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16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.




Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

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