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?

Futuristic science fiction.

Trying to predict the future is simply not sensible; the wretched future generally refuses to behave as you wish. However, writing futuristic science fiction should not be an attempt to predict the future. H. G. Wells, in his time machine story, used his chosen futures to illustrate social problems of his own time. An alternative is to explore the consequences of some action that might take place, not because the author thinks that will happen, but rather because it will act as a warning, perhaps, of what not to do. In some ways, this idea corresponds to the physicist’s gedanken experiment, where the experiment is carried out in the mind with imagined equipment that works perfectly, and whatever happens carries some sort of explanation or illustrates some point that the physicist wants to make. So it is with SF stories. One purpose of them is to raise issues that the reader may not have considered.

Of course a novel is not the place to preach or harangue, but one can give food for thought in the background. One example that I have tried relates to current economics. Thus in my ebook trilogy First Contact a number of countries had merged to form a Federation. For that to work, all citizens must follow Federal law and regulations, the purpose of which was to provide uniformity of opportunity for all citizens. It is important that citizens in one part have to be able to behave in the same way as somewhere else. On the other hand, it is helpful if countries could continue more or less as they had before, at least initially, so that the desired common behaviour arises by desire and not through force.

Economic management becomes a real problem because, as Europe is currently learning, you cannot successfully run a common currency with several independent economic policies. My suggestion in my novels was that the average citizen continued to use dollars, marks etc, and these currencies might change value according to supply and demand. However, major industrial or national transactions were always paid in Federation Currency Units. That latter concept was designed to ensure the member countries could have moderately different economic policies while remaining in the Federation. Had something like this been employed in the EU, it might have saved the EU from the huge problems generated by countries like Greece pursing an economic policy that was incompatible with some of the others. One cannot have a common currency with various economic policies, but it is very difficult to persuade an assortment of different countries to have a common policy, because that will favour one or two of them, at the expense of others.

Joining countries together is not an easy matter. The reason they were separate in the first place usually led to individual cultures, and different ways of life. Such differences are difficult to simply overcome, for example the Greek way of life is quite different from that of the Germans, and these differences, together with the historical availability of resources have led to entirely different ways of going about making a living. By itself, that should not be a problem, but it soon becomes one if they have a common currency but without a common economic “policy”, as Greece has discovered.

I make no claim to having found a solution, and in practice that might not work, but by writing stories around such problems, perhaps people can be persuaded to think about them. 

Climate Change

In the previous post, I showed why certain gases in the atmosphere acted as a blanket, and slowed down the cooling of the ground. The next question is, is there any observational evidence that this is happening? After all, there are a number of people who view statistics and argue that this is not happening because the temperatures are not rising the way you might expect from the models. So, what is the truth? The critical evidence is from the oceans, which have been measured as receiving 0.64 Watt per square meter. That may not seem to be much, but consider the number of square meters in the oceans. Without any doubt whatsoever, the planet is receiving a net heat input.

Some may protest that statistics show there has been none of the expected temperature raise since 2000 AD. This is difficult to account for with certainty. Temperatures fluctuate greatly from year to year, and arguments that there has been little net temperature rise since 2000 may simply mean that a negative fluctuation has been cancelled with net heat. The second reason might be that the ice caps are melting. If you heat a mix of ice and water, as long as you stir, there is no net rise of temperature until all the ice melts. The heat goes into melting the ice. The heat may be lost to the deep oceans. Finally, some places may get a significant rise in temperature but others do not, and statistics at one place may be misleading. It is very easy to get stupid answers from the misuse of statistics. It also may not matter. After all, if the Sahara or Death Valley get twenty degrees hotter and everywhere else stayed the same, would it matter? Even if the world got a few degrees hotter, would it matter? That depends on what happens to the spare heat.

So, the ground gets hotter, but what happens next? I mentioned in the previous post that the absorption of infrared radiation by greenhouse gases does not, in itself, heat the gas. There is an indirect method by which it can, though. If the excited state molecule undergoes a collision with another molecule, there can be an exchange of energy, and now neither molecule is in a stationary state, and this results in the energy being dissipated, usually as heat. Whether this happens depends on a quantum probability, and as far as I am aware, this probability is unknown, so I cannot answer whether this happens. The probability of a collision during the lifetime of the excited state depends on the overall gas pressure, and Earth’s pressure is such that whether a collision occurs is a bit of a toss-up. On the other hand, Martian pressure would be too low, and Venusian pressure would almost guarantee a collision. However, the reverse also happens. If a gas molecule collides with a molecule of greenhouse gas, heat may be converted to excited state vibrational energy, again with a certain quantum probability, and that may be radiated away. The very top of Earth’s atmosphere, called the thermosphere, has an absence of such molecules, and an effective temperature of something like 1400 degrees. The thermosphere of Venus, which is mainly made of carbon dioxide, and which receives twice the sunlight as Earth, has a temperature of a mild summer’s day.

Three are two mechanisms to warm the air. Contact between ground and air heats the air and cools the ground, whereupon the warmer air rises and mixes with the general air. A more effective mechanism is where ocean water cools by evaporating water, and when this condenses as clouds, heat is transferred to the air. It also tends to be dumped in one place, which raises the pressure of the local air, which in turn leads to air movement. The more water being condensed in a small volume, the more likely a storm will eventually result.

However, the biggest cause of temperature differences is ocean currents. Everybody knows that but for the Gulf Stream, Europe would be a miserable place, and ice ages are probably accompanied by a redirection of that Gulf Stream. And herein lies our real problem. The oceans are carrying sufficient heat to melt very significant amounts of polar ice, and this will led to major sea level rise. However, the issue regarding greenhouse gases now becomes more confused, because in the last four interglacials, there is clear evidence that without our industrial output of greenhouse gases, the Greenland ice sheet melted and sea levels were about 7 meters higher. Our problem is, if this is really inevitable this time, and with even more net heat input, more of Antarctic ice should melt. Now, look at Google Earth, and check the location of major coastal cities and see how much of their area is less than 10 meters above sea level. See how much prime agricultural land is less than ten meters above sea level. Now, work out how civilization can continue in our current ways if we continue to keep our population expanding the way it is?

See how difficult it is to get the future right in your novels?