Putting the life back in science fiction


From here to Technofeudalism (or not)
December 18, 2016, 6:48 pm
Filed under: 2016, futurism, Speculation | Tags: ,

This was prompted by a comment by Wolfgang Brinck on the last post, that we’re going into a feudal society, with the capitalists in the place of the feudal lords of the Middle Ages.  It’s not that simple, of course, but here’s a way we could conceivably get to something resembling that state. Continue reading



High tech, no antibiotics: a thought experiment
September 24, 2016, 8:39 pm
Filed under: futurism, science fiction, Speculation, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

First off, I wanted to share a neat video from Bad Astronomy, showing just how, and how fast, bacteria evolve.  Yes, this is evolution in action, captured on a video.  Share it with your creationist frenemies.  Isn’t the 21st Century awesome?

And now, a thought experiment: normally, when we think of a science fictional future, it contains antibiotics, either explicitly or more generally, implicitly.  Antibiotics are routine, not just for treating infections, but more importantly for treating wounds such as you would get from surgery.  Anything involving a transplant, a replacement, or even opening up the body goes much better if there’s a course of antibiotics afterwards to clear up whatever bacteria got into the wounds that the surgeons made.

It’s not news that antibiotics are ephemeral products, and that the more we use them, the faster they become ineffective.  They knew that when they commercialized penicillin.  My question is, what would an antibiotic-free future look like?  Especially one that is high-tech? Continue reading



Labor Day Silliness: America as Rome, part duh

While I don’t want to kill the previous conversation, I’d like to post a rather silly question, if you’ve got some down time this weekend and want to swat at it.  The idea is based on the USA kind of following in the caligulae of the Roman Empire as it crashed.  The question is, when Washington DC floods due to sea level rise, what city becomes the new capital, the American Constantinople?

Continue reading



Facepalm with a hit of nitrous
July 28, 2016, 7:01 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, Real Science Content, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ve been advocating for a partial switch to an ammonia-based economy, on the theory that, while NOx is an air pollutant, it’s better than CO2.

Facepalm time: N2O, good ol’ nitrous oxide, which is another thing that comes out of of using ammonia for fertilizer or burning it, is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent per pound than CO2.  Right now, it’s 5.9% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  It supposedly lasts about 114 years in the atmosphere, until it gets broken down by some process or other (I’m being lazy about all the bits and bobs in the nitrogen cycle, because it’s hot here, and with a flex alert on, I’m not running the AC). Unlike CO2, it doesn’t look like it sequentially saturates large sinks and stays around for hundreds of thousands of years in the atmosphere.  Rather, it just breaks down slowly.  About 40% of the N2O emitted in the world is from human activities, and it can be cut, in some circumstances, through catalytic conversion technology.

Here’s some really basic information on it (link to EPA)

The basic sources for atmospheric N2O are:

  • conversion of nitrogen fertilizers to N2O by bacteria.  This is the big one, and more efficient fertilizer use and better land management can cut this to some degree.
  • it’s a combustion byproduct, so it comes out the tailpipes of gas-burning cars.  Catalytic convertors can help with this.
  • various industrial processes produce N2O as a byproduct.

Now, the simplistic solution is hydrogen, except that (IIRC) burning hydrogen using air also may release some N2O, because there’s a lot of nitrogen in the air.  Converting to fuel cell-type devices that do electrochemistry rather than combustion and using catalytic convertors on combustion-powered systems probably is the way to go.

It does get more complicated than that.  While catalysis is the simple-minded solution, it’s also prey to the usual simple-minded problems with polluters who don’t keep that part of their car (or other system) working, and thieves after the platinum in the convertors.  It’s the usual, intractable problem: environmental problems, greed, and stupidity don’t mix.

So, what do you think?  Pitch any desire for an ammonia economy out the window and pray for hydrogen and better batteries?  Double-down on catalysis, which catches NOx better than CO2, and start prospecting for platinum at the side of the local highways?  Stick with fossil fuels and assume we’re all doomed?  Some combination of all three?

Oh well, tonight I get to watch  the latest episode of the newest superhero series: Suit Woman vs. Generalissimo Cantaloupe.   I’m not sure binge watching is the right word for it (more the opposite), but it does seem to be the thing everyone’s talking about this season.



Water, salt, sediment, and power. And the future

Well, I finally finished reading Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (Amazon link), and I highly recommend it, if you haven’t read it already, even though the original text was written in the 1980s.  For those who haven’t read it, the thumbnail is that it’s a muckraking history of water works in the US, primarily in the western US in the 20th Century.  The reason I strongly recommend it is not just for what Reisner got right (or apparently got right), but also what he got wrong, like his prediction of the huge water crisis of 2000.

I’m not going to do a book review here.  Rather, I’m going to talk about some of the things I got out of it, including how hard it is to predict when water crises will hit.

Continue reading



California’s (possibly) electric future

Wow, the last three weeks were not fun, but that’s not what this entry is about.  I’m back, and regular entries are resuming until the next little crisis kicks up.

Continue reading



American Byzantium, an alt-future

Actually, as a thought experiment, I started playing with what California might look like in the High Altithermal, from about 2100 CE to about 3600 CE.  It’s more complicated than I’d initially thought, of course.  If it’s something you’re interested in, contribute your ideas in the comments, and I’ll work them (or some of them, anyway) into the next blog post or two.

In the meantime, here’s a future that I’m pretty sure won’t happen.  The idea is that US history will parallel Roman history, with the eastern US playing the western Roman empire, Washington DC playing Rome, and the western US playing the Eastern Roman Empire.

I gave an overview of the transformation of the Roman empire in Hot Earth Dreams in Chapter 17, and the idea is that the Roman Empire proved ungovernably large, and Rome proved ungovernably corrupt, so Constantine moved the seat of power to Constantinople around 330 CE, and his sons split the empire into the Eastern and Western empires.  The western empire collapsed in 476 CE, while the Eastern empire transformed over time into the Byzantine empire and survived until 1453 CE.

Following this analogy over-faithfully, the US capitol moves west as the (south)eastern US is devastated by increasing heat, black flag weather, rising seas, and the collapse of civilization in the face of such disasters.  In this case, they move the capitol ultimately to perhaps Portland, although someone might argue that Fairbanks or somewhere near Anchorage might be a better site.  Washington DC gradually falls into ruin before being swallowed by the Atlantic, and what’s left of American culture shifts west, while statelets in the east fight over who gets to rebuild America.

Culturally, Byzantium wasn’t Rome.  They were Christian, spoke Greek, and practiced Medieval-style warfare.  In this alt-future, we can mimic the same shift by, um, let’s see, having western Americans speaking Spanish or Spanglish (except when reading law and science, which would be in English), and mimicking the feudal social structure with something like an unholy mashup of drug cartel culture and west coast capitalism, with CEOs instead of counts and Cartel leaders instead of dukes.  Since a lot of feudalism came from Rome adapting the culture of the migrating tribes of Celts and Germans, this isn’t entirely as stupid as it sounds.  “Celts” as a group were probably as polyglot as today’s Latinos are, and had to experience similar levels of prejudice within the Roman Empire (for example, having red hair in Rome was probably akin to being black in America).  Note that I’m not implying that today’s Latinos are in any way barbarians, nor that the drug cartels are the best that Latino culture has to offer.  I’m more thinking of what is a Latino analogy to the old Celtic and Germanic warbands.  If you think that Latino culture has something better and more resilient to give to the future, let me know in the comments.

In any case, if the USA broke down somewhere in the 22nd century, then the Western American Empire (“Alta Mexica?”) might last for another thousand years.

Now I don’t think the US will replay Rome, so this scenario is presented as a bit of a spoof of the idea that US history will mirror the history of the Roman Empire.  It looks like it could, just maybe, work, so if anyone wants to use it in a story, please be my guest.   If you’ve got anything you want to contribute (comments or ideas), please share those too.

Now that I’ve got that scenario out of my brain, in the next blog entry (or three) I’ll look at California in the High Altithermal, Hot Earth Dreams style, with temperatures spiking over the next ~300 years, sea levels rising over the next ~1600 years, civilization and populations crashing, and everything migrating.  How long might the US hold together, will it fragment, what happens with Mexico, and all that are questions that need to be answered, along with lifeways, transportation, where the settlements are, and so forth.  If you’ve got ideas, put them in the comments, and let’s see what we can come up with.

 



The dust of ages

I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media.  The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth DreamsThe whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.

Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute.  DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory).  Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache.  DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.

One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA.  It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school.  This is a new technology.  Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.

Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever.  DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache.  It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.

It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years.   Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.

The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it.  After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form?   Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society.   What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?

Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.

Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…

 



Grasshoppers, locusts, and sustainability

This is an idea I played with near the end of Hot Earth Dreams, and since it’s the end of the year, I figured I’d post it here for you to contemplate in whatever quiet times you have around the holidays.  Full disclosure, I posted an earlier version of this thought over on Antipope (post #1565 in an epic thread!).

This has to do with species that are capable of outbreaks, such as the grasshoppers that can, under the right circumstances, become locusts.  In overly general terms, a species in an outbreak goes through what ecologists call “enemy release”–a population’s numbers grow faster than its enemies (predators, parasites, and pathogens) can kill them off.  Species that undergo outbreaks can be things like grasshoppers and locusts.  The category certainly includes invasive species that have outrun their enemies (think gypsy moths, rats, tamarisk), but even native species can undergo outbreaks, and there’s a whole history of species (like lemmings) that go through booms and busts, because they reproduce faster than their predators, and when predator numbers increase, their populations crash.

What I’d argue is that it’s worth thinking of humans as a species that is capable of outbreaks when the environment allows it.  With humans, we call these outbreaks civilization, and the only thing that distinguishes us from gypsy moths is that when we do an outbreak, it’s not just us.  Our symbionts, excuse me, our domesticated species, undergo an outbreak with us as we expand their habitat. These days, we use things like medicine, veterinary science, plant pathology, public health, and varmint culling programs to inhibit the actions of the species that would normally control our population numbers and the populations of our symbionts. When we do a good job (as now), our numbers boom and we have civilization.

There are three more points:  First, about civilization.  What we’re in now–global civilization–is the biggest outbreak we’ve so far been through.  There have been a number of former outbreaks, everything from the Roman Empire and various Chinese dynasties down to the conglomerations of Bronze Age city-states that we retroactively call empires, even though they were tiny in comparison to what we have today.  Civilization generally is local, lasts a few hundred years at most, and may or may not be immediately succeeded by another civilization.   That’s our normal form of outbreak, at least so far.

Second, I’m following the idea, put forward by environmental historians like Brian Fagan and Mark Elvin, that a favorable environment for civilization includes, among other things, a constant climate.  In that climate, people find a suite of crops and/or domestic animals that flourish, they produce huge surpluses, their populations boom, and oftentimes strongmen take over, or in any case, a rather complex, hierarchical social structure “evolves” to manage the problem of so many people living on top of each other.  When the climate changes, the civilization shrinks to stay within its favorable climate (as with Rome or China and the barbarians on their borders) or collapses (as with the Classic Maya under extreme drought).

That leads me to the third point: civilization is largely or entirely a cultural evolution, not a biological one.  Civilized people don’t seem to be genetically different from uncivilized people.  Part of the reason for this is that most civilizations throughout deep history only lasted a few hundred years before their survivors of the collapse headed for the hills again, so there hasn’t been much biological selective pressure to humans to become truly civilized.  Culture, on the other hand, mutates rapidly, so humans  have so far invented civilized cultures when the necessity arises, rather than depending on our genes to somehow know how to live this way.

This leads me deeper into the land of speculation.  Thanks to our hugely malleable cultural inheritance, humans can be grasshoppers, living in small bands of foragers, gardeners, or herders off in the “wilderness,” and actually that’s bogus, because such people tend not to separate human lands from wildlands.  Conversely, we can be civilized locusts, living as peasants, shepherds, artists, cops, politicians, businessmen, or soldiers, living on “our land” (the land that’s farmed, paved, and otherwise managed) and that’s separate from the howling wilderness out there.

Still, our hardwired belief systems, such as they are, have been more thoroughly shaped by our million-plus years of grasshopper lifestyle as foragers (synonymous with hunter-gatherers, simpler to type), versus the less than ten thousand years some of us been doing civilization.  I suspect that’s the reason why spiritual types are typically off in the wilderness when they have their great revelations, when they become prophets or messiahs and try to bring their message of how to live properly back to what feels like a deeply wrong civilization.  They’re rediscovering their grasshopper side and trying to spread it around.

Perhaps we can call this  “Grasshopper” morality?  It is the essence of the back-to-the-land movement, anarcho-primitivism, hermits going off to live in the mountains, and all the rest. When we live in small groups, “in balance with nature” (which means that all those pests, pathogens, and predators keep our numbers under control), we live under different moral and social systems than we do in civilized towns and cities.  We have to share with friends and family. We can’t use money, and the financial world is less than useless. We don’t need cops, but we have to be armed and fight for our rights and our families.  Nature is bigger than we are and has to be respected and lived with, not ignored.  And so on.

Relatively little of this non-outbreak morality really works in a civilized setting. But we get our heads screwed up, because prophets are always going out alone into the wilderness, finding our wild human morality within themselves, and bringing it back as the next new religion to save civilization. We get conflicted, because what these messengers say feels right on a deep level.  It feels like it should work for us, because genetically we’re as much grasshoppers as locusts, whatever our lifestyle.  But what works when the divine is talking in the wilderness isn’t quite so useful on busy streets.

Worse, when we uncritically try to apply grasshopper morality in a civilized locust setting, we can get into atrocities, because the would-be grasshoppers in power see civilization as a great evil that has to be cleansed and redeemed, if not ended.  Does this justify all the Machiavellian evils of civilization? Of course not. But I would suggest that there’s a grasshopper frame of reference and a locust frame of reference.  The morality of the garden of Eden probably won’t keep a city working, any more than psychopathic morality will.  We’re not hardwired to do civilization.

Now we’re facing a time when our biggest outbreak yet–global civilization–is looking increasingly wobbly and unsustainable. Just intellectually, ignoring grasshopper/locust morality for a second, I’d argue are three possible outcomes for the next century or so:

1. Our numbers crash and humans go extinct. There’s no good evidence of this ever happening to an outbreak species in the fossil record, but simplistic ecological models routinely point this out as a possibility.  Personally, I don’t think this will happen, but we can’t discount it.

2. Our current outbreak ends in the collapse of global civilization, and our species goes back to living as mostly or entirely as grasshoppers, wild humans in small groups, again.  In the deep future, when and where the environment is stable and suitable, there will be future outbreaks of civilization.  This is the scenario in Hot Earth Dreams.  I must add that I don’t mean that our few descendants will all be hunters and gatherers, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be villages of farmers and groups of herders after the collapse.  It’s more a matter that people will live in small groups (<200 people) with little or no hierarchy and little specialization of roles, whatever their ecological lifestyle happens to be.

3. We somehow make our outbreak sustainable, and having lots of civilized humans around becomes the new normal for Earth. While this may sound weird, other species have actually pulled it off, starting with cyanobacteria, and going on to things like ants, termites, and sauropods (those giant, long-necked dinosaurs). In each case, the outbreak basically rebuilt some part of the Earth’s biosphere, either temporarily (with the sauropods, who pulled it off for hundreds of millions of years) or permanently (as with the cyanobacteria, who rebuilt the atmosphere as a side effect).

Number 3 is what we mean by “sustainability.” When we talk about sustainability, we’re trying to make civilization the new normal, rather than have it be the crazy, unsustainable locust version of our normal grasshopper humanity.

Sustainability might work.  Personally, I don’t think it will work in the short term, which is why  Hot Earth Dreams is about a future in which humans normally live as grasshoppers in a continually changing world, becoming civilized locusts in the times and places where the climate stabilizes for hundreds to thousands of years. This vision much more complex than the simple boom/bust cycles of lemmings, but I think it’s our most likely future.

Still, a sustainable, global civilization might be possible.  Eventually.  It took over a billion years for cyanobacteria to make the world safe for aerobic multicellular species, and it might take ten million years or more before Earth’s species have coevolved with us long enough that civilization becomes normal, even when the climate changes.

I think it’s rather less likely that what we have now will last ten million years, but it’s possible.  It’s a goal worth working towards, but we need to think about just how enormous making civilization normal truly is.  This will be the first time we’ve tried it as a species.

The other thing to think about is how to deal with the evils of civilization and what to do about them.  From a grasshopper’s view, what locusts do is totally, destructively crazy and evil, yet they get away with it for awhile. Locust morality isn’t grasshopper morality, because what works with a locust swarm is horribly destructive for a small group of grasshoppers and (apparently) vice versa.

If you want  sustainable, large-scale civilization, then you’ve got to deal with our cultural inheritance as civilized beings, even when it conflicts with our biological wiring.  In other words,  you’ve got to accept that there’s something that feels totally absurd and possibly evil about us when we’re in outbreak mode. Living as civilized people, we have to have laws, justice, rules, bosses, and and all that, even when it feels  wrong. The critical point is that, if we want to continue civilization, we have to be very thoughtful about which parts of our deep-seated grasshopper morality we use, because they won’t necessarily work in a civilized context. Even though things feel weird, pointless, or wrong sometimes,  you’ve got to help make it work along with the rest of us, into the indefinite future, until human nature has finally changed enough for it to feel right.

And let’s not talk about #1.  I think all species deserve to exist, including our own.  We’re not irredeemably evil or inherently good.  We’re just another weird species that’s been suckered by evolution into existing, and even though we’re imperfect, we deserve our shot. Genocide is evil.

So if you want civilization to become sustainable, it’s probably less important to trust the Force and let it guide your instincts, and rather more important to go to those boring committee meetings and do the tough work of keeping things running on your watch.  After all, we’re still quite new at this whole civilization thing, and we’ve got to figure it out collectively.  Feelings aren’t wrong, but they’re not necessarily right either.  To make civilization work, we need both our heads and our hearts.

Happy holidays, everyone.



Paris aftermath
December 11, 2015, 6:34 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, Hot Earth Dreams, Speculation | Tags: , , ,

Friday 11 December 2015: Okay, the negotiation dudes are running over. I’m shocked, shocked that this is happening.

Since I’m so shocked, shocked, and pretend to myself that I know what’s going on, I’ll try my hand at prognosticating what will come out of this. Then we can see what reality dishes up in the next few days.

If you’re really pessimistic, you’ll bet that the talks fall apart over the next 24-72 hours. That would suck, because it’s as good a “beginning of the end of civilization” point as future historians are ever likely to find. After that, there’s no momentum to deal with climate change, and it’s every group for themselves. If we’re lucky, this will end in Hot Earth Dreams territory. It might conceivably be worse, depending on what happens with Arctic methane clathrates.

Still, my guess is that this probably won’t happen, and a deal will be announced, probably Sunday afternoon or so. Here’s what I think will happen, and we’ll see whether I got any of it right.

1. Brinksmanship. For the last few decades, we’ve been engaged in disaster capitalism, with richer countries and corporations forcing their weaker opponents to accept bad deals under the duress of emergencies. Even though it would be cheaper and better for everyone to not do this at the COP21 Conference, I’m equally sure that this hasn’t stopped any negotiator from trying to use the possibility of failure to leverage a deal out of someone. Because of this, any deal will be last second stuff, when negotiators finally stop being assholes for a few minutes and actually bargain in good faith.

2. The deal will be “legally binding,” but not in a useful way.

3. There will be lots of noise about keeping the Earth to 2oC warming. Admittedly, I haven’t analyzed what 2oC looks like in terms of human misery, but my guess is that most people don’t realize just how much of a mess it sets us up for in the next few hundred years. By itself, it probably won’t crash civilization, but it will likely leave us with the biggest migration in human history. Among other things.

Whether the deal will actually keep us to 2oC is another question entirely, and I don’t know if any of us will live long enough to see the answer to that.

4. There won’t be enough money provided by the major polluters (especially the US) to do anything truly substantive. The last I’d heard, pledges were less than 1% of the amount thought to be needed to actually fix the world.

5. At least some major hard decisions will be kicked down the road to COP22 or whenever.

6. The major good effect, to the extent there is one, is that there will be increasing political and social momentum to decarbonize global civilization. Getting people to act is an unfortunately huge accomplishment.

7. If we’re lucky, that decarbonization momentum won’t be gone by April 2016.

Any predictions you want to add? If you’re reading this later on when the talks are over, what do you think (or know) about what actually happened?