Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Man In The High Castle

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One of the great things about science fiction is that it can extrapolate technological trends, and the social trends that go with them, sometimes based on the smallest of things.   Larry Niven’s comment “ethics changes with technology,” as mentioned in a previous post has always fascinated me, but so have alternate histories, where small changes make enormous impacts on our world.   Larry Niven doesn’t have kind words for “sideways in time” stories (as I recall, he wrote that he hated them), but they are always interesting exercises for those who realize that things in a world can hinge on even the smallest details.   The poem that sums this up, of course, is “For Want of a A Nail“:

For Want of A Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

As seen in Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle (somewhat hazily based on Philip K. Dick’s original novel), or other alternate history short stories and novels (Bring the Jubilee) it is interesting to ask what sort of world we might have lived in if some small political or technological event could have changed our own course, with regard to fossil fuels, Peak Everything, and the general trajectory in which we find ourselves.

From the Hirsch Report, it would seem that mitigating the effects of Peak Oil/Peak Everything would have have to begun at least a two decades before the peak of production was hit, as is seen in these key points:

 

  • The problem is liquid fuels for transportation.
    • The lifetimes of transportation equipment are measured in decades.
    • Rapid changeover in transportation equipment is inherently impossible.
    • Motor vehicles, aircraft, trains, and ships have no ready alternative to liquid fuels.
  • Mitigation efforts will require substantial time.
    • Waiting until production peaks would leave the world with a liquid fuel deficit for 20 years.
    • Initiating a crash program 10 years before peaking leaves a liquid fuels shortfall of a decade.
    • Initiating a crash program 20 years before peaking could avoid a world liquid fuels shortfall.

 

If we call that peak about 2005-2010, that means we would have (as a world) been on that road by 1985-1990 or so.  In our timeline, this was when Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush were in office, and given that Reagan took down the solar panels off the White House, that was not the sort of leadership we needed to get things going in the correct direction.    Given that R&D precedes the introduction of technology by at least a few years, it would probably be that the year 1980 was the year that we might have had a chance to get ourselves on a more environmentally and less destructive path.    Carter started this is 1976, when he was elected, and as an engineer, he probably knew the terrible math of our energy predicament more than any other president since.

Now, many folks absolutely did not like President Carter’s term in office; some thought has been given to the alternate history where he was elected, and some of that commentary isn’t pretty.   Yet some think he might have been the last decent man in the White House.   The almost election of Al Gore might have been another turning point, but as that was in 2000, a bit late to get the ship of the world economy turning.   So, 1980 seems to be one of the branching points in history that could have averted some of the pending disasters that are starting to appear 35 years later, here in 2015.  Until someone shows us YouTube clips from a world where we did make that change (or someone with the Twitter handle @TheGrasshopperLiesHeavy, tells us in 140 characters or less what technological advances we missed in the renewable energy world), of course, we’ll never know.   There are some interesting tales out there; perhaps one day, we’ll find a visitor from one of those other places where things went better than here.

Questions:

  • If we go with 1980, what might have been the “lost nail” in this alternate history?  The disaster in the desert (Operation Eagle Claw) in Iran, if it had succeeded, or the discovery that Ronald Reagan’s campaign was doing a backroom deal with the Iranians to delay the release of hostages (via a Watergate-style oversight by the perpetrators) might have done the trick.
  • What would we have had then?  The ubiquity of solar hot water heaters, and an early jump-started solar photovoltaic industry?   Money that would have gone to the military, going to environmental or social issues?  Perhaps even a financial system that regained its sanity, without a rise in the federal debt that really soared under Reagan?  Or would the Soviets have held on a bit longer?
  • What if we extrapolated a bit earlier, two decades before the peak of US oil production in 1970?   In 1952, Eisenhower, the man who coined the term, the “military-industrial” complex (which originally was said to be the “military-industrial-congressional” complex) was elected, and for eight years presided over a wealthy America (although the 50s weren’t great if you were a minority).  Could Eisenhower have gotten us going,  without an oil shock or Three Mile Island to put us on the right path?
  • What would our world even look like, today?
  • For the bonus/real stretch of the imagination – would the Nazis of The Man in the High Tower recognized climate change due to the rise in CO2, and done anything about it?  Someone did write a book about this (How Green Were the Nazis?), but who knows what would have happened after the war was concluded.

(The grunge flag above in the tweaked PKD cover page is available here).

 

 

 

What if we are wrong? REALLY wrong?

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Bertrand Russell wrote this:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Now, in the Peak Everything world, we think we are pretty smart.   We see the decline in fossil fuel availability, ocean biomass, EROEI, the rise in CO2 levels, pollution, population, debt levels, and general strangeness in our societies, and think “Yeah, we are in for a rough ride.”   Again, check the folks to the right in the blog roll to read how we are going to hell in a handbasket, in excruciating detail.

But what if we are wrong?  One of the things I’ve always asked those folks is, “who is your best critic, who is someone you respect, but has opposite worldviews?”  Now, a few of the folks I’ve posed this question to (Greer, McPherson) have come back with folks who share the worldview that we are in trouble, but none of them has come out with the poster child for the antithesis of the Peak Everything world of Ray Kurzweil, or those in the upper left hand portion of the Collapsnik chart.

Now, this error in judgement could be wishful thinking that “alien space bats” might come along and rescue us, but there may be a small probability (or even large), that heck, we might all be living in a simulation, so all bets are off, regarding our uncertain and wacky future.  What to do in this simulation, then?  Act as if it doesn’t exist, and hope for the best (a reversed Pascal’s Wager)?   Given the UFO issue, discussed previously, perhaps many, many strange things are afoot.  After all, as JMG has commented, when the news of the world gets as weird as an Onion story, you wonder how those folks can keep up.  A plague wipes out a good chunk of humanity, and somehow (yes, lots of handwaving here) this out-of-control ecosystem softlands, and the plague smartens up the survivors by a few IQ points, or we get some sort of AI that does figure out how to get us out of this mess and put us on a path to sustainability.   A few scenarios might actually happen, and stranger things have happened in the world.

Again, we prepare for what we think is going to happen, but the future is one big fat unknown.   Perhaps my point here is yeah, we have a good idea of things of how things could go, but also, we could be wrong.

This week’s questions:

  • Is it a waste of time to even think this way?
  • Are there any “softlanding” scenarios that don’t involve alien space bats?
  • How do you act towards folks who think so differently?   Are you a bit smug about your Peak Everything worldview?
  • When else in your life have you been completely and utterly wrong, after thinking you were completely and utterly right?

 

 

 

Keep calm and divest…

BINGO!  A picture post today on Resource Crisis hits the nail on the head:

keep-calm-and-divest-from-fossil-fuels

Whenever the discussion of “why they hate us,” and “why do we have to be involved in the Middle East” pops up, any real discussion goes straight back to energy.   If we were truly energy independent, we would probably give as much concern to the varied situations there as we did during the Rwandan genocide, and to boot, the folks there wouldn’t have the resources to either mount attacks on the West, or to spread ideologies that many of us scratch their heads over.   The energy in fossil fuels (oil, especially) is the lifeblood of the modern world, and as a result, it translates to incredibly dense concentrations of money and power.   Energy independence, however, is something that can be a bit problematic for those who want to keep you hooked on buying energy from them.

This, the obvious being said, one wonders when energy stops being the critical element in our society, and when the key element becomes water.   Things that are unimaginable today, either politically, or physically, might be the norm.   Someone recently pointed out the book The Water Knife to me (devoured in almost a day!), and in it, it has interstate commerce being drastically curtailed, the rise of arcologies, an incredibly increasing gap between the rich and poor, and a host of dystopian elements that look like something out of Soylent Green or Mad Max.

Might we see such things in our future?   Only time will tell.

Questions:

  • Who will be the Saudi Arabia of water?  The Great Lakes states?   Greenland?  Antarctica?
  • What will happen to our political structures as water becomes more important?
  • Water is significantly different than oil, in that it can be recycled more easily, is far more critical for daily life, but can also be ‘produced’ by some very low tech means.  What would a water OPEC look like?
  • What marginal religions or philosophies would be radically more powerful if water was the key to new empires in the 21st century?

What to watch?

So, your friends aren’t paying attention, and think all this stuff is doom and gloom, these converging catastrophes and/or stair step declines that are coming our way.   Surely “they” will find a way to get us out of this mess.   But your comments go nowhere, and they ignore your commentary.  Time to bring in the experts.

You of course, could get them to read a few books, but given the attention span of most humans in the modern age, you may have to get them to watch videos instead.  Alas, the track record of popular movies (i.e., “2012”, or “The Day After Tomorrow”) is pretty horrible, and very few movies show the reality of things, even though some of their premises are distantly related to a few facts.

2012

(The promotional poster for the film “2012”.  Note that it is not a documentary.)

Even Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, with a lot of facts included (although needed), gave some lukewarm “solutions” such as “buy a hybrid car” and “recycle.”

Some more serious stuff, thankfully, is available at the various video sharing sites.   There’s plenty of commentary of course, but what videos give a good view of the future, without the predictable ‘feel good’ solutions, or a few hopeful words at the end (to allow you to go back to your old life, without the pinpricks of logic keeping you up at night)?

For starters there’s  What A Way To Go: Life At the End Of Empire.  It’s a good introduction, because it has a good mix of interviews with various luminaries in the field, has a personal touch, and a no-nonsense reality check at the end, which tells us “Yeah, it isn’t going to be fun, but we should kind of get used to the idea, and learn to let go of this old world.”   If you are even more inclined, there’s lots of extra extended interviews that didn’t make it (due to time constraints).

Getting a bit darker, Collapse is another film which hits the same themes, but this time with Michael Ruppert narrating a worldview that brings up similar themes.

The last recommendation is for one that is a tour-de-force of simplicity – Albert Bartlett’s lecture on the exponential function, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy.”

  • What other videos would you add to this list?
  • Are there any videos which give the opposite side of the argument?   Thrive comes to mind, as does anything with Ray Kurzweil, of course.

The fascinating question

Last week, JMG had a post that touched quite a few folks; he spoke of a friend who had died, and of the feelings and introspection that came along with that.  Sobering stuff, talk of death.   A few were calling it one of his best posts ever.  This praise is from some very erudite folk who read his work regularly, and for someone who does some pretty darn good writing on a weekly basis, it really stood out.   Thinking and writing about the reality of death is something that our modern society doesn’t do very well and perhaps it is possibly the reason we have the predicament we are in.

One of the elements that was brought up in his essay was, “By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power.”  This is something that struck a chord, and prompted me to ask, “How is it that the incredible cognitive dissonance that so many others can live with is rejected by you?” Maybe someone has done some sort of study on this; how do people lose that “cognitive dissonance filter”?  For me, how a “cognitive dissonance filter” gets engaged could very well be the linchpin of how to (possibly) break the logjam of non-engagement in the topics that are discussed at the ADR and other related places.   In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith wrote “I understand the HOW, but not the WHY.”

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Here, the inverse is true; it is probably easier to understand WHY [people have huge cognitive dissonance filters], but not HOW those filters are rejected by the few.

I didn’t get a ‘gold star’ for the question (which he occasionally gives out to sharp minds in the audience), but JMG did mention it was a fascinating question, and a few folks did respond; some referring to Do The Math‘s recent survey, and another, (Jo) with this great piece of commentary:

Here is my hunch for the groups of people who manage to live without cognitive dissonance. I think they would have had experience of being outsiders – maybe due to their class, gender, religion or cultural group. And yet this experience hasn’t left them as victims, or scurrying to try and blend in to the society which has marginalised them – I am guessing that there has probably been support somewhere – family, religion, philosophy, mentors – who help them along the path to meaningful action within the context of their being able to critically evaluate the society they live in..

I think that being a member of the powerful elite of any society makes it so much more difficult to be critical of it, or to entertain any possibility of change. The amount of psychological investment in maintaining the staus quo is enormous, let alone any other consideration.

Jo also mentioned studying sociology as a path to losing one’s cognitive dissonance filters.   As much as engineers and folks from the hard science worlds may turn their nose up at the ‘softer’ sciences, those areas of research and scholarship might be just the kinds of things that may get people to look at their own societies and corresponding blind spots.

When thinking about the most radical thinkers I’ve known and read about, the ones who don’t have huge cognitive dissonance filters, it seems most of them fit in this pattern.   Some, however, such as the Buddha, have easy lives, but do go off the ‘normal’ path anyway.  According to some, he was born into a wealth as a prince, and although (according to the story) he grew up in a life of luxury, he did break ranks, and start to question the very nature of reality, and rejected his the easy life he was born into.  This is a good starting thesis, and lets hope more folks talk about this.   The science part of our future is pretty well mapped out.  It is now time for people to engage and realize that we’ve got real problems.   Unlike the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, just because we ignore our problems won’t mean they won’t affect us.   As Tom Murphy points out, “As with any 12-step program, admitting that there is a problem is step one.”   Over at Decline of Empire, there’s a great three part essay on the “Flatland thinking”, and it brings up why people ignore things, but the converse is a bit tricker.

These notes above are some possibilities of how this open-mindedness/ability to fight cognitive dissonance occurs, but there are seemingly enough variations to give all of us pause.  As was said in another context; “…there are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit.”   In a nutshell – What is it that makes very few people embrace hard to swallow realities?

Questions for this week’s post:

  • What set you on the path of critical thinking?   Were you an outsider/outcast growing up?
  • If you are made an outsider/outcast later in life, will this effect change your worldview so that your cognitive dissonance filter falls away?   Or does becoming an outsider/outcast later in life just make you want to get back into the mainstream?
  • Is this the only way to make a cognitive dissonance filter go away?  Is suffering and/or isolation something that is always present in these transformations?  What is the spark that sets those internal fires raging?