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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Two Colliding Rivers That Will Decide Our Future

For a long time when people have imagined the future, they have used the simple assumption that mankind is being propelled forward by a river of technological progress. In this way of thinking, it is like mankind is a raft that is traveling down a river, a river of technical progress. The general thinking is that we are heading towards some desirable destination downstream on this river, a destination of cool robots, longer lifespans, less work, greater entertainment, and faster and smarter robots.

There is a lot of truth to this simple way of thinking, but it leaves a lot out. What about the fact that global warming is getting worse? What about the fact that our civilization is centered around cheap oil, and needs more and more of it to keep growing, but the global production of crude oil is expected to soon peak, and then start declining? What about the fact that we will soon face shortages of several important metals? What about the fact that our soil is being depleted by over-farming? What about the fact that our fresh water aquifers are being depleted? What about the fact that the earth's population is growing ever greater than the maximum sustainable population that Earth can support?

How do we reconcile these unpleasant facts with the simple idea of man being pushed forward by the river of technological progress to ever more wonderful destinations? Can we imagine all these problems as just being unpleasant little splashes as we travel down the river of technical progress?

No, it seems better to imagine not one river that is propelling mankind, but two rivers. And the two rivers are colliding with each other, pushing in opposite directions. Mankind is caught in the middle. Our fate will depend on whichever river is stronger.

diagram of the future
Click to Expand

The first river is the river of technical progress, which tends to propel man forward towards greater levels of progress and comfort. The second river is what we can call the ecology crisis river. This river is tending to push man back towards situations we had hoped we had left behind forever.

There was once a time when energy was expensive, when watering your lawn was unthinkable, when food from around the world was available only to rich people, and when only rich people could afford electricity. If the ecology crisis river is strong enough, it may push mankind back to such an era.

Mankind's fate will be determined by which of these colliding rivers is stronger. If the technical progress river is strong enough, man will be pushed on to a desirable destination of greater progress. But if the ecology crisis river is stronger, we may end up seeing a reversal of human progress.

I am reminded of the famous story of the deathbed words of Alexander the Great. Seeing that he was dying, his generals asked: which one of us shall rule over your empire?

Alexander supposedly answered: whichever one of you is strongest.