Putting the life back in science fiction


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.

Advertisements


Grim Meat-Hook Future Part 2: Sorry, no starships.

I’ve got to admit, starships are intriguing, as is the idea that someone can build a largish skyscraper with a fusion generator in the basement, and that building will contain a village-supporting ecosystem (powered entirely by the fusion generator) and also be missile-proof. On the bad side, this vision seems a bit, I don’t know, silly perhaps? The skyscraper, I mean. That’s effectively what a starship is, though, and existence of one implies the other.

On the other hand, we can assume the obvious answer for the Fermi Paradox, that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens is that starships are logistically impossible, even if they are possible under the laws of physics. This comes about simply because starships require so many breakthroughs in so many fields. A failure to achieve any of these breakthroughs–power plant, shielding, compact, human-supporting biospheres (or stasis, or computer upload systems that last for centuries), and keeping the crew together for the duration of the voyage–dooms the starship. All of them could be impossible.

At this point, some SF aficionados throw up their hands and scream “therefore we’re all doomed! The Earth won’t last forever, and humans have to.” This is foolish. Yes, of course we’re all doomed to die, one way or another (sorry if this is unwelcome news), but Earth has another billion or more years to run before it becomes uninhabitable, and it’s quite likely that humans on Earth have another few million years before we go extinct, no matter how stupid we are.

The basic point here is that humans will almost certainly survive a transition from our current, fossil-fuel based, economy to one that is not based on fossil fuels, and the only reason I say “almost certainly” is because I’m currently reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and cringing how many attempted suicides the US unknowingly avoided. Anyway, the point is that people will survive, whether we decide to end our dependence on fossil fuels by crashing civilization, or whether we get to innovating and finding ways to do more with less, just as we have for untold centuries.

What will that future look like? In some ways, it will look like the starship future, at least for the next few centuries. As we get nine billion people on the planet, we’re going to have to find ways to feed more people with less land and water. Given how much we currently waste, this may be possible, if not pleasant.

Other predictions:
–Oceanic fishing will largely disappear for centuries. There are so many anoxic zones already that it’s likely that most people will give up fishing, and ships will have to carry all their food with them. I’ve had fun imagining a future Pacific where big, ark-like windjammers travel among the islands, all the food grown or shipped with them and fresh water recycled aboard as much as possible. The islands that survive sea level rise may start to resemble the self-sufficient dome cities of the previous post, since they’ll be less able (or entirely unable) to draw on the sea for their livelihoods. This is a grim thought for those of us who admire the old Polynesian cultures, but fodder for any SF writer who wants to re-imagine the old idea of asteroid belt colonies out in the Pacific, with kite-sailers replacing singleships. Anyone want to mine lava for precious elements?
–Farming will change. We’ll probably start recycling sewage onto farmland (if only to recapture the phosphorus, since we’re running short of mineable sources for that essential element), and we’ll certainly eat less meat. We’re already getting a powerful taste of climate change, with those record-breaking heatwaves and storms, and it’s going to get worse. We’ll have to get used to the idea of crops failing, and we’ll have to get very good at storing food during the good years. Currently, big agribusiness has a lock on both the food economy and politics, but that may fail suddenly, if the few big companies that dominate the Ag industry fail to deal adequately with crop failures, changing climate zones, and other problems. Rural America has been “dumbed down” for most of a century, with the bright kids lured into the cities. We’re facing a time when we need really, really smart farmers. I suspect we’ll get them, and this will affect both agribusiness and politics. Personally, I hope that permaculture takes off in a big way, but that’s because I’m an ecologist and I think it’s cool.
–Politics: It’s amazing how much politics in the US is affected by air conditioners. If the amazingly complicated US power grid starts to fail, people are going to start migrating north, out of current red states and into the blue. Some people say this is what’s driving the current Republican party, and they may be right. America is getting less white, and throughout much of the world, we’re seeing smaller families. There will be a gerontocracy for the rest of our lives, I’m afraid, but after that, who knows? We’re so used to thinking of political economy as growth that it will take innovation to face a future where populations decline.

I could go on, because this is the kind of future that makes more sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a pessimist? Or is it that the idea of human history having millions of years of one damn thing after another is actually more appealing than centuries of adolescent style, unlimited growth? For SF writers, there is good news here:
–there are plenty of Apocalypses to go around. If we really do live for millions of years, we’ll see the end of the fossil fuel age (in the geologic near term), the end of global warming (as I posted on a while back), at least one more ice age, multiple Carrington Events, asteroid strikes, devastating earthquakes and volcanoes, east Kilauea sliding into the sea and inundating the west coast, dogs and cats living together, and so forth. I was toying with the idea of starting an SF scenario called “after the 34th apocalypse” set waaaay far in the future, but I would have had to figure out what all 34 apocalypses would be. The point would be that the end of civilization as we know it might become old hat after a while, with coping strategies and everything.
–Many futures are possible. Given a combination of limited resources and humanity’s incredible capacity for ignorance, boredom, and self-delusion, I predict that people are going to try most options repeatedly. Everything from slaughterhouse dictatorships to drop-out wannabe utopias will appear again and again. Modern giant agribusiness isn’t the first time western civilization tried huge agriculture (see latifundias), and it’s certainly not going to be the last time, although I’m sure we’ll see periods of small farms in the near future. Dictatorships will come and go, and there will always be a new religion popping up somewhere, even if most of them don’t survive much past their creators’ lifespans.
–Science will always be around. It’s common knowledge that most of the world’s current great religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism in its current incarnation, and Islam) were created during the so-called “Axial Age” of empires in Rome, India, and China. They and their descendents are still around, in massively altered form. We’re centuries in to another age of global empires, and I’ve been wondering what new form of religion will come about. The answer was so obvious that I almost missed it: science. History is accretionary, not cyclical. Although Christianity is monotheistic, it early on absorbed a whole body of saints and pagan holidays from the old religions it replaced. Islam and Buddhism did the same thing, and I think the trend is universal among missionary religions. Because of this, I’m pretty sure science won’t go away either, no matter how hard people try to suppress its inconvenient truths. It’s so embedded in all of our lives that, like the notion that God should be capitalized, it’s not going to go away. Science *will* change radically in coming centuries as it subsumes arising cultures, but people will keep doing it. When we go through future ages of upheaval and global empires in coming millennia, our descendents will likely come up with still other “religions” that fundamentally change the way we think. I wonder what they will be?
–Domestication will rule much of the world. As with ants and termites, the human species’ fundamental adaptation has been domestication, which I like to describe as a massive campaign of symbiotic adaptations. While we can live without agriculture, I don’t think we’re going to do so. It’s simply too useful. Rather, I think that evolution is going to continue to take advantage of our domesticated ecosystems, just as it is doing right now. We will see more pests, pathogens, and parasites (including social parasites), and they will only get more sophisticated through coming centuries. I’m quite sure our counter-measures will get more sophisticated too, in a coevolutionary arms race, and I suspect that agriculture in, say, 40,000 years, will look radically different than it looks today. Farm ecosystems will be much more complex, and much of that complexity will be outside human control. Fortunately, I don’t think wilderness will ever entirely vanish, either.
–Similarly, I don’t think machines are going away, and I think that the complexity of mechanized ecosystems will only increase over time. I also think it’s likely that domesticated and mechanical ecosystems will merge more thoroughly than they have already.

In other words, there will be grim meat-hook futures, but I suspect that for every grim meat-hook generation, the next generation will make the best of things, get on with life, and be relatively happy. Things could be worse.



Grim Meat-Hook Future, Part 1: So we can build a starship….

Okay, not quite in the original sense; However, I thought I’d play with a simple idea.  In the future, we can build a starship, specifically a slower-than-light starship that obeys the laws of physics as we currently know them.

What will Earth look like in this case?

Let’s unpack this scenario a bit.  For a starship to work, we will need to have developed a bunch of technologies and practices that we currently don’t have.

These include:
–small biospheres that can support people for long periods of time without breaking down. Remember what happened with Biosphere 2? That’s what I mean by break down.
–light-weight shielding that can deal with debris hitting it at absurdly high velocities.
–Either cheap, compact, very, very safe fusion that can burn continuously for decades (for a torch ship), antimatter that can be cheaply made and safely stored for centuries, rather enormous lasers that can fire for decades, and can be aimed with nanometer precision (for a laser sail), or some form of highly accurate, high-powered linear accelerator and “smart particles” that can be cheaply made, fly at relativistic velocities, and steer themselves with nanometer precision (for a beamrider).
–The social engineering to keep small groups working together for multiple generations, or the ability to store humans in some form of stasis for centuries. Remember what happened with Biosphere 2? We’ll have to do much better than that.

The thing about this is that the world will have these technologies, as do the starships. While the technology will be unevenly distributed, bits and pieces of it will be in use all over the planet. For example, if we have fusion, we likely won’t be using fossil fuels for much of anything, because most large metropolitan areas will have fusion plants. They likely will use these energy to power desalination/water purification plants, so that we can all live by the coast and not worry about continents drying up. As I noted in a previous post, we’re stuck with climate for millennia, regardless. I’m not sure where the waste heat goes or how one maintains one of these magic power plants, but based on current experimental plants, it looks like it requires precision engineering at a scale we can’t yet match. This, in turn, implies a stable infrastructure of some scary-good engineers.

In fact, all of these require a lot of really, really good engineers, which means there will be the infrastructure to educate those engineers, whether they are humans, computers, or both. What does that mean for, oh, consumer electronics, aside from having stuff that’s much more complex than what we have today? Who knows?

But let’s look at the other new technology. Small biospheres implies that arcologies are possible. People can build floating “sea castles,” live in domes in the Arctic, on the sea bottom, or in Saudi Arabia’s empty quarter, or anywhere, and live off whatever they can grow in the domes. If they have enough money, that is. Cities will likely use this technology to produce more food within bounds, while wealthy separatist groups flourish wherever they can set up their biosphere.

Things get really interesting when you look at the shielding issue. I don’t know if the shields on a starship could withstand a nuclear explosion, but I do think they’d be impervious to almost all conventional arms. In other words, for the first time since the Middle Ages, defense becomes an option, and castles make sense. They make even more sense if you can live inside one indefinitely, treating it in effect like a starship without an engine. Of course, this radically changes the face of war. I don’t know whether the great powers will go in for castle-busting munitions (terawatt lasers, perhaps?), or more covert action, but basically, every evil genius with plans for world domination now gets his impregnable secret fortress, fully staffed with loyal minions.

Scary thought, isn’t it? We can also ponder the lives of the people who choose to live inside such fortresses. Presumably, it will be possible for them to live in there indefinitely, or to hold themselves in stasis “until the stars are right,” but I doubt it will be what we lazy, middle-class Americans consider to be a Good Time.

Does this sound like an appealing world? I’m not so sure. It’s likely more Neuromancer than Star Trek. That’s the thing I wanted to bring out: a star-faring culture would look very different than what we normally see in science fiction. It will have a technical infrastructure far beyond what we have today, but there’s no particular reason to think that it’s going to be a utopia where domestic robots attend to our every whim. It could just as easily be a weed-infested world dominated by the domed and armored cities of the wealthy and powerful. The only good news will be that people are willing to live that way.

So here’s the question: what did I miss? Any other easy extrapolations?