Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Desert Earth"


Zaek said...

One day in the far future it'll be like that, only the continental shapes as we know them won't exist. I imagine it'll probably look a lot like Mars does now. Our species and all it ever did will be a thin stratum in the fossil record.

graymogul said...

Before the Earth dies, if the human race behaves intelligently, it may be able to migrate into space and populate many other star systems.
Some folks today theorize that the people of Earth are descended from refugees who fled Mars.
Did an asteroid kill all the dinosaurs? Or did our Martian ancestors slay the dinosaurs which had survived the collison with the asteroid?

Zaek said...

Sadly one sees little evidence of the human race behaving intelligently, at least as a collectivity.

Not that I want to rain on your parade. That scenario sounds far more attractive than what I think will probably happen to the talking monkeys.

Sion said...

Do you remember the sixties? At that time there was a widespread optimism about the future of mankind. It was inspired by faith in technological progress and in a series of startling ‘success stories’. Modern medicine had largely eradicated the traditional ‘killer’ diseases and it seemed only a matter of time till medical research would conquer every other ailment, and perhaps even the process of ageing itself. The ‘green revolution’ had revolutionised crop production and held out the prospect of a world in which there would be plenty of food for all. Mass production techniques created the expectation that we could supply all our needs with an ever decreasing need for work. The working week was set to shrink and perhaps to shrivel away altogether as human workers were replaced by robots. Our main problem would be how to educate the next generation for a life of leisure. Atomic power stations promised an endless supply of cheap energy – energy that would be so cheap, indeed, that it would cost more to ‘meter’ it than simply to distribute it for free. The first men landed on the Moon – and we thereby took the first step on a ladder that would eventually take us to other solar systems, to the colonisation of distant planets, and to the infinite resources of space.

That was our vision of our Brave New World. What went wrong?

Arthur C Clarke, who scripted the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrik, was asked this question in an interview shortly before the millennium celebrations in 2000. 2001 a Space Odyssey was an icon of the late sixties. It depicted a world in which space travel was commonplace. Human beings had built colonies on the moon and were poised for the exploration of deep space. Meanwhile, down on Mother Earth peace and prosperity reigned. Why didn’t the world in 2000 look like the world of 2001 in the movie?
Clarke’s explanation was ‘the Vietnam war’. The war in Vietnam, according to Clarke, had diverted research and investment away from ‘useful’ science towards the ever burgeoning military industry. The billions that could have been used for curing the ills of mankind were squandered instead on the arms race of the Cold War, and in funding the numerous regional wars that ignited all over the planet in the last decades of the millennium.

As much as I respect Arthur C. Clarke, I think his explanation was naive. For me the problems lie much deeper - they lie in our very nature. And our 'Brave New World' vision was one that ignored crucial facts, foremost of which was that our recent technological and industrial progress rested on the availability of cheap oil - oil that we assumed would always be available and would always be cheap - till it was replaced with atomic power, which would be cheaper still.

Our vision also assumed that the North-South divide would remain much as it then was, with a few Western industrial nations enjoying the fruits of the labour of the rest of the globe. Our vision was, indeed, strictly 'our' vision, and it ignored the aspirations of the rest of humanity to live well and eat well.

Another major factor Clarke failed to give importance to was that the mining of fossil fuels disturbed the slumbering dinosaurs of religion- especially the slumbering dinosaur of Islam. That beast, pumped fat with Middle East oil revenues, only really reared its ugly head after the turn of the Millennium - and it has subsequently stirred up its fellow religious dinosaurs. These fossil-fuel-fed cultural fossils now bestride the world like comic-book monsters and threaten to tear the planet apart before they finally vanish again underground. The question is whether they will take humanity with them on their road to extinction.

Zaek said...

I think you've hit upon the heart of it Sion. Progress as we know it derives from the availability of cheap fossil fuels, and when they're too depleted to be economical that will be the end of progress. We like to think other energy sources can and will take their place, but if you examine the relevant data it turns out they can't. Our failure to plan against fossil fuel depletion results from unrealistic faith in technology and an economic ideology that mandates infinite growth which a finite planet cannot sustain.

In the Sixties and Seventies quite a lot of people saw what was coming. But eventually our "leaders" along with most of the population stopped listening to the conservationists (damn hippies!) and instead set about profligately squandering all the surplus energy that might have helped us make a smooth transition to a relatively prosperous post-fossil fuel future. Now that is no longer possible. So instead we're going to have a rough transition to an impoverished post-fossil fuel future.

I'm afraid this will not be at all pleasant. Personally I would have far preferred the scenario which graymogul has sketched out. Unfortunately that is not the direction toward which the relevant facts are now pointing.

Which is really a pity, because I'm pretty sure that during a certain period - around the third quarter of the 20th Century, I would say - it was probably technically feasible to bring relative prosperity to everyone on Earth, more or less sustainably, just as the idealists would have liked. But we blew it. Instead of raising them up to join us in prosperity, we are going to fall down to join them in poverty.