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.
- 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).