“Collapse” versus “Abundance” : 2 perspectives on next 20 years of the world
As you know by now, I am still a newbie to this forum, but not necessarily to the Topics that are discussed here. In my humble limited research in the last few years, I have come across 2 different views of the world in the next 20 years, and both are based on understanding the “exponential growth” that is underlying the trends. In a Summary:
(A) The “Collapse” Scenario : Do not have to explain here, you all know, and the Crash Course is indeed a good summary
(B) The “Abundance” Scenario : Here the idea is that for many Technology Trends, there is an Exponential Growth visible, like in (a) Computing, (b) Nano-technology, (c) Genetics, (d) Artificial Intelligence, (e) Robotics, etc.. and the impact this have on Energy Creation, Fresh Water production, Food, etc… . In the “beginners” book “Abundance” of of Peter Diamandis you can see an overview of this, and if you read the book “Singularity” of Kurweil, you see the Exponential growth function described behind these Technology domains. Bottom-line: as these Technologies are advancing in an exponential way, we can expect major changes in coming 20 years, and this could lead to a life of abundance….. Simply said as a result: if you can produce enough “free” or “low-cost” energy, you can produce enough fresh water, and then you can produce enough foods, etc… of course, reality is more complicated, but just to make the point simple.
So, two kind of contradicting scenario’s and both based on exponential growth of underlying trends.
I do not know what scenario is more realistic, I only hope that Scenario “B” can help to solve some of the negative impacts of Scenario “A”. It might all be wishful thinking, just to keep my sanity in this 😉
Would love to hear from this community what you think about these 2 scenario’s
Technology alone, as espoused by the Kurzweil sort, will not help the human condition. Our tendency is the same as any organism – expand to the limits of the available resource.
More energy, even if free, simply = more humans on the planet.
Then some other limiting factor will have to kick in…probably pollution. Maybe overt ecosystem collapse.
Until and unless humans (rapidly) develop the ability to govern themselves in some limiting fashion, nature will end up doing that for us.
This describes my central pessimism for the preachings of the Diamandis/Kurzweil crowd. I see no obvious and organized discussions around limits, either at the global/national elvel or at the technology booster level.
But limits do exist, even if we have to think out a few hundred years…for example, even if we discover "free" energy in the form of cold fusion (LENR) and have unlimited access to this mysterious source of energy, if humans grow their energy use by just 2.3% per year, a rate consistent with the past 300 years of energy use growth rate, then the excess heat generated by that energy that cannot be radiated back into space heats up the earth like this:
Hopefully we can all agree there are limits here…. 🙂
Thanks cmartenson, good point, the limits are important. I also do not believe that free energy leads to enough food for everyone, because you are right, then we will grow to another balance (more people) and the world cannot handle more people, even if we all become super-efficient in how we use resources.
If you prefer to take a less factual and more empirical look at the likelihood of each, you can start by asking "Where are the solutions we've been promised over the last few years?"
Some of them are certainly here, and are helping to delay the impending energy crisis. Wind and solar energy are both reducing the workload of coal and oil for certain applications. However, when you look at the energy requirements (as Chris mentions above) there is simply nothing that can keep up with the demands of a population grown as large as ours.
If we accept that there are limits (which are a mathematical certainty) and we can agree we accelerate towards these limits if we hold consumption constant and increase the population, we can arrive at a conclusion that resources will decrease faster as the population increases.
An interesting look at population: http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
If you read the words here, and view this as a logical conclusion, you might want to read Heinberg's "The Party is Over" which discusses why the technologies that are touted as being our saviors are all untenable. Not one can touch the amount of energy produced by oil, nor is any one as versatile as the energy we get from oil.
If you've read Heinberg's work, consider how much energy is required for the technologies to be brought to market. Then consider how dependent the market itself is on oil.
I think any real dialog about technology saving us needs to come after we've solved the problem of the impending Malthusian catastrophe and the end of cheap oil. Once those problems are solved, which will likely require a retooling of our entire financial structure, then technology may open some doors. Really, I think that the discussion you've presented can be restated as follows:
a. Will we have a North Korea style collapse in which oil energy is such short supply that the government allocates it all to themselves, sets up an institution of authoritarian government and essentially forces citizens into ignorance and slavery, or;
b. A collapse characterize by a Cuban-esque decline in which lack of oil brings poverty to communities and forces therm to cooperate in order to make due.
c. An Soviet/Argentina style collapse in which a mafia state emerges and the citizenry is essentially on its own, and the state is portioned out to foreign powers and wealth or internal power struggles.
In any case, for the sake of conversation, how are these technologies going to improve things?
Thanks AM&Chris, it would be good if I will read more about those limiting factors, which basically of which you are both saying, that even if Technology progresses fast, the limiting factors will not disappear.
Regarding your question abt Technology, I cannot recall all of them from the top of my head, but one was about the progress made in Nano-technology, and the impact this has on Solar-cells technology and how fast (exponentially) this was changing towards zero dollar per KWH for Energy in the next 20 years.
I am not a believer that Technology will be a savior for everything, I only hope it will help to reduce the negative impacts of our current (oil-addicted) system, but even then, as was mentioned by Chris, there are still limits. So, perhaps as a conclusion, Technology can only delay the "Collapse" scenario, but cannot solve it.
I am still learning, would love to see good research material on those limiting factors.
Is Dr. Albert Bartlett's presentation "Arithmetic, energy and population":
Richard Heinberg's "the party's over" is also a pretty formative piece.
Are we taking account of the declining population growth in developed countries?
Culture could be considered the real difference between us and the animals. Aren't declining birth rates in developed countries a cultural limiter of population growth? Deer in the forest don't decide as a mating pair to only have a fawn and a half, especially if that mating pair has abundant access to energy in the form of food, but human beings seem to be doing just that.
Assuming cheap energy and food (big assumption) could be solved technologically, and assuming a huge dose of efficiency or resource recovery, possibly in the form of nanotechnology recovering rare earth materials and other elements at the molecular level. And once again assuming a cultural limit to population growth. I guess it is not out of the realm of possibility that technology could save us.
Note, I don't subscribe to this theory, but I think it is worth thinking about. I expect hard limits to kick in before technology has a chance to solve these problems and the economy has the opportunity to deploy said technology. I also don't believe, that even with the technology, the global economy in its current form is sustainable or would deploy this technology properly. I view it as an arms race of sorts that technology will lose, at least in this round.
Hi Kanute, thanks for bringing the human aspect/culture into the mix, our own reflection on human behavior might have some impact, and if I follow you, then you have come to a similar (potential) conclusion, that Technology could bring some solutions, but it will not solve the big picture of "end to growth".
The OECD countries are not generally experiencing population growth. Population growth is most rapid in impoverished third world countries that are still dependent on subsistence agriculture. In the meantime, vaccines and parasite control have reduced their mortality rates. The most humane way of reducing their birth rates would consist of helping them to develop their economies. Large families are not assets for anything but the most primitive economies. To do this we will have to allow them to use the one fuel source that will remain in abundance for a while; namely, coal. It is obvious and stunning hypocrisy for us in the western world to try to deny economic development in the third world.
Good summary on our limits in Growth