Occasionally my pleasant world becomes filled with gloomy thoughts! Election results make today one of those days and I am wondering if humanity is on the right road to a happy future. It is easy to see the gross problems people face on a daily basis but everyone, even people who think big and should think about long term problems. But, everyone limits their foresight to the next election cycle. Future sight of four years isn’t foresight. Of course, Black Swan events are always hovering about but no person in a responsible position pays any attention to them because it interferes with day-to-day obvious good practice.
I have written about various long-term problems and have tried to put specific dates to their solution. For example, when I asked an top oil executive who lectured here at Berkeley if oil would last for 10,000 years, he looked at me as if I was crazy and didn’t even respond. He had been talking about oil in the ground as not being the problem because it would last for another fifty years. But, since he was speaking to an assembly of students age twenty, that would only mean that at best it might last to the end of their lives. Well, 10,000 years might be far too long for oil to last but how about as long as the 100 year old building we were standing in or perhaps the 200 year old White House in Washington? Will the oil last that long? Obviously not. So what that extremely successful person was talking about as a “permanent solution” wasn’t much more than a temporary fix. He was claiming that the oil problem we face is political, which indeed it is in the present, but within the life expectancy of his student audience that problem will turn into an active military one as the oil gets more difficult to obtain.
Humanity won’t be saved by drilling for more oil. And it won’t be saved much longer by digging up coal or gas or nuclear materials because all of those are one-time use energy sources and once they are used they are gone forever, leaving behind only their pollution byproducts. One-time mined products will become increasingly expensive as the supply becomes limited to more diffuse sources. At some point the only source of these materials will be the recycling of worn-out products, but that can never be 100% efficient and generally 80% recovery is considered good. The rare earth materials that create the color in the flat screen monitor you are looking at are already in short supply because there are so few mines which produce them. But it is energy which is even worse and the huge solar power farms with efficient solar cells may not be possible without unavailable rare-earth minerals. Can you imagine a major war erupting over gadolinium? That will be an unhappy day!
If humanity as a whole doesn’t face its long-term problems… and it must be all of humanity which sees the problems because the politicians can’t enforce unappreciated necessities for very long. But it is worse than that, because in my occasional and modest conversations with people at the top of the power structure, were bewildered when I asked them about 200 year solutions. If the obvious long-term problems haven’t even been recognized by the power elite then it will be a very long time before the general public will see them. Of course Thomas Malthus still reigns supreme in the long run, and no matter which way we handle the technology problem, if the population continues exploding it will eat up almost any gains we make.
So, is humanity and civilization worth saving? Or can it even be saved if it were worth the trouble? The answer is probably not in the long run—say 10,000 years, or maybe even 100—but yes in the short run—say 1 to 20 years—but for the life expectancy of an average newborn, it is clearly in the maybe zone. The obvious answer is that long-term energy must come from the sun in some form and long-term population must be intentionally controlled worldwide, or nature as described by Malthus will reduce humanity to well below the maximum maintenance level.
It’s you who must decide if saving humanity is worth the trouble.