Putting the life back in science fiction


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.

 

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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.



Preludes to Collapse

Might as well finish up the triptych.

In my simplistic way, I figure that if we were a spacefaring species, we could build skyscrapers in places such as, oh, the Atacama desert, and a group of people could live in them for years without going outside or going insane.  These skyscrapers would be mostly greenhouses and recycling facilities, with relatively small living quarters.  Such buildings are basically spacecraft or colonies, minus the propulsion.

If we were a starfaring culture using STL ships, such buildings would also be able to ward off artillery, possibly a nuclear strike.  We’d need similar shielding to fall between the stars at high speeds.  Oh, and people could live happily inside for centuries, even while it’s getting bombed.

If we were able to do high tech sustainability, we could build something like a city-state, where a city and its farmlands were mostly self-sufficient.  Such a city wouldn’t look much like what we have now, at least in the US. Large areas within it would be dedicated to rebuilding, reworking, and recycling stuff.  The water that flowed out of it would likely be as clean as whatever flowed in, and waste from the city would feed the fields, which probably wouldn’t smell all that good as a result.

The only reason to bring this up is to provide a sort of conceptual nested Venn diagram, with starfaring cultures at the extreme center, spacefaring cultures engulfing them but still extreme, sustainable cultures engulfing both, and where we are now, with less overlap between their hypothetical space and our space than we might hope. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether high tech sustainability, let alone space colonization and starflight, are even possible. In the latter case, it makes you realize why so many SF writers put jump drives on their starships, so they can pop the action from one planet to another without dealing with the difficult problem of living in space. If there’s one underlying message, it’s that life in space depends first and foremost on long-term sustainability in extreme environments.  In other words, we have to learn to live sustainably on Earth before we can begin to hope to colonize some other planet.  If we can’t solve our problems here, we can’t hope to survive running away from them into space.

Then there’s the other side of the Venn diagram, where the preppers prepare for collapse.  Unlike the space side, they’re real, if only because we know that collapses happen and people survive, but there’s less overlap between them and current civilization than we might hope.

In its way, post-collapse culture is another type of sustainability, where there are fewer people and there’s no little or no long-distance trade, but it’s not quite as simple as most people think.

There are two issues.  One is that many people are preparing for the wrong disaster.  Many prepare for natural disasters, at least for short term survival (I do that).  Some prepare for the collapse of the US or some more paranoid future (black helicopters, laws comin’ after yer guns, and so forth).  Some special types prepare for things like a zombie apocalypse.  Rather fewer seem to prepare for climate change, and that’s a problem.

Yes, the book is still marching towards publication (soon!), but I didn’t spend much space in it telling people how to prepare for living in a changed climate.  The challenge isn’t figuring out how the climate will change (we’re closing off options as we speak).  The problem is that the climate will keep changing for hundreds of years, however it changes. There’s not one set of preparations that anyone can make that are guaranteed to work over the long term. A lot depends on luck, no matter what happens.

As the climate continues to change, people can move to follow a particular climate that they know how to live with (say weather to grow corn or wheat) while adapting to new lands.  There are problems with this–climates are averages of weather, and the weather’s getting weirder as well–so it’s not as simple as moving north every few years and planting the same crops each time, but something similar worked for the Polynesians, so why not try it?  The other alternative is that people can stay in a place that they know and deal with the weather continually changing, on the theory that, because they know their lands, they can continually adapt to whatever the climate throws their way. I suspect each strategy will work fairly well at particular places and times, but I have no idea whether one is a better strategy in general.

The other problem is that preparing for the collapse of civilization is not as simple as readopting the lifeways of our pioneer ancestors or the indigenes they displaced, because 20th and 21st Century global civilization is profoundly changing the planet.  The Old Ones were able to depend on plants and animals (like, say, passenger pigeons), that probably won’t make it past the 21st Century, given how populations of everything from ginseng to mountain sheep are dropping all over the world.  Similarly, we’re doing a pretty good job of depleting groundwater all over the world, so there will be fewer springs, oases, and streams to depend on, and rather more of them will be polluted.  A world where global civilization has collapsed will be a lot harsher, with fewer natural resources and rather more junk to sort through. It’s not necessarily unlivable, but it’s a new world, not an old one.  Survival in it depends on a mix of old and new skills.

Still, there are things we can do now to prepare, such as designing the tools and technologies our descendants will need to survive. My favorite example of this are the rocket stoves and their kin, super-efficient wood-burning stoves that are being built for the developing world. There are a huge number of similar technologies that could, and should, be developed.

In general, designing for collapse involves figuring out ways to solve problems by cleverly using local resources and less energy. Going back to the example of the rocket stoves, currently they’re built in factories and shipped worldwide. In a post collapse world they’d have to be built from scrap by village tinkers. It’s far from impossible, but we’re not thinking much about what kinds of designs can be made from repurposed stuff.  Hopefully that will change.

If we’re prepping for climate change and collapse, I hope that one way we do it is to encourage hobbyists, makers, and students to start designing post-collapse tech now. If I knew anyone who was interested, I’d encourage them to figure out things that can be built from garbage, recyclables, whatever, designs that are simple but not necessarily obvious, designs for things like medical equipment, lighting, paper, fire starters, water and soil purifiers, and so forth. They won’t necessarily be economically viable now, but now we’ve still got the time to experiment with designs, the resources to allow prototypes to fail and be refined. If we wait until things really start heating up, we won’t have these luxuries, and a lot of people will suffer as a result.

Collapse is ultimately another form of sustainability.  As I like to tell people, over the next century or so, we’ll utterly transform our civilization into something more sustainable.  Either we’ll figure out high tech sustainability using renewable energy and transform our world into high tech sustainabilistan, or we’ll harness renewable energy as the few survivors chop wood to feed our fires midst the ruins.  Either way we’ll be sustainable.  What we’re working on right now are the details about what we’re willing to endure during the transformation, how many people we can support afterwards, and what happens to the planet as a result.  Not getting to sustainability is really not an option any more.



Preludes to Sustainability
October 12, 2015, 10:14 pm
Filed under: futurism, Preludes, sustainability | Tags: , , ,

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.



White Men in the Jungle, and other Cli-Fi issues
September 5, 2015, 12:02 am
Filed under: book, deep time, fantasy, fiction, futurism, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , ,

Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble here, but one thing I started thinking about is how much stereotypes and standard tropes underpin science fiction and especially fantasy. Even though educated people know about the Medieval Warm Period, so much fantasy contains the equivalent of Game of Thrones’ “Winter is coming.” Yes, this is great escapism in the middle of summer, but still, there are a huge number of tropes that show up when dealing with fantasy: medieval, Europe, wintry, or mysterious, oriental, and so forth and so on. You’ve seen them, you know them, and writers too often depend on you knowing them.

Yes, I can think of more than a few books that break tropes, but equally, I run into people whose take on writing is conditioned by the metaphors and tropes conjured by words, and this makes communication difficult. One example was when I talked to a writer (with a strong humanities background) online, about how I, as an ecologist probably wouldn’t name plants that were growing in a vacant lot in southern California as a way to describe the scene. Why not? came the question. Well, I replied, because I suspected that the names wouldn’t paint the scene for anyone who didn’t know the plants already. This was scoffed at. Okay, I wrote, the plants I’m thinking of are black mustard and ripgut brome. Oh, those are so evocative of doom, decay, and violence. Perfect for a vacant lot in Southern California. Well, I replied, that’s exactly my point. You just misled yourself, I replied, and you have no idea of what I was actually trying to describe…The conversation deteriorated from there. Yes, this conversation has been changed somewhat, because I want to use it as an illustration, rather than to embarrass someone. The miscommunication is the point.

The idea I’m chewing on, the trouble I’m borrowing, is how to deal with climate change in fiction, “cli-fi” if you want a newish shorthand. If you’re writing about a climate changed world and thinking like an ecologist, it makes perfect sense to talk about a tribe of white-skinned people living in a jungle, because tropical forests are predicted to grow north into modern Oregon if we go in for severe climate change. If you’re not thinking metaphorically (would that be trope-ically?), it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about the descendants of today’s Portland hipsters living a barbarian lifestyle in the coast ranges, in a dense forest of bamboo, briars, kudzu, and naturalized street trees, hunting feral pigs and settling all too often for grasshoppers instead.

The problem is, if someone who reads metaphorically sees this, all sorts of problems jump out. Is it cultural appropriation or imperialism to put white men in jungles? Or to have them happily eat the foods of other cultures, like grasshoppers, which are edgy and taboo in today’s America? Or to work with bamboo? I don’t know. But jungles bring all sorts of cultural baggage and expected tropes along with them. Any place does. That’s why fantasy castles are set so often in fantasy Europe, rather than in the fantasy Amazon, fantasy Congo, or fantasy Zomia. Especially if the characters are white.

Climate change violates these tropes, moving climates, and eventually the plants and animals they support, to different places than they occur in now. That’s why I’m interested in cli-fi, really, because a climate-changed future gives you a huge new palette of possible realities to explore. The jungles of Cascadia may be a real place in 300 years.

The shortcoming of this new palette is that it violates expectations, and I suspect this is one reason why people tend to think of post-apocalyptic stories as set in a ruined version of today’s world, rather than in something much stranger. It’s easier to think of such stereotypes, rather than to confront how strange the world could get.

And it does get more complicated. If you want to write a story set, say, 10,000 years in the future, humans probably won’t have the races or ethnicities we have now. And there’s a whole other set of expectations, stereotypes, and tropes associated with race, especially in America and most especially now. If you want to write a story set in the truly deep future, you can legitimately jettison today’s races and start over. However, how do you write the resulting story without it being seen as a commentary on today’s racial politics? I have no idea. Maybe you don’t. Thing is, it’s unrealistic to assume that today’s racial, ethnic, even gender identities have any sort of permanency. Is talking about this a reflection on today’s racial politics, or just some naive white dude (that would be me), trying to think about what the future might hold? It can be read both ways.

And so it goes. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Authors don’t get complete control over what people read into their work, and readers bring a wide variety of preconceptions with them to any work. Still, if you’re going to play outside established tropes, I don’t think it’s overly paranoid to at least think about how things can be misinterpreted, and possibly to take some steps to head off the worst problems.

Or perhaps I’m just borrowing trouble where none exists. What do you think?



Next up, the ammonia economy?

This is another spun-off “strange attractor” from Antipope. It had nothing to do with the thread it was on, but the topic is interesting enough–if you’re into futuristic science fiction–that I wanted to summarize it here.

The basic idea is using ammonia as an alternate, carbon-free fuel. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, and there are a bunch of industrial efforts out there that might well project us into an ammonia age rather than a hydrogen one. Unfortunately, ammonia isn’t a panacea, so switching from fossil fuels to ammonia synthesized using solar or wind energy won’t be problem free. For those looking for dramatic conflict, ammonia has it.

Anyway, the fundamentals. Ammonia is NH3. If like me you’re lazy, you can go to Wikipedia’s article on energy densities, and find out that liquid ammonia has about 11.5 MJ/L of energy, slightly better than compressed natural gas (9 MJ/L) and liquid hydrogen (8.5 MJ/L), and less than propane (25.3 MJ/L) or gasoline (34.2 MJ/L), among many others.

As for making NH3, right now we make it in huge plants using the Haber-Bosch process, which makes ammonia using natural gas. Nitrogen is ubiquitous as N2 in the atmosphere, but N2 is a very stable molecule, and it takes a lot of energy to break it and turn it into NH3. Still, people are looking for better ways to do it. NH3 Canada is developing a miniature ammonia synthesizer that’s about four cubic meters in size and can produce 500 liters of ammonia per day, with each liter of ammonia taking 2 liters of water and 7.5 KWhrs of electricity to produce it. As a comparison, the average US home uses 909 kWhr per month or about 30 kWhr per day, which is about what it would take to make a gallon of ammonia using NH3 Canada’s technology. If it works.

To save you the math, that’s about 30% conversion efficiency, which isn’t bad. Ammonia synthesis could be used to store electricity from, say, wind turbines. The nice thing about NH3 Canada is that they want to use small units and stack them in banks, while the older technology uses huge furnaces to get efficiencies of scale.

What can you do with ammonia? You can actually mix it with gasoline and use it to run your car, if you get the mix right, and other researchers are working on creating engines that can run on pure ammonia. While there’s less energy in ammonia than there is in propane, it can be handled similarly. Pure (anhydrous) ammonia is fairly dangerous stuff, but then again, so is liquid hydrogen, and so are giant batteries if they’re fully charged. Energy density makes things dangerous.

Of course, ammonia has many other uses. We all know of it as a cleaner and fuel, and it used to be used in refrigerators before people switched to the much more efficient and dangerous CFCs [but see comments]. But it’s primary use is as a fertilizer and to make explosives, including gunpowder. Industrial nitrogen fixation underlies Big Ag all over the world, and it also underlies industrial warfare. Without huge amounts of gunpowder, things like machine guns don’t work, because there isn’t enough ammunition to make them fully functional killing machines.

Similarly, without huge amounts of nitrogen, the huge amounts of corn, wheat, and soy that are required to feed all seven billion of us wouldn’t exist. Some calculate that at least a third of us wouldn’t exist without fixed nitrogen in our food. The US has taken full advantage of this, and forcing huge supplies of cheap food on the world has been a major part of our foreign policy since the Eisenhower Administration. It was one way of beating communism, and protecting our high-yielding corn from things like being pirated by the Chinese is a matter of national security today.

I’m not a huge fan of Big Ag, even though I’d probably be dead without it. Still, if we want to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, adapting and expanding our existing fixed nitrogen infrastructure is a lot easier than trying to build the infrastructure needed to handle hydrogen.

That’s the good part. There are some downsides.

One is that when you burn ammonia in an engine, it produces NOx, which is a major source of air pollution. This can be fixed if there’s a catalytic converter on the exhaust pipe. I suppose, if you’re powering agricultural equipment, it might be possible to capture the NOx, convert it to nitrate or urea, and use it as fertilizer on the fields, thereby getting a second use from the fixed nitrogen.

One big problem with an ammonia economy is the same problem with renewables, which is that you’re capturing energy from the modern sun, and that’s all you get to play with. Fossil fuels use fossil sunlight from the last few hundred million years, and that’s a lot more energy. There’s no fossil ammonia, so we’d be stuck working in a lower energy environment. Currently, industrially fixed nitrogen takes about 1% of the global energy supply, but that’s a fixed 1%, and if it’s used for other purposes, people can starve. We’d have to ramp up NH3 production to store captured renewable energy, not depend on what’s already being made.

Still, I can envision a world where giant farms host an overstory of huge wind turbines, all hooked up to ammonia synthesizers. The farmer uses the ammonia to run his equipment, then uses nitrates captured from the exhaust to fertilize his fields. Aside from the scale and all the problems with nitrogen runoff and pollution, this isn’t a bad setup.

There are some interesting follow-ons.
–One is politics. If most of the world switches to synthesizing ammonia from sunlight or wind, the countries that depend on petroleum exports are out of luck. The only parts of the Middle East that would continue to matter to the US (and possibly China and Russia) are Egypt and Israel, due to the Suez Canal. This means that the burgeoning crises in the region would have to be dealt with semi-regionally, if at all. And that’s bad for all those refugees. Russia is likely to be a hold-out in switching off fossil fuels, since they get so much power from oil and natural gas, but switching to ammonia would change international politics as much as did the switch to using oil in the early 20th Century.
–A second issue is fertilizer. It is feasible to synthesize huge amounts of ammonia, but other elements are essential for plant growth, and the world is starting to run short of minable phosphorus. We may well have phosphorus wars in the future, but the simpler solution is to recycle sewage and manure onto fields. This has all sorts of public health and disease vector implications, but it will keep people from starving And there are menu implications–you want to eat raw salad from a field that receives sewage? It’s a common practice in the developing world.
–A third issue is air pollution. I can easily see people using ammonia to power things like home generators in areas where the power grid is failing, but if these machines don’t have decent filters on their exhaust, they will put out a lot of air pollution. The resulting smog will degrade the performance of any local solar panels, but it might be simpler than investing in huge batteries and a smart grid to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine.

And who will control the ammonia? A nitrogen-based economy has less energy than does the current oil-based economy. Energy becomes power when it is scarcer, even more than it is currently. Right now, we’re seeing how Big Oil distorts politics all over the world. Small ammonia generators, like the NH3 Canada machine, change the current game that is dominated by a few huge producers, because they mean that small-scale producers can make small amounts of fuel, at least in the short term. Probably this means that the advantage shifts from those who produce ammonia to those who build ammonia synthesizers and can best ship the ammonia from producers to consumers. Over time, I suspect that a few big ammonia producers will dominate the industry in any one area. They will be, quite literally, power brokers.

Still, switching to ammonia could slow down global warming, because the great advantage of NH3 is there’s no carbon emission from using it. It beats things like bio-diesel and biomass cold. Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing methane emissions from the Arctic, so even if we get civilization’s carbon emissions under control, we may be passing the tipping point as you read this. We’ll see.

If you want to write a SF-thriller set in the next few decades, you could do worse than to power the world with ammonia, and make the Politics of N a centerpiece of the story. After all ammonia isn’t just a fuel, it’s a cleaner, fertilizer, and a refrigerant. Who wouldn’t want to get rich off it? Something to think about.



Book plans, part deux
August 20, 2015, 5:24 am
Filed under: book | Tags: ,

Hi All,

Just a brief note. Several people asked if they could be beta readers, and I really, genuinely appreciate the interest.

Here’s the deal: I’m planning on self-publishing the book this fall while I look for a conventional publisher. There are a number of reasons to do this, ranging from getting it out in 2015, before the political craziness of 2016 gets fully into gear, to field testing what is a somewhat unusual book by an unknown author, to see how it does. This is the Off Broadway run, if you will. It’s a practice that both an agent and guide to non-fiction publishing recommended, and it makes sense.

You will have ample opportunity to read this and give me feedback, both by email, on an open comment thread, and in online reviews. I’ll be actively soliciting readers to catch bugs and typos, to give me feedback so that I can make it better. So long as it’s self-published, I can issue corrected editions. If and when it gets picked up by a publisher, then I’ll do my best (subject to corporate editing) to acknowledge everybody’s feedback. The commercially published version will perforce be a different book. Aside from wider sales, commercial publishing will help me get the book into schools and libraries. It’s egotistical, but I’d like to have it where people can find it even when it goes out of print.

So yes, thank you for your interest, and watch this space for further announcements.