So, I dusted off a post I wrote a long time ago (you know, last year sometime) that I'd written but never put up because I felt like it was too pessimistic/controversial/depressing. But since I'm all but out of energy to produce something I decided to paste it below. Be warned, it's kind of long. And it rambles. And I guess it's kind of a rant. Sorry.
The Destruction of Human Life of Earth... In Two Parts
Pt I -
I was talking about the inevitable downfall of human society with a coworker the other day, a point we both agree upon, and about the things that are contributing to it in larger or lesser degrees. And I had an epiphany of sorts, it’s really a battle of for the hearts and minds of people everywhere, it’s Fantasy vs. Science fiction, and to be specific, it’s Tolkien vs. Vinge.
Fair warning, I made this a multi-part post, but I really wanted to fit it all into one, I just can’t. In fact, this one is way longer than I wanted it to be, but, I can only do what I can do. So, today I discuss the coming downfall of human civilization, and perhaps the biosphere. Much like Stephen Colbert, I’m about the truthiness portrayed here, so a few facts might be, er, misstated. Not on purpose, I just am a lazy ranter.
1) The earth has approx. 7 billion people.
2) That is too many to maintain without heavy industry and highly sophisticated farming/logistics/governance, etc.
3) Said scientific principles are falling into disfavor as more westerners are looking for less technology in their lives, not more.
4) It only takes one generation or two to really screw things up.
Okay, let’s look at point 1 above, 7 billion is a lot, if you think about the food you eat, the travel you make, the energy you use in your home, all of that leaves a bit of an ecological footprint behind. Best guesses have Americans at the very top of the list of who has the biggest footprint, each person uses up some portion of the earth’s available resources in order to maintain their lifestyle, that burger you had for lunch came from a cow that had to have pasture, the vehicle that shipped the beef to your store or restaurant required fossil fuels, those extra pickles you wanted – those were brought in from Mexico by plane, the heat that ran to keep you warm as you ate required a lot of coal to be burnt at a steam plant miles away. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
I’m not going on an environmental rant here, I’m just saying that 7 billion people takes a huge toll, and you can’t feed and house that many people without some seriously intense farming techniques, you can’t keep that many people healthy without some serious medical work.
I, like a lot of people, am sad when I see heavily processed foods lining the shelves of my supermarket, but the truth is that food is cheap because it is a concoction of alchemy that boggles my mind. Some really smart people were able to take some grain, an old chemistry set, and a bit of corn syrup and make almost every item from isle 3 through isle 8 at my grocery store. It’s impressive.
And it lets millions of people live that otherwise might not. Because if the whole world went for fresh foods every time they got hungry, we’d all starve in a matter of months. There isn’t enough to go around. It all comes down to math. It’s a numbers thing.
It isn’t just processed foods, it’s the genetic engineering that goes into the crops themselves, the resistance to disease, or pests, or the larger yields, or larger edible portions. Those things are created in labs, and again, they keep us alive.
Okay, I’m done with that. I have a larger point to make, try to stay with me if you can.
I’m read The Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge, back in the late fall. In that book the central conflict arises from this: A small community of far future humans are trapped on a planet with the equivalent to Medieval technology, and have a super advanced race of baddies baring down on them as fast as physics will allow them to. Right now they are still decades away.
The leader of the humans knows the world will be destroyed unless they can raise the local population to the highest levels of technology possible in the shortest amount of time possible… and that’s when I had my epiphany. She, the story’s hero, is essentially Sauraman from LoTR.
Yep, in a fantasy book, she is bad, bad, bad. A lot of folks in the novel see her that way. I’m not the first person to point out that LoTR does have this vague sense that science, industrialization, etc., is generally a bad thing. In fact, I’ve heard it said that fantasy, or at least that Tolkeinesqe part, is really a tale about maintaining the status quo, to fight change, to keep things just the way they are (or back to what they were). The bad guys in those stories are people trying to change the world.
Science Fiction, on the other hand, is often about people changing society, or about something that will change the world. In fact, in Vinge’s book, many people suspect that the baddies that are coming are actually good guys, and the story’s protagonist is really a bad guy… again, if the story were told from the ‘rebels’ perspective, then we would have a classic fantasy tale. When I started seeing the novel this way I really started to enjoy it a great deal more.
Anyway, I feel like this type of tale is playing out in the real world now too. There is a large amount of pushback from people that want to return to a preindustrial society, and I can understand it too. Big, faceless companies are doing scary things behind closed doors, irradiating our vegetables and throwing cockroaches into our hot dogs. We hear that cell phones cause cancer, as do McDonald’s hamburgers, diet soda, too much vitamin E, and water heaters. I mean, I can’t think of a way to test all those ideas out, and I can’t avoid everything.
But it’s not just the food industry at risk, folks don’t want to vaccinate their children (fearing a wide range of things, the biggest being that it causes autism), folks trade going to the doctor for home remedies. I had a strange moment at work where I mentioned that the thing where you stick an open flame into your ear to remove wax is insanely dangerous and has been outlawed in many places due to the number of injuries the practice has induced, and I was met with derision from a group of about 15 people… they thought I was the crazy one.
|See what happens if you don't get your flu shot?|
Again, this stuff isn’t a value judgment, it is a dangerous procedure. You know, doctors and everything agree. Oh, but they don’t really trust doctors, or modern medicine. Sigh. It’s a lost cause. A podcast I listen to mentioned in a recent episode that a distrust for big, applied science probably comes from the 50’s and 60’s when things like DDT and <the thing where pregnant women were given things that caused horrible birth defects> ended up being worse than the problems being addressed. It was because no one bothered to do any rigorous testing to see if there were possible side effects. The occasional nuclear disaster, like Three Mile Island or Fukijima, only deepens that distrust. It’s understandable, but turning against the scientific process in its entirety is a bad idea.
So, to try to wrap this up here, I was reading about all these science projects that are being cancelled, or cut, and how international projects, ones too big to generally be done without multiple nations being involved, are leery of US involvement at all because all of a sudden we’ve become so ‘frugal’ (I put that in scare quotes because the govt is only cutting less popular programs, not less needed ones – I mean, being frugal is supposed to be smart).
Dammit… I want to talk about the mathematician that predicted the end of humanity in the next century or two based on some scary math, but I think I’ve already gone too long. My point? The world would descend into chaos, and a new dark age will begin (along with billions of deaths) if we (as a society) fail to embrace science, become literate in it, and share a goal of making the world better for our kids and grandkids. We’ve come too far to go back now. We reached that turning point a century ago. We’re committed to the course we’re on. We have to see where this takes us. If we don’t, millions will die. Global warming, all political aspects aside, means that most of the coastal cities will be gone,
But that won’t happen. We’re all going to die. Why? We have a generation of youngsters that don’t do science, it’s been that way for a while, but we were filling that brain drain with the top minds from other countries to fill key, and not so key, roles. Meanwhile, our kids are either smoking dope, or using their talents to invent the next Farmville game. Not a lot of help there.
And since 9/11 we don’t let foreigners in our country any more, they might be terrorists. It won’t be long before no one is able to even maintain the technology we are already dependent on to live. I once heard a story about a generation after the fall on the Roman empire, Rome’s buildings were, more or less, vacant despite large number of people still living in the cities. Why? Because as the structures fell into disrepair, masonry began to fall, injuring and killing residents living in the buildings. Instead, people were building hovels in the streets, decrepit things, but they had to, because no one knew how to repair the masonry. No one.
If you are a religious person, pray for divine intervention. If you’re not, hope for that Kurzweillian singularity. Because otherwise I’m just Cassandra, knowing the future, but powerless to stop it.
Next time I feel like posting about this: Why rebuilding from a new civilization out of the ruins of the old is impossible!