The Promise of Staying Home

I fell into a conversation recently with a writer, who is of the firm opinion that everything changed forever in 1945 with the spectacular unveiling of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was the mad hope of the bomb’s inventor, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, and of many futurists and international diplomats since, that the nuclear bomb and the US/USSR policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) would mark the end of international warfare. So far, it has worked, more or less. At any rate, the US and the USSR never paved the world in radioactive glass, and if anyone has ever used a tactical nuke in battle, they’ve covered it up pretty well.

Many futurists seem to feel, then, that we’re almost home-free: if we just lick this global warming and environmental devastation thing we’re facing now, we’re set for a long, peaceful future where we can all settle down and live happily ever after, or at least until homo superior comes along and gently leads us off to our species’ retirement home.

Futurists seem to have a rather blind faith in progress as a one-way arrow. Once we have nukes, we will always have nukes, and can therefore talk about a future without war. Once we have computers, we will always have computers, and can talk about robots and artificial intelligence and cybernetic immortality. Once we have the Internet, we will always have the Internet, and it will change our politics and social interactions forever. It’s all about knowledge, and presumably once we have knowledge, we can make an interstellar communication “phone home” device out of an old umbrella and a record-player.

It works in the movies. Although there’s always that moment of unbearable tension when the “scientist” needs an integrating goniometer, and gosh darn it, all she’s got is a credit card and a screwdriver…. “But wait,” she says, “if I just reverse the polarity of the flux capacitor…!” [Sorry, but I’ve been watching the old SG-1 series on Amazon, and something like this happens every few episodes. She also manages to do this just before they run out of air, or the bad guys show up, or the episode runs out of time.]

This doesn’t work in real life.

It’s true that our real-life modern technological society is based on a certain kind of knowledge, but that merely supplies the floor-plan — the real foundation that holds up the piano and the couch is cheap energy. The cheap energy technological boom started with coal and the steam engine. It shifted from there to oil and the internal combustion engine. The real future hinges upon the question of: “What replaces oil?”

There are huge and vituperative arguments on the web about oil reserves, coal reserves, and natural gas reserves. Many of these arguments are from paid fossil-fuel-industry public relations flaks. Some are from argumentative people who like to quibble over definitions and decimal points.

What matters is that coal, oil, and natural gas are all stored sunlight created long ago, and Mother Nature is not making any more of this stored sunlight — not right now, and not under conditions we humans could, or would want to, live through: no one but the Creationists claim otherwise. As a result, each of these sources of stored sunlight has a well-established, very predictable “production curve” that looks like an anthill — it goes up on one side, peaks in the middle, and then goes down on the other side. The curves tend to be fairly symmetric — usually a little steeper on the downslope — so to first approximation, if you know how long it took to get from zero to peak, you know roughly how long you have to go from peak to zero.

For our current workhorse, petroleum, it took about 150 years to go from zero to peak, which we hit in the first decade of this century. So by the late 2100’s, we won’t be burning oil any more — we’ll either have replaced it with something else, or we’ll be making do without.

I haven’t paid as much attention to NG or coal, but they follow exactly the same pattern. Within 200 years — let’s be generous and say 300 years — our fossil-fuel phase as a species will be over and done with.

So we have three distinct and mutually exclusive energy futures in the year 2300. They are basically: a lot less energy, about the same amount of energy, or a lot more energy. Let me spell these out in a little more detail.

Future 1: We don’t find any workable replacements for fossil fuels, or don’t deploy them in time to prevent a catastrophic decline in the technological level of our civilization. Maybe this is because of politics, or war, or because we never figure out how to improve them enough to make them useful on a large scale. Furthermore, no magic bullet technologies show up. After 2300 our energy technology drops to what we had in, say, 1700, or below. Wind, water, and muscle.

Future 2: We manage to scale up existing solar, wind, and other renewables, using our fossil fuel technology to leapfrog into these rapidly, make some lifestyle adaptations to a slightly lower energy budget, and keep a reasonably high level of technology going on a sustainable basis. The year 2300 then provides us with kind of a steampunk or alternate-universe energy technology at, say, the level we had in 1900.

Future 3: We see one or more technological breakthroughs in energy production, and our energy foundation expands, just as it did when we developed petroleum over coal.

Let’s analyze these futures.

Future 2 — steady as she goes

I’d like to start with Future 2, which doesn’t require a lot of wishful thinking, but does require hope and some hard work. It’s where I think we’ll try to go, or at least where we’ll wish we had gone if we don’t try.

Two things have to happen for this to come about: we have to improve renewable energy technology by a fair bit, particularly reducing the energy cost of the technology — that is, how much energy it costs to make and sustain the tools that produce the energy — and we have to scale back our energy wastage.

It’s worth looking at how energy use has grown:


If we roll back to the energy requirements of 1900, or even 1935, existing renewables would probably suffice if deployed on a large enough scale. But that means we’ll see our lifestyle return to that of 1900 or 1935. Here are some examples of what this means:

Passenger jet travel will go away — nothing in Future 2 replaces jet fuel. Military jets will probably be around for a while, though flying them will be ruinously expensive. Zeppelins could come back, and passenger rail almost certainly will. US Americans have such a deep and irrational love-affair with their cars that they’d probably starve rather than give them up: so electric cars are likely, even if uneconomical. But the four-hour daily commute from suburbs to workplace will end, because of the cost.

That means suburbs and bedroom communities will either convert into legitimate towns with a real local economy, or they’ll die out as people move back to the cities to be closer to work. The urban decay that arose in the shadow of the family car will be turned backward as burned out city cores are “gentrified” and revitalized. Cities and towns that haven’t already done so will be slowly rebuilt to be more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Food will become more local and more seasonal.

Our global carbon footprint will shrink and eventually almost vanish, and while we’ll live through the consequences of the global warming we’ve already locked in, we might escape some of the worst problems.

That brings us to nuclear weapons. I have no idea how long they will stick around in Future 2. One of the big changes in any lower-energy future is that the world — which has been effectively shrinking since 1500 due to increased energy use in transportation technologies — will grow larger once more. That will have profound effects on the geopolitics of war. While it will still be possible to synthesize various rocket propellants for the ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) that form the heart of Mutual Assured Destruction, it will be hugely more expensive, as will all the tool chains involved in making and maintaining the nuclear warheads. If we ever drop the full technological infrastructure to make and maintain nukes, deliberately or because of economic troubles, it will be very difficult and very expensive to restart that industry in Future 2.

My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that nuclear weapons will go away, along with the capacity to fight world wars. There will not be enough cheap energy to throw around that way. There will still be plenty of war and bloodshed, which seems to be a human need, but it will not be able to ignite on the scale of World War II or the dreaded World War III.

Future 2 is a tenuous future: we still have to deal with global warming, freshwater depletion, soil degradation, deforestation, overfishing, nuclear and chemical cleanup, GMOs, and all the other environmentally suicidal things we’ve already done as a species.

Future 2 is particularly tenuous in the US, because the nation grew up in a world awash in coal and oil. Every aspect of our society, from the architecture of skyscraper-dominated cities, to the existence of bedroom communities, to supermarkets, is based upon fossil fuel energy and the technology that profligate energy wastage allows. It’s going to be a major technological challenge to scale back and convert our energy usage without causing our entire industrial and civic infrastructure to collapse. But that’s the easiest part, and lots of smart people will be working on it full-time.

A far more difficult part is that investment capitalism will go away. You cannot maintain continuous economic growth in a sustainable economy. Simply put, capital investment will no longer yield profits, because capital investment won’t yield any value. There’s no point in doubling the capacity of a plant when there are no new customers. Not all investment will go away, and industries will still rise and fall, but every industry that rises will depend on some other industry falling: every person who starts drinking Coke will stop drinking Pepsi; someone who buys the latest iGadget will stop buying the old iGadget. Our economy will shudder and probably collapse numerous times before people figure out that what we call capitalism doesn’t work in a world without a constantly increasing energy budget. But people will eventually figure it out, and muddle through into whatever replaces our current economic scheme.

The real challenge is the political challenge. There is, of course, a lot of fingers-in-the-ears, la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you denial going on throughout our US society regarding both fossil fuel peaks and homogenic climate change, including a large segment of the population that thinks that the world was created six thousand years ago and that none of this matters because Jesus will come back and fix everything. Apart from this overt lunacy, most of the money in the nation is invested in the status quo, which means fossil fuels and the industries that depend upon them. Since our form of government is a de facto representative oligarchy that represents and defends the monied status quo, any appropriate and timely movement toward Future 2 is and will continue to be fought, tooth and nail, by everyone with even a spit of political power.

This means that any attempt to move into Future 2 will be actively sabotaged by the most powerful people in the country, including through massive marketing campaigns to keep the voters confused. We see a perfect example of this in the fracking bubble.

I don’t personally think the US is up to the task of building Future 2. I’d love to be wrong.

If we don’t move to Future 2, then we end up in:

Future 1 — full stop

This is what we get if we shoot for Future 2 and miss. It’s also what we get if we’re stupid. Some writers, like J.M. Greer, believe that we missed the window for Future 2 back in the 1970’s, and at this point we’re stuck with Future 1. He could be right.

While this future ends up at a peak energy technology equivalent to the year 1700, it’s anything but a smooth ride, and 1700’s technology will likely be something we climb back to many centuries from now.

We get to Future 1 by not moving aggressively (and successfully) into renewable energy, meaning that we’ll most likely have adopted the Sarah Palin plan of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” followed by “Burn, Baby, Burn,” followed by “Good Lord, Pa, turn up the air conditioner!” What that means in practice is that the government continues to offer increasing subsidies and privileged business status to the oil industry to keep energy prices low. Note that I say increasing subsidies, because oil extraction is only going to get more expensive. This policy of appeasement is going to strain the federal coffers as time passes.

Low oil prices mean that renewables can’t get an economic foothold. So they’ll never get developed and deployed on the necessary scale to reach Future 2.

We’ve already locked in a certain amount of sea-level rise with our current carbon emissions, and the Palin strategy is going to lock in even more. I’ve read that anything up to a five foot rise is not a problem. I don’t know if we’ve already blown that limit, but the Palin strategy guarantees that we will.

We could cope with the predicted slow rise of the sea, except that climate change deniers will also put off upgrading the dikes, and moving the docks and city boundaries, as long as possible, claiming that we can’t afford it, or that the government shouldn’t be involved in such things, or that taxes are too high, or that there is no global warming, yada, yada. Which means that somewhere down the road, probably about the point that oil subsidies are starting to really hurt, we’re going to see recurring coastal storms with Katrina-scale consequences in New York City, Charleston, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Galveston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and dozens of other smaller port cities. All of them will call for national disaster relief: more strain on federal coffers.

At the same time, the heat in the Midwest and the California valleys will get high enough to kill crops. Rising food prices and even shortages will follow. Wildfires will continue to rip through the Mountain States and California. Drought in Texas will deepen. The aquifers in Texas and the Midwest will run dry, if they aren’t poisoned first by fracking. More strain on the federal coffers.

At some point, the feds are going to do triage on these multiplying disasters. They’ll have no choice.

From there, everything gets chaotic, and my crystal ball is clouded. It’s a rich field for writing dystopian fiction. However, in the end — very likely after a civil bloodbath, possibly preceded by an attempt to hold everything together under military rule — I see a Disunited States of America.

This is the dystopia I have been exploring in some of my stories, here, herehere, and here.

Like the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the collapse will likely be uneven, with some states and communities remaining peaceful and perhaps even willfully unaware of what is happening around them, while others will descend into lawlessness, where — as it was put in the film Cloud Atlas — “the strong do eat, the weak are meat.” Over time, probably a few centuries from now, even the wealthiest and most privileged communities will decline into some form of feudalism, where local security or military forces keep the peace and protect the citizens, who will mostly be concerned with keeping the military in check and food on the table. We’ll all be herding goats, harvesting squash, and working a village forge. Think Western Europe in the Low Middle Ages.

Though in theory we still have all the knowledge of the past, we won’t have the cheap energy foundation to make use of it. In particular, there will be no coal, oil, or natural gas within reach: during the last phases of the Palin strategy, our hyperextended extraction technology will have scraped the bottom of the barrel multiple times. Once even barrel-scraping (e.g. fracking) becomes unprofitable, the machinery will be sold for scrap, or abandoned and allowed to rust, and since all of it runs on cheap fossil fuels which can no longer be reached, the human race will never again be in a position to restart the machinery. We won’t hang onto the technological knowledge for long if it’s useless.

There is zero nuclear threat from the Former United States in Future 1, once we disunite. My rough understanding is that an unmaintained nuclear weapon becomes non-functional after about ten years, give or take. No one will be able to find a century-old missile silo and make use of the “Old World” magic to threaten their neighbors: the missile silos that dot Kansas and Wyoming will simply be holes in the ground filled with a mysterious sickness that falls on anyone who ventures inside. If there are persistent nuclear threats out there, it will be from other nations that didn’t fall into a Future 1.

I haven’t thought much about what might happen in a world where some other nations crafted a Future 2 while the US fell into a Future 1, particularly after a confused churn of chaos here, though it’s the most likely possibility. I’ll have to think about that a bit, but my first guess is that the US would be exploited for resources and labor, just like any third-world country today.

Future 3 — full speed ahead

I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking through this scenario, either. It disturbs me more than even Future 1, because I suspect this could be a human extinction scenario.

There are a number of potential paths into this future. I’m going to use cold fusion as the imagined foundation for Future 3, because it is an extreme case. The fuel, nickel, is plentiful and cheap to extract, the fusion process produces only gamma rays and heat with no radioactive waste left over, the Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) is at least 1000:1 (at its highest, oil was 100:1), and the total energy content is orders of magnitude larger than all the fossil fuels ever burned to date. It’s the Holy Grail of energy.

It’s also very possibly a pipe dream, or a hoax. But let’s ignore that, and say that it works. What does Future 3 look like?

The current energy problems are solved — we won’t need oil, coal, or natural gas; if we do need them for specific purposes, such as jet fuel, we can afford to synthesize them. Global warming is resolved, because we’ll stop burning fossil fuels very quickly. The freshwater problem is solved, because we’ll have the energy to desalinate seawater, and to transport it where it’s needed: we could probably even profitably recover gold and other precious metals from seawater. Soil degradation will not be a problem, because we can continue to manufacture ammonia and artificially recharge dead soil, as we are doing now.

A rapidly-growing energy economy means rapid economic growth, which means investment capitalism as we know it will continue to work its magic of maximally efficient extraction to exhaustion. The stock market will rise and rise and rise.

In the process, as with oil, we’ll certainly figure out ways to use energy faster and more frivolously. I suspect human ingenuity knows no bounds there, and we’ll devise a way to use up all of the nickel deposits near the surface of the earth within a century or two, and will perhaps develop ways of digging down into the earth’s core, or of mining asteroids, to get more.

We’ll certainly be able to maintain our nuclear arsenal during this entire period.

In short, Future 3 looks exactly like what we’ve spent the last five centuries doing, only louder. Which means we’ll continue making exactly the same kinds of mistakes we’ve been making for the last five centuries, only louder.

There’s no incentive in Future 3 to change our ways. None.

So the first round of threats to our continued survival as a species will give way to the second and more serious round of threats, such as biodiversity degradation, farming monoculture, industrial toxicity, genetic tampering, and all the other consequences of thoughtless short-term self-interest for profit. We will have learned nothing about how to live sustainably: we’ll just shoot up like a drug addict, on nickel instead of crude oil, and deal with the consequences tomorrow.

We are close enough to catastrophes in the second round of threats that I think the odds are on losing. The two that concern me the most are species extinction and genetic tampering. People aren’t nearly as smart or careful as they seem to think they are, and politicians, in particular, are (as Mark Twain suggested) not quite as bright as fleas. I see no reason to believe that we won’t render the Earth uninhabitable, to the tune of “Oops.”

Of course, if we somehow work our way around these and all the new problems that arise from living unsustainably, the nickel will run out. Right now, that seems impossible, but in 1900, it seemed impossible that oil would ever run out, based on the way energy was used. But we scaled up our energy usage quickly, and now the oil is past peak. The same will happen with nickel, if we survive long enough.

Is there something even more energy-dense than fusion reactions? I don’t know. What I do know is that the nickel-mining industry will be dead-set against it.

One interesting twist is that the expansion of empires in the past has always been stopped by the linear-square law and technological limits. Fossil fuels almost put a one-world empire within reach, but not quite. Cold fusion could afford the possibility of a strong global empire, and human monoculture, though it seems to me that this will not be a US-based, English-speaking monoculture, because the US peaked on fossil fuels, and will — as described above — fight the transition to Future 3 just as hard as it fights Future 2. It will be the next imperial contender that will take over the world, or maybe the contender after that. Brazil. Iran. North Korea. New Zealand. Someone else.

Unlike most of the Rabid Right in the US, I don’t have a fundamental problem with the US not being the King Snipe. I do have a fundamental problem with human monoculture, because of a basic rule of nature:

Efficiency is the enemy of robustness.

We find this in computer systems — my day job — all the time, and it’s a constant fight to get customers to buy enough redundant (therefore unnecessary and inefficient) hardware to keep them running through a hardware failure. Investment capitalism demands maximum efficiency, which means minimum robustness. Most companies cannot actually live with minimum robustness, but they bicker and fume over every dollar spent on it.

Investors scream about the fact that their “diversified” stock portfolio does not do as well as the very best stocks in the market. The reason you diversify, of course, is that you can’t know in advance which stocks are going to do well, and which are going to tank, and if you put all your money into a stock that tanks, you lose everything.

That’s the consequence of insufficient robustness: you stand to lose everything.

The same thing happens, but on a grander scale, in ecological systems. The potato famine of Ireland is one of the classic examples: reduced by politics and relocation to farming a single subsistence crop — potatoes — the Irish were nearly wiped out by the potato blight. If you look at the vast fields of corn (maize) grown on industrialized farms throughout the US Midwest, you are looking at a potential economic disaster in the making. These monocultures are efficient, particularly since fossil fuels are cheap and a monoculture can be planted, grown, and harvested with the aid of machines. But one insect pest, one plant virus, one loss of a crucial pollinator species, one small shift in weather patterns, and the entire crop can be lost, perhaps for generations.

This is why biodiversity is so important. Every lost species makes the entire world of the living more fragile.

A human monoculture has exactly the same problem. We’re living this right now: if the US economy dips, the whole world economy shudders. If the US economy collapsed, it would take down the world economy with it. The world economy is efficient — but it is not robust. It has no Plan B.

If Future 3 does put the whole world firmly within the grasp of a single empire, with one economy, one food distribution network, one model of human behavior, the human race becomes very fragile indeed.

So to sum up this rather long essay:

I grew up on Star Trek and Isaac Asimov and E.E. Smith and H.G. Wells, and I still watch things like SG-1 as escapist fantasy. But it is escapist fantasy, not a plan for the future. Believing that a “warp drive” or “quantum teleportation” is going to get us to the year 2300 without a collapse into dark age, is not really all that different from believing that Jesus will return in glory just in time to save The Faithful from losing their houses to foreclosure.

But, that leads to yet another law of human nature: there is no persuading the believer, and no convincing the unbeliever.

This entry was posted in General.

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