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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, August 17, 2013

An Elysium Future?

An Elysium Future?
This week I saw the new science fiction film Elysium starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. I thought the movie was fairly plausible and realistic, with the exception of one laughable scene in which a computer expert looks at a few screens of hexadecimal code for a few seconds, and then deduces the extremely complicated task the program was designed for. (This scene is utterly unrealistic because no programmers can read hexadecimal, and even if the program had been written in a more high level language, it takes programmers hours or days to figure out what any complicated program is doing just by reading programming code.)

Credit: Sony Pictures

The movie is set in the year 2154, and depicts a vast gulf between the poor and the rich. The poor are living on an overcrowded, run-down, over-polluted Earth. The rich are living in a huge luxurious rotating space station orbiting Earth. The space station rotates to produce artificial gravity, and those on the space station have an almost suburban lifestyle, with lovely houses and lawns, in addition to medical devices which can cure any health problem. But those left on Earth live in conditions like the filthy shanty towns of third world nations.

There is actually a plausible Malthusian case to be made that the future may resemble the future shown in this movie, although the movie does nothing to explain what caused the world to reach the state the movie depicts. Let us look at some of the factors that might end up producing a world rather like the world depicted in Elysium, not in the next century but in this century. When I refer to a world like the world in Elysium, I don't specifically mean a world in which the rich are living in outer space. I mean instead a world in which the many live in squalid, run-down, overpopulated conditions, and the lucky few live in wonderful high-tech splendor, isolated from the unlucky rabble. The isolation is more likely to occur by the rich fleeing to gated communities, fenced mansions, or high-rise buildings.

Here are factors that may lead to a future like the movie Elysium.

Peak Oil and Peak Coal

Our civilization is centered around cheap oil, but in the future oil may be very expensive, and the global demand for oil may soon far exceed the amount of oil we are producing. In the United States, the production of oil peaked in the early 1970's, and oil production has also peaked in many other countries. Oil is a nonrenewable resource, and we probably only have decades left of crude, easy to get oil. Although there is significant disagreement among experts, many predict that before long the global production of oil will peak, and then begin declining at a rate such as 2 percent per year. This will be at the same time that the world's demand for oil will be growing, as more and more people in countries such as China and India start to drive.

The situation regarding coal is a little brighter, as coal production is expected to increase for a few decades. But many experts predict that coal production will peak around 2040 or 2050, and then begin to sharply decline, because of the depletion of limited fossil fuel resources. This is exactly what happened locally in Pennsylvania, which was once a center of coal mining, until it mined itself out. If coal production plunges, it will be good for the environment, but a potential disaster for civilization. Imagine a time around 2040 when more and more internet-loving people are using ever more electricity, to power their digital devices and to cool their homes (increasingly necessary because of global warming). Then imagine coal production starts plunging because of resource limits. After a few decades of dwindling electricity, the result would be grim. Solar power and wind power will help to bridge the gap, but many are worried that there will still be a huge energy crisis in this century that degrades our civilization.

Overpopulation and Overconsumption

The world population is growing at a rate of about 74 million per year, and experts predict that the population will grow to about 9 billion by the year 2050. Perhaps more worrying than the growth in population is the growth of consumption, with increasing numbers in countries such as India and China
adopting Western lifestyles that include driving, heavy use of electronic gadgets, or heavy meat eating. Increasing levels of consumption and population are straining the Earth's resources and causing environmental harm. For an example, we only need look at the air pollution levels in China.

Global Warming and Soil Depletion

Global warming was not an element in the movie Elysium, but it is easy to imagine global warming playing a part in the sad birth of a planetary landscape like the one depicted in the movie. Global warming may shorten the growing season and may lead to increased droughts in prime agricultural areas. Another severe problem is soil depletion, a process by which soil gradually loses nutrients that it took centuries to acquire. The combination of global warming and soil depletion may mean that we are not able to meet the food demands of the future, possibly resulting in widespread famine.

Water Shortages

Another problem that may lead to a future like that of the movie Elysium is future shortages of fresh water, as described here. For example, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and the California Department of Resources says that if more water supplies aren't found by 2020, the region will face a shortfall nearly as great as the amount consumed today. The Wikipedia article on water scarcity says, "The water tables are falling in scores of countries (including Northern China, the US, and India) due to widespread overpumping using powerful diesel and electric pumps... This will eventually lead to water scarcity and cutbacks in grain harvest.”

Growing Economic Inequality

Another trend that may lead to a future like that of the movie Elysium is the accelerating trend towards wealth inequality , meaning the excessive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The graphic below illustrates very vividly the ridiculous excesses of wealth inequality in the United States. As wealth inequality has grown steadily worse over the past twenty years, we have every reason to suspect things will get worse in the future.

Credit: Stephen Ewen

Dystopia or Utopia?

So are we likely to see an earthly dystopia like that depicted in the movie Elysium? I can merely give the same answer given by last year's World Economic Forum's annual report on future risks. The report said that we are now planting the “seeds of dystopia.” If we continue with business as usual, we may well see a grim future like that depicted in the movie, a future of the fortunate few and the miserable many.

We probably won't see the super-rich fleeing to luxurious space stations, as in the movie. But we can expect to see more and more gated communities in which the rich flee to try to live in their own little worlds of comfort, from which the suffering masses are excluded.

One of the ways we can help prevent such a future is by introducing hefty luxury taxes on very expensive items, which will discourage excessive extravagant consumption, and help encourage a more equitable distribution of wealth. Every time a millionaire buys a mansion or a yacht or a jet or a diamond necklace, he or she should be paying a large luxury tax.