Putting the life back in science fiction

You know, I didn’t want Hot Earth Dreams to come true…
November 10, 2016, 6:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve been quiet here because we were moving to a new house.  Now I’m settled in, and El Cheeto Grande won the election, not because he won the popular vote, but because of the arcana of the US electoral college.

If you’re reading this outside the US, as an American, I apologize.  To quote a recent get-out-the-vote song, we shot ourselves in the face. Worse, and more to the point, Trump’s already making good on his anti-environmental stance: he’s chosen a noted climate critic to head his EPA transition team.  Unless a miracle happens, we’re not just going to miss that small window for avoiding severe climate change, here in the US, currently the world’s biggest polluter, we’re going to get the fossil fuel industry on the rampage, pushing back all the controls we’ve tried to set on them.  Unfortunately, that makes Hot Earth Dreams that much more plausible, although I’m going to have to revise bits of it.  There’s something about Trump’s win that seems familiar, too.  I think I’ve seen these patterns in other places.

As an aside, if anyone figures out how to successfully fight a petroleum-powered army in a carbon-neutral way, the US is in deep trouble.  With Trumpian style politics, we’ll be public enemy #1 so far as the rest of the world is concerned.  I’m not going to fear-monger further, but I keep remembering a cyberpunk series from the 1980s and 90s by Daniel Keys Moran (Emerald Eyes, The Long Run, the Last Dancer, the AI War), which was based in a world where the US had been conquered by a United Nations-led coalition for exactly that reason.  In the unlikely event that the US is defeated by a web war and orbital laser platforms, fiction did get there first.

But back to our more likely fate.  As I noted in the title to this piece, Hot Earth Dreams is my prediction for our most likely future, not the future I want to see.  I’ve been putting off sending it to a publisher, because I wanted to see what would happen with the election, but now it’s time and past time to start working on the revision..  I know this sucks for everyone who bought the first edition (sorry!), but I wrote Hot Earth Dreams as I solved the problems, not as an integrated whole written with long reflection.  Now that I’ve had a year to sit back, look at the whole thing, get more information, and watch how people deal with reality, it’s fairly obvious I need to change a bit of what I wrote, and say some of the rest more clearly.

For instance, I now have a better idea of the what a more sustainable future looks like, so the ending will change.  We need to get on 100% renewable electricity, and we can do that.  Unfortunately, even if it is possible, we’re not likely to do it, for political reasons.  That’s one of the big lessons I tried to hammer on in the book, but I suspect I didn’t hammer on it enough: politics matter.

A second thing I’ve learned about is what I learned as PTSD, pre-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a real problem that I’ve been dealing with for the last year.  What I’ve learned recently is that it’s a part of a much more ubiquitous problem, and there are ways to deal that the environmental community mostly hasn’t heard about.  I’m currently reading Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship, and I recommend it for everyone who’s feeling the twinges of PTSD.  As Lipsky puts it, “[t]rauma stewardship is for social workers, ecologists, teachers, firefighters, medical personnel, police officers, environmentalists, home health aides, military personnel, domestic violence workers, biologists, the staffs at animal shelters, international relief workers, social-change activists, those caring for an elderly parent or a young child— in short, anyone who interacts with the suffering, pain, and crisis of others or our planet.”  This needs to be part of Hot Earth Dreams too.

But back to the issue of politics: why didn’t Americans vote in their own best interest in larger numbers?  I voted for Clinton, because I realized that most of what the attacks were the same junior high school-level crap that Washington politics is famous for: unwarranted reputation destruction.  One reason people like Obama and Trump succeed is that they come out of nowhere so fast that the DC crowd apparently can’t assemble a dosier of their past misdeeds fast enough to make it stick.  Thus Obama’s youthful enjoyment of marijuana, and Trump’s mob associations, fraud issues, and ties to the Russians, gained no traction during their elections.  But they had 25 years to throw BS at Clinton, and undeserved as it was, it stuck.  Yes, she’s an ambitious woman, but she’s far less of a liar than Trump is, and certainly not crooked. In Catholic terms, her sins are venal, Trump’s are mortal.  Trump, however, is a better salesman, a shiny face new to politics, and he won.

A second aside: my prediction for Trump: I don’t think he’s going to serve his entire term.  Here’s what could bring him down, in no particular order:

1.  An assassin’s bullet (to the secret service, I’m NOT threatening Trump, I have no interest in attacking anybody, and I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I’m thinking).  In this case, he’s more in danger from a right wing psycho than from a left-wing revolutionary.  His problem is that he’s fired up a lot of dangerous people with his reckless rhetoric, and they may expect him to follow through on what he said, even if he regarded it as sales pitch that had no bearing on his subsequent actions.  Unfortunately, even now it doesn’t look like he’s going to follow his promises, since he’s stocking his cabinet with a bunch of businessmen and industry insiders.  I’m pretty sure his some of his followers won’t forgive his lapses, and a lot of them think Pence is a better leader.  That puts Trump in danger.

2.  Legal issues.  Trump goes to trial in a fraud case over Trump University here in San Diego, on November 28.  Unless he settles.  He’s also got mob ties dating back to his life as a 1980s real estate tycoon in New York, and he’s apparently got ties to Russian oligarchs.  And, given the way he loves to ignore laws unless forced to care, I suspect he’ll do something impeachable in office, like having sex with an aide.  While I know that we’re now facing a united Republican judiciary and congress, we’re also facing a group that’s notorious for demanding ideological purity (and backstabbing), and they may want to put Pence in charge.

3.  Losing a war, nuclear style.  I strongly suspect this won’t happen, because Trump appears to be a physical coward.  That said, I don’t think he’s going to be chummy with Putin, because authoritarian leaders don’t work that way.  They’re just as likely to attack each other as anyone else, per Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians (which you really should read, if you want to understand the Republican party’s playbook).  Trump’s impulsive cluelessness could lead to a conflagration, unless the military rebels and refuses to follow his unlawful orders.  And not all of them will.

But why did American vote for the Hair That Walked Like a Man? (hat tip to Charlie Stross for that)  Beyond the Republicans using Altemeyer’s Authoritarians and its sister works as a playbook, there’s another key issue that I so far haven’t seen covered in the media:   America’s addictions to power.  That’s plural, not a typo: we’re addicted to oil as a society, we’re addicted to political power as a society (especially white male baby boomers and gen Xers) and those in power in Washington seem to be hopelessly addicted to that power.

I first got the notion of power addiction through Taoism, where power is considered the worst possible addiction, because if you’re into reincarnation, it’s the only addiction that can pass from life to life.  This includes spiritual power, and that’s the big trap that everyone has to deal with on the path to enlightenment.  Still, the notion isn’t confined to Taoism or spirituality; Al Gore jokes that he’s a recovering power addict, which is why he didn’t run again.  Probably Clinton soon will be too.  Unfortunately, if you look at the leadership of both parties in Washington, what we on the outside call corruption can easily look like a total addiction to power, along with maneuvering to get a fix and to entrap others based on their addictions. A lot of the maneuvering we can see certainly looks like it is addiction based.

Moving out from Washington, one of the great lies in American politics has been told to poor whites for centuries.  Many of them were originally brought over as slaves (or bondsmen, if you prefer), deported from the British Isles to work in the colonies, just as in Australia.  That part of our history was suppressed starting with Jefferson, and the later story was of blacks as the ultimate inferior, with even poor whites infinitely superior to them.  The reason for this story (per The Half Has Never Been Told) is that the slave economy was spectacularly profitable and was the basis for American capitalism. The biggest danger to this economic powerhouse was poor whites realizing they had more in common with the blacks than they did with the rich whites.  If that happened, the resulting uprising would have overthrown the rich, white industrialists, much as happened in Haiti (the revolution which led to the Louisiana Purchase, to the radical expansion of slavery, and ultimately to the Civil War).  Promulgating separation along racial rather than economic lines kept the rich in power, but it also led to the ugly racial politics that rich, white Trump exploited to win.  Right now, white power is the basis of the Republican Party, and even if whites become an absolute minority in the US, they will continue to hold onto it until utterly defeated, all attempts to diversify to the contrary.  Trump’s win has cemented that, I’m afraid.

And there’s the other kind of power: fossil fuels.  One reason slavery fell in the US was that industrialization based on coal was providing an even better capitalist return than did slavery.  Unfortunately for the US (and now the world), as a country we’ve shown no compunction about running our economy on blatantly immoral means since before we were founded, no matter how many protested or worked for the contrary.  This was true for slavery, and it’s become true for fossil fuels.  Warnings about the greenhouse effect go back over a century, but they’ve been ignored.  There was buzz back in April of this year that the Paris agreements could be the death of the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry, and that may have galvanized the petrochemical side of the election.  Reports of the death of that industry were premature, as Trump is stocking his cabinet with people from Koch Industries and other pro-petroleum groups.  The problem here is power.  Our society is structurally addicted to petroleum, and rather than undertake the difficult work of transferring to a society based on renewable electricity, one which likely won’t have the military might of our petroleum-powered war machine, America’s apparently elected to stay addicted to oil.  Again.  It’s a hard habit to kick, especially when it’s being pushed by industry people who are willing to lie, cheat, steal, kill, and disrupt elections all over the world to stay in power (very similar to drug dealers, aren’t they?).  That’s the real public enemy #1 right now, but I suspect most of them will die peacefully in their beds.

There are other factors, but I’ll stop now.  I’m still thinking it through, especially about xenophobia, human migration, and racial politics.  Feel free to post your suggestions about the election or what I should put in the Hot Earth Dreams revision.





8 Comments so far
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Suggestion for revised HED: More on parasites on the move and the speed of their adaptation to new geographies/hosts given climate change. Zika is real, and the likely reduction in US science research funding is also real. Add in anti-vaxers, and you get …?

Comment by SFreader

Evolution in action, either way.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’m going to be contrarian here and say that Trump doesn’t matter much for the deep future of Hot Earth Dreams. It sucks living under Trump for the next 4-8 years, definitely. I am in despair about Trump for a lot of reasons but climate isn’t at the top of my list, despite thinking about climate a lot.

Cleaner energy sources are already cheaper to run in the US than new coal plants; Trump can’t reverse that though he can slow the shuttering of already-built plants. (I don’t think he has the stomach for Polish-style welfare-for-polluters where the government directly subsidizes money-losing coal mines and power plants.) A month ago the world was already on track to go past 2 degrees in the absence of active carbon dioxide removal measures, and the IPCC started mentioning future CDR years before Trump arrived on the political scene. In the happiest case, the world will still start reversing past climate damage in the second half of the 21st century. In the unhappiest terafart case we’ll still burn everything and complex systems will collapse to a degree that the survivors will have to wait thousands of generations for nature to clean up. If we burn it all it doesn’t matter much whether the last N gigatons of fossils burn in 2090, 2098, or even 2198.

Most of my environmentalist friends have a much shorter term perspective about climate and it kind of drives me crazy; I support the same goals but I can’t get on board with their thinking about climate in terms of American election cycle time scales instead of carbon cycle time scales. AFAICT, the current scientific consensus is that there is not enough fossil material in existence to trigger a “Venus syndrome” event that extinguishes life on Earth but I still see that idea repeated in activist circles, along with fixation on rather arbitrary near-future dates. 2020, 2030, 2050… it sure was odd of nature to schedule big planetary changes for years ending in 0 according to the calendar Europeans started using a few centuries ago.

If AGW is like a medical problem, it’s more akin to diabetes than to a person bleeding out; both the problem and its management are something we’re committed to for a lifetime, not something that you can soon fix and then ignore for the rest of a long life (or fail to fix soon and then quickly die).

Comment by Matt

If you’re convinced we’re headed to that Hot Earth, then yes, Trump doesn’t matter all that much. If you’re hoping to avoid that fate, then he matters quite a bit, as we’re running out of time to undo his damage and still keep a lot of fossil fuels in the ground. My point here is that, given a choice, I’d rather not see the beginnings of the sixth mass extinction during my lifetime, and it would be cool if civilization transformed rather than shattering.

As with diabetes, the longer the mess is left untreated, the more expensive it is to keep the patient in some degree of health.

AS for Polish-style, Trump’s poised to go there. Given how solar costs are continuing to fall, he’s going to have to pump a lot of subsidies into coal and the crappier forms of gas to keep them profitable, and he’s also going to have to put the brakes on solar. Since he’s already got investments in the Dakota pipelines, this sounds a lot like self-dealing right there.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think I still stand by most of this (and my other comments in the same thread), written here 6 years ago:

“I give to environmental causes but I often feel like it’s just deferring the worst by an eye-blink. I am not hopeful about avoiding unprecedented warming. I don’t think it’s going to drive humans extinct, or even substantially accelerate population declines, but I think the future of 100 years hence has hotter climate, wilder weather, grimly homogenized and stressed ecosystems, and the continued acceleration of species loss. I think I’m probably going to live to see the extinction of most African megafauna and big cats. That should be a good time to become an alcoholic. It will probably be most wrenching for those who live through it, because following generations won’t miss so much what they never experienced in the first place.”


I think it’s easier if you gave up on certain kinds of hope years ago. Still not easy though.

Every year the problem is left untreated, the worse it will be; but until/unless the very last of the fossils are burned, there’s no point where human choices can’t make future climate change relatively more or less severe. That’s as true the day after President Trump’s last day in office as the last day before his presidency. That’s what currently passes for hope in my thinking.

Comment by Matt

Well, the most important part is that alcohol is better as an occasional recreation. As a coping mechanism, it has huge side effects. That’s why I posted about trauma stewardship. There are better mechanisms, and we need to have them in our lives.

I’m not yet convinced that what I wrote will inevitably come true, so I’ll keep fighting. Check out https://medium.com/@AlexSteffen/there-has-never-been-a-better-time-to-save-the-planet-d290132eaee#.t4cva2ovz if you want to see another view.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think it’s easier if you gave up on certain kinds of hope years ago. Still not easy though.

I grew up during the Cold War, never really expecting to reach 30. I remember the euphoria when the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed like I wouldn’t die in the nuclear fires after all.

I’m not afraid for myself anymore; I’ve had a good life, and years more than I ever expected. But I weep for my grandnephews…

Comment by Robert

You really know how to cheer a guy up, don’t you? On 11/10/2016 10:22 AM, Putting the life back

Comment by chasland

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