Monday, May 14, 2012

Future Civilisation- Utopia or Dystopia

The author suggests that human civilisation is now poised between a Dystopian and Utopian future, but believes the outcome is surprisingly predictable- and it’s all in the physics. The latest climate numbers have been crunched and they look very bad for life and humans. According to the report delivered by scientists at the Planet under Pressure Conference, leading up to the critical Rio+20 Climate Global Summit in June, global warming is set to rise by 5 degrees centigrade by the end of the century, well past the 2 degree safety net which is now likely to be breached as early as 2030. If drastic physical and social reengineering is not implemented, this will ensure the increasing frequency and violence of environmental impacts due to rising temperatures is unstoppable; triggering huge floods, storm surges, droughts, blizzards and tornados as well as the accelerated melting of the polar ice sheets and tundras, acidification of the oceans and loss of biodiversity.

These aren’t abstract outcomes. The ripple-on effects have already resulted in untold misery for millions every year through starvation, loss of livelihood and disease, while at the same time continuing to degrade the physical and social infrastructure of our fragile human civilisation.
And this will be just the beginning, as the planet begins its trajectory towards an ultimate Venusian unliveable climate.

To compound the problem, according to leading environmental think tanks such as Global Footprint Network, the economy is now operating in excess of the planet’s natural sustainable limits, with humans absorbing resources at around 150% of the planet’s capacity. With shortages already apparent in most key natural resource areas- food, agricultural land, fresh water, unpolluted air and oceans and strategic minerals etc, fossil fuel usage for industry, transport and heating is accelerating, faster than viable renewable energy alternatives can be generated.

And inevitably such critical resource shortfalls will be followed by conflict and chaos in those regions worst affected, resulting in a breakdown of society’s norms. From a pristine planet 20,000 years ago- to this burnt out shell- highly advanced technologically, but now running on empty.

Current corporate and economic systems are seriously compounding the problem, based on a never-ending growth cycle driven by market forces modelled by over-simplistic equilibrium supply/demand parameters, which grossly underestimate and distort the complexities of the real world.

But on the other side of the ledger, a fabulous future awaits humanity. The next generation will be the recipients of super materials such as graphene, replacing metals in everything from consumer electronics to car bodies; quantum computing and communication technologies- providing unlimited computational intelligence and bandwidth capacity; clean energy in the form of smarter renewables as well as fusion power; remedies for most of today’s diseases using stem cells and genetic engineering; new eco-friendly ways of managing our cities and urban environments; and above all the Web 4.0, capable of autonomously applying artificial intelligence to predict and manage the future as a partner.

All these advances promise to create life-sustaining systems that will minimise waste and the drive for endless consumption. And on the social side there may be an end to conflict and a level playing field offering education and democracy for all peoples.
But which future reality will win out- Utopia or Dystopia? The ravages of drought and conflict or the Pandora’s box of untold wealth and peaceful cooperation.

The answer is surprisingly predictable and it’s all in the physics.

If we can generate the information and knowledge needed to rejuvenate the planet in the form of new sustainable technologies and institutional reforms, we can reverse the slide towards the increasing entropy of decay and destruction- plunging us towards an unstoppable Dystopia. But if we can’t hold the line, and are unable to claw back some leverage against the impact of global warming, then we may never be able to squeeze through this bottleneck and enter a golden age of Utopia.

If humanity had another century to make the transition- to get its house in order and adopt a sustainable lifestyle, we would have been on a difficult but doable road to redemption. Nuclear fusion would have kicked in in the latter part of the century along with mega-solar and wind energy baseline projects and major sources of pollution and inefficiency would have been largely eliminated. The highly skewed distribution of wealth would also have been declared untenable and a mindset that respected the natural assets of the planet would have replaced the eternal growth fantasy of yesterday’s discredited economics.

The future of democracy would also have been assured as the last of the dictators and fascist regimes were finally brought to justice. China and the US may even have learned to live in harmony, reconciling their ideological differences in the interests of the common good and their own survival in the face of popular uprisings and the impossible burden of escalating costs of warfare, with the potential to implode their economies as Russia discovered late last century.

But unfortunately the Universe doesn’t work on the basis of happy endings and is impervious to our pleadings. And now Armageddon is almost upon us. We have likely been too slow, too complacent, and too hubristic to make the necessary adaptations in time. Humans after all have always been in control of their own destiny and if there are any shortcomings the technocrats will fix them as they have always done and business will resume as usual.
But now our relationship with lifeboat Earth has turned sour. The ferocity and unpredictability of its global reach whether generated by climate or social change is becoming increasingly obvious- even to the most diehard climate skeptic.

With the hottest temperatures in our history over the last decade disrupting global weather patterns, massive floods and droughts are already upon us, shredding our cosy lifestyles and productivity. We are rapidly approaching the point where there is no time, money or energy to both repair the groaning infrastructure and at the same time improve those technologies and institutions that could create a bulwark against the next onslaught, guaranteeing our salvation.

Just ask the US – the wealthiest country on the planet. Now mired in $15 trillion debt, it is scarcely able to make running repairs to its third world infrastructure,such as its tens of thousands of failing bridges, before being king hit by the next round of climate onslaught. The loss of momentum towards a sustainable society in the US is not hypothetical. It is having an immediate devastating effect on public health, safety and education. Communities can scarcely keep their roads and airports open and provide jobs for their populations let alone inject the trillions of dollars needed to guarantee quality of life for their children and upgrade to the next level of technological fix.

Federal funding is still available for a dwindling percentage of R&;D, but it is drastically declining with ongoing cutbacks, while private industry alone will never invest in a socially optimal level of research, lowering economic growth and innovation. The last remaining assets of this once bountiful empire- its farmlands, forests and wetlands are being stripped bare and auctioned off to big oil for their shale gas and tar sands potential. The short term corporate profits, will be reinvested in oil with few jobs, while critical renewable research gets sidelined and talented scientists compete for scarce societal resources.

And if it’s tough for the US, it’s impossible for the developing world, just starting their run towards a better life and prosperity for their children. And even the middle powers including the majority of EU nations are sinking to third world levels, struggling with the highest debt and unemployment levels in their history, including the great depression.
In the past though it generally worked out all okay in the end. We just mortgaged more of our earth’s precious resources to generate more money and energy to pay the bills and turn entropy into useful information to power our future.

Now for the first time the world is running on empty. No more easy bounty and no more easy money solutions. An increasing proportion of our precious energy and information will from now on be focussed on fighting a rear guard action just to survive against an unstoppable foe. A smaller and smaller proportion will be left over to develop the new technologies needed to safeguard our future.
But unfortunately it appears not near enough to get ahead of the game.

It may be a slow and incredibly painful process as we are forced to watch the steady disintegration of our hard won ancestral civilisation- its knowledge, culture and institutions. The temporal threshold marking the likelihood of such a broken symmetry and decline towards the Venusian endgame has now been set by the best science at just one decade away- not in our grandchildren’s lifetime but in ours.

But there’s almost zero chance that we’ll make it. Because old habits are too deeply ingrained and we are addicted as president Obama has said to the fast food of fossil fuels- the traditional easy and obvious way out of our problems as well as the corporate mindset that worships at the altar of growth and greed. But unfortunately the US solution of extending the life of fossil fuels by digging up tar sands will only magnify the problem.

The physics is beginning to point ominously towards an increase in entropy which will outpace our ability to slow or stop it by injecting more information into the system, with our remaining intellectual assets focussed solely on staving off the increasingly ferocious aspects of its advance.

It’s not a hard equation to compute. The balance between the rate of exponentially increasing entropy or decay delivered by global warming, reducing our planet’s capacity to sustain human life and the rate at which we as information generators can inject the essential knowledge needed to keep us alive. This balance is already seriously out of synch, but most individuals choose not to or unable to see it. It’s a little like a householder continuing to meticulously polish the car and trim the lawn while in the middle of a war zone.

And now the Red Queen is almost exhausted. No matter how fast she runs she can only just maintain the status quo. No matter how much energy she uses, the increase in entropy driven by accelerating climate change is set to outrun her.

This is a fight for survival by possibly the only remaining advanced life-form in the Universe, set in an existential nightmare scenario. The question has been asked many times- why no other advanced civilisations have made their presence known despite evidence of billions of potential earth like planets capable of supporting life in our galaxy?

Perhaps all advanced civilisations are likely to be afflicted by the same disease at a critical point in their evolution- just at the moment Utopia seems to be within their grasp. It’s been suggested by eminent cosmologists such as Max Tegmark that there has always been an apocalyptic event which stopped them in their tracks just when they appeared to be emerging as masters of the universe. The Holocene is the sixth mega catastrophic event in our planet’s history and possibly the one that delivers the knockout punch to humans not reacting fast enough to the imbalance in their information/entropy ledger account.

More sophisticated models may help us understand the process better and even slow it down, but unfortunately even the best models may be too late to stop the predictions coming true.