The Bet

And before you get the idea that it’s all glowing wonders and rose-tinted glasses here at the mighty, mighty Farlops Industries, let me say few words about an essay I read over at Worldchanging the other day.

This planet is great peril. Our implacable, relentlessly expanding technical civilization, which shows no sign of slowing or turning back, is simply not sustainable with current technology. We are consuming irreplaceable and dirty fossil fuels at a growing rate with no serious effort to remove the greenhouse gases they generate. With current technology and consumption habits, for every person on the planet to live as people in the United State would require at least ten Earths worth of energy and natural resources.

This is all old news. A growing number of people have known this since the Sixties.

A growing number of people have realized, but many prefer still to ignore, that what we’ve done, as a global civilization, is taken on a staggering, death-defying gamble. According to reliable data, we’ve got about only few decades to bring everyone on this planet within an ecological footprint of 1.9 hectares per person but still provide the prosperity of 10 hectares per person to billions more outside the post-industrial world. We only get one chance to do this. If we fail, there will be massive death looming in the future for humanity. It may spell the end for our species.

If things stay as they are, we are doomed.

Now some have proposed that there will be, or should be, some great, planet-wide miraculous change and everyone will agree to roll back to earlier technology and social structures.

This is bunk.

You talk to any kid in Nairobi or Lima or Ho Chi Minh City and they’ll tell you what they want. They’ve listened to the state-owned radio, seen satellite television in the village square, have even seen movies made in Bollywood. They’ve seen how the rich in their cities live. They’ve seen how the poor are fleeing rural villages for the slums and shanties of the new cities. They’ve heard stories about how people in the post-industrial world live, in Berlin, in Kyoto, in Seattle, in Sydney. How can they not know? They’ve seen our garbage. They wear our castoffs.

What they want is what we have. And many of them are desperate enough to do whatever is necessary to get it. If China has to cover the planet with nuclear reactors to attain a per capita standard of living equal to the citizen in the United States, they will do that. Nothing short of war will stop them from doing that.

And only the tiniest fraction of people in post-industrial societies are willing to abandon all technology and return to the savannah. No one is burying their cars. No one is casting away their mobile phones or computers. Ted Kaczynski simply didn’t think big enough. If he had precipitated a full nuclear exchange, maybe then he would have mattered.

Seeing this, it’s undeniable: We’re doomed.

The oil and coal will run out. The oceans will rise a few decimeters. The climate will change. The six extinction will continue. There will be growing famine, growing war, growing plagues. A lot of people will die. It may take hundreds of years but eventually, without resources to sustain it, our technical civilization will collapse.

I say all this to remind my friends that I am fully aware of what the stake is. This has been weighing heavily on my mind ever since I was a kid in grade school. The problem is so huge that everything seems to pale in front of it.

We are dealing with planet-sized social inertia. To change a culture takes decades. To change a world of cultures takes centuries. Think of how long it takes to make political and economic changes. At each level–from municipal, to provincal, to federal governments–this process gets slower and harder. At the global level it’s glacial. I don’t think social change will happen fast enough to win this death-defying bet.

Is there a way out? Are we doomed?

The optimist in me would say that science and technology will save us, that science and technology is the only thing that can save us. But as the deadline approaches, as we hurtle past Hubbert’s Peak, I’m beginning to doubt that we’ll outsmart our way out of this.

If anyone doubts my pessimism, let me point them here.

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2 Responses to The Bet

  1. Ralph Reinert says:

    I agree. I, unfortunately, whole-heartedly agree. This idea might be called pessimistic, but I try to live by the following philosophy:
    It is better to be a pessimist. That way, you will always be prepared when bad things happen. But most the time, you will be pleasantly surprised.
    I thought this was the essence of a Benjamin Franklin quote, but a half hour of Google searches could not confirm this. In fact, although I found this idea expressed many times on the Web, I did not find it attributed to any note-worthy person. However, I do know that I did not come up with this particular sentiment myself. I just wish I could credit the true philosopher/wit.

  2. Pace Arko says:

    Yes, I think there is some wisdom to your approach, Ralph. It may not be pessimism itself that irritates people. I think it’s the dismissiveness that pessismists habitually fall into that causes people to be irritated with them.
    I know I’ve fallen into that trap. I’ve said, “It will never work!” with the worst of them.
    But the main point of my rant above was more alarmist than pessimist. We are betting on an outcome with the highest possible stakes.
    I strongly doubt the our society will change fast enough without some kind of novel method of cheap, massive infrastructural change. Some kind of magic scheme that, for example, replaces the entire petrochemical economy with more sustainable technology overnight without causing any serious disruptions to other areas of our society. I mean something as ludicrous as going to bed one night with gas stations and coal driven electrical plants and waking up the next with cheap, efficent photovoltaics everywhere and safe, cheap methods of nuclear waste recycling.
    Some say we’ve only got a few decades to solve this problem before things start getting really tense. The thing that really bothers me is that no one can really say how close this deadline is. A huge number of people say there is no deadline at all and that global warming is still bunk and that Katrina is a fluke, not a sign of a new pattern of weather.
    I’ve read a lot of nanotechnology and a lot of speculation about how it might help us sidestep a lot of problems but I really wonder if we will be able to invent it fast enough (or even invent it at all if Professor Smalley is correct.) to cheat this looming deadline of massive sustainability failure.
    Maybe it will work out. But I wrote this essay to make plain that when I mention stuff like nano, I am fully aware of the stakes.

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