Posts Tagged ‘Future’

The next ten billion years.

May 17, 2019

The only thing certain about the future is that this, too, shall pass away.  To get an idea of what that may mean, click on The Next Ten Billion Years by John Michael Greer on The Archdruid Report.  It’s not that his specific predictions are sure to come true, although there’s no specific reason why they couldn’t.  It’s that almost everything we think is important is just a blip in the cosmic scheme of things.

I’ll be gone, you’ll still be here

December 14, 2017

I’m 81 years old today.  I don’t come from a long-lived family, and I have what they call a pre-existing medical condition, so I don’t expects decades more of life ahead of me.

I sometimes regret I won’t see what the future holds in store.  But the more I think about the future, the more I’m relieved that I won’t.

The odds are good that I will win what Ian Welsh calls the death bet – the bet that I will have enjoyed the good things the world has to offer and die before I have to pay the price.  If you are 60 years old are younger, the odds are that you will lose.


Right before the financial crash of 2008, there was a saying among Wall Street speculators about when the financial bubble would burst.  “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

In fact none of them suffered any bad consequences from their actions, up to and including financial fraud.  President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arranged to have the big banks and investment firms bailed out of the consequences of their mistakes, and Attorney-General Eric Holder declined to prosecute financial fraud by heads of companies deemed “too big to fail.”

The Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department prioritized reviving the stock market, to the great benefit of owners of stocks and bonds, including investors in mutual funds such as myself.   But then, even under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the financial markets recovered before the job markets did.

Now the U.S. economy is in another bubble, just like the last one—overhangs of debt that can’t be paid, increasing concentration of wealth at the top, the decline of the mass consumer market and the failure of either corporations or the government to invest for the future.

It’s probable, but not certain, that the government will succeed in bailing out the big players, just like the last time.  What is certain is that this can’t go on forever.   Without big changes in the financial system, there will be a final crash in which the institutions are not too big to fail, but are too big to rescue.


For more than 60 years, the United States government’s policy toward nuclear war was deterrence.  The theory is that the best way to be safe from war is to have nuclear weapons and be willing to use them if necessary.  In other words, if you want peace, be prepared to go to war.

So far this policy has worked.  We’ve gone to the brink of war a couple of times, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, but we’ve always pulled back in time.   There have long been factions in the U.S. government that wanted to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons, but they’ve always been sidelined or disregarded.

I think it is likely to work—right up until the time it doesn’t work, and it only has to fail once.  If you play a game of Russian roulette, you’re likely—although not certain—to win.  If you continually play Russian roulette, you’re certain to someday lose.

I don’t expect nuclear war with North Korea, although the chances are more than zero.  I don’t expect nuclear war with Russia, although the chances are greater than war with North Korea.   But unless our policy changes, both concerning armaments and our foreign policy in general, there will be a war in which we and everybody else will be the loser.


Yesterday’s city of the future

September 23, 2015


This is the city of the future, as imagined by an architect named Harvey Wiley Corbett in the 1920s.

It was included in Gregory Benford‘s The Wonderful Future That Never Was, a collection of predictions from Popular Mechanics magazine.

I lifted it from a blog post by Dan Wang, who teaches economics and philosophy at the University of Rochester and whom I’ve never met.

Does humanity’s future rest on Mars?

November 10, 2014

The Earth has existed for billions of years, and life arose only once.  We know that because the DNA of all living creatures, from humans to yeast, is related. For all we know, Earth is the only abode of life in the universe.

Life has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and intelligence life appeared only once.  Vision came into existence by means of several different evolutionary paths, but intelligence exists only in creatures with brains.  Even if some kind of life exists elsewhere in the universe, Earth may be host to the only intelligent life.

The whole saga of human life may be a brief and unimportant episode in the history of the universe, and human civilization a minor and short-lived part of that.

marsPIA02653-fullBut that’s not the only possibility.  It is possible that the history of human life and civilization on Earth may be the prelude to the spread of life through the universe, a story that would continue for billions of years.

Recent discoveries show hundreds of planets around stars within observation distance.  We don’t know how to get to those planets, but we do know how to get to planets within our Solar System, which would be a first step.

The billionaire American entrepreneur Elon Musk, the lesser known Dutch promoter Bas Lansdorp and others have announced their intentions of establishing a human colony on Mars.  They want to be real-life versions of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s David Delos Harriman character in The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Like Harriman, they seek profits only as a means of sending humanity to the planets and stars.

vikinglander1-1I am torn between the grandeur of this enterprise and the seemingly hard practical facts.  Establishing a permanent human colony on Mars would be infinitely more difficult than, for example, establishing a self-sustaining colony in Antarctica or the Gobi Desert or a domed city at the bottom of the ocean.

Would people go?  Many say they would.  Could they sustain themselves in an environment so much more unforgiving than anything on Earth?  Would there be an economic payback?  Would people on Earth commit to supporting them indefinitely?

I don’t know enough to answer these questions, but my gut feeling is “no”.  But then again, I agree with Arthur C. Clarke, another science fiction writer, who said that the only way to know the limits of the possible is to venture a little bit into the impossible.


Why do we discount the future?

January 7, 2014

Ian Welsh wrote on his blog (one of my favorites on my Blogs I Like page) that we Americans don’t care about the future any more.

The men and women who lived through the Great Depression always planned for the future. They built power plants which produced more power than needed, bridges which could handle more traffic, water purification plants which produced more water than needed. They made sure infrastructure would last for decades, and then built it so well it outlasted even their specifications.

Their heirs, the Silents and the Boomers, thought this was absurd.  Why not party now, and let the future take care of itself?

Call this the “death bet”. In its pure form, the death bet is just that, a bet that when the bill comes do, you’ll be dead.  If you live a good life and die owing millions, well, what do you care?

But someone will pay that bill.  Maybe it will be your creditors, who might even go out of business, unable to collect what they are owed.  Perhaps it will be your heirs, if the millions adhere to property.  Perhaps it will be someone you don’t even know.

But someone will pay.  The good life, bought by debt, is always paid for.

The death bet is why we are not dealing with climate change, even though we know that it is coming and we know it will kill hundreds of millions and might even destroy our entire society.  The death bet is why our governments make huge tax cuts today knowing that either taxes will have to be increased in the future or spending will have to be drastically cut because the spending is not used for investment.  But in the meantime the government can borrow, or print money, so who cares?  The politicians who make the tax cuts won’t be in power, and many of the people who receive the cuts will be dead, so what do they care?

The death bet is why America had a 2.4 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit as of 2009. It is why Californians voted in 1978 to disallow property tax increases of more than 2% per year. And it is why tuition rates have increased by hundreds of percentage points more than inflation in many countries.

A death bet always come due. It just isn’t always paid by those who made it.

via The Death Bet.

Why is this?  I think it is reinforced by a philosophy that says pursuit of self-interest in a free market is sufficient to produce a good society, and moral values just get in the way.  This is not a question of liberalism vs. conservativism per se.  You can believe in individual self-reliance and oppose the welfare state, and still be concerned about your neighbors and those who will come after you.   The house I live in was built in the 1920s, before anybody dreamed of a New Deal.  Yet it is more solidly built than many of the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another factor is that American society since its beginning has been continually transformed by rapid technological change.  Why make an automobile or a computer that will last 25 years when it will be replaced by a better model in five years?  We become habituated to focusing on the new at the expense of maintaining the old.

Some of our problems seem so intractable that it is easier to try to postpone the day of reckoning rather than to solve them.  While it would be perfectly feasible and economically beneficial to launch a public works problem to repair America’s crumbling bridges, dams and water and sewerage systems (what Welsh calls the infrastructure debt), it is much harder to face up to the need for sustainable energy and the problem of global warming.  These would require daunting transformations of society that I, for one, find it virtually impossible to face up to.

That is why apocalyptic religion, and apocalyptic fiction and movies are so popular.  If we are living in the End Times, if civilization is going to collapse anyway, why bother to invest in infrastructure, education or scientific research.

At age 77, I probably will win Welsh’s “death bet.”  I expect to fall apart before American society does.  I guess that makes me part of the problem.

The Google Search timeline of the 21st century

April 1, 2012

Click on xkcd for more like this.

Vision of a hardscrabble future

April 1, 2011

I wrote a post a couple of months ago entitled A prosperous industrial society without oil? about what life would be like after the affordable oil ran out if we successfully made a transition to nuclear, coal and/or green energy.  James Howard Kunstler anticipated my speculation in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. He said it’s not going to happen.

The “converging catastrophes” of the subtitle include global climate change and the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, but the most important one is the exhaustion of affordable oil supplies, which has already begun.

Oil is the basis of the American material standard of living.  The oil industry originated in the United States. When I was a schoolboy, the US was the world’s chief oil-exporting nation.  After our domestic production passed its peak, we turned to imports.  Now they may be peaking, too.

In my earlier post, I claimed that it would be possible to have a functioning industrial civilization without oil, based on some combination of nuclear power, coal and green technologies.  We could have electric trolley cars instead of automobiles, steam locomotive trains instead of airlines.

Kunstler anticipated my argument.  He noted that electric power, steam engines and the so-called green technologies are all products of an energy-intensive industrial civilization.  It would be technically possible to transition to non-oil energy sources, particularly nuclear power, provided this was done while we still had a functioning petroleum-based industrial economy.  But neither our dysfunctional government, our short-sighted corporate establishment nor we the people have the will to prepare for the future.  Once the emergency happens, it will be too late.  We won’t have any of the easy-to-get ores and fuels which were the basis of the original industrial revolution.

The Americans who will survive the emergency best, he wrote, are farms owners and small town residents in the Northeast and Great Lakes areas, who own farmland and possess traditional craft skills.  Mennonites probably will do well, he wrote; so will organic farmers who don’t depend on tractors, milking machines and seed companies.  Animal husbandry will be in great demand, he wrote; there will be few pets, but many working animals.  Horses will be as common as automobiles are today.

In his view suburbia will become literally as well as figuratively a vast wasteland. Big box retail stores, which depend on just-in-time deliveries over long distances, will cease to exist.  Big cities will not survive on their present scale, although he thinks certain sites, because of geography, will always will be urban centers – New York City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans and so on.  Most Americans, except for farmers on the land, will live in small towns whose economic purpose is to service the agricultural economy.

He thinks the South – “the Land of NASCAR” – will fare poorly because it depends on air conditioning and the automobile.  He doubts many people in the Rockies, the Great Plains and the Southwest will survive the collapse of the big irrigation systems.  People in the rainy coast of the Pacific Northwest will do all right if they’re not attacked by pirates (!) .

All in all, the survival of the world’s 6 billion people (at the time of writing) depends on industrial agriculture and petroleum-based fertilizers, he said; mass starvation will result when these are no longer available.

Kunstler himself has moved to the village of New Corinth, in northeastern New York near Saratoga.  He has learned the use of hand tools, and owns a gun “which is a great comfort.”  Most importantly, he has made connections with his neighbors.  Making yourself part of a community is the most important survival skill.

He emphasized that his predictions are not what he wants to happen, but what he thinks will unfortunately happen.  He said he would be pleased if some sort of miracle technological breakthrough restored the era of cheap energy, as when the peaking of the supply of whale oil sparked the development of petroleum technology, but it would be foolish to count on this happening.  As the saying goes, hope is not a plan.


Yesterday’s future today

July 3, 2010

A century ago people envisioned cities with amazing skyscrapers, but they couldn’t have envisioned the amazing things that were actually built.

I would like to think people a century from now will be building things that are even more amazing. But maybe not. Maybe they will look back on our period as one of wretched excess based on denial of global climate change and the peaking of the world oil supply.