Sunday, October 16, 2005

Waiting for the lights to go out

An article in The Sunday Times of London got coverage in the blogosphere today. The excerpts were compelling but it took me several tries to get through the original. I'll summarize it here.

Bryan Appleyard, science-and-philosophy columnist for the Times, discusses progress:
The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.
One of the most important shifts in my point of view occurred when I understood that the (cheap) oil age is/was an aberration in the history of humanity:

...[I]t is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic.
This trend has given rise to our expectations that it would continue, that it is a "law of nature." The Peak Oil question contradicts this assumption. Not only are we running out of cheap oil, we don't have the technology or infrastructure to replace it.
Even if we did throw money at the problem, it's not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. e took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially, I hadn't seen as many as I had expected — not in any particular area, just generally."

Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.
This is an astonishing claim and points out the folly of counting on a technological cure for our problems. Some were taken aback by it. But Huebner did find a supporter in Ben Jones:
What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. "The result is," says Jones, "that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact."
The real problem that this points out is that our economy is predicated on growth. The end of innovation means an economic crash. But the optimists have something to say about this.
The argument is that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment, a new term has entered the human equation. This is the accumulation of and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead people for saying the wrong thing — we listen to them. This "social knowledge" is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal natures...But these can go wrong. "The thing that scares me," he says, "is that these institutions can misfire."
This happened "in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, producing years of slaughter on a scale previously unseen in human history. For Mokyr, those misfirings produced not an institutionalism of our knowledge but of our aggressive, animal natures."

Globalism was thought to be the expansion of democratic ideals, a sure sign of progress. But there is scriticismisim that globalism "is often just making the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is also destroying local culture and inspiring aggressive resistance movements, from student demonstrators in the West to radical Islamicists in the Middle East. Progress is built on very fragile foundations."

John Gray presents another point of view. Institutions will reflect human flaws. "Modernity does not make us better, it just makes us more effective."

In the past we looked to the hallmark of torture to prove our civility. But in the age of terrorist, is torture something we would rule out?
Dershowitz thinks a legal basis for torture would prevent abuses like the horrors perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. If, for example, Tony Blair or George Bush had to sign a torture warrant, the whole business would be kept visible and legal...We just have to accept that three steps forward also involves two steps back.
Appleyard ends with an ironic observation about pronouncements concerning the end of the world:
Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future.
What will the future hold? How will we respond to the immense problems we face? Our personal plans will depend on our view of the nature of humanity. Difficult but important questions to ponder.

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