Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Long Emergency

Dystopia or Utopia, take your pick. In The Long Emergency, James Kunstler discusses the impact the lack of oil will have on civilization. In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil points out the fact we are fast approaching a time where tech will accelerate so fast that predicting the future becomes a futile task and OBTW, we will live forever.

So which is is it, will tomorrow be terrific or will it be a disaster? Only time will tell but let's talk a little about this.

The one big thing learned from Emergency is Kunstler's adroit coupling of energy to tech, something rarely discussed when talking about the wonders of technology.

Question: How much energy is required to build an iPhone?

Question 2: How much energy is required to ship the iPhone to customers?
Question 3: Could that device be built or shipped after we run out of oil?
Answer to No. 3: No way based on the current situation regarding renewables.

Why? Because not only is energy required to build the item in question but also oil-derived material makes up a large part of the device itself. (Plastics etc., etc.) Now extend this notion of building nearly everything in the world based on fossil fuel use and add it to the energy needed to maintain other aspects of society (i.e. transportation, food, heat, shelter etc., etc.) and one sees that Kunstler has extremely valid reasons to worry about the negative impact the end of oil will have on society.

According to Ray Kurzweil, the future's bright with tech expanding at double exponential rates and all will be right with the world if we can get through this "rough" spot of the 'aughts as we approach the singularity of the 2030s. While I agree with the double exponential bit in terms of research, the jury is out when it comes to bringing R&D work into the real world of politics, financial constraints and climate change as we move toward peak oil and the disruptions it will bring to the world.

Taken from this perspective, it looks like we are in a race to see if we can transition from non-renewables to renewables in a way that won't disrupt civilization, something devoutly to be wished but, in my opinion, will not for the following reasons:

1. Global Warming: GW is real and is accelerating at a rate not thought possible. The most recent projections state that by 2100, sea levels could rise by as much as 18-20 feet. With that in mind, NYC, Florida and London will be history not to mention 70% of the world's population live within six miles of the ocean. When this is factored in with the Tipping Point on GW, there is no question we are in trouble. In Nova, a terrific update on GW titled Dimming the Sun shows how pollution might be masking the true impact of GW. It's a must see and the findings, if true, are truly frightening.

2. US Debt: This is an ongoing disaster, particularly in terms of the sub-prime meltdown, trade inbalances, tax cuts and the never ending Iraq war not to mention the explosive growth of the defense budget. A perfect storm is brewing regarding US debt. For additional information, check out Time Bomb for another view on the debt equation and last but not least, read David Walker's (Comptroller General of the United States, head of the Government Accountability Office or GAO.) interview at the Financial Times regarding the financial health of the US.

3. Euros for Oil: If countries move toward euros to pay for oil, the US dollar, backed by the largest debtor nation in the world, will go belly up. (Some people disagree but they are in the minority.) Addentum - Click here for a recent update regarding oil, the dollar and the Saudis. Most interesting indeed.

4. Lack of Existing Infrastructure: Transforming R&D prototypes into real world products is a very involved process. There is no question solutions are in the lab able to solve ongoing energy problems and reduce, in part, the effects of climate change but the problem remains that establishing an infrastructure to support and enable these emerging technologies to work in reliable fashion at scales that can change the current situation is a very daunting task. Note: Oftentimes, the best solutions (Unix,/Sony Betamax vs. Microsoft /JVC VHS) do not prevail and the world suffers from making the wrong decision on any given tech.

5. Lack of Vision: From politics to big business, the lack of vision dealing with energy and GW has been astonishing considering just how serious these problems are. A Marshall Plan to deal with these issues at global level is desperately needed if we are to avoid Kunstler's dark vision of the end of oil or the catastrophic effects of run-away GW. Change is needed now but the question still stands: Do we have the courage to face these issues head on or will it continue to be ostrich time again with our heads buried in the sand hoping that these problems will go away on their own. At this point in time, our leaders have let us down, something that cannot go on if we are to take control of our destiny and change the world for the better.

End Game: Both books are awesome and well worth reading.
Summing it up: "One never knows, do one." Fats Waller

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