On Optimism In Fiction

10034764_sIn fantasy, and perhaps even more so in science fiction, there’s been a tendency in the recent past to make the vision as dark and dismal as possible, viewing the future and the possibilities inherent in the human condition with dour pessimism and a belief that nothing ever improves. Depictions of a future society in which any of our current problems are solved, in which people live more egalitarian lives, in which corporate interests don’t dominate and control all functions of government, in which we have a sustainable society with respect to the natural world or one in which war has been abolished, are seen in many quarters as naïve, utopian, and unrealistic.

What’s actually unrealistic, though, is the belief that the problems we have today won’t be solved, and that we’ll still be facing them hundreds of years from now. That isn’t realism. It’s a failure of the imagination and also reflects a very poor understanding of history.

Hundreds of years ago, whole economies in the richest and most powerful of nations were founded on slavery. Today, slavery still exists but only in poor and backward countries and on the fringes and margins of the economy, such as in the sex trade. Workers in mainstream industries today are coerced by subtler means and much better rewarded for their work than slaves ever were.

Hundreds of years ago, the government was not only influenced by the rich and powerful, but actually restricted by law to those who were born into privileged families and held titles of nobility. Today, that isn’t true even in countries where titles of nobility still exist.

Hundreds of years ago, women were regarded as the property of men, either of their husbands or, if unmarried, of their male relatives or in some cases of religious institutions such as convents, which were part of organized religious structures that were run by men (even if the convents themselves were often run by women). Today, while we still have a ways to go to achieve true gender equality, that attitude is no longer accepted and mainstream.

Hundreds of years ago, war was not only constant but regarded as normal, noble, heroic, and necessary to build national character and the strength and dedication of each new generation of youth. In fact, that attitude persisted until a mere hundred years ago. (It was the First World War that put an end to it.)

A person from the world of a few hundred years ago, magically transported by a wizard’s spell or a time machine to today’s world and looking around, would on first impression think he had entered Heaven. No constant war? No grasping nobility? Enough to eat even for the poorest people? Men can’t rape their wives with impunity? Why, this is a perfect world!

Of course, on closer acquaintance he would discover that problems still exist. They’re just different problems than the ones he was used to. But because we are always focused on the problems we have before us, the idea that those problems might some day be solved seems utopian. It’s what we hope for, or cynically fear to hope. And yet nothing is more likely than that they will someday be solved. And so do depict a future world in fiction where such problems persist isn’t realistic, but just the opposite.

That’s particularly true of the two problems that threaten the survival of civilization today. One of these is war. The other is unsustainable exploitation of the environment. It’s not unrealistic to say that these problems may not be solved. But it is completely unrealistic to depict a future society in which they still confront us. If they are not solved, our civilization will cease to exist. Therefore, any future society will either be one in which they are solved — or it will not exist. And that in turn means that a fictional portrayal of a more advanced society than our own, either human or non-human, must be a peaceful and ecologically sustainable one, not because the future will turn us virtuous (although in fact it may), but because any civilization that survives to become substantially more advanced than ours is one that has solved these problems.

Which brings me to my own Refuge series, which I characterize as both fantasy and science fiction, and which includes two fictional alien species, the Andol and the Droon, who destroyed each other in an interstellar war and some of whom have reincarnated on Earth as human beings. In some ways these are personified good and evil creatures. The Andol are egalitarian, benevolent (if often ruthless and manipulative), and have attitudes that are socially and culturally more advanced than any but the most enlightened of human beings. The Droon are just the opposite: elitist, thoroughly nasty (they like to subject their inferiors to years of torture just for fun and games), and bent on reducing humanity to a race of slaves and pain toys. Some might see both races (I suspect: especially the Andol) as unrealistic. I contend otherwise. It all comes down to the fact that those two problems, war and environmental stress, must be solved for an advanced civilization to survive. But there is more than one way for a society to reach that point. There are in fact at least two. One of the Andol describes this as follows:

A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . .

But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green . . .

We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed.

There might also be other ways besides these two. But the point here is that depicting a future (or alien) society in either of these modes isn’t unrealistic at all, but shows two ways in which a society can survive to become advanced.

The only thing that is quite unrealistic is depicting a future (or alien) society that is exactly like our own in its fundamentals. We can be absolutely confident that that, at least, will not happen.

Copyright: annmei / 123RF Stock Photo



Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

22 responses to “On Optimism In Fiction

  1. Smooth thoughts, candidly expressed. And, as always, mankind shall choose the middle-path, I dare say.

  2. Agree and disagree, as always. 🙂

    I’ve been thinking for some time that one of the things that has more or less doomed liberal Protestantism is that they succeeded. If you look at the basic attitude of Medieval Roman Catholicism prior to the Enlightenment, you find a vision of a static society in a static world ordained by God, with Spheres, the lowest being Hell, with Earth just above it, and the various domains of Heaven above that. There were a lot of problems and material want, but the basic attitude was that these, too, were part of the divine order, and while you could offer succor to the suffering, you couldn’t really FIX anything. “The poor we shall always have with us.”

    The Protestants have always had as part of their theology the idea that the order was NOT fixed, and that even if you couldn’t fix every problem, you could at least try. Protestantism was, from the beginning, tied up with the Enlightenment, historically and philosophically. It’s one reason that “liberal theology” took off under the Protestants, because they were willing to examine The Bible as a piece of literature, and start asking questions about who wrote what passages, and when — and, of course, ended up discrediting a lot of it.

    If you look at today’s world, you see a world far removed from the fixed order “ordained by God” that existed in the 14th-century mind. It is, in fact, very much the Utopia that early Protestants envisioned. Having largely accomplished what they set out to do in the 16th and 17th centuries, the liberal Protestant churches simply don’t have much left to say.

    So yes: we now live in the Utopia dreamed by our predecessors. A lot of our deepest problems are also rooted in that same soil, of course. We need a new vision to deal with those problems.

    Where I disagree is that you leave out the third, cyclic, alternative. Empires rise and fall. Civilizations rise and fall, on a larger time-scale. One reason the definitions of “society” and “empire” and “civilization” get so fuzzy is that they are really the same thing, cultural memory, viewed on different scales of time and geography. Our use of the vernal equinox as the “zero-point” for measuring axial precession dates back to at least the Sumerians, and probably much further back, since they probably got it from their predecessors — there’s no reason we couldn’t use the autumnal equinox instead, but we don’t. So, are we Sumerians? Hardly. Yet we retain some cultural memory that comes down from a long-dead civilization, and perhaps from a long-dead-and-forgotten civilization before that.

    So assume that we do not “solve” the environmental problems. Yes, there are people who are throwing out apocalyptic visions of methane bubbling up from the oceans and catching fire, but they’re a bit ungrounded. The reality is that our civilization will likely fall in the next few centuries, but people will survive. We’ll go through another Dark Age similar to (but, of course, entirely different from) the Low Middle Ages that followed the collapse of Western Rome in Europe, and a couple thousand years from now, we’ll rebuild a new civilization. It will peak and fall, and a few thousand years later, another civilization will rise.

    The one thing that is demonstrably unique about our civilization is that we are the first, and the last, to burn oil as part of our energy foundation, evidence for which is the fact that it was there for us to use, and will not be there for any future generations to use. If we stopped “mining” oil right now, all of the reserves that remain are too deep and too difficult to reach without industrial technology. There is no way to bootstrap another civilization on oil. So if we see another industrial civilization — and I’m confident we will — it won’t be based on oil, but on something else. Those descendants won’t have any particular desire to dig up the oil, any more than we would use modern mining equipment to dig for good flints for spear points.

    You might be interested in two recent posts on my page:


    And yes, I have read web articles on the Alcubierre warp drive. It’s cool. It’s not imminent.

    • One needs to distinguish between “a civilization” and “civilization.” By the latter I simply mean the condition of living in cities, with all that implies: agriculture, written language, specialization, formal government, and so on. Contrary to what you’re suggesting here, one may see an uninterrupted progression from the first agricultural settlements to today, with globally uninterrupted progress in science, technology, the arts, and social organization over time, becoming much more rapid in the last few centuries but never — not once — interrupted globally in the entire history of civilization. All setbacks were purely local. During the European Dark Ages following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for example, the Eastern Roman Empire, its perpetual sparring partner Persia, India, and China maintained high levels of culture. When Islam rose and conquered, eventually, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, North Africa, and India, it, too, maintained high levels of culture, preserving classical literature and philosophy to be rediscovered by Europeans in the so-called Renaissance. With very few exceptions, when one empire destroyed another, the conquered remained civilized and civilization itself did not suffer a setback.

      What we face today is not same-old. It’s unprecedented. For the first time in all of history, we face the prospect of actually extinguishing civilization, by which I don’t mean destroying this or that civilization or this or that empire, I mean destroying the condition of living in cities itself, so that nowhere on Earth will there be people living in cities. That is not a repeat of something that has gone before. It has never happened before since civilization arose thousands of years ago. Never. Not once.

      If it does happen and we manage to survive as a species (read: if we don’t fight with nuclear weapons over increasingly scarce resources), then the new civilization will eventually face the same problems, which are by no means limited to oil but are due to rising populations and increased per-person resource consumption, and that can happen with oil or without it. If we go extinct, then the successor species that evolves to fill our niche will face it, too.

      On the other hand, if we do manage to evolve a peaceful and sustainable society, then we will go on to become an advanced, mature civilization and, assuming some means of FTL travel exists (and I’m increasingly confident that it will), achieve the stars.

      • Why would people of the future be unable to live in cities? Nuclear and zombie apocalypse scenarios excepted?

      • I’m assuming an apocalypse scenario here, possibly but not necessarily nuclear, definitely not zombie but one involving a drastic reduction of the planet’s carrying capacity for human life. Widespread starvation, spread of disease, breakdown of the support mechanisms that keep society operating, culminating in a cannibalistic collapse into anarchy. Worse scenarios are possible if the ongoing mass extinction we’re causing removes some key link in the food chain, like bees for pollination. Anyway, we have a complex and not very robust system capable of supporting billions of people right now, but it’s dependent on a number of factors like available fresh water and energy, and a sudden breakdown would cause the number of people that can be supported to drop to a fraction of current population.

        It’s also possible that we wouldn’t see a sudden collapse of that kind, but if so that makes developing a sustainable society that much easier and makes it a good deal more likely we’ll get there. What I’m certain of is that we can’t have civilization that consumes resources on this scale indefinitely.

      • Ah. Nolo contendre.

        Taking oil out of the picture drastically reduces the odds of catastrophe. And oil is going away. I’m more concerned if it is replaced by something more potent.

        If you read Dmitri Orlov (a depressing prospect, so read him on a sunny day with a wine cooler in front of you) regarding the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, you find some interesting things. One is the realization that, while there are mass die-offs, most population collapses look a bit more like two extra funerals a year, and one less christening. It takes very little to shift to a negative population growth, and if that is sustained, the population can drop by half or more in a century.

        My own family line is in rapid decline. I’ve been doing some ancestry.com tracing, and my great-grandparents’ generation regularly had families of ten or twelve children (who survived to adulthood). Yet my parents’ generation on both sides were down to six, and many of them had no children: I had only a small handful of cousins. The generation after me is all but barren. I talk to young people, especially young women, who shudder if you ask them if they want kids. My understanding is that the US is actually in negative population growth, and the only reason the population is rising is because of immigration.

      • Negative population growth isn’t what I’m talking about here, or only about a small subset of it. Yes, the population of the advanced world (not just the U.S.) is in decline. In Europe, the statistics are more pronounced, because as you say, the U.S. experiences population growth due to immigration. (One side effect of this process is that those of European ancestry will go from being a majority of the population to being the largest racial minority some time in the next twenty years or so.) But this is, I think, a natural response on an individual level giving rise to a collective result, a correction of our overpopulated state. It’s one of the things that gives me some hope we may avoid a catastrophe.

        What I’m talking about is more the result of a sudden drastic decline in population carrying capacity. It’s happened locally many times in the past, especially in ancient times, when unpredictable weather conditions could cause crop failures, resulting in famine. Today’s agriculture is highly dependent on two things, fertilizer and pesticides made from fossil fuels, and fresh water for irrigation pumped from underground aquifers. We are seeing a gradual decline in productivity of oil, but we may see a drastic drop in the availability of fresh water. Also, rising sea levels from global warming are likely to reduce the availability of arable land quite soon, as much of the best farmland is at low sea levels and near the coast. And finally, climate change will change the suitability of farmland for particular crops.

        Imagine the kind of famine that results from a severe drought, happening all over the world at once, and unlike weather-caused famines being a permanent change. Imagine food riots breaking out in all but the richest nations, and perhaps even in them as food prices climb higher and higher. Since scarce fresh water is likely to be a key part of this scenario, imagine wars over water supply breaking out in various places. If this turns into a nuclear exchange, which it might as the number of nuclear powers continues to grow (India and Pakistan representing a very scary pair of them) — game over.

        It doesn’t have to be that bad, but it may be. Hopefully, whatever happens won’t bring on the end of civilization, but will spur us to make the changes we need to survive. Either way, though, the future will not be a low-efficiency, high-throughput, uncontrolled-growth scenario in any way resembling the present.

      • We have a lot of big talk in this country about the Red-Blue divide, but I don’t think there’s civil war material there: it’s mostly name-calling and mutual disrespect. But I’ve felt for a long time that people will go to war over water, especially anywhere west of the Mississippi.

        That’s actually my expectation, sometime toward the middle or end of this century, in the US. Sooner if the fracking in Texas and eastern Colorado and elsewhere poisons one or more of the big aquifers, like the Ogallalla.Though, of course, that can’t happen, as we’re assured by the experts that nothing can go nothing can go nothing can go …

        Oh, wait, what about that water in Texas that can be lit on fire?

        Bah. That’s not from OUR NG wells. Never saw it before in my life. Can’t be our fault.


      • The term “Game Over” bothers me, because anything short of a full species extinction is NOT “Game Over.” It’s merely “Start Over” at some level. Cultural memory is very long and persistent, and while our age might become a matter of myth, and populations might drop to the point that most people can go back to hunting and gathering, it would take an enormous catastrophe to completely wipe out humans. Remember, there are still the Innuit, and all the other arctic tribes. There are the Maori. There are the Abos in Australia. The jungles of South America are full of tribal peoples. Africa has many tribes not plugged into the Civilization teat. They’ll survive, and rebuild, and tell cautionary and fantastical stories about the Old World, and some of them will doubtless re-invent Civilization.

        Maybe that’s what it will take to move into our true adolescence and maturity.

  3. So now I’m confused. We need to learn to live sustainably. Once we do that, as you argue that we must, what is the incentive to go to the stars? Which will, under any possible physical scenario, be extremely costly?

    • You can see no reason to go to the stars other than a desperate search for the resources needed to survive? Others certainly can. I can.

      About your previous post: I was specifically referring to full-scale nuclear war with that “game over” comment. I believe that would entail species extinction. Some of the more extreme possible outcomes of environmental degradation would, too, although that’s less likely.

      • I’d like to hear your reasons.

        I’d like to visit Tahiti, and spend a month in Vigo, Spain, and explore Tuscany and Milan, and…. But, I have to budget for all that. It’s not impossible, but I can’t just pick up and go. The more expensive the prospect, the more planning I have to do. And there are some wishes that are economically impossible for me.

        It’s a bit different if my company decided to send me to these places, because it has deeper pockets. But my company is only going to do so if they think that it will bring them net revenue, above and beyond the cost of the trip. They don’t pay for my vacations.

        Idle curiosity could take us to the stars if it’s cheap enough, sure. But physics does not give us a cheap solution. Regardless of the magic space drive we develop that somehow teleports us at no energy cost to wherever, we still have the inertial rest frame and the cost of matching kinetic energy and momentum. Just teleporting to Mars during a Mars-solar opposition requires killing about 11,000 MPH of velocity (closer to 120,000 MPH in Mars-solar conjunction), and that energy has to come from somewhere, and be applied in such as way as to not destroy the cargo. Going further afield requires much more energy.

        This is IF the warp drive or teleporter is absolutely free. It won’t be. It will almost certainly cost more than the minor problem of synchronizing rest-frames.

        So in this context, what reasons do we have to go to other star systems?

  4. Let’s start by putting “going to the stars” in the proper context. It isn’t going to happen NOW. Many things have to happen first. We have to build that peaceful, sustainable society, with a reduced population living in a per-person abundance that involves less resource throughput than our present economy.

    With that out of the way, we have an economy that continues to grow as new technology continues to be invented, but a population that doesn’t grow, so that per capita wealth rises to levels far above what we have today. Part of that is sure to involve development of the resources of this solar system outside the Earth, possibly including the terraforming of Mars, or even Venus (which would be a much harder project but with a bigger potential payoff). If this happens, then the population could, in fact, grow, but in a controlled fashion, as people expand to populate this new living space.

    That’s the context in which you have to evaluate how expensive travel to the stars will be. The ancient Egyptians would have seen the construction of a single freeway as a horrendously expensive endeavor, but for us it’s quite affordable, because it represents a much smaller percentage of the total economy than it would have for the ancient Egyptians. In short, in the future when it becomes technologically possible to do this, it won’t be nearly as expensive as it looks to you right now, measured as a percentage of the total economy which is how it should be measured.

    Next, in regard to resources, there’s a difference between need and desire, and it’s desire, not need, that typically impels discovery and expansion. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is a cute phrase, but it’s just about completely false. Invention tends to arise because people have plenty, and want more, rather than because people have little and desperately need. Desperation leads to conservatism, as people try to protect what little they have and become risk-averse. Confidence, which is the fruit of abundance, leads to taking risks and trying something new. As we will have (assuming we pull through all this mess we’re in now) a far more prosperous economy in the future, there will be an increased tendency to try new things, including travel to and possibly colonization of distant stars.

    As to why people would want to do this, there are several reasons. First, assuming we find terraformable (and uninhabited) planets circling stars we can reach, we could develop these into new colonies allowing further expansion of human numbers. Second, any such expansion would require and involve the creation of a complete planetary biosphere using terrestrial life, which would allow the life of this planet to escape the solar system and thereby escape the solar life expectancy, extending the planetary life system’s own life expectancy to something indefinite. Third, some of those planets we find may NOT be uninhabited, and finding non-human intelligent races out there would be a tremendous experience, opening the way to an exchange of knowledge, information, and culture like nothing the human race has ever seen before.

    In short, we would go not because we would have to (we wouldn’t), but because we would want to, and could.

    • Good answers, but I’m not convinced.

      Let’s talk about “economic growth” in a “sustainable economy.” That is, frankly, an oxymoron, and the process of LEARNING that this is an oxymoron is the very heart and soul of what we need to learn — as a species — to embrace sustainability.

      Sustainable economies will naturally grow and shrink in concert with population, resource availability, and various cultural fads, but the idea of “continued economic growth” — particularly as embedded in our concept of an “economy” based on capital investment with exponential growth of profits, or the more general mythology of “progress” — is a particular and peculiar pathology of our current, unsustainable system. It isn’t any of the details — it’s how we THINK about the question.

      The reason we cannot bridge to sustainability right now is the way we think about what that means. No growth == stagnation. No growth == failure. No growth == death and extinction. To embrace sustainability is to embrace stagnation and death. “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying” is a standard maxim in business.

      The cultural psychology of a sustainable society will be DIFFERENT from our current cultural psychology. That’s the whole point. You cannot have a sustainable civilization that still thinks that no-growth == death.

      For some reason, you take “standard of living” — which I take to mean “material standard of living” — in this sustainable society to be constantly rising. I see that as a fundamental contradiction. A rising material standard of living represents higher energy use, if nothing else. How is continually rising energy use “sustained?” Apart from the physical impossibility of this, such an idea will be foreign to the cultural psychology of a sustainable civilization. They can’t possibly think that way. If they do, they will not live sustainably: they’ll live like we do.

      The key mantra of sustainability is the word “enough.” Not “more.”

      In a culture that has embraced the idea of “enough,” the ideas of terraforming and expansion and conquest and exploitation pretty much go away. They would be viewed as being as insane as the idea of “glory in bloody slaughter” would be considered today, and with probably much the same ambiguity, since it hasn’t been that long since the idea of glory in bloody slaughter was called “valor,” and still is in some circles.

      So no, I don’t see your proposed sustainable society having any interest at all in Mars, or Venus, as potential farmland. They’ll be done with that. Earth will be “enough.”

      • That a sustainable economy is one that experiences no economic growth is a fairly common misconception. What it will experience is no growth in resource throughput. That does not, however, mean it will not grow. An increasing portion of the economy involves the processing of information, which requires very little in resource throughput. Improvements in resource efficiency will allow economic growth in the manufacturing sector without increasing resource throughput. New inventions and products also allow for economic growth, not necessarily (although sometimes) with increased resource throughput. In short, a sustainable economy isn’t a no-growth economy.

        As such, there is no need to go to a mindset that embraces zero economic growth in order to achieve a sustainable economy. And since that’s the case, it’s very unlikely we will do that. Nor will it be necessary to embrace the idea of “enough” rather than “more” in order to do that, and therefore, we won’t do that, either. Since everything you envision follows from this hypothesis, which I believe to be an error, it requires no reply.

  5. Can you give me a specific counterexample to my “common misconception”?

    • If you mean instances in which economic growth wasn’t dependent on increased resource throughput, certainly. Take the early factories for example. Before the invention of the steam engine, factories used water power to drive machines and also employed division of labor to make production more efficient. The amount of raw materials needed for a given amount of production was a little less than with In-home production, and the amount of labor needed was a LOT less, while water power can’t be considered a resource in the sense of something that can be depleted.

      Later on, replacing the relatively inefficient coal-fired steam engines with diesel and later electric reduced resource throughput while increasing production. (Although of course not enough by what we know today.)

      Resources fall into three categories. There are non-renewable resources like oil and iron ore, renewable resources that can be depleted like timber, soil fertility, and fresh water from aquifers, and renewable resources that can’t be depleted like river water, solar power, wind power, and water power. A sustainable economy is simply one that does not use scarce non-renewables, and uses depletable renewables at a rate below the replenishment rate. Non-depletable resources can be used at will, provided their use doesn’t entail a side effect that depletes something else, like biodiversity.

      We can go a long way towards a sustainable economy merely by ending population growth and switching our energy production from fossil fuels to solar. The idea that we must tighten our belts and become happier with less may appeal to neo-Puritan morality, but there’s no ecological reason for it, certainly not in the long run.

      • The examples you give require increasing energy use, or more precisely, increasing EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). For the last half-millennium, that has been growing steadily, and VERY rapidly since about 1850. This is precisely what peak oil is about. It is the basic driving force behind all of our current “economic growth.” From wind/water/mucle to coal/steam to oil/internal-combustion. It was supposed to jump next to nuclear, but the approach taken was a botch.

        It’s all about energy. Energy is what lets you get to all the other material resources, and fabricate them into other things. With enough energy, you can extract fresh water and valuable minerals, like phosphorus, from seawater. Without energy, you can be sitting on top of an ocean of oil, and you can’t get to it.

        We have three futures available in, say 2300, a date chosen arbitrarily but well after all fossil fuels (coal, oil, and NG) have peaked and usage has returned to near-zero.

        Future 1: significantly less EROEI than present.
        Future 2: more-or-less the same EROEI as at present.
        Future 3: significantly more EROEI than present.

        Future 3 is what happens if we find a “silver bullet,” like cold fusion.
        Future 2 is what happens if we successfully shift to renewables.
        Future 1 is what happens if we don’t get to Future 2 or 3.

        If we have a Future 3 in 2300, we’ll be in serious trouble (IMO), because there will have been no incentive to change our ways at all. Frankly, I don’t think we’ll get to 2300 in Future 3 as a species, because just as there are things that money cannot buy, there are things that free energy cannot fix, such mass extinction of most species due to genetic tampering and habitat destruction. Once those are gone, it really is Game Over.

        Future 2 is sustainable, based on sustainable energy sources, e.g. solar, wind, etc. The first thing to note is that, even if 90% efficiency in solar collection and conversion is possible, it’s like the warp drive: it isn’t coming tomorrow. We’ve already passed peak oil, which means that we’re going to have to start scaling out with what we’ve got, and soon, because oil is already on its way out. Both NG and coal have lower EROEI, once you factor out oil (you’ll have to start doing mountaintop removal with coal-powered machinery, and the cost is going to get really high). Picture it as a falling curve using fossil fuels over the next couple of centuries, and a rising curve from solar scale-out and technological advances. If the scale-out is delayed (politics) or the technology development hits snags, the overall energy curve is going to decline, and as it does, everything slows down further, causing longer and steeper declines.

        No matter how you slice it, the near future sees declining EROEI and economic contraction. It’s going to be a matter of getting through that.

        There are also some fundamental mistakes being made in the technology development, in terms of whether the technology can be sustained and further developed using ONLY that technology, and not implicitly relying on the tool-chains that depend on fossil fuels. It’s (relatively) easy to make quantum dots in a clean-room environment used to make LSI chips, but those clean rooms presume current energy wastage levels based on oil. The factories that make the equipment that runs in those clean rooms require current energy wastage levels based on oil. If the energy curve dips too quickly, those factories shut down, and quantum dot technology will be lost, probably for centuries if not for good.

        So future 2 is very delicately poised on the lip of not happening. It’s a good ground for the half-full/half-empty formulation of optimism, and excellent fodder for fiction-writing.

        Future 1 basically ensures a dark age. Current renewable technology can’t get us anywhere near current energy wastage levels, even with massive scale-out, and any firm action is being fought tooth and nail by the current energy moguls and their representative oligarchy (in the US). Every policy and instinct is based around the blind assumption of economic growth, with no understanding of how critically it depends on rising EROEI: we’ll actually be facing economic contraction as EROEI drops and energy prices rise, and people will keep kicking the tires and grinding the starter, trying to get the out-of-gas clunker running again. They won’t figure out that it’s out of gas until the oil companies take their last round of profits and close up shop. At that point, EROEI drops off a cliff, and lots of people die. Political unity comes unglued. Etc.

        The Future 1 dark age isn’t a zombie apocalypse, however. The post-Roman dark age didn’t go back to bronze, and we’ll keep a lot of modern stuff. I was a little surprised to find that simple “negative resistance” materials (amplifiers) can be made on a village forge — you don’t need tubes or transistors to make a radio, and a simple hand-cranked magneto can provide power. What we won’t have is multi-megawatt stations pumping out Rush Limbaugh, and Future 1 might be worth it just for that.

        What I think is going to happen is that Europe — parts of it — are going to get a good shot at Future 2, while the US will fall, cursing, into Future 1. As Winston Churchill once quipped, Americans will do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities. Of course, by then it will be far too late to shoot for Future 2 in the US. A lot of people who have been thinking about this longer than I have think it’s already too late. On that count, I have the optimism born of ignorance.

        And who knows: maybe the Europeans will decide to help us out.

        After the dark age, we’ll have other options, of course, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that they won’t depend on fossil fuels.

        So let me rephrase my question. Can you give me an example of a persistently growing economy in the absence of increased energy usage?

  6. “Can you give me an example of a persistently growing economy in the absence of increased energy usage?”

    No, but it doesn’t matter. Increased energy usage isn’t the problem. Increased throughput of scarce non-renewable resources and of exhaustable renewables beyond the replenishment rate, together with damage to bio-sustainment faculties such as biodiversity — that’s the problem. Unless increased energy use causes damage to the biosphere beyond tolerance, it isn’t a problem at all. And our energy use in itself is nowhere near that point (although some of our agricultural and lifestyle practices are).

    There were a number of revealing and quite misleading statements in your comment. I’ll quote them and point out where I believe you went wrong.

    “If we have a Future 3 in 2300, we’ll be in serious trouble (IMO), because there will have been no incentive to change our ways at all.”

    That’s untrue. We can’t have a future with significantly increased net energy production without changing our ways, both because fossil fuels are destructive of the environment and because they are in decline. What is true, though, is that we will have no incentive to change our ways in the direction you apparently desire. But there’s no reason to desire those changes except, as I said before, neo-Puritan morality. We don’t have to become ascetics for ecological reasons. We do have to make some other changes that are quite profound and that I haven’t gone into in detail, but not that one.

    “The first thing to note is that, even if 90% efficiency in solar collection and conversion is possible, it’s like the warp drive: it isn’t coming tomorrow.”

    90% efficiency is absurd. There is no energy technology that gives us that. But your implication that it’s necessary is also absurd. In fact, solar power is already competitive with fossil fuels both in terms of energy cost to extract energy and economically. U.S. subsidies of the fossil fuel industry distort the picture quite a bit, but even so the use of solar is growing dramatically, on its own and without much in the way of government help. Nor is it an energy source in short supply. In fact, it’s incredibly abundant, far more so than fossil fuels were a hundred years ago, and that is clearly the direction we’re going.

    “It’s (relatively) easy to make quantum dots in a clean-room environment used to make LSI chips, but those clean rooms presume current energy wastage levels based on oil.”

    Nonsense. No technology requires “energy wastage” at all. Energy wastage is always a net loss. What they do require is high levels of energy USE, not waste. But as noted above, we don’t require fossil fuels to generate high levels of usable energy.

    Let’s consider how peak oil and declining oil production impact the economy as well. It’s not a sudden, catastrophic collapse. it’s more a replay of the 1970s oil shortages that doesn’t end, and it’s not in the future — we’re already there. Oil prices will continue to rise, but what that will do is force us to make a shift to renewable energy faster than we would if oil were still abundant and cheap. We’re not going to “run out” of oil any time in the near future, or even probably the far future, because if we stop burning the stuff oil will become cheap again and abundant for all non-fuel uses.

    We face very serious problems due to overpopulation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. We face relatively trivial problems when it comes to energy shortages. That’s eminently solvable. And without lasting energy scarcity, none of the gloomy scenarios you depict will come to pass, although something worse conceivably might.

    • Well, now we’re disagreeing about approximately the same subjects, at least.

      You’ve entirely missed my point on Future 3.

      We don’t get to Future 3 (by 2300) without breakthrough technologies, e.g. fusion, or 90% efficiency on solar, which was intended to be absurd. Solar as it exists now requires a huge buildout to come anywhere near to supporting “modern civilization” as we know it, and from what I’ve read, if we fast-forward with existing technology to an all-solar, no-fossil-fuel future, we will necessarily be using significantly less energy, not more. I have no doubt that efficiency will improve over time, but without breakthrough technology, we are not going to see an economy-fueling leap like the one from coal to oil that took us from 1860 to 1960 and convinced everyone that this could go on forever. I don’t see solar as taking us into future 3, and did not mean to suggest that it would.

      Future 3 by 2300 necessarily involves breakthroughs, e.g. cold fusion. “Atom power” was supposed to take us there in the 1950’s, but it turned into a lead turkey for a million reasons. If we make a cold fusion leap (or equivalent leap) in the next century, all of our economic and political assumptions remain unchallenged, subject to their own internal contradictions, which will mostly be pushed aside and ignored. It’s the business-as-usual route, only using more energy, and using it to do ever more damaging things. Our disagreement here is on the nature of people. You seem to think they’ll change and start behaving responsibly. I don’t.

      So fishing companies will develop even more efficient, energy-intensive ways to empty the oceans of edible life. Agribusiness will develop even more efficient, energy-intensive ways to mono crop and eliminate “pests” (like bees, oops). City and transportation network design will find more efficient ways to fence out or exterminate unwanted wildlife. Wetlands will be filled in, forests will be chopped down for timber, seawater will be mined. GMOs will proliferate with no oversight and little caution, and potential long-term consequences will be ignored and whitewashed. Business as usual.

      If you think we can hand cold fusion to US American business and government and still survive the next three centuries, then our disagreement is simply one of choler. We’re both spinning wool at that point, and can agree to disagree.

      Solar takes us into Future 2 by 2300, not Future 3. The endpoint may be a little higher or a little lower than where we are now, depending on conversion efficiency and total buildout. Let’s do the math.

      The US is currently using around 100 Quad Btu each year, about five times what we were using in 1935, and probably 100 times what we were using in 1835. A quick look at a solar installation website cites 8-15% efficiency, and around 8-10 watt/ft^2 during the peak 5-hour daily cycle, or about 50 watt-hours per day, or 18,250 w-h per year, per square foot. The best commercial panels, with concentrators, can get about 44% efficiency, which is, say, five times the energy output, so 91,250 w-h per year per square foot, call it 100,000. One quad is about 3 x 10^14 w-h, so to reach 100 quad would require 3 x 10^11 ft^2, , and at 2.8 x 10^7 sq. ft in a sq mi, I get about ten thousand square miles, or about 6.4 million acres. A quick scan of current prices yields around $15/sq. ft. for panels that run about 15 W/ft^2, so if we recompute for that efficiency, we get about 30,000 w-h per year per sq. ft., so our 100 quads = 3 x 10^16 w-h -> 10 x 10^11 sq. ft. = 36,000 sq. mi., at a cost of around $15 x 10^12, which is about $15 trillion dollars.

      I’m not going to approach the question of where we come up with 36,000 square miles of surface to mount these, or what that will cost.

      Please do check my math. It’s easy to slip a decimal point.

      In short, it’s doable, but I somehow think we’re going to end up settling for a bit less, and cutting back on our 100 quad energy usage. Cutting it back to 1935 levels of energy usage still costs $3T, however.

      Nothing neo-Puritan about this. It’s simply the cost. And in case you hadn’t noticed, nothing gets done in the US because it’s the right thing to do: someone has to profit from it, which means that $15T has a multiplier on it.

      You missed my whole point about tool chains, so I’ll try to clarify. As I mentioned, you can make cheap amplifiers using very low-tech processing of commonplace materials. Instead, we went with tubes and then transistors. Why?

      Part of it was that they worked better, though we don’t know where the simpler technology might have gone, because we never pursued it. The far bigger aspect was that the technologies were already lying around from other applications, and were therefore more economical.

      Technologies typically get stuck in little cul-de-sacs based on the history of their development. Why are digital CD’s round? Why are bicycle seats shaped the way they are? Why are space shuttle components the width of two horse backsides?

      Every toolchain in existence right now is predicated on the existence of “things-as-they-are,” which includes fossil fuel energy. It isn’t that we have to do it that way. It’s that we DO do it that way. As fossil fuels scale down, every toolchain has to be re-examined and possibly rebuilt. In some cases, we’ll be stuck. There isn’t a reasonable substitute for jet fuel, for instance.

      Cost structures affect pricing structures. Cheap, consumer-oriented computers, for instance, have components are running on a five-percent pricing margin, and it doesn’t take much to force a consumer price increase, or to drive even a big player out of business. Consumer price increases lead to demand destruction, which leads to still higher prices. There are, I believe, only four factories on the earth that make the metal oxide coating used in tape and disk technology. One of them blew up about a decade ago, and it caused all kinds of worldwide shortages and delays in the industry until they brought it back online. Long-term energy price increases will cause a lot of industrial restructuring, which will break tool chains suddenly, which will require reinvention and retooling.

      Think of it like an ecological food-chain, but with very little redundancy.

      Will we make flat-panel televisions in Future 2? Possibly not. Then will we make flat-panel medical monitors? No — they are affordable only because the mass market for televisions makes the components cheap and readily available. Once those markets vanish, LED Christmas tree lights are history. Etc.

      This speaks to the question of catastrophic collapse.

      It seems to me that the decline will be, on average, slow and steady, but it will take place in little jerks as individual feedback loops overload and collapse. When that happens, entire industries will have to shift, which may cause other collapses, and this could easily cascade into serious shortages of surprising things. No one can anticipate these: it’s too complex. We’ll simply see it play out.

      One of the big feedback loops is government subsidy to oil interests, to keep fossil fuel prices low. It would be best for everyone except Big Oil to phase out all of the subsidies and let prices rise. Instead, I think government will subsidize oil until it simply can’t any more, and at that point, Big Oil will have diversified and will simply get out of the business. It’s what the fracking wildcatters do out here: they set it up, often on borrowed money, pump a bit of oil and natural gas, pocket their fees, and then file for corporate bankruptcy — no cleanup, sometimes not even capping the NG wells which continue to vent into the open air. The ranchers who let them through the gate typically get shafted.

      BP would never do that, of course.

      If Big Oil engineers a quick bailout in this scenario, we’ll have a catastrophic mess on our hands. They won’t, and won’t care. It’s all perfectly legal.

      I don’t like being this blunt, but your belief that oil will become cheap again betrays some pretty fundamental misunderstandings of how the market works. You might want to research that a bit.

      Oil is cheap right now because both demand and production are high. One reason the industry can’t raise prices is because if they do, it will destroy demand — that’s exactly what happened in 2008, when prices (here) exceeded $4.00/gallon. I don’t know what they did out in CA. At that point, people started making lifestyle changes, and demand — the actual number of gallons pumped — dropped. Visibly.

      When that happens, production gluts the market, and vendors start dropping prices to try to get rid of excess supplies. But as production costs rise, you can’t drop very much without turning your margins into a negative number. If it’s a short, random fluctuation, spot and futures markets even it out, and the oil companies don’t see it. If it’s a long-term demand destruction, the producers have no choice but to cut back production: they are glutting the market and depressing prices below profitability. As production costs continue to rise, this cycle repeats, and price rises while availability drops. In the end, oil is far too expensive to burn.

      You are correct, there is still plenty in the ground for boutique applications. But it isn’t cheap, it’s a boutique commodity.

      There’s also a distinct possibility it will vanish entirely as a commodity. Right now, oil-rig equipment is mass-produced and is very cheap. If there is only a handful of boutique manufacturers, that equipment is going to be expensive and hard to get. That goes into the price. At some point, it just isn’t profitable, and you can’t get the stuff at any price.

      No neo-Puritanism here, either. Simple economics.

      • “We don’t get to Future 3 (by 2300) without breakthrough technologies, e.g. fusion, or 90% efficiency on solar”


        “if we fast-forward with existing technology to an all-solar, no-fossil-fuel future, we will necessarily be using significantly less energy, not more”


        “without breakthrough technology, we are not going to see an economy-fueling leap like the one from coal to oil”

        True but irrelevant. We don’t need one.

        “Solar takes us into Future 2 by 2300, not Future 3”

        I may be misunderstanding what you mean by “Future 3.” I was assuming you meant one in which we have continued per capita economic growth, with part of that being growth in usable energy produced per capita. Solar will definitely give us that (see below). If you mean instead something that grows at the rapid pace that it did over the past century, despite a stable or declining population, then no, it won’t do that — but that’s a straw man, anyway. Considering that the population grew from 76 million in 1900 to 310 million today — it quadrupled, in other words — much of the growth in energy production during the same period went to provide each person with equal energy to consume, not to increase the per-capita consumption. Energy produced (modified for efficiency) had to increase fourfold before it could begin to provide improved living standards. We will not be facing that kind of steep hill in the future.

        “Let’s do the math.”

        Rather than fall into that trap, I’m going to give you a study that’s already been done on the problem. It’s your assumptions that are at fault, not your calculations. Please go to http://landartgenerator.org/blagi/archives/127.

        As for where the land can come from, one of the nice things about solar is that it can be installed in land already being used for something else, such as on rooftops. A lot of the solar development in recent years has been this kind of decentralized production on people’s homes.

        “Oil is cheap right now because both demand and production are high. One reason the industry can’t raise prices is because if they do, it will destroy demand — that’s exactly what happened in 2008, when prices (here) exceeded $4.00/gallon. I don’t know what they did out in CA. At that point, people started making lifestyle changes, and demand — the actual number of gallons pumped — dropped. Visibly.”

        You’re forgetting what else happened in 2008. There was another cause entirely for the drop in demand. And what do you mean “cheap right now”? It is nothing of the sort; gasoline costs above $4 a gallon in California today. Demand has grown nonetheless as the economy has rebounded from the severe recession.

        Oil was very cheap when I was born. That’s because the ratio of demand to supply was much lower, partly because demand was lower but also because supply was higher. If demand drops through the floor due to wholesale energy-tech conversion, it is indeed likely that production will decline as well, but not enough to prevent a dramatic drop in oil prices, which is something that has happened before, so it’s nonsensical to suggest that it can’t happen again.

        Here is the kind of thing I mean by neo-Puritanism:

        “Our disagreement here is on the nature of people. You seem to think they’ll change and start behaving responsibly. . . . So fishing companies will develop even more efficient, energy-intensive ways to empty the oceans of edible life. Agribusiness will develop even more efficient, energy-intensive ways to mono crop and eliminate “pests” (like bees, oops).”

        Et cetera. There’s a lot of criticism here of people’s tendency to behave irresponsibly, and an implicit desire to deny them the ability to do so, which a sharply contracted economy would accomplish. That’s what I mean by the term. But issues comparable to these have been addressed before, not always easily, but successfully, from slavery to spousal rape. There is no reason why we as a society can’t also address unsustainable fishing or agricultural practices (or logging or whatever). I’ve already stated that there will be some profound changes necessary in the way we do business (and not only due to environmental considerations). What we won’t require, though, is an economy that ceases to grow.

  7. Another point needs to be made about the cost of switching to solar power. Even if we accept your $15 trillion total price tag (and we shouldn’t), that represents less than the U.S. economy for one year (which is about $17 trillion). We’re not talking about doing this all in one year, but over a period of 20 to 50 years, which means it wouldn’t cost most of the U.S. economy but maybe as little as 2% of the economy.

    That’s still a lot, but remember that we’re going to have to replace most of our energy infrastructure over that period of time anyway, even if oil shortages or climate change weren’t factors. So a lot of this money is money that we would be spending in any case. The real question is how much MORE it would cost to replace our existing energy infrastructure with solar than to replace it with coal-fired plants, nuclear plants, etc. That becomes a much lower figure, although (unless we decided to go all nuclear, which is horrendously expensive) it’s probably not zero. And you also need to factor in the operating costs for other types of power, which are universally higher.

    It’s eminently doable, and since the power is virtually inexhaustible, we will not be facing a lower-energy future. The real problems we face are in other areas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s