Filed under: futurism, Preludes, sustainability | Tags: cli fi, climate change, Deep Future, sustainability
I guess there’s a theme to be mined here.
Going from the same idea as the previous blog post, Preludes to Space, it’s worth looking at how well our society is getting on with that whole, mysterious sustainability thing.
There are two problems with sustainability, at least in my weird opinion. One is that we know how to do it, if we’re talking about your basic, semi-isolated, neolithic society, with some offshoots to your basic, isolated iron age society, and we’re talking about time periods no longer than a few centuries. The “high tech” outliers are the Greenland Vikings, who made a go of it for around 500 years, and the Japanese under the Shogun, who pulled it off for around 200 years (note that Jared Diamond got weird about this in Collapse). Otherwise, again, we’re talking about the Polynesians and other islanders, and all the “primitive” cultures that imperialist forces have conquered over the last 500 years, all of whom were more or less sustainable. In other words, if we go low tech and low population numbers, we pretty much know what sustainability looks like, because that was the world a few thousand years ago. With ten billion people and high tech, we’re pretty clueless about sustainability looks like, except we have this feeling that we’re better than we were before, so it should be easier to get to sustainable than it’s proving to be.
The other problem is that we’re kind of in outbreak mode right now, sort of like gypsy moth apes. Technically, this is called the Enemy Release Hypothesis in ecology, where species that can evade or overcome their natural enemies (predators, pest, parasites, and pathogens) can dramatically expand their numbers. This is almost always temporary, because eventually the natural enemies find their prey, and prey numbers crash. In human terms, we’ve released ourselves through things like medicine and public health to control our pathogens and parasites, using veterinary science and plant pathology to help our domestic species avoid predators other than us, killing any predator that comes after us and our symbionts (aka our domestic species), and throwing billions of dollars at the industries that promise to keep doing this for the foreseeable future.
This situation is metastable in many ways. Medicine’s chief tools–antibiotics–have a short effective lifespan, we’re amazingly stupid about maintaining public health infrastructure like sewers and water lines, and all of it depends on fossil fuel sources that are running out. We could, very easily, open ourselves to our enemies, and then disease and famine would reduce our population down to sustainable levels of a hundred million or so.
Still, simple-minded sustainability is the notion that we can make our outbreak permanent, keep our population fairly high indefinitely using renewable energy and recycling all our stuff. Crashing back to sustainability is idea of civilization collapse, which I’m going to get to in the next post. In any case, there are precedents for us turning the outbreak of a new clade into the new normal. The cyanobacteria did it, although it took them over a billion years to start running the biosphere’s oxygen atmosphere. Ants, termites, and bees have done it in the insect world. Mycorrhizal plants did it 400 million years ago. There’s no physical reason we can’t keep human populations high and run them sustainably. However, there’s no physical reason to assume that we can pull it off either. We’re in unknown territory, and there are many species on Earth right now that can expand into outbreaks but not sustain their high numbers. Sustainability at high number is very unlikely, but fortunately, it’s not impossible.
What does sustainable technology look like? The most restrictive case is what I talked about in Preludes to Space: we can only colonize space on a sustainable basis, so if we want to colonize other planets, we have to solve the sustainability problem too. Still, there are many technologies which are sustainable here but which won’t work in space. It’s rather more possible that we’ll get to sustainable and find out that we still can’t colonize other planets.
There are huge number of complexities involved with sustainability, but there a couple of general problems. One is that we have to learn how to power our civilization off renewables, and nuclear fusion, if that’s possible (sorry, I’m not interested in entertaining the eternal nuclear-uranium-thorium-we can do it–don’t tell me to shut up discussion here) . Another problem is that we need to recycle basically every element. Since we can argue about power endlessly, I’m going to focus on the recycling issue here.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve got a relative who deals with solid waste issues on a regular basis, and I can tell you that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of schemes to recycle just about everything. Most of them are unworkable, because they demand that the trash coming in is very homogeneous: it has to be all greenwaste from yards, or fluorescent bulbs, or used diapers, or used lumber from construction, or whatever. Throw a broken fluorescent bulb in the greenwaste, and it’s unrecyclable for both. The trash stream most cities deal with is extremely heterogeneous, which is why a lot of it ends up in landfills. Polluters range from careless to stupid to evil, and there are two generally proven methods for dealing with waste: dumping it (which we do with trash and sewage) and hand sorting it (which we do with recyclables, many of which end up in the trash anyway because they’re not cost-effective to remanufacture). To get to sustainable, we need to be able to recycle everything, so (for instance) nutrients go from farms to food to compost and sewage, to fertilizer back on the farm. This would be great, if a large hosts of pathogens and contaminants didn’t ride along on the recycling stream and contaminate our food supply and the supply of every other resource.
Still, it can be done, and it is routinely done in Third World cities, where sewage is used as cheap farm fertilizer and the desperately poor sort through the trash for anything they can sell. Our problem in the developed world is that we see the resulting disease, discrimination, and poverty of such cultural recycling as environmental justice issues that often are inflicted on minorities. We want to find ways for to do it equitably, so that everyone gets to be healthy and not poor, even if they’re dealing with waste. That’s a much harder problem.
Actually, just keeping streams of materials homogeneous is the most difficult problem here. Every time we can figure out how to recycle something cleanly, it becomes a reasonably good industry. The problem is when recycables get contaminated. For example, back 50 years ago, glass bottles for wine, milk, and soda were routinely recycled. One perennial problem is that someone would, say, use a milk bottle to store used motor oil until he could dump it somewhere. Then he’d turn the polluted bottle back in for a refund, sticking the recycler with the chore of decontaminating the bottle before it was refilled with milk, or throwing the bottle out and losing the resource. It’s a ubiquitous problem with recycling. Recycled steel needs to have steel in it and not a lot of silicon from dirt, recycled medical supplies have to be sterile, glass has to be all the same composition, recycled electronics chips have to be pure, and so forth.Again, it’s a difficult problem, not necessarily an impossible one. We can hope that there are some technical solutions out there, as well as cultural ones.
Still, as with a culture that is preadapted to colonize space, a society that is high tech and sustainable will look strange to our eyes. Their social mores will be different, especially around handling waste materials. They’ll be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about recycling, and they’ll probably be disgusted by different things than we are. Indeed, they won’t be consumers in the modern sense, because consuming stuff and throwing it out won’t be the cornerstone of their identities. They might come off as a bunch of enviro-prigs compared to us, but they’ll think we’re pretty disgusting too.
33 Comments so far
Leave a comment