Friday, January 27, 2012

Oh Crap, You Just Destroyed the Earth

Work is wearing me out. I mean, really wearing me out. Not only am I spending more time there than I want to, but I'm also working much harder while I'm there. What that means for me of course, is that I'm having a tough time right now even remembering to post, let alone all the other stuff I need to do to maintain a semblance of an online presence. Heck, I haven't even been reading very much lately, very odd for me.

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.

The scenario:

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 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!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You were doing some deep thinking there! Not to fuel your fire about the food industry, but have you ever watched the documentary Food Inc? That will really send you over the edge.

Gail said...

I see science fiction almost as a reflection of the future truth. I agree knowledge should be kept but there has to be a better way to keep the knowledge without killing the planet.

To solve the population promblem, maybe we should take another look at Soylent Green. At 57, I already feel like going quietly may be the best option.

Just a thought from a crazy person...

Tonja said...

"Lazy ranter" - me too. Sucks to have to fact check when you're on a rant. You should take a day off and lay in bed and do nothing this weekend. Wait, I should do that too...but there's the ms, the laundry, the kids. Uggh.

Grumpy Bulldog, Secret Agent said...

I wish more people would embrace science and believe in human potential over some Big Man in the Sky who tells us to kill everyone who doesn't believe what we do. But even in Star Trek it took a devastating world war and Vulcans landing on Earth to finally get our asses into gear.

Really the way to solve this to borrow the "bad" guy's plan in "Watchmen." Stage an alien attack that convinces people they need to work together and advance technologically in order to combat the new threat. It wouldn't work just to say there are aliens coming for us and show pictures because conspiracy theorists wouldn't buy it, just like I'm sure they didn't in Vinge's book. No, you have to kill a few thousand or even millions to work up enough fear to make it happen--like 9/11 on a larger scale. Because sadly it seems the only things really driving human ingenuity are greed and threats of violence.

Brinda said...

I guess I'm a little more of an optimist than you, but you bring up some important points in the direction we are taking culturally. I'm going a little off-topic (but not really) with a note that I finished reading 11/22/63 by King. There is a lot of reference to the butterfly effect and my mind boggles at the implications of small decisions and incidents impacting the state of our nation.

Jay Noel said...

There's an awful lot of fortune telling in science fiction - which is why calling it "speculative" is pretty accurate.

Life is hard. It always has been. How many generations believe the end of the world is near? Yet we're all still here.

Science always has had a love/hate relationship with society. Look at George Washington - did he die from battle or assassination? No he bled to death by some gadget that was supposed to make him feel better.

On the other hand, I worked in medical sales a couple of years ago, and met with people whose lives were saved by the technology I was selling.

Oh, and that ear candling thing is about as close to true quackery as you can get. The gunk found inside the candle after the procedure is actually from the candle itself, not your ears!

Briane P said...

Ok: 1. Best title for a post, ever.

2. Grumpy, seriously? You recommend cutting down the rainforest and then mass-murdering people to make a point. There has GOT to be something about that in your new book contract, probably headed "No advocating genocide, it's bad for business."

3. I feel like the Internet is forcing me to be even more optimistic than I already am, and I am already superoptimistic, which means that posts like this force me to be almost Punky Brewster-esque in my cheeriness, and that's actually not a good fit for me. (I look terrible in rainbow suspenders.)

But have you considered that many many predictions of waste, death, horrible things, have gone wrong? Not just the obvious "The Rapture will come on this day" stuff but things like back in the 1970s when they said we'd run out of oil by now.

Technology tends to advance as fast as we need it to advance, and not more. Not because we're lazy (mostly) but because of costs.

Right now, there is no real move being made towards solar energy because oil is so easy and cheap to use that large-scale shifting to solar energy is impractical. We could jump start that shift via, say, my idea to require that all new devices, constructions, cars, run at least a little on solar energy (so that your cell phone would be required to be at least partially powered by solar or alternate energy, as would all new construction), but still, we're a long way away from replacing the cheapness of oil.

People are leery of new technology, sure, but I don't see the vast majority of people ACTUALLY SPURNING technology. The same people who won't give their kids vaccinations because they were victims of junk science probably take all kinds of medications the long-term safety of which hasn't yet been proven. It's not necessarily a fear of new technology that's holding us back.

Throughout human history, need has driven invention -- which sounds exactly like it was Vinge's point -- so when Europe was getting crowded and the black plague kept cropping up because people lived in filthy conditions, the time was ripe to start finding new territories to colonize. As the world became more interconnected at the turn of the 18th century, the need for better communications led people to finally improve on and use the telegraph (invented in 1809, first line actually completed in 1844 -- around the time that large amounts of the population of the US were moving west.)

At the turn of the 19th century, we needed better transportation and darned if the Wrights didn't help comply.

Two World Wars and a Cold War helped spur people from biplanes with propellers to rockets and geosynchronous satellites, in about 60 years.

As our population grows, I expect we'll become more serious about sustainable fuels, because oil prices will rise. We'll become more serious about colonization of space and perhaps planetary modification, as well. We'll do that because we have to.

I'm not worried about humanity. I'm worried that so many people are worried about humanity.

On a related note: I wish I'd read this about Mexican Flying Pickles before I named my blogfest after a Stupid Pineapple:

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Definitely a deep post. And holy cow is Pagel out of control again in the comments.

Huntress said...


Well, I don't see a lot of up to your down. If you know what I mean.

I don't go for anyone's viewpoint unless I first do my own research into the matter.

That said, I am a farmer and that makes me a little prejudice to the food growers side of the story.

Briane P said...

Who knows where ideas for Pineapple Blogfests come from? These things are all just out there in the ether.

But I will share all proceeds with you, 75-85.

Andrew Leon said...

I wish I had time to give the kind of comment this kind of post demands, but I'm heading out in 10m, so I don't have time.

I would point out, though, that it's not -just- need that drives invention. The Romans had the steam engine, but they never put it into any real use because slave labor was so much cheaper (which is like Briane's example of oil vs solar). We still us slave labor, we just call it "made in China." Need and finances drive the world.

Anyway... I don't despair for humanity. In some ways I despair for society, except, when I think about it, something that might devastate society might not be such a bad thing.

Trisha said...

I don't really despair for humanity, I despair for all the other poor innocent species that have to share this planet with us - they're the ones who are getting messed around here! ;)

We did this to ourselves, really - and by "we" I mean those who have been propelling this foward, and I suppose those of us who are just obliviously going along for the ride.

And maybe we will all die, but in my case I believe that once I'm dead, I'll truly be at peace, and won't know anything, so it won't matter by then. ;)

Donna Hole said...

Well, my opinion is US gov't is too interested in making money, and not interested enough in developing a future. Money is nice, don't get me wrong, but after it gets so big, what's the point?

I do believe schools need to invest more in our children as future developers of the world as a whole. But, funding is cut to all but the private schools, so your average child is encouraged to learn skills more suited to battle (current video games are great for that training/brainwashing) than for integration into the workforce.

Sorry Rusty; my cynical self is stirring itself.

Lets hope America soon finds its way back to investing in something other than entertainment and money hoarding.

I hope you have a relaxing weekend.


boopia said...

Wow. See what happens to a guy's brain when he wrongfully doesn't get his chicken and potatoes the night before???

Lots of great and deep points here!

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm not really sure what to think of the current direction society is going. I think that the present state is unsustainable, certainly; but there are so many potential disasters--along with the possibility of some really smart, dedicated people emerging--that it's hard to tell what path we're heading down will lead to.

But I don't think people should wait around for something to happen, either; it's only going to get worse if no one tries to do anything.

Nancy said...

I could add to the rant about what our culture is teaching our kids in terms of instant gratification which is why many of them don't want to do the science,math stuff because it takes time to do it. However, there are the kids that still love it and hopefully we'll be around them when the masonry needs repair-well not that scientists can do masonry but you know what I mean.

m0nk said...

write it. The apocalypse market is huge.