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?

Half-price ebooks

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A valuable role for speculative fiction?

I heard a definition of “speculative fiction” as fiction, usually set in the near future, as being based on background that “might happen”. Why do that? Most certainly it is not to predict the future, because anyone who tries to do that is going to get egg on face. The first book I wrote in the future history series I am writing had a lot of back story, and one part had a protagonist walk into a museum in Kazakhstan and look at historical photos regarding the upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2018. I had just made my first submission when that date became ridiculous. No, what I think is an important function of such speculative fiction is to alert people of the consequences of things going wrong, in the hope the problems can be averted.

Puppeteer is technically about corruption and terrorism, but it also has some important points to make about the economies in general. One such point is the price of petrol. In Puppeteer, at one point one of the protagonists fills his car with petrol, and admittedly it will be a large tank, but pays a thousand dollars. One of the other protagonists at one point cannot pay the electricity bill, despite being self-employed and having plenty of work. The reason: she works in Los Angeles installing security systems, and needs to get to jobs in a van. Until she sorted her routes out more efficiently, the cost of fuel took virtually all her cash. These are very minor parts of the story, in total less than ¼% of it, but hopefully it might get people thinking about the effects of excessively priced oil. And it will become excessively priced because there is a limit to how much is there.

Think about what the changes would involve if we do nothing. First, food prices would rise in a very spectacular way, partly because food distribution has become highly centralized. Thus a few major centers handle most of a given product, thus involving heavy transport costs.  Also, food production currently involves a lot of oil consumption, if only for driving vehicles and providing fertilizer. One way to reduce oil consumption would require people to eat locally produced food, but the quality and variation would drop significantly.

So, this is a major problem and the future is dreadful? No, that is not the way to look at it at all. I believe most of these things can be averted, but only if we get on to them now. What most citizens do not realize is how long it takes to change manufacturing to a new process. It can take up to ten years to properly develop a new chemical process, and to acquire sufficient engineering knowledge to build a reasonably large-scale plant. It then takes decades to build enough to replace the current oil infrastructure, which was built over a century. These things do not get done by themselves; we have to decide what we want our future to look like, and then make it happen, but why are we going to do that if we do not even recognize it as a problem? This is where I think literature has a role to play. Not by preaching, but by showing, it can wake up people. What do you think?