Posted on February 3, 2016
I came to science fiction through a wall of shelves filled with paperback books in my father’s office. It was like my own personal library. I could just walk in, peruse the exotic looking covers with their abstract 1960s speculative art and take a book whose title captured my imagination.
Slan or The War With The Newts or Starman Jones. I even read the Foundation series by Asimov even though they were super dull, had no space battles and the covers weren’t even interesting.
I guess the books covered my father’s fascination and eventual lack of enthusiasm for the genre, starting in the 1940s (Slan) and going all the way to the late 1960s (Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land). There was a little bit of Philip K. Dick in there but for the most part this library was restricted to the first wave of speculative writers and as such it was mostly hopeful work that viewed technology as a means by which man would better himself and his condition.
It’s probably not necessary to point out that things got dark in the 1970s and science fiction got dark with them. I had to go to an actual library by that point to get my reading material and I wasn’t grabbing fun stuff like I, Robot or Podkayne of Mars. PKD and Harlan Ellison became my go-to writers and the landscapes of their future worlds were bleak.
The advent of Cyberpunk did not help. If we had been terrified of the nuclear technology that threatened to destroy the world in the 1960s and 70s, we were mystified and overwhelmed by the potential of the digital revolution. Technology began to seem like a single edged sword we would use to cut our own throats.
Then in 1996, when I was living in Dallas, the entire DFW area came within a few weeks of flat running out of water. Water. The most fundamental substance necessary for life. Owing to that close call and a sudden understanding that resources are limited, I’ve spent the last twenty years obsessed with the idea that the planet is overpopulated, over fished, farmed out, used up. Climate change, dead spots in the ocean, the corn monoculture, MRSA and all the other symptoms of an overcrowded civilization just reinforced in me the idea that we had to roll back the world population to less than three billion or we were doomed as a species.
Yesterday I changed my mind. I guess my wife is right, is does happen about every twenty years. I read three articles (Thorium Reactors, Robotic Hydroponic Farms, Synthetic Meat Extrusion) that made realize that our problems aren’t technological, they’re political.
We have the technology right now to supply the entire world with all the energy it can consume. We can produce it so cheaply that the cost of energy will cease to be a factor in our calculations. Thorium reactors (eventually switching to fusion reactors), solar & wind backed with mechanical and battery storage could completely (and cleanly and cheaply) replace our reliance on dirty, expensive fossle fuels.
We can use that cheap energy to power a dozen robotic hydroponic farms (robo-hydro-farms? Gotta be a better name. Rohypnofarm? No, definitely not that) in every city so that food production doesn’t have to take massive sections of land and then be preserved and processed and transported and stored before you can eat it.
Also, that cheap energy will power the plants that make the raising of animals for food obsolete. I have to admit, this technology is still a few years off, but it’s coming. I love meat. I’m not going to give up eating meat just to save the stupid planet, so this technology has to come around before I’m on board with the idea of eliminating animal slave labor, but in the end we will replace animal flesh with synthetically grown tissue from a factory and you won’t be able to tell the difference. Except the new stuff will have a distinct lack of e. Coli in it.
So what’s stopping us from launching head first into this revolution? Politics. What I just described is the first step towards a post-scarcity world. Scarcity of resources makes a few people rich and powerful. They probably aren’t going to sign up to move us into a world where there’s enough energy, food and housing for everyone. That would take all the fun out of being rich.
But that’s fine. Time will fix that problem. As these technologies are implemented in limited form and work their way into the business paradigm, we’ll gradually ease off of our addiction to fossil fuels and the very fact that there is plenty will begin to change society.
The important takeaway here is that the assumption that we are hurdling towards desolation and despair is unfounded. There is hope.