“We possess the power
If this should start to fall apart
To mend divides
To change the world
To reach the farthest star
If we should stay silent
If fear should win our hearts
Our light will have long diminished
Before it reaches the farthest star” VNV Nation – Farthest Star
Image from Here
Hello again folks!
There has been a lot on my mind recently, and I am struggling a bit in typing it all out for you. I hope you forgive me for not getting work out as often as I would like. All that aside, I would like to jump right into it today.
Recently, I have been diving deep into my summer reading list. There is a lot of good stuff on my list right now, and that gives me plenty to think and write about. Which is good news for you, as there is plenty of material for me to sort through for this blog.
At the current time, I am rereading two books. In the blue corner, I have Physics of the Future, by Michio Kaku. In red corner, I have The Long Descent, by John Michael Greer. I first read Kaku’s work when I was still in community college, and it had a big impact me on the time. Well, after over ten years I feel it is time to revisit it.
At the same time, I read The Long Descent more recently in 2016, and you can find my early thoughts previously on this blog.
In order to set up a foundation for future blogs, I would like to talk about these two books in a bit of dialectic fashion. That way, I can seek a kind of dialogue between the two books, and perhaps gleam a little bit of knowledge from each one in a sythetic kind of way. It’s kind of like idea-based alchemy!
Now, as a brief introduction, these both are very different books, yet both deal with ideas about the future. Even though they both are considered to be non-fiction, there are elements of any speculative work that fall into the fictional realm. The reason for this, of course, is because the future has not yet come to pass. Whenever we speculate about the future, it is inevitable that we will be sometimes be right, and often be wrong.
Still, I think there is something to be learned by setting this two books in dialogue with one another. This is because Kaku’s work is fairly optimistic, and talks about a future where our civilization has progressed a great deal in many ways. On the other hands,. Greer’s book sets up a future where civilization is in decline because of factors such as peak oil. Following the course of past civilizations, Greer envisions a Long Descent into a post-civilization world.
I think it is fair that we set up Kaku’s work on the utopian end of the speculative scale, and Greer’s work on the dystopian end, even if it is a slow motion dystopia. Let’s examine both in more depth shall we?
John Michael Greer, The Long Descent
Greer’s work is well written and well researched, and then extrapolates that research into a grim future. His argument is based on the trajectory of some past civilizations, such as the collapse of the Western Roman Empire or the Mayan civilization.
The bulk of The Long Descent sets up a future based upon the implications of peak oil. Greer covers the facts behind the Hubbert Curve, and other aspects that sooner or later, the oil that drives our civilization is going to run out, and that process will precipitate the long slow decline of our civilization.
In addition, Greer sees no way we can get around this fact, calling peak oil a predicament to which there is no solution. Alternative energy will not save us, nor will anything also. Our best bet, is to prepare for the inevitable decline, which none of us will live to see.
It is a grim future indeed, that reads a lot like a dystopian novel.
“Map the likely results of current trends onto a scale of human lifetimes and a compelling image of the future emerges. Imagine an American woman born in the 1960’s. She sees the gas lines of the 1970’s, the short term political gimmicks that papered over the crisis in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the renewed trouble in the following decades…
Her great-grandson, born in 2040, manages to avoid the smorgasbord of diseases, the pervasive violence, and the pandemic alcohol and drug use that claim a quarter of his generation before age 30. A lucky break gets him into a technical career, safe from military service in endless overseas wars, or “pacification actions” against separatist guerrillas at home. His technical knowledge consists mostly of rules of thumb for effective scavenging…
For his great-granddaughter, born in 2120, the great crises are mostly things of the past. She grows up amid a ring of villages that were once suburbs, but now they surround an abandoned core of rusting skyscrapers that are visited only by salvage crews who mine them for raw materials. Local wars sputter, the oceans are still rising, and famines and epidemics come through every decade or so, but with global population less than half of what it was in 2000 and still declining, humanity and nature are moving towards balance…
This process I’ve named The Long Descent – the declining arc of industrial civilization’s trajectory through time.” Pg 32.
This is not to say some aspects of TLD are without value, and the whole thing should be dismissed out of hand. There are a lot of great recommendations on community building, resilience, and energy efficiency that I think are important. I will expand on this in a future post, when I examine both these books individually.
Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future
This transition is perhaps the greatest transition in history, marking a sharp departure from all civilizations of the past…
Every headline that dominates the news reflects, in some way, the birth pangs of the planetary civilization” – Michio Kaku
It must be admitted that there is some truth in all the dystopian narratives that surround us. We very well could screw things up and slip into some Long Descent type future. As I’ve point out in my post on that topic, that scenario does a very good job of setting up the problems of peak oil. Still, as with most dystopia, I think it best serves as a warning rather than a prophecy. The Long Descent, is the kind of future best avoided, and if we play our cards right, I think it can be. That is where Kaku’s book comes in
In fact, Kaku’s book agrees on some of the point on the chapter concerning the future of energy. Kaku follows many of the same avenues as Greer, as he discusses the Hubbert curve, and our dependence on fossil fuels. If we have not peaked already, we will soon.
“This means that in the near future, we may be entering a period of irreversible decline” – Michio Kaku.
This fact alone has huge implications for the future; from political volatility, to conflicts over oil supplies, and a high confidence in the fact that oil prices will surely rise. There are huge implications for our economy as well as the world political organizations. If we follow the trajectory of The Long Descent, the decline of oil will be a centuries long decline in our civilization.
But…. And this is a huge but.
Kaku agrees with many of the implications, but his trajectory into the future is very different. Where Greer sees a decline in civilization that takes centuries to hit rock bottom, Kaku sees a transition to a truly planetary civilization. With a rise in renewable energy in the short term, and fusion and other sources in the long term. He sees the rise in oil prices as the means that will make renewables even more viable and economical, and quickly jump in to replace our oil based infrastructure.
This will be combined with a transition towards fully electric transportation, which of course will be powered renewably, by wind, solar, and other forms of energy, In fact, we can already see this transition in process. Project Drawdown bases its projection on the year 2050, as does The Solutions Project. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include the transition to clean energy, are based on meeting the goals by 2030.
At every level of human society, we are seeing the transition take place in real time. Local, regional, national and global. Entire nations are already planning their phase out of the Oil Age, and pushing renewable energies as well as electric transportation.
So where do we end up with these two distinct views of the future? The truth, is likely found in the interplay between the two. At the current time in our history, it is pretty hard to see the future as bright and shiny as Kaku, as we face a lot of serious challenges to our existence. Peak Oil and Climate change chief among them.
At the same time, it is hard for me to agree with the doom and gloom that permeates Greer’s book. I don’t see peak oil as the end of the world, though it may certainly drastically change our the form of our civilization. I think the Long Descent should serve as a warning, and something we can absolutely mitigate. Contrary to many of Greer’s claims, the future is not inevitable.
As such, reading between the two options of Greer and Kaku, a few ideas can be synthesized. That the future is not likely a straight shot of progress towards a gleaming utopia, nor a long descent into some kind of post-civilization dystopia. Most importantly, we are making the choices right now that are going to shape what that future looks like.
We have a lot of choices and actions that can be done today, and many of them are in fact already in process. The old world, the Oil Age, is passing away, and we can already sense the stirrings of the next world to come. Birthing is not a clean process, and sometimes it is even messy and bloody. But I think we can survive it, and not only survive, but flourish.
As such, in the coming posts I want to examine both the Long Descent and Kaku’s Future in a little more depth.
Thanks for reading!
Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future. 2011
John Michael Greer, The Long Descent. 2008