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The religions of future scientific progress and future collapse


[I wrote this on November 28, 2012]

Some of us with spare time like to attempt predicting the future. Or, we like to read about other people's predictions of the future.

Prediction is tough because there is so much chance variability in the observed universe. And on top of that, there is an unknown amount of variability in the unobserved universe. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

The past few hundred years have been unusual, and likely unprecedented, in human history here on earth. Our species has undergone explosive 10x population growth since the 18th Century, and an even more explosive 100x resource utilization growth. More than one source tells me that per capita energy use in developed countries today is about 100 times that of the most primitive humans. It is as though developed humanity each utilizes the labor of 100 energy slaves via mechanized food production, transportation, industry, commerce, and the comforts of home. That is the average, some of us are fortunate enough to have a million energy slaves per capita. Collectively, our federal government directs the efforts of several billions of energy slaves.

Along with this population and resource boom, we've witnessed explosive growth of scientific knowlege and engineering skills -- it is a positive feedback loop, in which discoveries lead to resources which lead to new discoveries, etc.

All this explosive growth has led to a stark split in our opinions of the future. Some people simply assume this growth will continue exponentially into the future forever. It seems our developed societies expect that economic growth will continue, at more than 2% per year, without fail, or we become mad at our leaders and throw them out.

Others try to assess and model our available resources and claim that we humans are overshooting, wrecking the planet, and rushing headlong toward a global collapse of civilization. Meanwhile, non-human species are going extinct at catastrophic rates that have rarely been matched in our billions of years of evolution.

Some respond to these gloomy predictions with the hope that future social, scientific, and engineering progress will save us (and the rest of the planet) from ourselves.

It seems there is a race between resource utilization and progress.

Personally I think collapse is inevitable, our current developed civilization appears to depend on endlessly exponential growth for peaceful dispute resolution. Endlessly exponential growth is simply not possible. Therefore, we will hit the wall at some point, and blow each other up in the long awaited World War III. But I don't think we can predict when this collapse will happen ahead of time. Sort of like earthquakes, we can tell that stress is building in the system, but we can't tell when the system will break.

I think it is clear we are at a point of high stress, in that energy prices -- as compared to general price levels -- are near their highest recorded values. But this still doesn't mean that the system will break soon. Global aggregate energy production is still growing. And there are any number of random events that could either push us into global collapse next year, or forestall collapse for another generation or longer.

Meanwhile, there are always regional collapses happening all over. Countries falling into civil war, for example. This has always been the case. If you have the time to fret about global collapse, you must not live in Syria. And smaller collapses, such as corporate bankruptcies. Or family breakups. And even smaller collapses, like individual health problems and terminal illnesses. Or look to the sky, where stars are exploding all the time, though most of them are too far away to see without a telescope ;-)


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