The Arc of our Future

A decent overview of JMGreer’s thoughts on the directions of the future, based on the past.

Basically, we’re not going to the stars. We’re not going to collapse overnight. And more of that which made the problems is unlikely to fix them.

There’s certainly a bit of a contrarian trend with some of the people posting on this forum, looking at how we can do lower tech ways of doing things during a long collapse, and this is a good summary of why. For the full details, one could consult many long books as well, which I’d be happy to recommend, but… we’re on the way down.

Seems like a good topic of conversation! :wink:

First point that stands out to me, and I think he’s correct, is the amount of people who, on the opposite side of normalcy bias (things will get better soon no really just you wait… any minute now…), are people who more steadfastly believe in a sudden, completely catastrophic collapse. Be that an economic one, a sudden war, total grid collapse, etc.

I’m just thinking out loud as to why that’s such a strongly held belief. If the patterns of history are anything to go by, the end of an empire doesn’t mean the end of society. Nobody in Russia thought the fall of the USSR was fun, or the poverty caused by the wild inflation at the end of the Weimar republic; but Russia is still there, and Germans are still around.

People didn’t stop trading, farming, and living at the end of the Roman empire, but the once great aquaducts fell into disrepair, and gone were the days of wealthy senators walking well maintained streets and reclining on carved marble benches every evening.

Could it be the physiological torment of watching a once mighty civilization die a slow death is harder to cope with than a sudden ‘just end it already’ mindset? Folks who, believing it can’t be fixed, would rather just ‘get it over with’ rather than watch the slow decay of what was once held in great esteem. To know that comforts and conveniences of modern are now gone forever, and dreams of an even brighter, attainable future (for civilization as a whole or just personally) give way to more subsistence living. Standing in bread lines is quite a gut punch after a lifetime of ordering takeout 5 nights a week.

‘Your best days are all behind you now.’ is a hard weight to carry, especially when it might extend to an entire cultural, political, or economic system.

If we* (mankind) aren’t going to the stars, all we have is to postpone the long night until the sun eventually will expand enough to raze the earth. No ifs, ands, or buts. So, inherently, we’d better shoot for the stars NOW while we have the time, or it’ll be harder (but not impossible) in a couple of generations.

So I’ll still put my hopes there. Triage will indeed happen, but absent artificial restrictions, we’re not as limited as implied. All I know is that my job is to set up the kiddos to be the best of the next generation. Adaptable, well reasoned, and resourceful. They’ve got the job after we’ve done all we can, after all.

What if it was a choice of “try to shoot for the stars” or “use the energy to get a semblance of a livable earth while you still can” and you couldn’t do both? Because I think the evidence strongly suggests that’s the choice we’re facing, and that the former is not on the “strong odds of working” side of things.

Very true, but that depends heavily on one’s definition of “best”. There’s good evidence that even in the most feudal of European times serfs worked less than half as hard as we do today for the lord’s profit and their own subsistence, combined. In many cases there were rich cultures of tradition, art, and skilled and semi-skilled labour that came out of these arrangements. While serfdom had some downsides, on the whole it seems by no means definitively worse than we are today, and that’s in an indentured form of servitude! Granted, to some people this is by definition “not better”, but to those for whom the current grind and financial traps of debt, fees, and legal dependency on the monetary system are in all effects kin to servitude, they may see it as a shocking relief and perhaps a significant improvement on their current lot.

All that to say, no matter how you draw the lines, by many metrics this is not at all the best time to be living in, and by many more we could make a reduced-industrial future better, regardless of whether we have high tech screens beeping and booping their way through our less-busy lives. This is not to idealize the past nor to glorify the present, but rather to realize that everything is a matter of perspective and that amongst the amazing miracles with which we are daily surrounded, there are nevertheless significant costs and downsides that we have likewise chosen.

I agree, but I think most folks don’t understand what’s been happening to them, what needs to happen, or what (if anything) will come out the other side of this, and that’s where their despair comes from. That and the fact that the system as it is has been lying to them for years about its history and purpose, and what life would be like without them keeps people from seeing that.

I don’t think it makes the transition period any more pleasant either. Sure a farmer in rural Nebraska is likely to have a much easier time of it than someone who lives in an apartment in downtown Atlanta, but we’re beyond the point where getting rid of the more festering parts of the modern economic and political system is going to be quick, cheap, or comfortable.

I believe you’re right here. Also, that farmer may be, in some important ways, just as bad off if the logistics of his area can’t provide his local Costco with food and if he and his neighbours are all monocropped heavily with Monsanto seeds which don’t reproduce the next year. The rural areas are far less independent than they think they are, in the US.

I think this is very true, and I’ve seen this sort of thing, repeatedly, over on r/collapse (back before Reddit became that worthless thing it is now - good job, new GUI, totally ruined the place).

“We’re not going to the stars, we’re not going to collapse tomorrow, there’s a life of decline ahead and we ought to find something useful to do during it!” is not a particularly popular viewpoint, even if it’s the most likely one.

On the flip side, once you get there, I think there’s a lot of very interesting and useful things that can be done, especially in both expanding the ideaspace for that which follows, and in sorting through history to find the things that are useful in the times ahead. I’ve pointed out to many people that I think it’s likely my tractor will outlive both me, and most of the tractors being produced today, because it’s simple and maintainable.

Yet by your logic, going to the stars just postpones the long night until the universe blinks out.

The stars are really far away, space is really hostile to humans, and there’s an awful lot of stuff we could do on Earth that’s far, far easier than space. The least-habitable places on Earth are still far friendlier than the most-friendly places off-planet.

Generally, I think industrial civilization is a one-shot function. We’ve got the remains of it to work with long term, but it’s not going to bootstrap again any time soon, and given the damage it’s been doing to just about everything, the post-industrial-civilization Earth is going to be an awful lot worse than the pre-industrial-civilization option. You might enjoy Star’s Reach by Greer that plays with some of these concepts.

I don’t see a small colony on Mars, still dependent on Earth for resources, as a terribly useful thing (interesting, perhaps, but the concept of a self sustaining Mars colony is just another one of Musk’s crazy ideas that won’t happen in any reasonable timespan), and going beyond that is just bounded by the physics of empty space. We don’t have the ability to put someone on the moon right now, but we need to be planning generational colony ships that last hundreds or thousands of years? We don’t know how to make large groups of humans work for more than a few hundred years, and that’s before you consider the logistics of launching many orders of magnitude more material into orbit for assembly than we’ve launched in the history of humanity so far.

What are you defining as “artificial restrictions”? Just because something is technically possible on small scale doesn’t mean it actually works at large scale, or that it’s socially or politically feasible to actually do. We could do fusion power, net energy positive, if we wanted to right now - underground detonations of fusion weapons, mine the heat with geothermal systems. It doesn’t make it a good idea.

Thinking back on my life, I’m very uncomfortable with just how much time I’ve spent maintaining the technology that’s supposed to make things easier. It’s an interesting career, certainly, but… I’ve put many man-years of effort into the maintenance of the digital systems that, increasingly, just don’t work as advertised.

[quote=“Canem, post:5, topic:37”]Sure a farmer in rural Nebraska is likely to have a much easier time of it than someone who lives in an apartment in downtown Atlanta,

I wouldn’t make that bet. The Nebraska farmer probably has large loans on either the property or the equipment used on it, is suffering with soil fertility/compaction issues from decades of monocropping, and if he sets out to do something different, will have his land sued out from under him by Monsanto, who will sue you for patent infringement if they detect anything they think is their “patented genetics” (which is an utter load of crap in the first place, IMO) on your property. If your neighbor plants Monsanto, the best approach is to then plant Monsanto to avoid a court battle you’re likely to lose.

I can’t disagree with that. It reinforces the idea though that the transition could get ugly in a lot of ways and a lot of places. Maybe some more than others, maybe not. As modern agriculture runs on massive volumes of cheap oil (either for the transport trucks, the tractors, or the petro-chemical fertilizers that make un-maintained and useless soils a hydroponics experiment where the dirt merely exists to hold the plants up by the roots) then a decline in that oil production will either make agriculture much more expensive, or simply impossible.

Does it need to happen? Is the inflationary spiral and bread-lines of modern day Venezuela the only way to get people to rethink how their society is run and change their habits? Getting off the cheap-oil addiction is sure to benefit society in the long run; but people arn’t going to care much about how much better their grandchildren might be for this, someday, when they’re hungry and starving right now.

Yup. I did just get a ‘Heat Death is Coming’ shirt. :stuck_out_tongue: But it also gives us more time to deal with it, or come to terms with it. Entropy? NOT TODAY.

Yeah but we’re literally building a vessel to exactly that. At some point we’ll need a functioning space economy. Part of that tech will also be useful on earth - a sustainable, podded way to make microprocessors could do as well in a city-state as well as in a far flung colony. We can’t get there until we take the first steps, and what’s happening now is exciting because it’s the first steps.

Yeah, I agree. We’ve used up most of the easy mineral and energy deposits.


That’s the fallback option. We’ll keep on living.

Requires gasoline or something of similar volatility, though. And seal replacements of some sort.

Basically that. If we say that everything MUST be carbon neutral, that’s an artificial restriction. Ultimately, though - when dealing with nation states, are people going to go to war to enforce these restrictions?

And there are other limits too - there’s some concern over phosphorous and a few other materials that go into soil. “Put everything plants need in the structural sponge that is the dirt” doesn’t work terribly well long term. There’s at least some hope that we’ve gotten past this in a lot of areas, but I don’t think it’s the sort of “Green Miracle” scaling that’s required to feed ever increasing populations.

On the plus side, people generally do understand that food is important. So I hold out some hope that we’ll make a sane transition. We could get away from ethanol, though… that’s just silly.

Elon Musk has promised many things, and while he shows what might be a “healthy disregard for the impossible,” he also shows an utter insanity about “I think it’s neat; therefore I can make it happen.” Mars, in particular, has rather toxic dirt, last I looked.

“Need a functioning space economy” is a pretty strong statement. I know it’s part of the established future, but I’m still unsure as to what problems it actually solves in a useful manner, given even fairly low costs of launch and reentry.

“Wet and mostly burny” isn’t too hard to find. You can run tractors on alcohol if you want. Production won’t fall off a cliff, though, so things like gaskets shouldn’t be that hard to find, and with a couple hundred thousand Ford N series tractors rolling around, parts should be generally available for a while - especially as they’re still in common use.

Nothing in the short term. Everything in the long term.

It certainly kicks the can of seeking exponential growth on a finite resource base for a while, but it’s just that - kicking the can out for a while.

You cannot have indefinite exponential growth on a finite resource base, and even expanding into space doesn’t gain you that much longer. Plus, gravity wells are just a pain, especially if you want to carry the fuel needed to return to them.

Have you played a lot of Kerbal Space Program? It’s a really good way to get a feel for just how brutal space is, and once you’ve mastered the nerfed system, there are mods that give you actual rocket performance and our actual solar system.

A lot. It’s crazy how you can do a gravity turn by hand and dock a station by eye. Also if you build out stuff in KSP, everything changes once you get ISRU. Looking forward to KSP2.