followers eagerly awaiting his technological ‘singularity’ in the next few decades. For example I had a fascinating exchange with a professional futurist writer who was quite convinced, in essence, despite being over 80 years old, that he would ‘live long enough to live forever’. Here is an excerpt:

I do not consider myself “transhuman” or “posthuman”. I am simply a human being open to positive improvements. I passionately believe that by maintaining my health today, and avoiding accidents, I will survive into the “biotech revolution”, 2010-2020, where stem cell therapies and genetic engineering will replace body parts as they wear out. This will be followed by the “nanotech revolution”, 2020-2035, with cell-repair machines whizzing through my body keeping each cell in perfect health, and nano-replicators providing material goods at little or no cost. And finally, as the “intelligence revolution” gets underway, 2035-2050, technology will enable my body to be copied with simulated programming of lifetime memories and intelligence, should disaster strike. At this time, I will enjoy immunity from accidents and all causes of unwanted death. My lifespan will be considered indefinite.
Good luck to you in your life pursuits, Dick.

Sadly when I asked what evidence he had for such confident assertions, Dick declined to answer. As a result I am still searching Ray Kurzweil’s work and anything else I can find for answers, without success thus far. I really want to be convinced by Ray but sadly I cannot yet be as confident as Dick about the reality of the coming of a technological utopia in the future. Even if it happens – and I hope it does – it is not a forgone conclusion that the results (including but not limited to immortality) would be shared with us regular citizens. Think about the world population spike that would be caused and the resulting temptation for the elite to find a way of not sharing the benefits. Interestingly Vernor Vinge who is credited with inventing the idea of the technological singularity – though a far darker vision than Kurzweils – also has a sceptical side to him. Bruce Sterling also makes a good case for skepticism in his talk to the Long Now Foundation.

This is not unrelated to David Brin’s arguments about whether surveillance technology is likely to be shared. With regret I cannot therefor include his technology in the mix of major factors below as a ‘real’ one yet. I do however include some as possible factors which I think we can hope for but not depend upon.

So here is my list of critical factors in our near (next few decades) future.

  • climate change
  • energy
    • energy availability
    • energy cleanliness
  • natural resource sustainability
    • population
    • climate
    • food
    • water
    • communicable diseases
    • malnutrition and hunger
    • sanitation and clean water
  • political/human (partly arising from resource sustainability issues)
    • conflicts and arms proliferation
    • access to education financial instability
    • governance and corruption
    • subsidies and trade barriers
    • migration
  • technological
    • bio-tech revolution
    • *nano-tech revolution
    • **artificial intelligence ‘singularity
    • *ubiquitous surveillance (ah la Brin)
    • *cheap access to space (my own addition – much underrated in its solution value)

From my reading I would consider all of these to be supported to the point of near inevitability, except those with a *=likely but not certain and **=possible but as-yet insufficiently supported. I think it is a pretty good list to work from in planning humanities next moves and current policies. Sadly all the critical problems seem to be pretty real while the solutions – at least the automatic singularitarian ones – seem conjectural. This leads me to conclude with something like Pascal’s gambit. Since according to those who believe in this singularity do not think one can meaningfully plan much to do with it we must consider whether we should give it our attention or not. Doing so seems unproductive if it does happen and a potentially harmful distraction if it does not. On the other hand ignoring it and concentrating on shaping our choices around optimal strategies to handle humanities major problems (above) is prudent. It is also the most robust strategy since if the technological sungularity does occur then we have lost nothing.

…in short – have fun with the idea if it appeals to you but don’t give it too much weight.

As for why this list does not seem to show directly where my contention that space is a crucial part of the solutions to these issues facing us… that will take a little longer.

Could our future be that of… slaves?

•April 24, 2007 • 4 Comments

Universal surveillance? Smart dust, constantly collecting information on us & reporting back or even selling it to the highest or nearest bidder? Bentham’s nightmare Panopticon made an unstoppable social reality by technology?

…Sounds far fetched to some, but as we envisage what the future could be like we inevitably look at current trends and extrapolate. This has some inherent weaknesses as a means of prediction but is a crucial technique in mapping possibility. Mapping possibility in turn is essential in deciding what needs to be done now in order to shape the future toward desirable outcomes.

One of the most dangerous extrapolations one hears is that of many in the modern West who believe that things generally get better over time, for most if not all (extrapolating perhaps the last few decades for a privileged few). I am sometimes astounded by the number of people I meet who more or less assume that the future will inevitably be better than the past or present. Any study of history shows that we cannot expect this. Many a crushing oppression follows in the wake of a relatively benign period. Often with clear points at which it seems with hindsight that the oppression could have been avoided. Some changes over time are positive & some not so but only a few – like the accumulation of scientific and historical *knowledge*, especially since the renaissance – give us reason to hope for steady improvement of any kind. Our advances in political systems, law, economics or even relative liberty and affluence only show improvement in some places and times. Any advances we make we may have to struggle to keep. As a result the perspective of modern Westerners of believing in & even expecting steady improvement must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Because of this I think we must do without our rose tinted glasses when we look at what could be and encourage choices in our civilization that will tend to prevent the worst or encourage better outcomes (optimal strategy indicated by much game theory).

With this in mind, what are we to make of near term projections like smart dust, or indeed the many other recent and expected advances in sensors and networks? Clearly using swarms of expendable micro-sensors to study Earth and other planets, map currents or find disaster victims would have us cheering but is that all they would be used for? If such devices were produced as John Barker and others (e.g. David Brin – see below) expect then we must also expect them to be used in our own neighborhoods sooner or later. Their very cheapness and conceal-ability makes it inevitable. Not that I believe we can choose not to produce or deploy them. We cannot. As David Brin points out in The Transparent Society and more playfully in his fictional Earth, the djin cannot be kept in the bottle any more than nuclear weapons could. We can however choose how they should be used. His question is in the subtitle of The Transparent Society is ‘Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?’

Brin comes to the rather depressing conclusion that the only possible option which will not have us made forever the pawns of what ever technocratic elite controls the surveillance is to make the devices legal and ubiquitous. This will of course mean the end of privacy. He makes a good case. I encourage you all to read it. A far older book that makes a good case for openness, transparency and accountability (especially when there is a putative threat to our *freedom*) is The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl R. Popper.

Brin’s argument is essentially that cheap, widespread surveillance cannot be prevented and nor can it be kept out of the hands of the powerful (rich, government, criminals etc). Basically our privacy is inevitably forfeit so we might as well get used to that. We can buy a mere illusion of privacy but passing anti surveillance laws but would be a hollow comfort. Therefore we must embrace complete transparency and get used to the death of privacy.

I am repelled by either alternative of course but while his argument is strong it may not be unassailable. Superficially the argument resembles that of the American gun lobby who think that guns are inevitable (in spite of evidence to the contrary in the rest of the world) & even desirable. Therefore if all are armed, none can be oppressed by the armed few. Their mythology of *freedom* & *protection* can be rebuffed by even a quick look at the rest of the world where many are at least as free or more so – especially since George W Bush has been in the chair – and statistically far better “protected”. The NRA ignores the fact that due to the 2nd amendment US citizens need more protection. The numbers show it is not there.

But can a similar argument around information/surveillance be so easily dismissed? Perhaps not. Guns are neither as cheap nor as concealable as the surveillance and information devices we will face in the future so the laters claim to inevitability is far stronger. Invasion of privacy is far harder to detect or find a culprit so it is far harder to fight with law as we do weapons and physical violence. Law may not avail us with information & surveilance the way it has with weapons and violence.

In the end it would appear that the debate on what we should do with our spy electronics needs a far broader conversation. David Brin’s solution may seem radical to many but we cannot dismiss it out of hand.

Reports of my death…

•April 24, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Well I am happy to say that Liftport are, in the words of the (almost) immortal python character ‘not dead yet’ . Michael Lane was kind enough to confirm to me in email that they are still there and actively pursuing revenue from some of their spin off technologies,especially high altitude balloons. Here is part of the text so you will know what I mean.

“We need people to know we are ‘live and kicking’ and we are actively looking for development partners for our balloon network. read the blogs this week, look over what we are doing, and let me know what you think. we are looking for customers! schools, transportation systems (docks!) neighborhood watch programs, search and rescue, military, police. anyone that wants high-alt surveillance… we need customers for communication systems – wireless internet, radio, cell phone coverage.

[…] you can see that by gaining altitude, we quickly expand our line-of-sight, and with that, we can cover a huge area, quickly, for a wide range of communication systems. and we have already been at 150-500ft for 8 weeks, and 5300ft for 6 hours. so, we can cover a big area with our systems. at 2000ft, we have 50+ miles of direct line-of-sight, and almost 10,000 square miles of coverage beneath our balloon!”

If any takers read this then by all means contact Liftport. Others may sell you similar capabilities but they will not be working toward benefiting humanity the way the Space Elevator builders are trying to do.

A very sad day

•April 17, 2007 • 6 Comments

Well it looks like Liftport Group, the company dedicated to building a Space Elevator has succumbed to the difficulties of long term finance of a high risk venture. The CEO Michael Laine announced not so long ago that he was stepping down when they could find a suitable replacement but it does not seem to have kept the wolf from the door. This post by Brian Dunbar on the staff blog confirms it. It makes me sad because this project if of historic importance to humanity and yet it languishes in relative obscurity. I even volunteered for their Liftport Ambassador’s program & will be speaking to at least one conference on the subject (Conflux4) this year.

I would not be surprised to see some Liftporters get up again with a different vehicle but for now the main contender is Blackline Ascension who were started by Bradley Edwards (who did the NASA work & wrote the definitive book on the subject) and who were competing with Liftport to get the Space Elevator up first. The Elevator 2010 competition (run by Spaceward Foundation) will continue so the field is not exactly being left bare. I even read in KuiperCliff that Lockheed Martin has claimed a patent on Space Elevators though it is hard to see how anyone could miss the ‘prior art’ on that one!

One way or another I hope and believe that a Space Elevator will still be built in our lifetimes. It is just too important not to. So go Blackline! and anyone else who can make it happen!

Liftport lifter

So will we ever see it rise? My guess is yes but it is going to take a concerted effort by those who see the possibility, need, benefit etc. It may even take a public campaign & a movie by Al Gore before our governments see through the lens of voter opinion that humanity needs this.

Why the next 50-100 years are the most critical in history

•April 16, 2007 • Leave a Comment

First published at my old blog 07/03/07

I think, read and write about the future so much that I tend to forget that it is not obvious why it is this historical ‘moment’ that is so critical. Many of the ideas on which I and other futurists build are summed up in this short clip. Some, like the scales of civilizations are from Kardeshev and other Russian thinkers. Others like the Von Neumann self replicating machines. The speculations about common language etc are more recent and commonplace but the point about the threat/opportunity our civilization and species faces is well made.

The Future of Civilization – Michio Kaku

This is a kind of macro-historical view of my main assertion on this blog that humanity is entering a critical phase. It is a phase of history from which we probably have a less than even chance of surviving and the only exit states for say 2100-2200 are extinction or a thriving type one civilization that is expanding into the solar system.

One need not agree with everything Michio Kaku (father of modern string theory and the speaker in this clip) says to understand humanities growing crisis. It helps if one has read some of the resources I list on this blog like Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ and Mason’s ‘2030 Spike’ but even without these it is not hard to see the looming crisis or the importance of our species behaviors in weathering it.

What seems to be harder to avoid is the unhelpful and unrealistic polarities of possible responses which as David Suzuki points out, effectively absolve the individual of the need to DO anything. On the one hand some see the magnitude of the crisis, observe the apparent inability of human institutions like nations, politics, religion & business to solve humanities problems or even try. They see that we are creating global environmental, resource, energy and other crises far beyond the historical ones our institutions have ‘evolved’ to deal with. They see this and despair. Then they go about their lives as if they need not do anything because it is pointless.

On the other hand there is the other extreme who perhaps do not understand or believe that the crises we face really are greater than ever before or who are so impressed with humanities expanded knowledge and power (largely based on fossil fuels) to solve many of the older challenges history has presented us with. These people think that we have all the wherewithal we need or can acquire it quickly without the need for them to warp their lives and lifestyle choices around the effort.

I am with the apparently small group between these, like David Suzuki, Robert Zubrin, Michio Kaku and Al Gore, who believe that the crisis we face is mammoth simple because our power as a species has grown so great that it is now in our hands to threaten our global survival as it never was before. This comes, inevitably as our organizing institutions are not sufficiently developed to handle the power, so we tend to squander much of it and leave the mess as ‘someone else’s problem’. The visionaries above however also all believe that by making effort, sacrifices and really smart choices we actually can survive this historical/systemic tsunami and in fact thrive in a bright, clean and energy rich future. It is our duty to do this and our privilege to be the ones who can and must. Our descendants, maybe even our children and grandchildren will certainly understand that we were the ones on watch when the critical choices were made. They will hold us responsible because if we make the wrong choices they will be unable to recoup the damage. Do YOU want to explain to them how little we did? With Suzuki I want to be able to tell them ‘I did all I could’.

Like Kaku I can stand on the shoulders of giants and sum up the ideas which show us the road out of this dark valley into the bright highlands. The road is not easy or automatic but it is not hopeless either. The major steps involved are as follows:

  1. Take control of the Earths climate and integrate our economy properly and sustainably into the global ecology. This will clearly involve acknowledging the reality and causes of climate change and implementing solutions, including the obsolescence of fossil fuels and the end of our current abuse of the global carbon cycle.
  2. Acquire new clean, plentiful and economic sources of energy and scarce materials.
    • In the short term this needs to be an eclectic mixture of renewable power sources with ever reducing use of fossil carbon combustion. This will lead into the Hydrogen economy as a way of managing these many sources and integrating our economy more tightly with real-universe energy physics (it is currently distorted by availability of non-renewables). In the long term our savior will almost certainly be Nuclear Fusion reactors with Helium 3 fuel which we will acquire in almost unlimited quantities from our moon and the Gas giants such as Saturn.
    • This will also necessarily mean expanding into and controlling the resources of our solar system. We will certainly need permanent settlements in orbit, on Mars & the Asteroids and eventually around some gas giants. We will need to develop better transport to do this, probably including such infrastructure as Space Elevators.
  3. Integrate our many cultures into a global meta-culture that respects difference yet shares enough common values and institutions to deal with all our current challenges as well as the new ones that will arise as a true type one civilization.

Remember that I am not saying that this will be easy or that we have all the answers yet. However some of us ARE asking the right questions and know where to look for the answers. This will never work until humanity is asking those same questions and looking with us. It is for this reason that I see my current best contribution as promoting those ‘right questions’ and contributing to the discourse that follows. Yes I strive for carbon neutrality, recycle, compost etc but the most important thing I can do is to talk to YOU about it. The most important thing you can do is to spread the word and join the discourse! We need people power to drive our leaders and to give them permission to make the right choices. If humanity does not understand the situation they will not allow even enlightened leaders to guide our civilisation out of the dark.

Send this to some friends, comment, argue, suggest solutions and defend others. Do it today : )