Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Future

The attitude about the future has really changed from the time I was a child. I'm currently thirty-seven years old, and when I was a child, society was looking to the stars. We believed that one day, we would be able to leave this solar system, make contact with aliens, and see all the wonders possessed by the heavens. We believed that incredible technology was on the way that would revolutionize our lives, and perhaps most importantly, we believed that the future would be positive. Somewhere along the way, that changed.

Sure, we have technology today that realizes much of the dreams we had about the future through the twentieth century. In fact, the internet surpasses the expectations that many had. At one time, we thought that out phones would have video screens so we could talk to people and have the voice accompanied by the live image. Now, we have that, but to make it better, the service doesn't cost us a dime. In the late '80s, Arthur C. Clark write 2061: Odyssey Three, in which an aging Heywood Floyd reflected that computer technology would be unable to match up a few lines of text to the poem it belonged to without a lot of programming and a lot of time. Today, we type what we remember into Google and it finds it for us in seconds.

Today we're retiring the shuttle fleet, but we have satellites providing us with everything from television to cell phones and GPS, and we have a permanent foothold in space (for as long as the government decides to continue funding it). We have private companies pushing into space, even while the government decides whether to actually make the next generation rocket.

The point I'm making is that by all standards, so many of the things that were science fiction when I was a kid have become real today. If the futurists of today were to set some optimistic goals, maybe we wouldn't be so obsessed with this dystopic future that so many people today fear.

But the fact is that people have a reason to fear. This technology and level of society has come at a great cost. The massive oil spill in the gulf of Mexico is a reminder of the largest, possibly insurmountable hurdle that we have to contend with: peak oil. Most people reading this already know what peak oil is, but for those who don't, peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. In other words, cheap energy, the cheap energy that makes our current lifestyles possible, is not infinite and sooner or later we will be forced to deal with the consequences of an ever expanding human population in a world where the energy production cannot keep up with its needs. When will this occur? According to the predictions made in the 1950s, peak oil should have happened twenty five years ago. Thanks to more fuel efficient cars, we managed to forestall the inevitable, but many experts are guessing that we hit peak oil hit sometime in 2008 and that we are currently at the plateau.

This is a huge issue, with implications to humans that will most likely outstrip the effects of global warming. Without an abundant supply of energy, we're looking at a decline in food production, the end of easy transportation, and diminishing abilities to use all this wonderful technology we've developed in my lifetime. But forget the tech for a moment, what's going to happen to our cities once the trucks stop showing up with food and medicine? The answer is simple: unless people have already found a way to become self sufficient, a lot of people are going to starve to death. The cities will be hit the hardest, because they lack the land necessary to produce the food needed to support their populations. I suspect that small towns will fare better because of the abundance of open land. Regardless, when this happens, people will leave the cities and flock to the small towns, which will undoubtedly be doing everything they can to make the most of their limited resources. These newcomers will not likely be welcome, which will simply perpetuate the inevitable strife.

So this is it, Armageddon, right? Not necessarily. I believe that this is something we can survive, but only if we start seriously looking ahead now rather than fighting to preserve the limited model of our past.

Right now government, under the premise of heading off global warming and our reliance upon foreign oil, are pumping millions into "green energy." Again, I'm sure the readers of my blog are educated enough to know that green energy is energy is more environmentally friendly and does not rely on fossil fuels and does not contribute to global warming. The fact is that if we were to run out of oil today, we wouldn't have the technology in place to continue functioning. Solar, wind, and other technologies must become much, much more efficient for us to be able to rely on them. However, the technologies of tomorrow already exist. What if every house were equipped with solar panels. What if every community had wind generators interspersed with farmland to provide energy for the local community? I recently heard about one area where they're experimenting with high powered solar energy, where they have a field of mirrors that catch the sun at all time of day, then direct all of that energy towards a tower that is filled with water. The energy it produces is caused by steam! Wouldn't this be perfect for all of the communities in the US that we have in the desert states? We already know that we can run cars on electricity, so the more electricity we can generate, the more likely we are to meet out energy needs.

Of course the progress we need will be fought by the oil companies, which have a great deal of influence over government, and see no reason to make such drastic changes as long as we're still dependent upon their product. Even better, when peak oil really sets in, they're estimating that a gallon of gas will rise to $16 a gallon or higher. Oil companies really want to hold on to their dominance over our economy and our entire society because when it hits, they're going to make the kind of money that they currently only dream about (as if they billions they already make isn't enough!).

But the issue of our vision for the future extends beyond peak oil. As I said, it is an obstacle, but it is possible that it's something we can avert, if we act. Maybe part of the reason we've become pessimistic about the future is because we're in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. People are out of work, expenses are still going up, and just managing to pay the bills is becoming more and more difficult. Politics have become toxic (in part because it is so obvious that so many of our elected officials serve their corporate masters rather than the people who vote for them), and the media outlets just egg on these divisions so that they can score ratings.

Is it any wonder that science fiction isn't selling these days? People are being told that the future is here now, and it sucks.

I think that we need to keep our eyes on the future, especially now. Back in the 1930s, the world was far worse off than it is now. In the midst of the Great Depression, people embraced futurism. It affected everything from entertainment to architecture. While I'm not an expert in the field of the futurism of the period (it is an area of interest though - more on that some other time), the one thing I know it did was create an optimistic future that the people of the time could embrace and look forward to. I believe that it was needed back then, and the result of the optimism of the time is the incredible technology we have today that we take for granted.

While I'm a fan of Mad Max, the Fallout games, and other versions of a dystopic future, I think that those are potential futures that don't have to come to pass. I think that what we lack right now is not the ability to do things we need to survive, but the vision. What we need is a new fresh wave of futurism. We know what we have achieved, and we know the problems that we face, so now what? What are the next advances we can make to move forward as a society?

If we were all optimists, what will our daily lives look like in 2035? Or 2100? Or 3000? Why don't we don't we redefine the world we want to live in and then make it happen?


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said... energy is energy is more environmentally friendly and does not rely on fossil fuels and does not contribute to global warming...

What a breath of fresh air, a gamer who is peak oil aware. A very well written and thought out post. The only quibble I have is with the above quote. Green energy technology largely does rely on fossil fuels and therefore contributes to global warming. For instance, solar panel and battery technology relies on metals and chemicals mined at great expense, using huge amounts of oil, from all over the globe. The manufacturing process is hardly what you'd call green. And then of course there is the carbon footprint of not only the mining, but the transportation of those raw materials globally. Sadly, the renewable technology industry is heavily reliant on the oil industry. Without the latter, there will be great difficulty in growing the former.

I'm not a complete pessimist, but I don't think the renewable energy industry is going to be the solution to attaining a sustainable post-peak oil future.