That a fall from our current technological state of grace powered by cheap fossil fuels is almost a mathematical certainty, it is always interesting to read fiction that could describe our near and far futures, no matter which path we take, or how fast we get here. Heck, even this blog has a short essay about a possible path downwards.
Part of this fascination is that people get to criticize an author-built world, and wonder what their own reactions and actions would be. Additionally, there is the ‘nuts and bolts’ part – what technologies would fail, which ones would continue, which ones might rise up – all valid questions, and ones which many authors have attempted to answer.
What really intrigues me, however, and what has always been instructive for me about science fiction of any stripe is that good science fiction (or climate fiction, or die-off fiction, if you are prone to making sub-genre descriptions) shows how changes in technology (either adding or subtracting) change the way people interact and behave. Hard science fiction is great, as it can come up with technically ingenious and plausible things, but the great writers have always made their stories more than the technology. Larry Niven is famous for this; he’s written many a hard SF book, and one of Niven’s laws is that ‘ethics changes with technology’. There are many examples of this in our modern world; how we handle death and the ability to keep people “alive” even when they can’t support themselves is a classic. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series of stories brought many of the issues of robotics to the forefront; the list is long.
Now, let’s turn this advancing technology bit on its head. As technological suites fail as time progresses, what sort of ethical “reversions” will we experience? Will ‘lifeboat ethics’ be the norm? Turning back to Isaac Asimov, there was a critical comment he made on democracy; that it can’t survive overpopulation (“The Bathroom Metaphor”). Along these same lines, it may be that certain ethical and legal expectations that we hold dear now, everything from minimum wages, fair and just trials for criminal and civil matters, clean water, the freedom of travel, free medical care at emergency rooms may become unsustainable as we go on. This may not be because of population pressures (our population might actually decline as time goes on), but because our lack of resources make it impossible for things like fair trials, feeding prisoners three square meals a day, and heroic end-of-life medical care to take place.
Likewise, there may be certain things that we consider completely ordinary (living on your own, eating meat, overeating, flying in an aircraft for pleasure, drinking coffee or tea on a daily basis) that may be seen as reprehensible as slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, or child labor are to many of us now.
One very perceptive and astute individual in my world has been thinking about the question of ‘What happens after democracy?” for quite a while, and it dovetails nicely with the questions asked above. The attribution of this quote has been debated a bit, but it brings up the core problem of democracy:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.
My short sketch of an answer here is that democracy may survive, but what might happen is that we may have a feudal component of very strong obligations and responsibilities so that we avoid the difficulties that the above concept brings up. It’s a good question to ask, and how we get and stay there is something to address in detail in a future post.
One of the many intriguing things about these questions of how ethics will change is related to the ‘Seneca cliff‘ plot that is the icon for this blog. How fast will we lose certain niceties in our civilization may be related to the amount of energy it takes to keep these things running, so things like heroic end-of-life measures, and the benefits given to incarcerated prisoners may change radically, and quickly. Things such as gay rights, and having women in power, however, because they in essence cost very little (from an energy perspective), may remain with us.
One last point to think about with regards to our ethical future is that because this will be a global phenomenon (something that makes Ugo Bardi think we’ll have a fast crash, rather than Greer’s fractal collapse), things may be harder on the way down than on the way up. As things fail unevenly, people will see what happens in other places, and may worry about their own situations. Additionally, because we have a great ingrained history of these ‘rights’ throughout the world, the friction that the collapse will bring might be a lot messier than the friction and resistance on the way up.
From the question portion of this week’s essay:
- What basic things do we take for granted, as our ‘God given rights’, will go away first?
- Which ones will be the most difficult to lose for you, personally?
- What things do we do in our current lives, the really basic ones, will people see as obscene or outrageous in a few generations?
- What sort of ethical conundrums will arise? Which ones will go away?
- Cheap energy allowed us (or actually forced us, due to economics) to make slavery unsustainable. Cheap energy, effective/easy birth control, and labor saving devices allowed women to work in office jobs and rise up to positions of power. Did the largesse of cheap energy cause our increase in democracy?