Thursday, 2 February 2017

The looming non-collapse of the world

The world is about to burn, apparently. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hour-long speech at Davos recently said “the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from,” referring to the protectionism outlined by US President Donald Trump and others.

Politics aside, everyone seems to think civilisation is on its way to collapse. Pretty much every hobgoblin of the “fear the future” movement gets airtime – global warming, peak oil, overpopulation, etc – so it’s worth understanding this system of thinking.

If you are the kind of person who likes to kill trees and spill ink on their dried remains, the end-of-civilization mantra is unflatteringly referred to as “doom porn.” I think the term is appropriate. To its audience, collapse it is exciting and titillating, yet it has some serious problems.

What makes this worldview difficult to argue with is that its assumptions are largely true. Yes, oil exploitation is probably peaking. Yes, atmospheric CO2 is negatively affecting the environment. Yes, human population is growing rapidly. However, it isn’t enough to have the right assumptions. It also needs a predictive model for those assumptions, and that’s where it breaks down.

The problem with collapse thinking is that at no point in human history has civilisation been sustainable. That’s why civilisations progress. Sustainability is not the target.

One counterargument is that “science and technology will save us.” But doom porn anticipates this argument, lumping it dismissively into the term “cargoism.” After all, the idea that “science will save us” is a belief, not a scientific fact. It is sloppy thinking that fails to either address the problem or enlighten the solution.

But the counterargument commits the same fallacy as the argument it seeks to counter, namely that this state of affairs we call the present is worth saving. You might not like it, but the present is not worth saving. The status quo never was the goal and maintaining it shouldn’t be the target for the future.

Mr Xi agrees: “Economic globalisation has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation and interactions among peoples.” Technology evolves, he says.

Our civilisation can use the scientific method the ability to identify problems. Technology is scientific knowledge mated with engineering. Science gives us knowledge, engineering exploits that knowledge. In a way, science is a type of inexhaustible natural resource, where everything we learn is like the discovery of a new ore.

What we should be pushing for is massive and accelerated exploitation of science. We need more GMO food, not less. We need to live in more-extreme environments, not temperate zones. The way to the future lies in the not-yet-tried and even further in the not-yet-discovered.

Instead, the collapse idea emerges from fear. We see the build-up of atmospheric carbon and conclude combustion engines are inherently dangerous. People react like this because they don’t really understand fossil fuel power, how it works, or what it is, and isn’t. The lesson should be how to build better engines, not get rid of them.

We also need more nuclear reactors, more synthetics, more computerisation, more optimisation, more virtualisation, more high-concept science and bigger thinking. Whatever has not been tried should now be tried.

“But these things are dangerous!” Well, the jury is still out on that. Regardless, dangerous compared to what? The status quo is already unsustainable.

If the alternative is collapse then why hedge our bets by standing in the way of scientific progress? If civilisation is truly on the line – if the stakes really are that high – then let’s take everything science tells us and go all in.

Globalisation isn’t synonymous with progress, and protectionism isn’t necessarily an obstacle. Mr Xi’s message is true nonetheless. The laws of physics and the laws of economics converge on his one point – there is no static equilibrium. No status quo. Civilisation only ends if progress stops. So don’t stand in the way.

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