Putting the life back in science fiction


That brief window
July 29, 2015, 9:35 pm
Filed under: deep time, futurism, Worldbuilding | Tags: , ,

Well, the book manuscript is done, and I’ve got some beta readers going over it while I figure out the strange world of non-fiction publishing. As I understand it, one not supposed to write a non-fiction book on spec, but rather to have a contract to write the book based on how well you can convince the publisher it will sell, based on your audience. And simultaneous self-publishing is a thing too, apparently. Interesting business, especially when I write a book of 100% speculation about a climate-changed Earth, and it’s called non-fiction.

So I have time to blog more regularly.

One of the things I’ve increasingly noticed is how bad we are with big numbers, and dealing with big numbers turned out to be a central feature of the book. In general, when we look at phrases like a few years, or a few decades, or a few centuries, or a few millennia, or a few thousand years, or a few million years, we fixate on the “few” and ignore whatever comes after that. As a result, we get weird phrases like the Great Oxygenation Event, which took a few billion years back when the Earth switched from an anaerobic atmosphere to aerobic one. It doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that animals have been on land less than 500,000,000 years, or less than a quarter of a billion years. The Primitive Animals Invade the Land Event will end with the expanding sun making such life impossible on Earth long before our little event matches the length of the Great Oxygenation Event, yet people some people still think that the Earth was oxygenated very suddenly, rather than incredibly gradually. All that happened was that people ignored all the zeroes, called a process an event, and confused themselves and their audience.

This applies to human history as well. If we take the Omo 1 skull as the oldest modern human, we’ve got at least 195,000 years of history to our species already.

We’re young compared to most species, but we’ve still got a lot of history, and most of it is lost. Our documented history is about the last 5,000 years, and the archaeological becomes fragmentary shortly thereafter. In other words, thanks to writing, we’ve got partial access to about 1% of our apparent history as a species. The conventional interpretation of this is that humans were basically boring for the first 99% of our history, then something changed, and we took off like gypsy moths, expanding into this outbreak of humanity we call civilization. Prior to that, we were peaceable-ish hunter gatherers living in harmony with nature.

What changed? The more I read, the more I tend to agree with the archaeologist Brian Fagan. In The Long Summer, he postulated that civilization arose after the last ice age because the climate stabilized after the ice age, not because humans changed in any real way. There’s some evidence to back him up. Alvin Alley, in the Two Mile Time Machine, talks about Dansgaard-Oeschger (D-O) events in the glacial record. These are times when the global temperature bounces back and forth many degrees, and they are thought to be due to ice from Hudson’s Bay glaciers messing up global thermohaline circulation in a semi-periodic way. Basically, the climate at Glacial Maximum is stably cold, the climate in the interglacial is stably warm, and the times between those periods have the climate oscillating between cold, colder, and coldest in something like a 1,500 year pattern with lots of noise. In such a continually changing global environment, things like agriculture would be difficult to impossible, so it’s no surprise that humans would be nomadic hunter-gatherers. If there were something before the D-O events, the evidence would be lost, and the absence of evidence would make us think that, until 5,000 years ago, we were primitive savages.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that evidence for agriculture 23,000 years ago turned up in Israel (link to article). The last glacial maximum happened from 26,000-19,000 years ago. If one believes that stable climates make things like agriculture possible, then it’s easy to believe that someone invented farming during the last glacial maximum, and that it was lost when the D-O events started up and their culture shattered.

So how often did humans go through this, discover and lose agriculture? We have no clue. Except for that fortuitous find in the Sea of Galilee, when a long drought temporarily revealed an archaeological site that is currently underwater again, there’s no other evidence for truly ancient agriculture.

The last interglacial was the Eemian, 130,000-115,000 years ago. Did the Neanderthals invent agriculture back then? There’s little undisputed fossil or archaeological evidence from that time, and who knows if any evidence still exists. What we do know is that the Eemian people did not smelt a lot of metal, for there were ample ore deposits waiting for us to find them on the surface. We know they didn’t use petroleum or coal for the same reason, and there’s no evidence that they moved massive amounts of Earth or built great pyramids, as we’ve done. Those kinds of evidence seem to last. But if they had small neolithic farming towns, especially in northern Europe, the evidence would have disappeared in the subsequent glaciation.

This pattern applies to our future too, especially if climate change collapses our civilization and forces the few survivors to be hunters and gatherers. Our civilization would lose continuity, our history would vanish, our flimsy concrete buildings would collapse into rubble, and coastal ruins would disappear under the rising sea. What would remain of us, except our earthworks and our descendants? My rough guess is that such an age of barbarism would last between 200 and 2,000 years before the climate stabilized and civilization became possible again. Would the people building their civilization on the other side think they were the first civilized people, too, that their history began when they were created a few thousand years prior, as we used to think?

That may be the fate of future humanity on Earth, even if our species lasts a billion years. When the climate is stable for thousands of years, there will be outbreaks of humanity–what we call civilization, when we temporarily escape nature’s constraints, grow fruitful, and multiply to fill the place. In between these outbreaks there will be far fewer of us, and we’ll live in smaller, simpler societies. What we will know will be a balance between what we’ve retained and (re)discovered, and what crisis, collapse, and continual change has caused us to lose. Our history, at any one time, will be that brief window of a few thousand years between discovery and loss, with only enigmatic artifacts, like those 23,000 year-old seeds, to tell us that we weren’t the first ones to discover something. They’ll be enough to hint at how much history we’ve lost, but not enough to let us recover it.

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Apocalypse 3: More with Milankovitch

I’ve been having some fun reading up on Milankovitch cycles since the previous post in this series, and I’ve learned that I didn’t know what I was talking about in the previous post. However, there’s still an apocalypse involved.

Here are the basics about global warming. The global average temperature goes up when there’s more CO2 in the air, down when CO2 goes out. The temperature change is proportional (roughly) to the doubling of CO2. If we double the old concentration of about 280 ppm, temperature goes up 1.5-5 degrees Celsius. If we quadruple it, the temperature goes up about 3-10 degrees, and so forth. Currently, we’re following what the IPCC calls the BAU (Business As Usual) model, or the 5000 Gigatonne carbon release. This will crank CO2 levels up to about 1200 ppm or more, so we’re easily into the quadruple jeopardy mode.

Anyway, the Milankovitch cycles are composed of three components: Earth’s orbital eccentricity, it’s axial tilt, and the precession of the orbit, all of which change at different rates. Of these three, only eccentricity (how elliptical the orbit is) actually changes the annual amount of sunlight earth as a whole receives, and that by only a percent or two. Obliquity and precession don’t affect the average amount of annual sunlight across the globe, and in this I was wrong.

Here’s the picture from the last post, about insolation at 65 degrees north at midsummer) for reference:

What’s happening here is real, but it’s only true for the northern Arctic area. Variations at the equator are similar in direction but smaller in magnitude, while those at the Antarctic Circle are (very crudely) reversed.

Now, remember how I said that Earth wouldn’t be warming up at the peaks and valleys in this graph? That is true. However, there will be LOCAL increases and decreases in temperature. Variations in axial tilt and precession of the equinoxes cause substantial changes in the seasons. When there is a lot of sun in the north, the summers are warmer (and probably wetter), while the winters are cooler (and probably drier). At the local lows, the summers are cooler and drier, while the winters are warmer and wetter. This is all on a comparative level, of course: it’s the difference between, say, California and South Carolina. The California coast gets most of its rain and snow in the winter and has cool, foggy summers, while the Carolinas get most of their rain in the summer, and have relatively fewer rain or snow storms. The southern hemisphere, of course, follows the opposite pattern.

When we’re dealing with Ice Ages, cool summers and warm winters can be a problem. Warm winters mean more snow falls, while cool summers means the snow lasts longer. If the summers are cool enough, the snow never melts entirely, and glaciers start to form. If the summers are warm enough, the snow melts, and the glaciers go away. This is how (very crudely) Milankovitch cycles help control the onset and end of ice ages, at least during times when the climate is cold enough (due to low levels of CO2) that ice ages are possible. The northern hemisphere at 65 degrees north is a bit of a driver, because there’s more land at that latitude than there is in the southern hemisphere, and large ice fields help force global ice ages (more or less).

Now, getting back to the idea of 37 apocalypses. We’re dumping a lot of CO2 into the air, and it’s going to take a long time to come out. Therefore, the Earth will be warmer for a long time, until that carbon comes out of the air. However, the seasons can vary. Due to the Milankovitch cycles, the weather can vary between summer rain and winter rain. If the temperatures are tropical, this doesn’t particularly matter. Most tropical areas have a dry season and a wet season, but since the annual temperature doesn’t vary a huge amount, when the rain occurs doesn’t particularly matter. Milankovitch cycles don’t particularly matter.

However, closer to the poles, these matter, even if the world is very warm. Above the Arctic circle, there’s an entire season of darkness as the sun slips below the horizon (due to axial tilt). If most of the precipitation comes during the darkness, it will land as snow. If it comes during the daylit summer, it will come as rain. Different plants prefer these conditions, so people living there will have to grow different crops. To use the example of California and the Carolinas, California does great with winter vegetables and summer fruits, while the summer rain areas can grow things like corn and other late summer vegetables. Winter rainfall climates also tend to favor massive irrigation projects, because farmers have to capture the moisture that comes during the winter, and dole it out when the crops are growing.

The Milankovitch cycles do matter in that they dictate what the vegetation will be, due to when precipitation occurs and what form it comes in. Think the differences between Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin, for example . Plant communities will shift to follow the Milankovitch cycles, as will farming practices and things like irrigation. Classically, these are the kinds of shifts that cause civilizations to rise and fall, and I have no doubt this will continue into the future. As noted in the previous post, there will be times of future stability, and times of future change, and the times of change will likely bring down civilizations that adapted to the old conditions.

Considering how much I’m learning, I seriously doubt that this will be the last word on the subject, so if I don’t quite understand things now, feel free to straighten me out. My goal here is to think about what the deep future might look like, and I still think it looks like it’s going to keep changing for the foreseeable future, in ways that aren’t that favorable for stable, global civilizations.



Apocalyptic fun: 34 future apocalypses

I’ve gotten rather tired of the Mayan apocalypse, and being a contrarian, I’ve been thinking more about the deep future instead of the end of the world.

At some point, I made a sarcastic remark about wanting to write about a world “after the 34th apocalypse, except that I’m too lazy to come up with 33 separate apocalypses.” Now, as 12/21/12 comes closer, I’d thought it might be fun to crowd-source the other 33 apocalypses.

The idea of this is to provide future worlds for SF people to play with. Right now, I feel like SF is suffering from “aging white myopia” in that it’s mostly about the fears and fantasies of aging white people (often men), and myopia because most of the serious SF predictions are in the near future, not the deep future. I’d rather start thinking about 21st century problems, which are more about “how do we deal with this crazy world the Baby Boomers left us” than worrying about the death of the dreams we had as teens.

Want to play? Since I’m hoping to crowd source the apocalypses, I’m perfectly happy if people swipe ideas from here. This is about thinking creatively about global crises, and what comes after them.

Anyway, let’s get to the apocalypses

Here are the end points
1. The First Apocalypse is happening now, with a 5000 gigatonne release of carbon into the atmosphere over the next 200 years (this is the IPCC extreme scenario discussed here. This is the path we’re currently on. Temperatures (and extreme weather) peak between 2500 and 3500 AD, with global mean temperatures peaking 9 to 16 degrees F (6 to 9 deg. C) above today. Sea level rises about 230 feet (80 meters) above today, but it reaches that maximum in 3500 AD (almost all rise happens by 3000 AD). Conditions take 500,000 years to get back to what we have today, and we can assume the fall back towards normal in an approximately linear fashion. Thermal gradients between the arctic and the tropics largely disappear at first, but gradually reappear.
2. The 34th Apocalypse happens 525,000 years from now, when the next ice age starts. This is by fiat, from eyeballing the insolation graphs on Wikipedia. At this point, the last remnants of arctic and high mountain civilization are plowed under by the growing glaciers (antarctic civilization finally disappeared in 400,000 AD under the resurgent southern ice cap). This cycle looks a lot like the last Wisconsin glaciation. Due to the profligacy of the 1st Apocalypse, there is no fossil fuel left to rewarm the earth to avoid the ice.

Those are the end point apocalypses. Here are some ground rules:
–What’s an apocalypse? It’s a global event that causes massive change, global migration, and the end of civilization as we know it, although not necessarily a return to the stone age. It does NOT cause human extinction. It can be natural (an ice age, megavolcano, asteroid), or manmade (our current Gigafart).
–Apocalypses have dates attached, but they aren’t necessarily instantaneous. The Gigafart will take 1500 years to reach its full ripeness.
–Apocalypses have stories attached. Where does Apophis land, and what happens during the impact and afterwards?
–There’s time between apocalypses, time enough for human cultures to recover. In 525,000 AD, there will be enough history, myth, archeology, and paleontology, for the people of that time to know that 33 apocalypses have happened before them, and that they are facing the 34th. This means that the people living between apocalypses have to leave a traces. What do they leave behind that survives?
–The Rule of Narrative Conservation: people will be recognizably human 525,000 years from now. Yes, that’s a long time in human evolutionary terms, but this is for our personal fun. “Recognizably human” means that future people will be close enough to us that it’s no stretch for writers to write about them and readers to emphasize with them. They’re born, live, love, and die, and have recognizable conflicts. There is no end of history, and there is no point at which people stop being people. It does not mean that people will be the same as they are today, and it especially does not mean that they will have the same races as we do today. Races change over the course of a millennium or two, and 525,000 years is an enormous time for racial change.
–I’m tired of reading about zombies, werewolves, and vampires. If you want a monster pandemic apocalypse, be more original.
–Science rules. Don’t bother with Cthulhu, Godzilla, alien invasions (cf the Fermi Paradox), or fairies coming back. Similarly, don’t bother with nanotech or synthbio disassembler plagues, unless you can explain in detail how the damn things work from a biochemical and energetics point of view. Otherwise, they’re magic fairy dust, and that ain’t science.

Those are the basic rules.

One Prebuttal: The simplest way to come up with 32 apocalypses is to assume that global technological civilization is a destructive bubble that pops. All we have to assume is that it takes about 500 years (on average) for global civilization to grow and collapse, and it takes an average of 15,000 years for the Earth to recover enough to support another global civilization, during which people are stuck living as hunter-gatherers, dirt-scratching farmers, and similar Arcadian folk. This idea has been done by Larry Niven et al (The Mote in God’s Eye) and Charles Stross (Palimpsest). I don’t mind the idea of civilization as a cyclical irruption in history, but you know, I’m really hoping for something more original. Future history as a drunkard’s walk, rather than a wheel of time. What about two or more cycles of history, spiked with various and epic natural disasters? Or are there 32 totally predictable global catastrophes lurking out there? Or some mix of both?

Come play Edward Gorey with the future. If we get 34 separate apocalypses, I’ll put it all together and send it out to everyone who contributed.