Putting the life back in science fiction

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.

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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…


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.

Cool, Quiet, and Green: What does sustainability look like?

This one’s inspired by this NPR story, about sustainability.

What does sustainability look like? In The Ghosts of Deep Time, I have one character say that civilization is cool, quiet, and green, and that’s still my thumbnail for a sustainable city. To unpack that a bit:

Cool. Forests are cooler than grasslands, not because they get less sunshine, but because they catch more of that sunlight and do things with it. Scientists can actually determine how stressed a forest is by measuring how hot it is. Efficiency translates into less energy loss, which means less heating.

In cities, we tend to waste a lot of energy, which is why they are hot. Most of the sunshine gets reflected, or absorbed into surfaces that it heats up. Most of our equipment runs hot, which means we have to get rid of that heat too. A sustainable civilization doesn’t waste much energy, so it’s going to be cool.

Quiet goes with cool. Much of the noise of modern civilization is wasted energy, gone to making sound waves instead of useful work. An efficient civilization is going to be quiet as well as cool.

Green. This is both in philosophy and color. Plants can perform a large number of functions, from cleaning water to providing shade and cooling air. Moreover, we humans aren’t so far from our evolutionary roots that we don’ enjoy having plants around, even if our thumbs are scummy black rather than green. Obviously, a sustainable city will be ethically green as well, but from a simple design standpoint, I think it’s difficult to have a sustainable city without having a lot of functional plants around.

Anything else? Or can we do without one of these?

Prelude to a Starship

On Charlie Stross’ blog, I think I called starships gaiaspores, because apparently the term “starship” is passe among the cognoscenti. Or something like that. Gaiaspore does have a certain endearing clunkiness, so use it if you wish. I’m mostly calling them starships here.

But I’m thinking about something a bit different. What comes before the starship? If you remember James Burke’s Connections from the late 1970s, you remember that no invention comes about without a long chain of preliminary discoveries. For living in space, we’re going to need a lot of precursors. What are they?

Let’s start science fiction: how do others see us getting to the stars? The science fiction answers range from, well what we have now (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, where Ohio hadn’t changed at all in 200 years, except that the elderly now emigrate to the stars) to planetary destruction (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, where the living, moon-sized spaceships basically ate planets down to the mantle before departing). Charlie Stross seems to break on the large side of the spectrum, talking about hollowing out asteroids and putting slow motors on them. That would require us to digest a few large cities, at the very least.

Assuming a starship is even feasible, it’s going to demand some things we’re currently really bad at, like living at close quarters with nuclear or fusion plants, living sustainably, and living in free fall or microgravity. No culture on Earth lives this way now (although people try it for a few years as an experiment).

So culturally, how do we get there from here? Cultural evolution tends to be path dependent, so it’s not as simple as re-educating the people we have. Imagine turning a Tea Partier into an 18th Century Japanese farmer, or a Papuan highland farmer (both picked because they lived fairly sustainably), and you’ll see the problem. Because of the path dependence, it’s fun to think about where we need to be going before our culture evolves to the point where it can live in space.

What do you think? What do the predecessors to the stars look like? Remember that a pre-starfaring culture has to work on its own merits. Like a bird ancestor, it can’t “half fly.” Those too-small wings have to perfectly good for something else first.

When I wrote Scion of the Zodiac, I cheated on this question. I assumed that we’re going into a post-oil dark age first, and that somehow in that unrecorded time (heh heh) we learned the critical lessons of sustainability that allowed us to go to the stars after the next Renaissance (spurred, I think, by discovering a readable copy of Wikipedia and translating it. No sarcasm there). However, I’ll admit that I was more interested in low tech terraforming than star flight, so I spent more time figuring out how you could survive in an alien biosphere at a low tech level. That last stipulation was so that I couldn’t use magic tech boxes to make life livable. For my “barefoot gaiaformers,” I used three books as my primary references: Bill Mollison’s An Introduction to Permaculture, Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking, and Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running. Those three books are ones I’d recommend for any post-oil bookshelf, but there’s a lot of good material in there for how to run a gaiaspore. Note that none of these books are mainstream, which is why I think path dependence matters. As for the mechanical side, I’m only starting to think about it.

Obviously, I can babble about this for hours. But what do you think? Can we get to the stars from here? If so, how do we make the connections, and what do the intermediate culture(s) look like? If not, what’s standing in our way?