Dazzled to the End

I’ve been going to the Dark Side again, reading Eaarth by Bill McKibben, another one of those “we’re so screwed” climate change books. His vision is one I’ve written about elsewhere, but since I started this decidedly more optimistic FAIL!Lab blogging effort, I thought it would be interesting to reconcile the two very different outlooks.

In fact, I was reading Clusterfuck Nation, James Howard Kunstler’s blog on peak oil, et al, and he hit a nerve. As he so often does, he noted the moth-like fascination with technology that seems to enchant people these days…these End of Days days. Kunstler has a lot of contempt for threads like FAIL!lab, which admittedly has a better-living-through-technology impulse. In his mind, when peak oil starts to make modern civilization impossible, all that technology will amount to nothing more than naively construed dead end…a cultural clusterfuck that just fizzled out with the last drop of cheap crude.

Personally, I share McKibben’s and Kunstler’s pessimistic vision: it’s already too late to avoid collapse of life as we know it. We dithered too long. We didn’t change while we still had all that cheap fuel, a more uni-polar world economy, a cooler-milder planet and, above all, time. Talk about a big FAIL.

McKibben actually couches this notion in an interesting way, suggesting that we now live on a new planet called Eaarth. Trouble is, we really don’t know how to keep 6 billion people (and growing) alive on this new world where nothing is certain. Not the coastlines, not the rainfall, not the viability of our breadbaskets, nothing. His suggestion is that we need to change our bad habits if we’re to have any chance of saving civilization, namely by reorganizing on more local, sustainable models.

I’m actually less optimistic than McKibben. I don’t think the current global zeitgeist can conceive of the sacrifices needed to avert disaster. And if we ever do come around to making the necessary changes it will happen too late. That’s because long before the climate goes truly haywire, the seemingly incremental changes will be enough to bring our economy down.

After reading the assessments from experts in science, agriculture, energy, insurance, finance and the military, I concluded that these crucial sectors will likely collapse in just a decade or two. Some like Kunstler suggest there is evidence that we are already in the midst of this collapse, pointing out the food-driven revolutions in the Arab world, persistant oil price inflation, etc. Indeed, one of the first scientists to warn about the climate was James Lovelock, who has now given up on our survival beyond a scant few of us left to wander the Arctic Circle.

These are the thinkers that I agree with. But, of course, one has to have hope. And so I pin that on the remote possibility that at the last minute, human ingenuity will be able to keep up with the crisis. This is a tall order, of course, because several key developments need to fall into place very, very soon for us to stave off total ruin.

We need bio-tech to re-engineer our crops so that they can survive on McKibben’s new Eaarth. Plants that can withstand the kinds of unprecedented heat waves that destroyed a third of Russia’s grain harvest last year. Plants that can handle salt water intrusion. Plants that can withstand floods like those that hit Australia this year. Plants that do without the fossil-fuel based pesticides and fertilizers that will soon be too expensive for 6+ billion people.

We need fusion energy. The Chinese are working on this furiously. So are the Europeans. We need these foreign researchers to save us from the impending oil shock, and from the nightmare that will come when we turn to coal to keep our homes comfortable and our cities lit.

We need the electric car to get alot cheaper. Not because I think there is much hope in keeping our atomized, egotistical mode of transportation functioning in a world beyond peak oil and continued commodity inflation. But we need cheaper batteries for electric buses and trains.

And some, if not all of this, may actually happen because of the ultimate invention: the Technological Singularity. You see, if you can build a machine that is exponentially more intelligent than we are, and you can lend it human empathy (perhaps by merging human consciousness with this machine), then you might be able to invent all the nifty things that will keep Homo sapiens and what few fellow critters remain on Eaarth with us, alive.

This is my hope…my last, lingering fantasy of how it will all be okay.

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