Monday, April 11, 2011

These Are the Things I Think About

Recent thoughts of what’s going on in the world:

Last year, a life ago in Reno, I wrote up a list of things that Discover magazine had cited as possible ways the human species was going to be wiped out.

Asteroid impact
Solar flares/Core ejection/Supernova
Collapse of the spatial vacuum
Particle accelerator mishap
Atomic weapons and war
Gamma ray bursts
Rogue black holes
Global warming
Environmental collapse
Reversal of magnetic poles
Environmental toxicity
Superbugs/Epidemic disease
Nanotechnology grey matter
Biochemical disaster
Mass insanity/Pharmaceutical mishap
Alien invasion
Divine intervention

It was on the blackboard for about a month.

Basically, I’m a technological pessimist. I feel no security in the internet. In my charter design it was only after about two weeks that I realized I’d no computer courses or IT support designed. Fundamentally I don’t think the internet will be around when I die. Not that it will have gotten better – it won’t make it.

Burke suggests that there are four technological options.

Option one: Stop everything, go rural. The problem here is who would want to, and logistically how can we? Most humans, now, live in cities, not farms. And whoever has the cities has manufacturing – and arms. Can any political entity afford to go rural? And if they do, what’s keeping them safe? There’d be no U.N.

Option two: Limited research. If we throw all of our effort into certain areas of research we can vastly improve our output and production. But as Burke’s Connections program shows oftentimes it is two people working on ideas in totally separate fields that come together for a show-stopping, paradigm shifting invention or development. By limiting research we limit our potential, and inevitably will miss opportunities that could be the very thing we need.

Option three: Share it out. “We have the technology to build a car that’ll last for fifty years, so why don’t we do it?” Only if you want a collapse of capitalism. With no manufacturing what would the city and suburban populations do? There’d be almost no need for consumption, and a severe scaling back of production. Even if only 10% of all people are in factories now, the whole system built around them would also be at a loss of what to do: how would these people occupy their time? More time would mean more population, and that would only aggravate the problem.

Option four: Keep on the way we’re going. But who can admire our current track record? Technology is faltering, health is abysmal in most parts of the world, the environment is being ravaged and the population keeps swelling. AIDS, dementia, malaria, starvation, genocide, war, famine, depletion of the ozone layer – this is not a healthy system. As Carlin put it: “War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong.”

Now Libya is no longer headlines as the world turns its attention to the Japanese nuclear reactor until they get distracted by the war in the Ivory Coast. Before Libya it was the New Zealand earthquake. Shitty year, so far.

And really, for any of the big disasters, or happenings, listed above, can you say that in 2011 anyone is really giving a shit? I mean, no one is really preparing for the inevitable massive volcanic eruption from Yellowstone that is going to practically wipe out the continental U.S. No one is spending any serious tax money on a system to prevent asteroid impacts. No one cares, and we’re all going to die. The question is just when.

A fellow named Costanza came up with four models as well, that I like. Basically the future might look like:

Mad Max: a ruralist dystopian anarchy

Star Trek: a technological utopia

Ecotopia: a ruralist utopia

Big Brother: a technological dystopian police state

To correlate with Burke I guess it’d be: Go Rural/Ecotopia, Limited Research/Star Trek, Share it Out/Big Brother, and Keep Going/Mad Max. (For the third I guess my reasoning is that the three states are equally powerful, and bureaucracy has overtaken manufacturing as the main means of survival in the cities with artificial constructs and conflicts to keep people busy since capitalism is top-down.)

But, really, it’s all a lot more simple than this. There are only two primary futures: on this planet and off it. We either throw in our lot with Earth and start to take care of it, invest in a sustainable future and decrease our population and energy consumption; or we go all out, send out the colonies to begin terraforming Mars and allow nukes in space that we may have rockets powerful enough to escape our wrathful sun.

Either way, in the long run, we’re going to die.

Isaac Asimov put it best in his short story, ‘The Last Question’ about the Multivac super computer:

"It's amazing when you think of it," said Adell. His broad face had lines of weariness in it, and he stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily about. "All the energy we can possibly ever use for free. Enough energy, if we wanted to draw on it, to melt all Earth into a big drop of impure liquid iron, and still never miss the energy so used. All the energy we could ever use, forever and forever and forever."

Lupov cocked his head sideways. He had a trick of doing that when he wanted to be contrary, and he wanted to be contrary now, partly because he had had to carry the ice and glassware. "Not forever," he said.

"Oh, hell, just about forever. Till the sun runs down, Bert."

"That's not forever."

"All right, then. Billions and billions of years. Twenty billion, maybe. Are you satisfied?"

Lupov put his fingers through his thinning hair as though to reassure himself that some was still left and sipped gently at his own drink. "Twenty billion years isn't forever."

"Will, it will last our time, won't it?"

"So would the coal and uranium."

"All right, but now we can hook up each individual spaceship to the Solar Station, and it can go to Pluto and back a million times without ever worrying about fuel. You can't do THAT on coal and uranium. Ask Multivac, if you don't believe me."

"I don't have to ask Multivac. I know that."

"Then stop running down what Multivac's done for us," said Adell, blazing up. "It did all right."

"Who says it didn't? What I say is that a sun won't last forever. That's all I'm saying. We're safe for twenty billion years, but then what?" Lupov pointed a slightly shaky finger at the other. "And don't say we'll switch to another sun."

There was silence for a while. Adell put his glass to his lips only occasionally, and Lupov's eyes slowly closed. They rested.
Then Lupov's eyes snapped open. "You're thinking we'll switch to another sun when ours is done, aren't you?"

"I'm not thinking."

"Sure you are. You're weak on logic, that's the trouble with you. You're like the guy in the story who was caught in a sudden shower and who ran to a grove of trees and got under one. He wasn't worried, you see, because he figured when one tree got wet through, he would just get under another one."

"I get it," said Adell. "Don't shout. When the sun is done, the other stars will be gone, too."

"Darn right they will," muttered Lupov. "It all had a beginning in the original cosmic explosion, whatever that was, and it'll all have an end when all the stars run down. Some run down faster than others. Hell, the giants won't last a hundred million years. The sun will last twenty billion years and maybe the dwarfs will last a hundred billion for all the good they are. But just give us a trillion years and everything will be dark. Entropy has to increase to maximum, that's all."

"I know all about entropy," said Adell, standing on his dignity.

"The hell you do."

"I know as much as you do."

"Then you know everything's got to run down someday."

"All right. Who says they won't?"

"You did, you poor sap. You said we had all the energy we needed, forever. You said 'forever.'"

"It was Adell's turn to be contrary. "Maybe we can build things up again someday," he said.


"Why not? Someday."


* * *

But we don’t have 20 billion years. Not by a long shot. “Earth's fate is precarious. As a red giant, the Sun will have a maximum radius beyond the Earth's current orbit, 1 AU (1.5×1011 m), 250 times the present radius of the Sun. However, by the time it is an asymptotic giant branch star, the Sun will have lost roughly 30% of its present mass due to a stellar wind, so the orbits of the planets will move outward. If it were only for this, Earth would probably be spared, but new research suggests that Earth will be swallowed by the Sun owing to tidal interactions. Even if Earth would escape incineration in the Sun, still all its water will be boiled away and most of its atmosphere would escape into space. Even during its current life in the main sequence, the Sun is gradually becoming more luminous (about 10% every 1 billion years), and its surface temperature is slowly rising. The Sun used to be fainter in the past, which is possibly the reason life on Earth has only existed for about 1 billion years on land. The increase in solar temperatures is such that in about another billion years the surface of the Earth will likely become too hot for liquid water to exist, ending all terrestrial life.”

And all I can think of is the Rolling Stones: “Gooooodbye Ruby Tuesday…”

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