How would uncontrolled growth affect society?

In the previous blog, I mentioned Paul Ehrlich’s dystopian view of the future, based on the argument, which is indisputably true, that you cannot have exponential growth on a fixed area. That is straightforward mathematics, and there is no way around it. Once upon a time, apparent limits were dealt with by emigration, thus many from Europe that could not make out went to America, but that was only available because we could expand the area. There is, of course, the rest of the Universe, essentially an unlimited volume, but there are problems, the most obvious one of which is that we have no way of getting there right now.

So, what do we do? Many will argue that we can put off the decisions. Thus the resource shortage is not imminent. Oil is obviously going to run out eventually, but eventually should be a long way away. We can make out and deal with that when it turns up, right? In my view, wrong. As illustrated in the futuristic ebook novels that I am writing to illustrate my argument, I think there is a worse problem: economics. What has happened is that governments have tended to leverage themselves. The idea is simple enough: if you borrow now, then grow nicely, it is far easier to pay back in the future. Much of the infrastructure built in the early twentieth century was constructed this way. That is fine while the economy is growing, but less so when it begins to contract. Think of owning a home. As your salary increases, mortgage repayments are progressively easier, but if your salary decreases or ends, or if interest rates rise, an overcommitted home-owner faces insolvency. And with fixed resources, certain types of growth go on indefinitely. We cannot know when opportunities will cease to arise, but we know they will.

In my ebook Puppeteer, I suggested a future where the cost of filling a car, admittedly with a big tank, cost $1,000. Because of the cost of oil, only too many people could not get to work so employment dropped, tax takes dropped, consumption dropped dramatically hence businesses collapsed and governments became insolvent. The problem then is, everybody still has to live, they have to eat, they have to keep out of the rain. At first, people try to get by and the wealthier ones succeed, but what happens to those who cannot? How many of those who are not wealthy but who are in a position of power or authority will not try to use that position for personal benefit? My guess was that lawlessness and corruption would obviously increase. Not everybody will become lawless, but enough will to make a country ungovernable at which point society starts to fall to pieces. If the choice is between robbery and starving, what would you do? Of course this will not happen overnight, and Puppeteer is set as the decay is commencing, and the plot involves one person’s scheme to avoid collapse by organizing the greatest piece of terrorism with the goal of bringing everyone to their senses.

Why write such a novel? Apart from the fact it gave an environment to write a thriller, I am hoping that some of the thoughts expressed might make people think. If we go back to Ehrlich’s equation, the outcome is not inevitable. There is no reason why we cannot use our brains and work out a way to avoid these desperate outcomes. But if we are going to do that, there is no time better to start than now. And that will start with working out what we have to do and how we are going to pay for it. Of course you would not approve of the terror methodology in Puppeteer (and neither do I), but what do you think could bring governments to act for the long-term benefit of society?

A dystopian future?

In my previous blog, I mentioned that predicting the future is not sensible; the future generally refuses to behave exactly as you think it should. That, however, does not mean that general trends are not real, even if they are not immediately followed. One example comes from the American biologist Paul Ehrlich, who in 1968 wrote The Population Bomb. His argument was that with finite planetary area, there cannot be continual growth because sooner or alter all the available resources, such as area for farming, get used up. Worse, if the growth is unconstrained, it follows the exponential form, i.e. the rate of growth is proportional to the size, and like compound interest, as it approaches a constraint, the last part of the growth is far more significant and far more difficult to reverse than the early parts.

In accord with the difficulties of predicting the future, Ehrlich’s predictions have been shown to be wrong in that the food supply per unit area has increased greatly and we have far more food available than he predicted. However, Ehrlich appears to be unrepentant, and in my opinion, rightly so. Everything has not happened as he predicted, but the basic argument is correct: the size of the planet has not increased, and the amount of resources has not increased. We may have found more than he expected, but that does not alter the fact that they are limited. From the mathematical point of view, Ehrlich’s original equation was missing some terms, but there is no evidence the missing terms would alter the overall consequence.

There are three types of effects that will greatly affect our future. The first is population. Quite simply, the more people, the less use they can each make of the finite resources. The second is the second order effects of the population. For example, I was a teenager in a farming area. Thanks to irrigation, the area is now far more productive, and is an example of where Ehrlich’s predictions failed. Food production is the product of area and productivity, and while area is constant, productivity has increased. However, it cannot increase indefinitely, and so far it has done so at the price of a poorer river quality and excessive nitrates in the aquifers. Similarly, the 9 Gt of carbon being burnt each year is almost certainly going to lead to very significant sea-level rises, which will wipe out vast amounts of prime agricultural land, while the increased acidity in the oceans will most likely lead to the extinction of marine animals such as shellfish that require the deposition of aragonite to form their shells. The third is that we are chewing through the fossil resources. Oil is the obvious one, but when I hear enthusiasts point out that wind power will solve the energy shortage, most of those enthusiasts have never considered the problem of supplying the neodymium for the magnets. Many solar cells also use elements that are difficult to obtain, however it is also possible to make solar cells based solely on silicon, so if we have sufficient energy to make them, silicon is effectively unlimited. Nevertheless, solar energy has inevitable problems, one of which is power density. I have seen one proposal to power the UK though solar energy in the Sahara. The required area is very large but it is available, although there may be competition for the area. But then the problem comes, what happens in a sand storm? A brown-out until the cells are cleaned/replaced?

As I said in the previous blog, the future refuses to cooperate. There are things we can do to avoid the very bad outcomes, but to do so we have to start now. We have to decide what might work, then we have to make it work. Will we? In my futuristic ebooks, I suggest that we do not. Now, of course it is desirable to have struggling situations in fiction, but I still think this will happen. Of course, equally in the fiction I can propose answers to the then current problems. Those answers work much better in advance!

Structure of a trilogy.

Two things happened this week, one important, one amusing now, but less so then. First, the important thing: My ebook Jonathon Munros  is now available (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EK5T6WE ) and not only that, I got a good review (http://www.ebookanoid.com/?p=11945). This is the third (and perforce, final) of the trilogy, First Contact. One of the points raised by the reviewer was a comment on my comment in the blurb about whether the other two in the trilogy have to be read first. Now obviously it is desirable that they are, but it brings to question, how should a trilogy be structured? My personal view is that each should have an ending that resolves something, but until the last one, obviously not everything.

Trilogies (or other multiples) can go from essentially separate books that are connected by the same character(s) through to what is essentially one long story. Most are somewhere in between. One problem for the author is how provide the starts and ending at the transitions. Some authors seem to leave the endings as some sort of suspension, encouraged perhaps by the end of TV seasons where everybody is left in an impossible situation. My personal view is, as a reader, I do not like that. I think that when the reader finishes a book, even though the story is not finished, it should feel like the story has reached a stopping point and something has been resolved. Trilogies have a strong history, perhaps the most famous being Lord of the Rings. The structure of that is interesting because while each book has an ending of sorts, it is obviously not the end in the first two. Equally, the second and third start where the previous one left off, which probably requires that the earlier ones be read first. Is that desirable?

Rightly or wrongly, I feel that structure is important and I think I have it under control. Fortunately, First Contact has a “three-act” type structure, but that still required something to close at the end of each book. At the end of the first book (A Face on Cydonia), five main protagonists had embarked on an expedition to assess whether the face was an alien monument, and if so, what was it there for? However, the story that linked the three books involved the problem that Earth’s economy was largely beholden to giant corporations, and the people in them were prepared to do anything to promote themselves. These five protagonists had five different and almost mutually incompatible agendas, and the book ended with the question of the face being resolved, but in a way that was unexpected to each of them, and each was presented with exactly what they did not want. So one problem was resolved, a new one (what could they do about it?) was introduced, and the problem of governance remained unresolved in the background. The protagonists had plans, but at the end there was no pressing crisis, and I think that is a fair ending, although it was probably the least satisfactory of the three.

The problems for the second book (Dreams Defiled) included how to start it and how to end it satisfactorily. The starting involved each protagonist setting out on his or her particular objective, and that permitted a small reminiscence. However, each protagonist failed in some sense, failures included accidental death, murder, subversion, lack of ambition, too much ambition, a lack of morality and a willingness to do anything to advance, so the second book ended with all the protagonists of the first either dead or subdued, but with the dystopian background enhanced. The second book is essentially about what the Romans called imperium. The book ended with the dreams of the first book vanished, and a general lack of justice being prevalent.

The third book starts out with revenge, it produces androids, and they seek revenge, first on what they think they ought to do, and then for what happens to some of them as the authorities try to stop them. So, while its beginnings require acceptance of some background, such as why a character wants revenge on another (and it is explained briefly early in the story) if that is accepted, it is essentially stand-alone. Each book is really about something different, but with an over-riding struggle between protagonists throughout the trilogy. The ending resolves all previous issues, except the dystopian nature of the social environment. It ends not with everyone living happily ever after, but rather a return to an inherently rotten “business as usual”. That leaves the question, is this structurally sensible? Someone else will have to tell me.

 My second major event. Once again, shaken but not stirred! I was sitting in front of my computer when a 6.6 on the Richter scale struck. The chair I was using has a swivel and the ability to rock back a little, and it appeared that the frequency of the ground waves (about 15 Hz, I was told) struck some resonance with me and the chair, so, full value! (A bit scary, actually, at the time, but once over, these thoughts run through the head, so I thought I should share them.) Another little story. Apparently one of the junior schools was practising “earthquake drills” and they were just under their desks when it struck. Later one of the young children remarked, “Great special effects!”