The Man Who Awoke

Over the past week or so I’ve been noticing something, a bit off to the side of the dominating Big News dramas. Actually, the particular thing I’m talking about is a secondary item to the main story, and it’s something of a story itself. The secondary item was the reactions I’ve noticed.

First the main item. That was an online story referring to a new study (link also at page bottom) that came to conclusions that are big and dramatic. The general conclusion; that what we generally would refer to as western technological industrialized civilization is on a course that is heading straight for a collapse. The things said in the article summarizing this were not news to me, and not news to quite a few people, but, I think it’s reasonable to say, this is a complete sudden surprising shock to most people.

This is a complex subject, and complexity is a key word, but I’ve actually been hammering on the general subject of the broad and interconnected problems of what I (and some other people) refer to in a shorthand of the “three E” subjects, of economy, energy, and Earth (or ecology, or environment). To try to summarize the stuff would be impossibly large and complex, and repeating pages and pages of things I’ve already written, and that writing has included loads of links and book references to people covering subjects in depth.

The secondary part of this is what I’m thinking about now, the reactions to this. I looked at a webpage where somebody had posted a link to that article, and later, another related article, and the comments I read from people reacting to that were important to note. I think some of the stuff I read from people is, unfortunately, probably a pretty good representative sampling.

What’s unfortunate about this is that it looks to me like, more often than not, people just glance, see the words “society” or “civilization” accompanied by a word like “collapse”, and just react, without even bothering to really read the stuff at hand, digest it, think about it a while. They just wig out.

They just skim and come up with “the world is ending, soon”. The reactions vary between a few basic modes, from just freaking out, or maybe some vague resignation and shrugging it off, the sort of “oh well, nothing I can do about it”, or maybe just laughing it off or eye-rolling mocking and even disgust, just blowing it all off as “crazy conspiracy theory stuff”, like it was some deranged character shouting on a downtown street corner “repent, the end is near!”.

It’s endlessly baffling thing to me, that, somehow, it seems practically impossible to get so many people to understand that the unsustainable, by definition, just cannot keep going forever, but, then, that actually leads to the obvious follow-up question; do they really not understand? Do they really just not want to understand it?

There’s also what you could call a binary sort problem of people acting like it’s an either/or matter, between carry on business as usual, status quo, nothing to see here; or, doomsday, end of the world, biblical cataclysm. This kind of binary mindset is something I’ve been talking about; the “two party” political binary bipolar madness, or people looking at the oil story and saying “well, are we about out of oil, or not?”, and ignoring the more complicated problem of diminishing returns and depletion and not taking a little time to get their heads around Hubbert’s curve and what it tells us.

One reaction comment I read was something that’s common. That was about the sentiment that goes like: oh, well, at least, we can hope, the big disaster cataclysmic collapse of everything end of the world won’t happen until our lifetimes are over. That’s very common, so frequent that it’s absolutely predictable, and it should be obvious that this attitude is a huge part of our problems. It gets people stuck in determination to just somehow keep pushing things along, force the unsustainable to keep going, maintain status quo at any cost, so we don’t have to deal with it, and then it will be future generations’ problem, not yours.

That’s clearly a big problem making things much worse, in virtually any large-scale long term problem subject you can think of.

In a comment of that sort, the “hopefully it won’t go bad in our lifetimes” thing, somebody at least managed to have to presence of mind and consideration to have a thought that said the world will probably be a different place for the generations following us. But even then, that was immediately followed by saying that they were just certain, it was just a given, assumed, that while they will have a much different world, at least they would be powering everything with endless cheap energy provided by nuclear fusion.

The way they expressed it, it was just a certain thing in their head, and I have no idea what gave them the idea that this was some natural assumption, a certainty. I’m a middle-aged man now, a fifty-something, and part of the culture in my childhood, the decade of the sixties, was lots of what you might simply call futurism, with the space race, computers, all kinds of imagination about space travel and robots and the amazing coming 21st century. I can remember much of that well, including wondrous notions that any time now, new breakthroughs would bring us endless energy from the development and adoption of nuclear fusion generating electrical power. It’s decades later, and people still think this, even while there’s some occasional vague notion that we’ll be having this fusion power breakthrough any time now.

Maybe I missed some news, but I’m not seeing it, and it should be apparent that you can never be totally sure about what new clues about the universe we might find, or some breakthrough engineering idea might come up, what we’re talking about something different. We’re talking about wishes and fantasies replacing reality and reason. It’s the idea that, if you want something, and imagine it, it will become real, regardless of actual reality.

It’s the “oh, somebody will think of something” pattern, the non-answer answer, the platitude non-solution solution, avoiding actual dealing with the stuff at hand, or even trying to understand it. Somebody could write a whole book about this. Somebody did. (Too Much Magic, by James Howard Kunstler.)

John Michael Greer has been writing all kinds of good stuff that’s very useful in getting things in perspective. One particular topic he’s addressed pretty nicely in essays in his weekly blog is this problem of either/or simplistic thinking (or non-thinking) of: well, is it business as usual, status quo carries on, or end of the world cataclysmic doom, end of civilization and back to the stone age? The matter of energy resources and consumption is a central key item to everything, as, I would hope, is obvious by now.

Greer has put forth the general idea, that makes sense to me, related to the issue that the failure to get things in realistic perspective about hydrocarbon deposits, their finite nature, and diminishing returns and depletion, is going to cause us monumentally large problems. That’s already happening. The idea Greer has mentioned is that because of the depletion of this large onetime windfall of underground hydrocarbon compounds, holding the energy of ancient sunlight as stored potential energy in chemical form, we are, as other people have been recognizing, and trying to get across to people, going to have what we might call a lower-energy future. It doesn’t mean all technology is going to disappear and we’re in the Stone Age version 2, but even talking about this is tricky, as too many people seem to have notions about technology and what that means without really thinking about it much.

I’m not saying that the following example is going to be exactly what the future will look like, but the most obvious explanatory example of “low energy tech” is probably to turn on PBS some weekend and watch an episode of The Woodright’s Shop.

At this point, I’ll turn you over to an excerpt from a lecture given by Isaac Asimov, almost forty years ago. In that, he refers to a story from years before that, way back in 1933. People have thought about this stuff before, many decades ago. Most of us just have not paid any attention.

 

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The Future of Humanity: a Lecture by Isaac Asimov

In 1933, I read a story called “The Man Who Awoke” by Lawrence Manning. In it, the hero wished to see what the world of the future would be like. So he invented a potion, which when he drank it, put him to sleep for five thousand years, and then woke him up a little hoarse, but otherwise OK. He found himself a vault in which he would lie undisturbed for five thousand years. And then woke up unharmed. And he thought he was going to come out and see a very futuristic world with all kinds of extremely super-modernistic devices flying through the air, and magical food pills and all that. And instead, what did he find? He found a very constricted world. A world in which everybody lived rather…rather not very lavish lives. You know, they dressed in homespun, and they walked everywhere, and they worried a lot about what the next meal would be. And so he said to them “What is this?” he says. “You guys are leading such a constricted lives. What’s all this futurism I expected?” So they said “Oh well, you don’t understand.” He said: “We’re short on energy. Very short on energy because some thousands of years ago there was a generation or two of human beings who burnt up all the coal and oil on Earth, and left nothing for us.” And our hero said “Strange you should say that”. He said “I happen to be from the very generation that did this to you!”

And so they tried to lynch him, naturally. And he got back to the vault just in time, slammed the door, and took another potion to see if anything new happened five thousand years later still.

When I was thirteen, I started thinking. Major premise: The Earth’s volume is finite Minor Premise: The total volume of coal and oil on the Earth is less than the total volume of the Earth Conclusion: The volume of coal and oil are finite.

You would think that this was so obvious! Now, let’s start and make this conclusion the major premise of the next syllogism:

Major Premise: The volume of coal and oil are finite Minor Premise: We are burning some every day Conclusion: We will use it all up eventually

Well, I got that in 1933. And so you see how science fiction helps you escape. It helps you escape to the kinds of problems that’ll keep you worried for forty years.

Well, here we are. We have just come through a thirty year period of mankind’s maximum prosperity, on the whole. We’ve done very well since World War Two. We have…the world as a whole has eaten better, has lived better, has had a higher standard of living than it has ever had before. Now, you might tell me that through this entire thirty years there have been millions…hundreds of millions of people always hungry, always starving, with very little, and I’ll say yes; it’s been rotten. My point is that before now, it’s always been rotten-ER. And we haven’t really appreciated how temporary this is.

For one thing, we’ve had ample supplies of food, and part of the reason for that was that we’ve had an extremely good spell of weather for the last thirty years. In fact, there are some people who say that this last thirty years was the best thirty year spell of weather that we have had in the last thousand years. Now you may remember cold spells, and floods, and droughts, and all the rest of this stuff. But there has been less of it the world over than usual. In addition, just as we’ve had this good weather, we’ve also been applying energy at a far greater rate than ever before to farm machinery, to irrigation machinery.

In addition, we’ve been using insecticides and pesticides of various sorts, to sort of clobber those little beasties and those weeds who think they’re going to get some of our food. And in addition to that we’ve also developed new strains of grain, so-called “green revolution”, that grow a lot of protein very fast. And what with all these things put together, our food supply has been going up.

But now, look what happens.

The very thing that makes it possible for us to use more and more energy is our industrial technologized world.

It’s getting hard to get energy. Energy is much more expensive than it used to be; oil prices are up. And that means that fertilizer is more expensive than it used to be. And it turns out that the green revolution depends on strains of grain that require…yes, they do what they’re supposed to do…but they require a lot of irrigation; a lot of water, and a lot of fertilizer. And the fertilizer isn’t there. And the irrigation machinery is hard to run now with expensive oil. And, of course, the pesticides are produced in high-energy chemical factories; their price goes up. Everything is combining to cut down on the food supply. And to arrange it so that in years to come, we may have trouble keeping our present level of food, let alone increasing it.

There are always people who think that all we have to do, after all is abandoned, all this foolish technology that we’ve made ourselves slave to, and go back like our ancestors and live close to the soil with the good things of nature. That would be great if we could do it. If we could go back to the way it was before World War II, technologically, we could support all the people that lived on Earth before World War II. The catch is that in these last thirty years one billion and a half people have been added to the population of the Earth. And we have been feeding them largely because of all these things that we have done in these last thirty years, the good weather, the fertilizers, and the pesticides, and the irrigation, and the green revolution, and all the rest of it. If we abandon that, we also have to abandon a billion and a half people; and there are going to be very few volunteers for the job.

And the second thing, if all of us decide to have wood fires the way our pioneering ancestors did, we’d better remember that there were maybe three million of our pioneering ancestors, and there are two hundred million of us. And there ain’t enough wood. And the price will go up instantly. And there will be a black market. And the forests will be destroyed.

Well, throughout the history of life on Earth, there have been periods where a given species has, for one reason or another, spurted it’s numbers upward temporarily. There’s been a surprisingly good supply of food, the weather has been just right, somehow there have been no predators…something has happened, and the numbers went up. They always went down again, and always the same way; by an increase in the death rate. The large numbers of the species starved when the food ran short. They fell victim to some disease, when as a result of being on short rations they were weaker. They made good marks for predators. It always went down. And the same thing will happen to mankind, we don’t have to worry. The death rate will go up, and we will die off through violence, through disease, through famine.

The only thing is, must we have our numbers controlled in the same way that all other species have them controlled? We have something others don’t; we have brains. We can foresee. We can plan. We can see solutions that are humane. And there is a solution that is humane, and that is to lower the birth rate.

No species in the history of the Earth has ever voluntarily lowered its birth rate in order to control its population, because they didn’t know what birth rate was, how to control it, that there was a population problem.

There is no need to decide whether to stop the population increase or not. There is no need to decide whether the population will be lowered or not. It will, it will!

The only thing mankind has to decide is whether to let it be done in the old inhumane method that nature has always used, or to invent a new humane method of our own. That is the only choice that faces us; whether to lower the population catastrophically by a raised death rate, or to lower it humanely by a lowered birth rate. And we all make the choice. And I have a suspicion that we won’t make the right choice, which is the tragedy of humanity right now.

Well then, in the world of the 21st century in order to keep the birth rate down, we’re going to have to give women interesting things to do that’ll make them glad to stay out of the nursery. And the interesting things that I can think of that we give women to do are essentially the same as the interesting things that we give men to do. I mean we’re going to have women help in running the government, and science, and industry…whatever there is to run in the 21st century. And what it amounts to is we’re going to have to pretend…when I say “we”, I mean men…we’re going to have to pretend that women are people.

And you know, pretending is a good thing because if you pretend long enough, you’ll forget you’re pretending and you’ll begin to believe it.

In short, the 21st century, if we survive, will be a kind of women’s lib world. And as a matter of fact, it will be a kind of people’s lib world because, you know, sexism works bad both ways. If the women have some role which they must constantly fulfill whether they like it or not, men have some role which they would have to constantly fulfill whether they like it or not. And if you fix it so that women can do what suits them best, you can fix it so that men can do what suits them best too. And we’ll have a world of people. And only incidentally will they be of opposite sexes instead of in every aspect of their life.

See, I’ve been so shrewd that I fixed it so that I was born in 1920. Which means I’ll be safely dead. Before the crunch comes!

But you guys will see for yourself. I hope you see a world in which mankind has decided to be sane. But I must say in all honesty that I figure that the chances are against it. Thank you.

 

The Future of Humanity: a Lecture by Isaac Asimov

NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? | Nafeez Ahmed | Environment | theguardian.com

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