Monday, March 15, 2010

A Peak Oiler's Riposte to the Singularity Timeline

Location: Ruins of Azalea Mall, Richmond VA

I'm combining this post with my usual "Kunstlerism of the Week." I've been thinking about Transhumanism lately, and debating the topic in a friendly way with some proponents of the idea. In fact, one of the graduates of Dr. Raymond Kurzweil's Singularity University belongs to the Second Life Education List (SLED), and we've been posting our prognostications back and forth.

James Howard Kunstler's post this week notes:

We could conceivably take ourselves toward futures to be proud of, but they are not likely to be the kind of futures we are so busy projecting in our techno-grandiose fantasies about machine "singularities."

As a neo-luddite and organic gardener, my objections to transcending the body should be obvious: I don't consider it an appropriate technology for reasons of social justice and concern for the environment. As an ecologist, I fear that Transhumans and AIs would have so little regard for the found (as compared to remade) natural world that they'd make today's eco-rapists look like green angels.

Of course, as a believer that cheap oil will soon reach a global maximum of production and then begin a terminal decline, the ideas of the Transhumanist movement seem moot to me. We may not have a reliable enough power grid or transportation system to make the advances they predict, let alone distribute them in a way meaningful to the majority of humanity. I draw upon the thinking of Richard Heinberg (Power Down and The Party's Over), Michael Klare (Resource Wars), and Kunstler (The Long Emergency) for my futurist slant. I draw upon "The Hirsch Report" written for the US Dept. of Energy and Matthew Simmon's Twilight in the Desert for the science behind my ideas.

What sort of time line might I set against Dr. Kurzweil's? This is my optimistic projection, as compared to those of some Peak-Oil writers.

  • Modest economic recovery in US and Europe. Chinese and Indian growth continue, as Mexico's Cantarell oil field--a massive source of US crude--continues its steep decline.
  • Saudi oil begins to decline, covered up at first by their state oil monopoly. Other Gulf states announce (as have Kuwait and Yemen) that their oil reserves are in permanent decline. New finds in western Iraq offset much of this.
  • US consumption remains near 20 million barrels per day. Canada asserting its oil wealth.
  • World oil production begins a slow decline, amid increasing demand from China, India, and oil-producing nations as their consumer economies ramp up.
  • Advanced virtual-world / VR applications a toy or a tool for research among a tiny minority of computer users. Social virtual worlds like Farmville remain popular but never engage all five senses.
  • US infrastructure at the crisis point as fiscal constraints, no-tax zealotry, a car-based lifestyle, past entitlements, and insufficiency of alternative fuels conspire to produce consumer rage, dispossession, and steady economic decline.
  • Suburban life increasingly expensive, and in-flow to cities begins on the one hand, new "back to the land" movement on the other.
  • Full-on collapse in Gulf and possible wars involving Saudis and their neighbors.
  • US oil consumption drops as oil producers hold on to their supplies for domestic use or trading with preferred partners. Bankrupt public unable to replace vehicles on a large scale and begin using public transit or their feet to travel.
  • Ongoing collapse in consumer economies and declining tax base reduces R&D spending to focus on defense and energy. Loss of polar ice-cap results in bonanza to explore for Arctic oil. Canada benefits from global climate change and begins to assert military power in a frontier called "The Far North."
  • US federal and state governments belatedly, despite rage from right-wing political groups, begin to adopt some aspects of European urban planning, green energy, and car-free lifestyles.
  • Most freight moved by rail; most perishable food locally grown. Homesteading to farm the nation's biggest growth industry, along with production of alternative energy sources.
  • National electric grid wobbly and failing; local power off the grid replaces semi-monopolies of power companies, but energy remains scarce.
  • High technologies, car ownership, and access to health care increasingly an object of class warfare. VR remains a popular curiosity.
  • A bankrupt US government, increasingly bereft of naval power as Nimitz-class carriers are retired one by one, cannot contest Russian, Chinese, Canadian, Indian and European wrangling in the Arctic Ocean over oil. Real chance of global war over remaining oil fields.
  • Europe, India, Russia, China, and America cope with climate and fossil-fuel refugees as Middle East, Central Asian, and Mexican economies collapse.
  • US Medicare and Social Security "safety nets" collapse. High technology not a primary concern of most individuals.
  • Human population begins to decline from disease, war, and famine in much of the world.
  • Barring massive burning of coal, simpler lifestyles and localism lead Carbon Dioxide levels in earth's atmosphere to stabilize, but rapid climate change remains under way for at least a century.
So, Transhumanists, let's hope you are correct in your optimism about humanity's inventiveness.

Perhaps climate change and oil depletion will trigger the sort of innovation we saw during WWII or the Space Race, but I doubt it; the Transhumanist vision does not acknowledge Homo Sapiens' propensity for bloodshed, tribalism, and pure chaos that erupts when scarcity prevails. How do we avoid the worst of these changes? That would be lovely to know, but as Kunstler also notes, "We know we have to go somewhere. We know that something like history is leaving us behind. We have no idea how to get to a new place."

1 comment:

Rooster said...

iggy O
thank you for the predictions. i myself am a graphic designer in Los Angeles and have read kurzeil's book on the singularity. i am a futurists... i just designed a society on the moon to be established in 2050. Only time will tell whether this notion manifests. The United States is in a transition past industialization, one that i agree with you must surpass the thinking of the boomer generation.

As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes.
Marshall McLuhan