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Our Eucatastrophe

In an earlier post I talked about prediction vs. preparation as different ways of approaching the future. Also foresight, which is the systematic study of trends and possibilities for the near future. When you do foresight, you quickly begin to realize that our ideas about the future are highly distorted, both by optimism and pessimism, as well as propaganda, ideology, and all the various things that various people and groups are trying to sell us. How do you cut through all of that to get some sense--any sense--of where we're really going?

One annual effort to do just that is the Millennium Project's State of the Future. This annual study of trends and drivers is grounded in research by hundreds of people in dozens of countries around the world. The full report comes with a CD or DVD containing 7000 pages of data, analysis, and background on the 15 years' worth of methodological refinement and legwork that have gone into the project. The pdf version of the executive summary is free to download here, and if you do look at it you may be shocked to discover something:

The 2011 State of the Future report is optimistic.

Cautiously so, and with caveats, but optimistic. The executive summary starts by saying, "The world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful, and better connected and people are living longer, yet half the world is potentially unstable." The overall message is that from where we stand right now, we could build a poverty-free, sustainable world of free citizens. Or, we might pooch the whole thing.

Remember when I said in our last post that our problems are no longer technological? What I meant was that developing the technologies we need to save our collective asses is no longer the big issue; it's coordinating and cooperating to implement the solutions we already know will work, that's our difficult task now. The State of the Future report agrees:

There is no question that the world can be far better than it is--IF we make the right decisions. When you consider the many wrong decisions and good decisions not taken--day after day and year after year around the world--it is amazing that we are still making as much progress as we are. Hence, if we can improve our decisionmaking as individuals, groups, nations, and institutions, then the world could be surprisingly better than it is today.

By almost every measure, our world is getting better. Literacy, crime rates, education, access to fresh water--you name it, it's vastly improved over the past decade, and on a global scale. There remain several significant issues that could derail everything, however--so under the "Where we are Losing" heading the report lists the following:


  • Carbon dioxide emissions (kt)

  • Global surface temperature anomalies

  • People voting in elections (percent of population)

  • Levels of corruption (15 largest countries)

  • People killed or injured in terrorist attacks (number)

  • Number of refugees (per 100,000 total population)

This is consistent with previous years' reports. Corruption, international organized crime, climate change and related sustainability issues, and the prospect of a global mass extinction that may or may not include us... it's serious stuff. But the number of things that are going right, and that may synergize to mitigate or reverse these bad trends, is greater still.

J.R.R. Tolkien invented a literary device he said was necessary to balance the Greek idea of the catastrophe, that moment in a tragedy when everything falls apart. Tolkien called his idea the eucatastrophe--the moment when suddenly, everything goes right. In The Lord of the Rings, the eucatastrophe is the moment when Gollum falls into Mount Doom with the ring. Exactly that force for evil that threatened to destroy everything, saves everything instead. In light of my last post on this blog, you might say that eucatastrophe is the exact opposite of a wicked problem: it's the unstoppable twining of myriad threads of fate to create an unexpected, but in hindsight inevitable, positive transformation of the world. And it's as likely for the complex systems we inhabit to do right by us as wrong.

So I want to think about what our world's eucatastrophe could be. Once you read the State of the Future reports, you will see that everything is aligned for one to happen; the question is when, where and how?

What if everything goes right? And what if we help make it happen?

158 Comments

1:

Gollum falling into Mount Doom, grasping a copy of the last issue of The News of the World?

2:

i'd argue we've already had it: the internet. if you consider the impact that's had already in terms of uniting people it's already well on the way to improving the world on a global scale.

3:

Is an eucatastrophe really as likely as a catastrophe? Surely there are many more ways for a complex system to degrade than improve... at least for a system in a reasonably ordered state, such as global society? Second law stuff and such?

4:

Well, the nice thing about a relatively few super-rich having a strangle-hold on the world economy is that history has shown (at least since the gilded age) that such seats at the pinnacles seldom last very long, and their falls can be very swift. How many families from the Gilded Age are still in power?

A good example might be what would happen to NewsCorp if Rupert and James Murdoch died in a plane crash. Not that I'm suggesting enemy action: private planes have much higher accident rates than commercial air liners.

But what would happen to the news industry with them gone? That might be a eucatastrophe right there.

5:

Two crashes spring to mind - the Chinook crash on Kintire that killed a lot of senior intelligence officers, just as the NI situation was changing in drastic ways. Almost certainly an accident, and I don't know the effect of the loss of these people - positive, negative or neutral, but a similar event could drastically change history.

Also, the Polish thing.

Assuming that those 2 are the losses of good people (and why not), there's still no reason why a bunch of bastards in the future might all get on the same dodgy aircraft.

This is actually rather likely because the dodgier regimes are the ones who rely heaviest on the cult of the gifted leader, and the deliberate neutering of rivals.

6:

Instead of all this flowery words, you could simply call a self-organization in progress a self-organization in progress.

Stuff like that is guided by determining scarcities. Conscious or intelligent systems are also guided by perceived threats.

The fact that information is not the defining bottleneck any more has created the landscape in front of us at the moment.

Current defining scarcity? Trust.

That would imply rising demand for brand names dealing in trust: IPCC, Greenpeace, ai, Al Djazeera (in the Arab world), Anna Hazare (in India), Ai Weiwei and many more...

It is easily recognizable, that none of those names are universally trusted (especially in the US right). Symmetrical to that is the observation that neither the Bible, nor the US right is especially trusted either in the Arab world, India or China (or Europe for that matter).

But overall there seems to be every reason for optimism, because a competition for trust and a global attention economy are likely to select for the kind of structures we need.

7:

The other thing is the unknown unknowns.
The really unexpected tech, or tech with vast but unexpected side effects.
Again, the Net springs to mind. However, in Kurzweil's accelerating tech paradigm should we expect to this kind of thing more often?

8:

I'd say that the "Arab Spring" has great potential of Going Right, so long as the fundamentalist elements can be kept from power, and the Western Powers don't decide to be 'helpful' and screw things up.

9:

I'm reminded of the "World 2000 Report" for the US President (Carter). One of the key predictions was a multi-polar world. Major FAIL there.

We're back to what your wicked problems again - who wants what. In the late 1980's when Japan was still rising, Robert Reich noted that when he asked Americans would they prefer A) a future with good growth, but Japan with higher growth and richer than the US, or B) low growth, with Japan kept poorer than the US, the overwhelming choice was B. US citizens would prefer to be less wealthy but wealthier than the Japanese.

And we expect things to get better by design?

10:

As Rob @3 suggests, systems that are ordered are more likely to become more disordered by randomness. To maintain or increase order requires a lot of "energy" to overcome entropy.

A simple eucatastrophe is about as likely as an omelette reforming into an egg.

11:

The other question I would ask is whether we would recognize a eucatastrophe it it hit us in the face?

And importantly, from whose perspective?

Looking at history, was the fall of Rome a catastrophe, or a eucatastrophe for the peoples who eventually rebuilt their lands in new forms?

In more recent history, were the 2 world wars (arguably one long war with a respite) a catastrophe or a eucatastrophe, given the changed world order after 1945 and the partial overthrowing of the social systems prevailing in the Gilded Age?


13:
i'd argue we've already had it: the internet. if you consider the impact that's had already in terms of uniting people it's already well on the way to improving the world on a global scale.

Really? Cause I'd argue that it's been at leastas effective at driving people apart as it has been at bringing them together.

14:

oooh, nice question!

15:

How about this for a Eucatastrophe: global warming increases plant growth, lengthens the growing season and turns vast, formerly inhospitable regions of the planet into warm lands of abundance. What is the evidence that global warming would be a catastrophe? Wasn't it global warming that ended the last ice age and made civilization possible?

16:

...turns vast, formerly inhospitable regions of the planet into warm lands of abundance.

You might want to look at a globe instead of a Mercator projection. And of course the tundra regions have such good soils for growing our food crops. Or perhaps you mean the deserts might somehow turn green?

17:

And we all lived happily ever after? What?

18:

Interesting stuff, to be sure.
But given the concern for those "Where we are Losing" categories, I'd be most interested in seeing how the metrics for these categories were acquired. I mean, in particular, how does one define "corruption"??

19:

How about: The funding spigot for ITER is abruptly turned off due to financial woes. Polywell fusion research (which the Navy just dumped another 7.8 Million into) overcomes key hurdles, scales up and actually works, finally bringing economical fusion energy to the world. Want to build a big desalination plant for drinking and irrigation water in the now desertified US south? Power your plant with a polywell reactor. Need a high power-to-weight ratio power plant for deep space propulsion systems - bolt on a polywell. Basically, commercial scale power generation from fusion becomes a reality (whether by polywell or traveling wave or whatever concept).

p.s. and then the comet hits :)

20:

Sorry, I don't buy fusion as a save-us-all technology.

It was grossly over-sold during the 1950s ...

Trouble is, most of the fusion pathways we've looked at involve producing lots of neutrons; aneutronic fusion seems to require orders of magnitude higher temperatures (we're talking high fractional billions of degrees celsius, not mere hundred million degrees). Neutrons are a huge problem: you end up with secondary activation products (i.e. radioactive junk) in your reactor structures, and it's also possible to use those neutrons for breeding plutonium for weapons use: in other words, non-aneutronic fusion leaves you with most of the same problems as fission (i.e. waste disposal and weapons proliferation) and anteutronic fusion is still a pipe dream.

I'd like to see the polywell concept explored, of course. And I'd like to see ITER built, and the follow-on materials testing reactor they shelved due to financial constraints. If only because we need to go through deuterium/tritium fusion reactors in order to be in a position to explore aneutronic boron reactors (He3 fusion is moonshine, economically speaking). But we're not running short of Uranium or Thorium and I don't think fusion buys us any useful energy shortcuts unless polywell fusion is indeed viable and workable with 11B, in which case all bets are off (suddenly we have cheap aneutronic fusion reactors).

21:

People voting in elections (percent of population)

How do we know this is bad?

22:
One of the key predictions was a multi-polar world. Major FAIL there.
What planet are you living on, Alex? Back when that report was written, it was predicted that China's GDP would surpass the USA's after 2050. Current predictions are for this to happen before 2025. The EU, the USA, and China are three poles of the new world order. Japan, South Korea, India, and Brazil will (still) be important in a couple of decades, too. That looks multi-polar to me.


Sure, the US spends more than half of the world's total on military goods and services. How's that working out for them? How long will the current spend continue?

Regarding eucatastrophe, I am not at all optimistic. Civilization is a thin veneer on evolutionarily determined behaviour, and it appears that humans have applied their big brains to being incredibly nasty to each other, even in times of relative plenty. When resources get short, as they will through to the 2060s at least, we fight like cats in a sack, as George Monbiot put it.

23:
unless polywell fusion is indeed viable and workable with 11B, in which case all bets are off (suddenly we have cheap aneutronic fusion reactors).
Suddenly, yeah ... in about 50 years.

Two for the prototype, five for commercial scale prototype, 20 for type approval and legislation, and 18 to ramp up production to useful levels. See Vaclav Smil on this subject.

24:

Aargh, too hurried.

.. commercial scale prototype pilot plant ...

And I omitted training of the operators and safety inspectorate, development of the supply chain, yada yada.

25:

It's not just Polywell, Dense Plasma Focus is intended to be B11 reaction and is a very simple concept. Whether they can get the gigatesla fields necessary to suppress bremstrahlung radiation losses remains to be seen.

26:

Not that it's really what I wanted to talk about here, but to respond to the nuclear fusion thread: you don't need aneutronic fusion or even break-even conditions for nuclear fusion to be successful. All you need is a polywell (for instance) that produces a high enough neutron flux to catalyze fission in a subcritical blanket mass of thorium. This gives you an inherently safe subcritical reactor (it can't melt down), and this design allows you to burn up high-level waste as well, while being a much dodgier path to producing plutonium than standard fission.

In other words, at its current state of development the polywell has almost certainly already succeeded, if it's safe power production you're after and not just safe power production through nuclear fusion alone.

27:

This was a prediction for 2000. In actuality, we ended up with what might even be called a uni-polar world in 2000, especially in regard to military power. I don't recall China or India even being considered one of the major economies of 2000. It was a fail.

28:

non-aneutronic fusion

Charlie, surely you could have just said 'neutronic fusion.' I do like the moonshine comment, though.

29:

The fission component of fusion reactors was important even for <y2k research reactor designs. Having no way to contain the neutrons directly they planned to get the required tritium from fission induced in lithium shielding by the escaping neutrons IIRC.

No meltdown or similar events possible (not just improbable), IMO that's a very major point in favor of fusion reactors.

30:

Actually, I just had a brainstorm starry-sky technology:

I'd love to use the research on particle accelerators and fusion reactors to figure out a way to make particle trap reactors, otherwise known as devices that can collect the various lethal particles out in space, corral them, and use them to generate energy for a space station or colony.

This is otherwise known as "living off the land," the theoretical subset about making a living off of hard vacuum and energetic particles. It's not as efficient as fusion, but it would be nice if solar storms and cosmic rays were actually seen as useful things.

31:

If that is the goal, you don't even need Fusion in the first place. You can use proton accelerators and spallation of some heavy atoms to generate a sufficient neutron flux.

Spallation is to fission what a sledgehammer is to a scalpel - you don't split the atom and release 2-3 neutrons, you smash it into small pieces, releasing some 20-30 neutrons instead - each of those will split some 10-20 atoms (for 200MeV energy release per fission) in a deeply subcritical (as those things go) arrangement of fissionable fuel around the spallation target.

The energy required per proton is nothing to write home about (800 MeV - 0.01% of the level in the LHC), but the proton flux is some orders of magnitude higher than what people needed for research purposes. The efficiency of particle accelerators is, surprisingly enough, somewhere north of 50% - which makes this a viable concept without the subtleties of tokamaks and stellerators.

You'd need 1600MeV of electrical energy to release at least 40,000 MeV of heat. So, you'd end up getting at the very least ten times as much electricity out of it as you're putting into it.

However, you still have to deal with the issue of fission products on a scale of several centuries.

32:

I'm not totally convinced multi-polarity would do a lot of good for the populations of the world.

Let me give an example: While Joseph II was busy abolishing death penalty, trying to abolish the death cult (by limiting the amount of money allowed to be spent on burials and wakes), expropriating monasteries and other institutions, introducing civil rights for any subject (not just the barons), giving Jews citizen's rights, etc in his crown lands most of the German nobility was happily selling their subjects into servitude (Hessians, anyone?). He was in a vastly superior position of power to any of the rest of the German nobility (we'd call them warlords if we saw the same situation in Africa today), but not nearly powerful enough to even try to exert the amount of control that would have been required to implement his ideas outside his personal domain.

33:

"it's as likely for the complex systems we inhabit to do right by us as wrong"

To which I'd say two things: "Hope for the best, plan for the worst", and "Murphy has his law".

There are simply too many problems coming up on us at a rate of knots for things to expect to fail positively. We are far too over carrying capacity and far to dependent on existing energy structures to expect positive failure this late in the game.

Unless you count 4bn dead as a positive outcome ....

34:

I'm holding out for the Arab Peace Movement. It's going to be awesome.

I know the odds may look short just now, but it's really only a matter of enough young voices on tweets and the newly open airwaves asking, "Why are we wasting our time?"

Also, natural language translation software on a Google scale.

35:

There is the potential for shortages of uranium if fission plants get widely adopted. Thorium we got tons of

However no clean energy is going to solve exponential growth. Even if you have magic energy, long wave, energy from the ether kind of thing...

This post is interesting on that subject

http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/

I think some kind of human uplift, either through human technological augmentation or genetic engineering or something

36:

There is a 500,000t stock of depleted Uranium in the US alone (that was decades ago, it's grown since). That's enough to provide 500 GW for 1000 years. Russia must have at least twice as much. France imports 10,500t of Uranium per year - enough to generate 100GW for a century.

But ignoring stocks and ore reserves, there are also some 4,500,000,000t of Uranium in the oceans - enough for a million years worth of current global energy use (thermal and electricity) - which can be extracted for about $300 per kg. (1kg is enough for 10 million kWh of electricity.)

So, Uranium shortages are not the point.

37:

Applying thermodynamics to human society requires spherical humans of uniform density, and we have made little progress on the density issue.

38:

What about solar satellites? Presuming the invention/cost effective manufacture of a super-strong material that could focus large amounts of solar power into beams for receiving stations/furnaces on Earth...is this realistic? Or do I put it in the same boat as the beanstalk/jacob's ladder development - needs more advanced materials than we're able to produce.

What can we do now - with current technologies and theories? All very well talking about fusion....isn't that 20 years away? ;-).

Lots of guilty consciences here in Oz - given our power reliance on brown coal. Tasmania has almost complete reliance on renewable hydroelectricity (though at some cost to the Old Growth Forests and hinterlands). Carbon sequestration is a furphy, our own Carbon Tax is doomed by opposition from the three Ms (Mining, Manufacturing and Murdoch).

39:

@37 Disagree, Americans especially have made great progress on both those points...

40:

@36 do you have any links to this $300/kg from the oceans

Here are my reference
http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8111

There is a lot of disagreement in the comments about whether the sea water extraction is a practical way to produce large amounts of uranium

Regardless though, Thorium doesn't really seem that hard to get up and running, I'm leaning toward Nuclear + renewables as being the short term oil replacements

41:

... our own Carbon Tax is doomed by opposition from the three Ms (Mining, Manufacturing and Murdoch).

I've always wondered about this. I keep waiting for an Australian federal government to wake up one morning and ask themselves "what actually goes if the mining companies do as they threaten, pack up and leave?" and realising it doesn't actually change much. The minerals, which are the important bit here (after all, that's what the mining companies want to dig up, right?) will still remain in the ground, and they'll still be on (or rather, part of) Australian soil. So why the living heck are we wasting all this time kowtowing to the various mining companies in the first place? To be deadly honest, the Australian federal government could make every single large mining interest in the country quake in their boots just by doing one thing: refusing to offer any further mining leases, and starting a Federal Department of Minerals, Exploration and Development. Just the threat of the n-word (nationalisation) should be enough to make them change their tune (or at the very least, alter a few of the harmonies).

The Australian manufacturing sector has been in decline since the days of Menzies (and they're still hanging in there and regarding the Liberals as their Best Mates, Yeah!) and it's mostly been due to policies which have focussed largely on the primary production sectors. Basically, the Australian economy tends to focus on growing things and harvesting them, or digging them up out of the ground, and then shipping them overseas with very little actual refining and production done here. This is something which has been encouraged by the big multinationals who are in charge of a lot of the mining and manufacturing sector, who figure it's better for their (US) bottom line to dig up the iron ore here in Australia, ship it over to China for processing, and then buy the partially refined iron back in order to create things with it. Again, a federally funded, nationalised mining and refining industry could probably go a long way here toward easing the woes of the Australian manufacturing sector - if they could just get over their reflexive flinching at the sound of the word "nationalise".

As for the Murdoch press, I'm starting to think the ALP at least is seeing them for what they are: a bunch of bullies out to try and rig the game. I'd certainly nominate the Murdoch family corporate jet flying into a lump of cumulo-granite as a mini-eucatastrophe I'd be interested in seeing happen. If they happened to be entertaining the scions of the Packer and Fairfax families at the same time, I'm sure I could manage to keep the grief to decorous levels.

42:

Someone works out how to turn algal blooms and jellyfish into sought-after delicacies.

43:

@ 41
Jared Diamond's "Collapse" has, IIRC a chapter called: "Mining Australia"

As for Eucatastrophe, we can ahcieve a lot towards it if REAL progress is made towards dealing with GW/CO2 problems.
Which means getting large numbers of people to BELIEVE that there IS a problem, and it isn't a "GLOBAL COMMUNIST EUSSR CONSPIRACY"
Now there's an uphill task, especially since guvmints have screwed the pooch by using GW as a tax-raising exercise, and not actually doing something useful on the subject.
Oops, again.

44:

Cheap solar + cheap batteries + smart grid => Eucatastrophe

PVs drop in price by about 50% every two years, and batteries drop in price about 10% per year. This means that in a decade, the 100-mile-range Nissan Leaf of today could be a 300-mile range car, sufficient for most single-car households.

Cheap PVs will make electricity cheaper during the day than night, a huge boon for businesses and industrial plants. The smart grid will make charging free--plug car/house into the smart grid and provide some storage buffer when needed and we'll charge you up when needed.

Gas powered cars will be a relic only driven by enthusiasts (who will really enjoy the low gas prices).

China will probably take the lead on this, as they're the ones largely making solar/batteries cheaper, and they're willing to take risks because of the number of cars (esp. ones we would consider tiny and unsafe) which will be bought there.

CO2 levels will stabilize.

Jellyfish are already delicious.

45:

Andrew S. @ 44
What timescale do you put on this?
You appear to be sying "by 2020" is that correct?
is it realistic?
Educated opinions anyone?

46:

I think that by 2020 we are going to see a *massive* drop in PV pricing,to the point where cost of electricity is not determined by the PV panels themselves.

There is also a different paradigm compared to traditional generators. PV will be coming out of factories 24/7/365 - they won't just shut down when the market (apparently) saturates. It's not like one off hand crafted nuclear power stations, or even conventional coal fired. Right now installed PV is doubling every 2 years. 8 more doublings will equal the whole planetary electricity production capacity. Maybe someone can tell me why that won't happen?

47:

The analysis you link to is something I've known about for a long time. Here is a quote from Eric Drexler, who is not usually numbered among the techno-pessimists, doing the same analysis in somewhat more generic form in Engines of Creation (published in 1986):

"...was Malthus wrong?

Not fundamentally: he was wrong chiefly about timing and details. Growth on Earth does face limits, since Earth has limited room, whether for farming or anything else. Malthus failed to predict when limits would pinch us chiefly because he failed to anticipate breakthroughs in farm equipment, crop genetics, and fertilizers.

Some people now note that exponential growth will overrun the fixed stock of Earth's resources, a simpler argument than the one Malthus made. Though space technology will break this limit, it will not break all limits. Even if the universe were infinitely large, we still could not travel infinitely fast. The laws of nature will limit the rate of growth: Earth's life will spread no faster than light.

Steady expansion will open new resources at a rate that will increase as the frontier spreads deeper and wider into space. This will result not in linear growth, but in cubic growth. Yet Malthus was essentially right: exponential growth will outrun cubic growth as easily as it would linear. Calculations show that unchecked population growth, with or without long life, would overrun available resources in about one or two thousand years at most. Unlimited exponential growth remains a fantasy, even in space."

What this actually signifies to me is that, at some point, after having made us all fantastically wealthy by today's standards or after having allowed us to produce an astounding number of people (my preference is for the wealth), exponential growth will come to an end, preferably by gently sigmoiding off. Just because a trend is unsustainable over a millennium-long period of time does not make this an imminent problem. My problem with the article in your link is that Murphy implicitly suggests we treat this as an imminent problem ("Stop the Madness").

48:

24/7/365

What does that actually mean? I understand 24/7 as to mean 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but that doesn't work with 24/7/365.

(Yes, it's a niggle. Like being asked to give 110% effort.)

49:

This implies a kind of assumption: that order is good and chaos is bad. Entropy is an amoral force, and old order must be broken down in order to be replaced with new order (which may or may not be BETTER order). Pet peeve.

50:

No shutting down for Xmas.

51:

I agree, and I'll add some details. According to Alchemy of the Air something like 25% to 33% of people on the planet today, and probably quite a few more, are alive because of the industrial nitrogen fixation put enough nitrogen in the biosphere to support their bodies. Nitrogen fixation is an energy-intensive process, no matter what is doing it (this is why you don't want sugar cane with nodulated roots--it will fix less carbon).

Industrial nitrogen fixation was seen as the cure to a coming wave of global famine, back at the turn of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, it didn't cure famine entirely, but it did put many more people at risk if our fertilizer industry crashes due to, oh, energy shortages. Say.

This is where we've been playing games with Malthus, and the big problem is that if our complex system fails, many more people will die (Charlie's SFPD acronym).

In this light, the falling birth rates of the industrialized world are actually a good thing. We could use fewer people, especially if we can devote more resources to making them more multi-functional-- in the ecological sense, I mean. People who grow their own vegetables and write, for example.

Perhaps the best eucatastrophe that could happen is a controlled deflation. Fewer people, more efficient use of resources, the winding down of many systems of "progress" that have caused more trouble than good.

In one sense, this would be a descent into a new dark age. In another, it would be a eucatastrophe.

53:

I think Space Solar Power Satellites are a lot easier than that. They don't need fancy laser-to-ground transmitters. Well chosen microwave band transmitters are much nicer. You *do* end up needing large receiving antennas. It think about a mile in diameter was the figure I saw, but these are just radio antennas. (Think of radio telescopes.) And you already need to choose the wavelength so it isn't absorbed by water. Estimates that I've seen put the efficiency at over 90%. This kind of loss means that no one transmitter can handle that much power (it's hard to get rid of heat while in orbit). And you don't want them banging into each other, so form them into a train. Or even a square. (You'll need couplers to hold them in position, and a couple of ion-rockets to handle station-keeping.)

Notice that this has several advantages. For one, it would make a lousy weapon. And you can graze cows under the antenna. OTOH, you *do* need to design it for durability, as replacing it is quite expensive, and repair is likely to be worse.

I can't really claim that this would be an economically advantageous approach. It might be. It would certainly have lots of up-front costs, and then be dependent upon a long period of payback to justify itself.

54:

@heteromeles
No offence, but grow you own fokking vegetables.
It's something that's not fun to do, unlike programming, and there are well established precedents, where people who can't program sell fresh vegetables at these affairs called markets to people who have, like money.

Specialisation is key to effectivness, and mucking around in the dirt is for pigs and for farmers.

So no, forcing people to grow their own flipping vegetables is not effective.

Besides, vegetables aren't particularily tasty, nor are they critical for nutrition.

We could use fewer people
Yes, we could. With ongoing automatisation and improvements in robotics(didn't Foxconn say they'll buy 3 million robots?), sooner or later there will be too many unemployable people. There are only so many service jobs, and there's no way of making people smarter.

55:

There is no way to unwind current industrial civilization without a major crash.

It's upward or downward, there is no steady state. People like Kunstler are deluding themselves, if they are even that honest.

The problem with solar satellites is the ROI is not there if they are launched by conventional rockets. You need laser assist at least on the second stage

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7898

Promising, but unproven at the moment.

56:

Agreed, it's full throttle forward to some kind of "singularity" or it's collapse, I don't see any sane way to unwind modern civilization and reach a steady state. This seems to be how nature operates: by a series of apocalypses, forward leaps and equilibria -- the ideas of steady states or incremental progress to the stars are human fantasies. Technological civilization has its own agenda at this point, like a vast Darwinian machine that wants to put homo sapiens out of business permanently. Hardly anyone is addressing the problem of human obsolescence, but it's fast approaching and some kind of "New World Order" might be the least unpleasant solution.

Howard Bloom speaks of the "Lucifer Principle", which is somewhat like Eucatastrophe except it usually means that progress comes at a terrible price. It looks to me like we're going to start paying that price within our lifetimes.

57:

Or 24/7/52 + 1.25

But most people don't immediately think "52 weeks plus 1.25 days in the average year".

58:

To provide an antidote to the collapse mentality, I will offer the rapid spreading of knowledge mediated via the internet as a Eucatastrophe. The potential to uplift huge swathes of the population to some sort of educated level could have a huge positive impact. I see this as the apotheosis of what Clarke hoped back in the 1970's with the satellite business, especially bringing education to rural India. The internet can achieve this in a cheap, ubiquitous form.

It could be a great example of "Teach a man to fish...".

59:

In one sense, this would be a descent into a new dark age.

Could you sketch out what this scenario would look like?

60:

(Aside to Lanius) I grow as many of my own vegetables as I can, given that I have no yard. Just watered them. While they don't provide carbs, they do provide some useful vitamins. I like the taste, too.

Alex, I think the peak oil guys probably have this scenario worked out in gruesome detail, but as Gibson noted, the future's here, it's just unevenly distributed.

I'm thinking that what we currently see in Cuba and (to a lesser extent) Cleveland and Detroit will become the norm in more parts of the world, as vacant lots in cities spread, and are taken over for vegetable gardens. I'm not as familiar with Europe, but I'll bet there are cities all over Eastern Europe doing similar things.

I suspect that African-style repurposing technology will also spread throughout the world, possibly through imitation, possibly through emigration. The next wave of Scotty-style mechanics in Europe may come from the Sahel or Nigeria, and they can fix anything with a wrench, a torch, and a couple of large rocks. Maybe not a torch, either. Your grandkids may not trust a mechanic unless he's named Suleiman.

We'll probably see sailing ships come into vogue again, simply because the wind is free and schedules won't be so tight.

We'll probably also see carbon farming take off. That gets interesting, because if people go nuts on biochar, there's the possibility that they'll take enough carbon out of the atmosphere to put us on track for an ice age. Or not. Regardless, I think people will have more trees in their gardens, and instead of gas-powered barbeques, they'll use rocket stoves and bury the ashes. I'm also a fan of permaculture, which I suspect will go mainstream, at least in urban areas. Big Ag will fight it to the bitter end, of course.

The one thing I hope is that makers figure out how to make self-sufficient 3-D printers and similar technology, where they don't depend on an international supply chain to make their essential tools. If people can pull that off, we have a reasonable chance of making a livable future, even if the peak oil prophets are somewhat right.

I figure this is sort of like crash-landing a helicopter through autorotation. It won't be pretty, but if our great-grandkids walk away from it, that'll be good enough.

61:

That is going to require a significantly smaller population, especially in W. Europe. I would hope it looks more like KSR's "Pacific Edge" in California.

Such a world might have a lot of difficulty sustaining a high technology industry as the supply chains start to fail, creating a cascade of failures and technology retrenchment. That dark age might result in quite a deep fall.

62:

Agreed, it will require significantly smaller population. I'm personally hoping that we can get there through smaller families, more childless families, and people aging out, rather than widespread famine and plagues. Probably get both, though.

I know the devout Catholics have a different take on this issue, of course.

In crude ecological terms, I'm hoping we shift from an r species to a K species, where we stop growing rapidly and having surplus (and poorly educated)children, to a system were kids are expensive, so we invest in giving a few of them the best start they can get. As Cuba has demonstrated, health care doesn't have to go to hell when the economy shrinks, so it may be possible to do this with dignity.


63:

So I guess it all comes back to how many people do we need to maintain a high tech society, and how can we make this number smaller. Were there any conclusions on this from the previous discussion on this blog? If we can figure out the latter, it could be an eucatastrophe.

64:

Cuba is a poor country in a rich world. What would happen to Cuba if the rest of the world was as poor? Could they even get drugs, vaccines, basic surgical instruments? Cuba might degrade even further in such a world until it hit some bottom. Life expectancy might decline quite steeply, much as we have seen in post soviet Russia.

If healthcare fails, especially with treating infections, we may see a return to larger families to compensate for high childhood mortality rates. Imagine slipping back to late C19th, early C20th life. We may even see the return of epidemics culling populations. I suppose death by cholera might be better than starvation.

65:

As I said, the point in this scenario is for our descendents to walk away from the crash. While we can always imagine horrors, I'm not sure they're inevitable.

66:

Hmmm... Isn't it rather a poor world. Many of us live in a encapsulated enclave of wealth that the majority of the world couldn't imagine.

Whenever my friends get worked up over wealth distribution in the US. I point them to http://www.globalrichlist.com. Then ask is it fair that they are within the top 1% of the world richest; and, trust me, it doesn't take a lot of money to do that. ( relatively speaking of course)

As to the Eucatastrophe question. I don't believe that there is a tipping point or magic pill that will suddenly cause this. It will take hard work. Sweat and blood; but, we have the tools. Knowledge being the most important. Some people suggested the Internet. But, that is a tool to distribute knowledge. A very powerful and important tool.

Knowledge to recognize and stop corruption.
Knowledge to understand and sympathize with the needy.
Knowledge to plan and build our future.

The Internet has created an interesting analog to the hive mind. We share news and ideas at an incredible rate now. But, there are still problems.

The first being that only 30% of the people on the Earth have access to this hive mind.

The second is the tremendous amount of noise on the Internet that obscures true knowledge.

67:

Regarding catastrophe and eucatastrophe, I wonder if they are so easily distinguishable as we would like to think. Really huge changes actually could be considered as both at the same time. Consider for example the world wars, great catastrophes indeed but... Would we like to live in a world in which they didn't happen? After 1945 the world generally became a much better place to live in, the wars pretty much ended or dealt heavy blows to many old evils: hereditary autocracies, machismo, racism, colonialism, militarism, rigid class systems, etc., etc.

Perhaps it's a kind of ying-yang balance and you can't get a true eucatastrophe without some degree of catastrophe, and viceversa.

68:

The only requirement for global civilization to move onward and upward is cheap energy. I'm an optimist and believe that problem will be solved.

69:

#21 - since no-one else has attempted this...

I think the basic argument (from politicians and political journalists) is that lower percentages voting mean that fewer people care who governs them.

Personally, I think that even this apathy about who governs is a symptom of the problem rather than the actual problem. The actual problem is that the voters feel (and IMO with some justification, at least in England [Scotland and Wales have effective "4th forces]) that the parties the politicians represent are "more or less all more or less the same".

70:

A few other reasons for not voting:

1. It's not worth taking the time off from work, especially if you work more than eight hours/day and/or have children.

2. You are a recent immigrant, and come from a country where participating in politics is considered dangerous for ordinary people. In this case, I'm thinking of some Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants I know, who refuse to vote even though they are US citizens.

3. You've heard lots of stories about how the parties are the same, and you believe them. I'm pretty sure this has been used in disinformation campaigns to keep down the vote.

4. The political process isn't giving you exactly what you want, when you want it, so you decide that participating in it at all is for rubes. Or if you are a Tea Partyer, you go all nihilist and try to destroy the government from the inside.

5. You don't like any of the candidates or issues on your ballot.

I actually admire some of the politicians I've met (on the local level), because they regularly put up with more verbal abuse than I could tolerate, and yet they still try to help the people who are standing there calling them liars and crooks. It's not a job I'd want at all, which is why I vote in elections.

71:

1) Again UK experience - it takes 5 minutes not including travelling time, and the polls are open for 14 to 16 hours.
2) Fair enough; I'm at a loss as to what you can do about that though.
3) See my #69, para 3. Again, other nation's mileage may vary.
4) Isn't this a variation on 3?
5) This can actually make sense; there are have been a few local (city/county level) elections where I've declined to vote due to the lack of any candidates who were prepared to present their platform to voters they didn't know.

Para 2 (I've treated the rest as a numbered list). Likewise, subject to the note on point (5).

72:

re: 1)Here in the US, the polls are open for 13 hours (7 am-8 pm). However, the polls are near people's homes, and people I know commute about a half hour each way. Add in picking up the kids from work and taking care of them, and there's not a lot of time to vote.

The bigger issue, here in California, is that you actually have to read the damn ballot. California has this ingrained distrust of Sacramento politicians, and back in the 1920s, the made it easy to get referendums on the ballots. Because of this (ahem) brilliant solution, all sorts of crap turns up on the ballot every year. Sometimes it's phrased in a deliberately obfuscatory way, or there are competing measures on the same issue, and it takes several hours to sort through it all. I had to wean my partner off saying "Honey, just tell me how to vote. I don't want to read all that."

To me, the difference between 3 and 4 is apathy vs. ignorance. Apathy says it's not worth the trouble. Ignorance about the political process leads people to underestimate the time it takes to get things done, and also to underestimate the real complexity of the issues and parties involved.

I threw the Tea Partyers in on the ignorant side because of the current idiotic shutdown of the FAA (not to mention the debt deal that just landed on us). While things were a mess before the Tea Party showed up, repeating the mistakes of the 1920s and 1930s aren't going to make the US economy better. The only thing I agree with them on is shrinking the US military budget, and even then, I'll bet we differ on particulars.

73:

Ok, I can see why (1) is more of an issue in the US (particularly CA) than in the UK. I think we're generally in agreement apart from any national localisation issues.

74:

Ilya Prigogene's work on spontaneous order and disipating systems would seem to suggest that complex systems are just as likely to collapse upwards to higher states of order as they are to collapse downwards. Things might not be as simple as the thermodynamic model would suggest

75:

True, because technology can simplify complex tasks to the point where the apparently more complex system is rendered simpler overall.

76:

Administrative note

Lanius: this is your red card.

You are banned from this thread and further comments will be deleted. Cause: violation of the moderation policy (specifically, gross racism).

You can also consider yourself to be on notice on all other threads.

77:

Dammit - missed the comment.
This is like being back at school when the headmaster was warning us about some juicy crime that we missed. Naturally, I was always too good to be the subject of such a lecture, but I am improving with age...

78:

You missed it because it was rapidly unpublished by one of the moderators while I was asleep (I'm currently on PDT).

Lanius has been annoying me for some time -- he comes over as an authoritarian follower (pace Altermeyer) who has latched onto objectivism as an ideology -- but sliding into overt racism was the final straw. Oh, and the old IQ shibboleth.

79:

I don't think any kind of singularity is coming on the short timescales predicted by Vinge and Kurzweil (don't have any hope for symbolic AI...I think mind uploading will happen eventually if civilization doesn't collapse, and that may lead to a type of singularity as uploads could run much faster than the biological brains, but the problems of learning enough about biology and brain-mapping in order to produce a realistic simulation are pretty formidable). However, I do have more hope for another fantastic sci-fi possibility: the "post-scarcity economy" where virtually all physical labor is automated and the price of goods basically drops to that of the raw materials and energy needed to create them, so work becomes voluntary rather than a matter of necessity. Manufacturing and mining don't require anything close to humanlike intelligence, although some aspects require smarter robots than we have today. And my hope is that we could have a gradual transition to a post-scarcity economy, where the welfare state is gradually expanded, eventually leading to something like a guaranteed minimum income...an expanded welfare state may not seem like the direction we're going in now, but it does seem lately that western economies find it harder and harder to find jobs for most of the population, and there is also greater income inequality in the jobs that do exist, if these are long-term trends they could make alternatives to the "everyone needs to make their own living" paradigm more attractive. And there are at least some who argues that these trends are connected to increasing automation (though there are obviously other factors at work here too), see the articles here and here for example.

80:

Not as bad as the Graun where I got deleted for using the word "retard". "Cocksucking motherfucker" is no problem there however. [Feel free to delete me on account of foul language]

81:

I was once banned from a game where the main point is to shoot people in the face, for using the F word.

82:

Ditto, sort of.
I kept using the names of mass murderers for my character, including some obscure Nazis, but was finally banned for changing my name to "Mr T K Bastard"

83:

You do know that there are at least 2 projects to create neural simulations at the Human brain scale by 2020?

84:
I grow as many of my own vegetables as I can, given that I have no yard. Just watered them. While they don't provide carbs, they do provide some useful vitamins. I like the taste, too.

[snip]

I'm thinking that what we currently see in Cuba and (to a lesser extent) Cleveland and Detroit will become the norm in more parts of the world, as vacant lots in cities spread, and are taken over for vegetable gardens. I'm not as familiar with Europe, but I'll bet there are cities all over Eastern Europe doing similar things.

I see this sort of thing a lot about the terrible future where we'll all be growing our own produce and the oldsters will be regaling children with tales of buying peas already in a tin, in a market with doors that opened by themselves.

But this future never left us. We've been growing our own produce (for different values of produce) for I don't know how long. As have our neighbors. And if you watch 50-year-old movies, apparently even surbaban housewives did their own canning on a regular basis. Contrary to the breathless wheeze, it's really not all that bad. Admittedly, we couldn't live off what we grow. But isn't this exactly the same argument for solar cells? That it's not a replacement, but a supplement?

85:
I can't really claim that this would be an economically advantageous approach. It might be. It would certainly have lots of up-front costs, and then be dependent upon a long period of payback to justify itself.

Most of this conversation (solar power satellites) has been done to death already. But I'd like to focus on this bit. Why does something like a network of SPSs have to pay for itself? Throw in the usual factoid about airlines having yet to turn a profit over their entire history.

86:

True SoV: my mother canned a lot of things. That remark was aimed at Lanius, who apparently thought that growing your own vegetables was a sign of, um, something negative or other.

I don't think growing your own veggies is bad either. Not by a long shot. I more grumble about how current housing codes make it more difficult to do so.

We can get in a long argument about agriculture, but my understanding is that, once one sets artificial price supports aside, small farms are more efficient and more productive (food and money) per acre than giant industrial farms. Moreover, multi-cropping can be more productive (food and money) per acre than monoculture (these figures from the University of Wisconsin, a few years ago).

Therefore, on a purely pragmatic basis, I support small farms with diverse crops. Conversely, I realize that lobbying tends to drive farming the other way, towards giant monocultures, and subsidies support this style of industrial agriculture.

Additionally, there's the knowledge problem, in that small farmers have to take the time to learn their land to work out how to make a living there, while with a big farm and giant Ag companies supplying all the inputs, the knowledge is held within the company, and the farmer doesn't have to think or learn so much.

For some people, not learning is a good thing. For me, I think it's inefficient. Then again, I'm weird.

87:

There is nothing wrong with growing your own vegetables, but the set of societal collapse scenarios that this offers a benefit in is relatively limited.

you have to imagine a collapse scenario where neither the government nor roving bands of marauders are confiscating your food and possibly enslaving you, and where you are not being completely overrun by hungry refugees

I guess you can make the argument that it's better to be a live serf, but in almost any major collapse i can imagine, the warlords are the ones that end up on top not the farmers

Maybe something like "Dies the Fire" series..

88:

"You do know that there are at least 2 projects to create neural simulations at the Human brain scale by 2020?"

Yes, but my understanding is that these sorts of projects use very simplified simulated neurons, they don't attempt to simulate even a fraction of the different neurotransmitter molecules and probably miss other aspects as well like the growth of new synapses and the factors that determine when and where they grow. See this post by a neuroscientist for a pessimistic take on understanding individual neurons well enough to produce really accurate simulations of them anytime soon. And this is not to mention the problem of mapping out a real adult brain in great detail, as opposed to just having a simulation where the broad patterns of connectivity in and across different regions are similar to a generic adult brain.

89:

It doesn't have to pay for itself it just has to be more economical then competing forms, like solar power on the ground or wind. Otherwise, why do it?

90:

OTOH, a neuron or glial cell spends most of its time and energy staying alive. What these projects will do is determine how much of a brain needs to be emulated in order to get meaningful behaviour developing.

91:

Why does something like a network of SPSs have to pay for itself? Throw in the usual factoid about airlines having yet to turn a profit over their entire history.

Are you suggesting that they might or might not a proft (like airlines) or that they do not need to?

It might be possible to treat SPS's like a public infrastructure with payments/tolls to ensure no overuse. The profits are made by facilitating the rest of the economy. My concern is that there is potential for abuse (which system, who builds it, who controls it, etc) funded by the taxpayer. The profit signal is a useful check against what might look like a "command economy" approach, especially as it would "compete" against other, probably much cheaper, approaches to providing power.

92:

"might not a proft"

That should be:

"might not make a profit"

93:

There is no "profitable" for energy except at a point in time on the supply/demand curve

Since a good bit of energy usage is inelastic, as soon as the supply of cheap energy gets low enough, the price will increase to the point where supply becomes available.

The key concept of EROI (Energy Return on Investment). If you put more energy into a solution then you get out, it will never fly. As price of energy increase, EROI tend to dominate the price point discussions, the lower EROI solutions end up being the cheapest.

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3786

sorry to keep posting theoildrum links, I'm not in any way affiliated with them, it's just they do a good job defining these basic concepts

94:

I'm not saying that every molecular process related to metabolism and so forth would need to be simulated, but presumably most of the neurotransmitters would be relevant if we wanted to faithfully capture the behavior of the original brain? Also, you say "What these projects will do is determine how much of a brain needs to be emulated in order to get meaningful behaviour developing", but to what extent do these projects actually look for meaningful "behaviour", as opposed to just broadly realistic patterns of neural activation like brain waves? It seems to me that to test for behavior you'd want to actually hook a simulated brain up to some sort of simulated body with sensory organs and muscles that could move around in a simulated environment, but I don't think any of these projects attempt that. I'll believe mind uploading is just around the corner when I see basic developments like the ability to have a good simulation of an organism with a simple nervous system like an insect (or, say, a lobster), that actually exhibits all the observed behaviors of the real thing. I don't think lack of computing power is even an issue here, but it seems like we are nowhere near the understanding of the brain, and all the electrical and chemical signals it sends and receives from the rest of the body, that would be needed to do this.

95:
Why does something like a network of SPSs have to pay for itself? Throw in the usual factoid about airlines having yet to turn a profit over their entire history.
Are you suggesting that they might or might not a proft (like airlines) or that they do not need to?

Does the United States Postal Service have to "turn a profit"? Or the public roadways and highways? Insisting that projects must always and everytime "pay for themselves" seems to be a rather limiting frame.

It might be possible to treat SPS's like a public infrastructure with payments/tolls to ensure no overuse. The profits are made by facilitating the rest of the economy. My concern is that there is potential for abuse (which system, who builds it, who controls it, etc) funded by the taxpayer. The profit signal is a useful check against what might look like a "command economy" approach, especially as it would "compete" against other, probably much cheaper, approaches to providing power.

[sarcasm]You've convinced me Alex, since obviously there is no potential for abuse in the private sector, let alone abuse on the scale that only governments can dream of.[/sarcasm]

The other not insignificant point is that "private enterprise" couldn't even begin to do this on it's own, so brandishing that particular voodoo doll seems rather irrelevant.

Or were you implying a model where the hidebound, corrupt, inefficient government builds the network, then turns it over to private enterprise who of course will run it more "efficiently" ;-)

96:

So far as I know, I come from a very, very long line of craftsmen, teachers, and preachers. That's good enough evidence for me that it works as a strategy

Serfdom isn't necessarily the end point, although I'll grant that's an easy one to get scared about, if you prefer being paranoid about the future.

No, we've got feudal warlords right now, running the drug industry (and one could argue, most of the big ranches and latifundias in the western US).

Most of the drug lords last a few years. Most of the ranchers last (at most) a few generations. Based on this, I'd argue that the least survivable position is being a warlord or on the staff of one. In those cases, the best you can hope for is a glorious death, unless you are very, very lucky.

The peasants and campesinos endure. Moreover, if you follow the Mayan post-collapse strategy, smallholders are even harder to conquer than kingdoms, because even though you beat down one community, there's not one leader you can take out to conquer the whole system (as with the Azteca).

The best strategy of all in a collapse is to have a bunch of useful skills, so that someone's willing to make sure you stay fed. Everyone needs food and medical care (and entertainment), but not that many people need a punk with a gun.

97:
I'm not saying that every molecular process related to metabolism and so forth would need to be simulated, but presumably most of the neurotransmitters would be relevant if we wanted to faithfully capture the behavior of the original brain?

Maybe that's not true. But betting that way is much safer than the other common alternative: "All you need are a few dozen/hundred/thousand transistors to model a neuron in enough detail to get recognizable AI".

Notice that the level of claimed detail needed has been more or less monotonically increasing since the 1950's. A cynic would say that this trend matches advances in hardware and costs per byte. But that's not me :-)

98:

@96, It really depends on the extent of the collapse that you are planning for.

I kind of like this taxonomy

http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2008/02/five-stages-of-collapse.html

At some stages on this chart, say #1 and #2, some degree of self sufficiency will be very helpful. After that point, stage 3 and beyond, being in a rural area is actually a disadvantage as surviving central authority will general focus on maintaining population centers and may actually start to look very similar to marauders in areas where it no longer rules

Once the government collapses in your local area, and you can no longer count on it to protect yourself or your personal property, well at that point you should really be studying the mongol invasions of Europe, or of China, or or the warring states period of China, or the collapse of the roman empire, or the Arab invasions of Byzantium, or good chunks of modern Africa right this minute.

History has shown over and over again that the safest place to be after a major governmental collapse is in the center of a large, well armed, and mobile group of thugs.

The reasons you come from a long line of crafstmen, teachers and preachers is because there was a central authority that was military powerful enough to keep them safe.

They generally do great up until they kill off so much of the peasantry that they can no longer support themselves, at which time they get to be the last to die, or they settle down and become landed gentry

As a farmer you really don't have a lot of protection. The natural response is for the farming classes to band together and build fixed fortifications.

Even in ancient times this was problematic, since you cannot put your fields inside the town or the castle. Nowadays unless you postulate everyone forgetting about gunpowder, the only defense is to be able to beat them in the field or to become chattel. Beating them in the field is almost impossible, since you're military capabilities are limited to the population density that your farming can support and the enemy is not

99:

You can't answer a simple question without assuming a malicious agenda, can you.

Your riposte is teh US Postal Service. But that entity does have to cover it's costs. That is why it keeps raising it rates and is currently threatening to reduce service.

The public highway system is a good example. We pay for the system through various taxes and tolls (and there are some private toll roads too). The logic is clear however, it would be impractical (impossible?) to provide competing private roads for the same destinations and certainly less efficient than having a public monopoly.

In the case of municipal broadband, the argument is that they would provide a publicly funded competitor to the local provider, which is usually an effective monopoly. A public system would allow broader use too and be more inclusive. This might be important for participation in civic affairs.

However the SPS offers no logic for public funding. Competing power providers could easily undercut the cost of SPS power, so taxpayers would be paying unnecessarily high rates for the power. One could imagine people moving to areas outside the power region to avoid such high prices. If the system could offer cheaper power but needed public funding like roads, then that it OK. But that is not the case.

The corruption issue is not a public vs private one. It is about monopolies and cozy relationships between government and favored vendors. We need to be very careful about granting any sort of monopoly instead of encouraging competition.

So what is the rationale and model for such an SPS system?

100:
You can't answer a simple question without assuming a malicious agenda, can you.

I have no idea what you're talking about with this one. What sort of malicious motives do you think I'm subscribing to you?

101:

Please take a deep breath and think for a moment before using, or assuming, personal attacks.

102:

There are good estimates of how much processing power is needed eg by taking (say) the retina and working out how much CPU power is needed to match its capability. This does of course assume that the retina (and optic nerve) are typical in terms of processing capability with the rest of the brain.

103:
Your riposte is teh US Postal Service. But that entity does have to cover it's costs. That is why it keeps raising it rates and is currently threatening to reduce service.

I think I was fairly careful in my wording; I do not say that the U.S.P.S is not currently required to pay for itself. Are you seriously suggesting that this is always been the case? If so, I'll be happy to provide links and cites to show that isn't true.

The public highway system is a good example. We pay for the system through various taxes and tolls (and there are some private toll roads too). The logic is clear however, it would be impractical (impossible?) to provide competing private roads for the same destinations and certainly less efficient than having a public monopoly.

Uh, Alex? That's irrelevant. If public roads don't turn are profit and don't pay for themselves, but were constructed anyway, what's the point of saying (even assuming that it's true - which I can certainly grant for this particular conversational fork) that this is even more true for any sort of private enterprise?

104:
However the SPS offers no logic for public funding. Competing power providers could easily undercut the cost of SPS power, so taxpayers would be paying unnecessarily high rates for the power.

The logic is that competing power providers couldn't, er, provide at any cost. Say I have a hundred trillion bazillion dollars; can I use it purchase an extra century of life? No? Well how about a thousand zillion eleventy-trillion trillion dollars?

Let me add that what got me started on this was the grim meathook future where nuclear power is doable, but for a multitude of very good (i.e., very bad) reasons, hasn't a chance of being implemented on a large scale as a viable alternative to hydrocarbons. How ironic that a nation would put it's dollars - with the full approval of the public behind it, mind you - into a scheme that costs a hundred times as much per watt.

105:

Props to scentofviolets for "Grim meathook future" jwz will be proud (;

This is not complicated, might help to take the money and the post office out of it cause it's pure engineering.

You build something, it "costs" X in terms of resources and labor, and yields P in usable energy

If there is another option that yields 2P for the same X then this option is superior and should be pursued and you should under no circumstances ever build the first one.

Call E the component of X that is energy (E + labor + materials) = X

If E > P the whole exercise is stupid and you are probably distilling ethanol. You are losing energy on the operation. Keep your E (-:

No amount of taxpayer support makes an E > P case any better. This is like a road where the road is so bad you can drive faster off road then on it. It's a dumb road. Don't build it

There are also scenarios where depending on the cost of energy, the cheaper alternative becomes the more expensive as energy prices approach infinity

You might also start out with E >P but after you get better at it, P > E. That's called investment

This is essentially what EROI is meant to model

106:

No SPS is going to be built in the forseeable future simply because a handful of ball bearings lofted by NK, Iran etc could wipe out the entire system in hours at almost zero cost.

107:

Um, sigh: Unholyguy, history is typically written by people more interested in legitimating the rule of kings, than by, say, archeologists. Remember also that, unless you read Chinese, there's a historical record of only one of the two known dark ages, and generalizing from a sample of one is a problematic exercise.

According to the archeologists, places like the Mediterranean had a 300 year cycle of populations contracting into towns, then spreading out into the countryside. We're actually in a maximum contraction phase at the moment, as the greatest spread happened in the 19th Century.

The problem with being in an urban center these days is that almost everything is imported, including water, food, power, and technology. While you can't do much about the tech until local centers spring up, you need to be well away from a city to guarantee your food and water.

Some cities will be able to support small indigenous populations, but I don't think any can support the number of people living there now. However, if you partially depopulate many cities, you have the possibility of rehabilitating some premium farmland. This will, of course, take work.

108:

It's not quite that simple though. You don't know what X will be over a long horizon due to uncertainty. It may suddenly change (e.g. nationalization of ME Oil). Unanticipated external costs may become important.
Even if X becomes technically uncompetitive, you may still stick to producing as the economy requires it.

We certainly have the bizarre situation that US corn ethanol has an estimated E>P yet we maintain the ethanol mandate for political reasons.

109:

@107 I'm not saying that being in a urban center is the best place to be, those people will also be pretty much screwed. I'm saying being in the marauding horde is the best place to be, that until they burn out everyone else s basically going to be screwed. That all the back to the earth substance farmers will be heads on pikes, or slaves, if the thing you are trying to prepare for really comes down.

I have no idea where your "According to the archeologists" that does not fit any history I have ever heard of. Reference?

110:

@108 absolutely agree, you have no idea how all those variables will shift over time. Also they can shift based on consumption as well, a solution can either get more or less expensive the more it is drawn on. for instance even though we have been harvesting oil for a long time, and have gotten very sophisticated, it becomes more and more expensive in terms of EROI as the remaining sources become harder and harder to exploit

The point though, is that the government cannot turn an endothermic process into an exothermic one just by paying for it through tax dollars. There is an underlying engineering reality

111:

1. Use an absentee ballot.

3. A very recent election for governor in Maryland turned out to have two guys working for the Republican candidate sending automatic messages to people marked as Democrats, telling them that the Democrat had already won so they didn't need to go vote. It turned out the candidate wasn't involved, but the two guys are up for trial next month.

-----
Wow, pictures show Mars might have water!

112:

References: For the Mediterranean, try Rackham and Grove's Nature of Mediterranean Europe. For some record of the "First Dark Age," in Bronze-Age Europe, try the work of Kristian Kristiansen, such as Europe Before History and The Rise of Bronze-Age Society.

Note that these works include archeology, and The Nature of Mediterranean Europe is an incredibly good, evidence-based ecological history, and not environmentalist in the least. In fact, I recommend this latter work simply for their fairly pungent first chapter on the dangers of extrapolating ecological history from historical documents.

Kristiansen's work is primarily useful for his comments about the waves (plural) of nomads that have influenced European culture since the Scythians. His take on nomadism (you "marauding hordes") is that it's a real boom-bust lifestyle. It works great when conditions are good, but you lose everything quickly when conditions are bad (Somalia is a current example of this). Farming is more even, if less productive. Stable, prosperous societies in Europe managed to integrate them both, and the modern version is farming vs. ranching.

The irony in reading about bronze-age Europe is how very modern it feels. The Bronze Age traders traveled a great deal (Egypt traded with Afghanistan, the Hittites with Scandanavia, Phoenicians got tin from Cornwall, and gold came via the Scythians from the Gobi desert), but these long-distance trade networks fell apart at least once (the "Bronze Dark Age") and reformed along new lines. I suspect there are some general lessons there for us, about what happens to trades (in this case, bronze-making) when their supply lines die or dry up.

Bronze lent itself to international trade problems, because copper and tin rarely co-occur together. Bronze-smiths had to trade internationally to get the materials they needed. Iron is more readily available, which is ultimately why it replaced bronze, but our society, with its dependence on materials from all over the globe, has some similarities to the Bronze Age.

113:

Thank you for the references, sounds interesting

I am drawing a lot from Jarod Diamond's "Collapse" and Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies"

I would not say that post collapse refugee hordes are the same thing as tribal nomads like the Scythians, though they are both nomadic.

Tribal Nomads can generally feed themselves via a combination of herding and hunting, pillaging is more of an avocation for them.

Nomadic societies do occasionally turn into marauding hordes that are no longer self sufficient but completely dependent on pillaging other cultures for survival (Mongols come to mind), but Agrarian societies can also make this transition (Rome as an example)

The point I am trying to make is that if things get bad enough, to the point where people are actually starving to death, they are not just going to quietly starve while their next door neighbor tends his garden. It will get quite bloody. Packs have significant advantages over individuals

115:

Glad to help.

Come to think of it, that's another potential eucatastrophe: while I don't think the presence of iron precipitated the Bronze Dark Age, I suspect that if international trade collapses (most likely due to a combination of natural disasters and political/ industrial mistakes), we may well see the spread of technology based on local resources, somewhat like the predicted rise of nanotechnology. The spread of 3-D fabricators that can manufacture all of own parts will help this along. I'm not sure how one goes about making homebrew computers and batteries without lithium, but those seems to be the key missing pieces of technology at the moment. Perhaps ethanol powered micro-turbines in place of batteries?

116:

I canned before I got sick. Admittedly, I didn't grow the produce, but it was nice to have "fresh" things to use in the winter. My canning equipment was one of the things I gave away when I couldn't use it anymore, and for the first few years, the woman who received the equipment brought me some every year.

117:

Magnesium batteries?

118:

I've had a very productive allotment for 3+ years now!

( Anyone want any surplus courgettes? )

119:

What's happening to America is right out of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS, by Paul Kennedy. When it was printed it was a like a flash of light. Then the GOP started in saying that America was blessed by God and could not end like that. And the book just was dropped down the memory hole. But the facts stayed the same.
Our R/W says the Post Office is socialist and must be replaced by corporations on Wall St. Well they never did like old Ben Franklin who started it. It's run by the R/W that was packed into it. Bush's Head of the PO not only made it more useless. He contracted with Federal Express to put FX box's outside Post Offices and then cut back on the hours the PO was open. After only 6 months he went to work for FED X and got a big pile of cash.

120:

Regarding the apocalypse, or eucatastrophe - and the need for some sort of 'event' - whether that be a war, a revolution, famine or megadeath event. It may not be a Good Thing. Recent speculative fiction is replete with ideas - from Banks' "Against a Dark Background" (I like the idea of having to mine old rubbish tips for resources...) to Bacigalupi's "Wind-Up Girl" or "Shipbreaker", where the world has depleted easily accessible energy and has had to revert to a 'low energy' economy and technologies.

This makes coming back from some sort of disaster (or crunch, possibly a pre-condition for the eucatastrophe) harder - the easily accessible energy sources have all been utilised. These energy sources (gas, oil, coal) are necessary to the development (or recovery) of the high technology necessary to NOT need them. So we're in a bind. If you have a series of 'collapses' (ala the Moties in Niven and Pournelle's "The Mote in God's Eye"), each recovery takes longer and is more painful.

Perhaps Malthus becomes relevant, not so much relating to food production (though that is possible still in Asia/Africa) but in relation to resource exhaustion. Jared Diamond in Collapse discusses the rapid expansion that happens just before the ultimate collapse, when all resources are either fully utilised or exhausted. The "Golden Age" which presages collapse.

By the way Charlie, just finished reading Rule 34. Loved it - pretty full on, and you don't pull any punches - but great. Have recommended it to some police friends of mine...

121:

Looks like the Euro is going to implode some time in this year .......
How nice!

[ /sark ]

122:

(1) I'd not considered that, but you can use postal or proxy voting in the Uk too; you just have to set up the application in advance.

(3) We don't have the same concept of "registered supporter of $party". All our registration involves is having your name and address on a list of people entitled to vote. Our $party members are people who have actively chosen to give money to $party.
You couldn't do that in the UK anyway since we use paper ballots and count after the polls close, but if you could it would:_
A) Be an offence in itself under the Representation of the People Act.
B) Be a reason for a judicial review of the election in that $area (like you, voting areas vary with different types of election), with the probable result being a voiding of that election and a re-run.

123:

With sufficiently cheap energy there will be no resource depletion.

124:

A minor point: if you'd like to see from where Lanius comes from ideologically speaking, googling "Lanius Fallout" or "Caesar's Legion Fallout" should give you a fairly accurate impression, I think...

125:

Could happen, but 'resource exhaustion' is an elusive concept. For example, aluminium wasn't available until roughly 100 years ago (and it got cheap enough for everyday uses far later) and getting electricity from the Sun is a quite recent development.

127:

From that section: Aluminium has been produced in commercial quantities for just over 100 years

Given that qualification, I think Isidro is right. Certainly, it was available in the strict sense half a century earlier, but in such limited quantities that in today's sense it might as well not have existed at all.

128:

Re: voting. Yes, we do use absentee ballots. In California, the obnoxious sticking point is the reading the propositions. I've still stood in lines for several hours to vote, in various precincts.

To clarify on the strange voting rules of the US: When you sign up to vote, you get to vote. You can state which party you are affiliated with, so that you can vote in that party's primary. If you do not state a party affiliation, you didn't get to vote in their primaries. In districts that are strongly democratic or republican, the primary election is the one that matters, since the candidate who wins in the primary is overwhelmingly likely to win the general election.

Some reporters allege that this partisan lock on districts is to blame for the current paralysis in Washington. That's possible, but just as many districts were tied to one party in the last hundred years or so. Regardless, California (by proposition) passed an open primaries law, so we'll see what happens. If it gets more moderates into our state house, that would be a good thing.

129:

Ok, so if I've got this right, if I was registered in the US as a voter supporter of $party, I'd get to vote as to who was put forward as their candidate in an election, whereas in the UK, I have to actually be a member of $party.

130:
I canned before I got sick. Admittedly, I didn't grow the produce, but it was nice to have "fresh" things to use in the winter. My canning equipment was one of the things I gave away when I couldn't use it anymore, and for the first few years, the woman who received the equipment brought me some every year.

Ketchup-making day . . . mmmmmmm. Otoh, us poor little kids had terribly red and sore hand from peeling the skins off all those blanched tomatoes.

Probably a local thing, but - did the kids in your neck of the woods have stories about pressure cookers blowing up and either killing everyone in the kitchen or horribly maiming them for life?

131:

/facepalm

Wow. That blog you posted is a pristine example of a survivalist nutter. Everything, just freaking everything is pointing to an imminent collapse of the industrialized civilization...

132:

Para 1 - You mean you didn't skin tomatoes with a kitchen blowtorch!? ;-)

Para 2 - No such stories where I'm from, and my Mum's pressure cooker is 51 (it was a wedding present).

133:

(GRIN) This is why I value diversity in a culture: if society collapses, some group of lunatics will thrive. If society doesn't keeps mumbling along, some other group of lunatics will thrive. If it changes rapidly, another set of lunatics will thrive. And so on, and so on, and so on. Why do we all want people to agree with us? Society should hedge its bets. (/Grin)

134:

IIRC, Charlie has a bit in his online story Palimpsest about this. Seems that a couple of Time Patrol honkeys are shepherding a group of primitives through a gate to restart humanity after an extinction event. When the trainee suggests that the warrior dudes seem to be pretty low on the list of people you'd want to save the Senior Field Agent explains that he's right, they are a parasitic, worthless bunch. And in fact, they wouldn't last much longer than the hypercivilized trainee if he were dropped off on his own in the wilderness. They can't even make their own weapons, let alone their clothes, shoes, etc. Then he points to the group of pregnant women captured and raped by these nobs and says that there are your survival types, the ones they were went out to save as humanity's last best hope.

135:

"Wow. That blog you posted is a pristine example of a survivalist nutter. Everything, just freaking everything is pointing to an imminent collapse of the industrialized civilization..."

Oh yes he is an absolute nutball, I think going through the collapse of the soviet union must have permanently broken that guy

I'm not agreeing with his analysis or forecast, just think his 5 stages are a way to quantify what we mean we say "collapse of society". There are a lot of different degrees of collapse

136:

The fact that he is a total nutter about probabilities and causes of a collapse, makes me doubt his advice about surviving said collapse. Of course, many people are logical about one issue and nuts about other, but still...

137:

I'm not sure about those stages. Does he give some examples of collapses that happened in this order?

138:

My state has a open primaries law. My mom the ex-election judge saw people she knew (Republicans) voting in the Democrat primary. Do you think they were voting for the one most likly to beat the Republicans Candate?
The fact it that the worse thing that could happen, happens all most always in books or pols speeches. "If this goes on" never happens, thanks maybe to people saying if this goes on.

139:

It disgusts me how brazen our wealthy and corporations have bought our politicians in the United States.

On the other hand, corporations have to have some pragmatism. When policies actually hurt their bottom line (Wall Street prices), they may demand some policies to help our economy.

This isn't as bad as people whose political belief is about putting people in their place at any cost (most Tea Party members).

140:

No, but I've definitely heard of tomato particles dripping from the ceiling.

141:

My Revere kettle on the range was one of my mother's wedding presents from 1953, so 58 years. (My evil stepmother gave away/sold all our other Revere and bought cheap clad stuff. Our neighbor asked if she could borrow the kettle and the ESM said "keep it," which was apparently the neighbor's hope, so she could give it to me.)

142:

We also have open primaries, sometimes. The Delegates & Senators vote to agree which is better, and which party wins gets to decide if it's better for them to have open primaries or not. On the other hand, people like me who aren't registered to a party can vote in either primary, but only one primary, and I've done that, yes, to help the person I wanted to win.

143:

The Founding Fathers (know as the winning terrorists to you Brit's) hated corporations. They rightly saw them as things Sirs and Lords hid behind. They meant little till one state was paid off to let them be formed there. It was not till around 1870 that a judge that owned a railroad said they had the same rights a humans.
Even now most states have something left in there constitutions about how they must be run for the good of the people of that state. No body cares but... "corporations have to have some pragmatism." But the owners think about the money they have hid and how they need more. In Euros, in Switzerland till its save for them back here. If they ever want to come back to what they made?

144:

I will submit one eucatastrophe that's already been experienced by virtually every adult alive today — the Collapse and Fall of the Soviet Union. The fact that thermonuclear annihilation is no longer a common (if background) worry for just about every thinking being over the age of ten is something that we take for granted today, but it is a radically different mindset than that in which I matured. For reference, I was born in 1955, the same year as Stephen K. Z. Brust and Bill Gates.

Just about every near-future SF work written from 1945 through the late 1980s was put against this setting. (My favorite example of bad timing is Don Kingsbury’s novel The Moon Goddess and the Son, in which is possibility of an accidental nuclear war betwixt the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was a major plot point; published in hardback in December, 1986, and in paperback a year later, just in time for the end of the Cold War.)

We all know the Russians are still around, that they still own nuclear devices and the means of delivering them, and that they don’t particularly like the United States; but what they lack is the ideological drive to destroy us. While communism is also still around, it’s no longer the “Let’s conquer the west!” threat it was in the twentieth century. North Korea is a pathetic basket case threatening Seoul and Tokyo for food. Cuba is trying to figure out how it will survive the twin disasters of (1) Fidel dying, and (2) the U.S. dropping the sanctions and embargoes (which I suspect will quickly follow event (1)). China has reverted to what it has traditionally been for the last couple of thousand years: an authoritarian empire with a free-market-but-regulated economy.

The world we are in today is far from perfect, nowhere near Utopia, but it still beats a radioactive wasteland. The threat of terrorism is worrying and annoying, but manageable. I am much happier living, in the United States today, in a world where the other world powers want to humiliate and economically embarrass us, but not wipe us off the face of the earth.

145:

After the aberration of the 20th Century, history has resumed.

146:

The list of looming disasters should have mentioned the acidification of the oceans. Any solution to that will involve the energy infrastructure, so we do need an eucatastrophe in that area.

There are theoretically feasible improvements in solar cells that change things - say, an efficient organic one, to get the materials cost down. There are theoretically feasible improvements in oil algae, in Li-air and Li-S batteries, in graphene supercapacitors, in eliminating Fox News, yadda yadda. But none of those will get us to Mars the way a fusion/fission breakthrough would. So a breakthrough there would be nice.

I've always pinned my fusion hopes on lasers, so it was nice to see an article (Science 332,921) saying that fiber optic lasers were now up to 10 KW continuous. And, they're efficient and easy to cool, relative to the Livermore dinosaur. The article dangled the possibility of ganging them to the megawatt-plus level. And maybe pulsing them.

So my question is, how do we generate power with our breakthrough laser, without generating neutrons? Use them to drive wakefield accelerators and mumble mumble thorium ???

147:

@ 146
And how does one acquire one of these 10kW fibre-optic lasers?
What wavelengths incidentally?

148:

Oops.
My bad.
This Article shows off-the shelf 10kW fibre lasers.
Effectively this is already a death ray.
Scary stuff.

It would be absurdly easy to fit a servo-controlled small turret on almost any vehicle, with one or even two of these mounted up.

149:

"I'm not sure about those stages. Does he give some examples of collapses that happened in this order?"

I think he is basing most of his stuff on Soviet Union and Argentina. He also states that stages do not have to happen in a one after the other fashion

I'm open to other taxonomies though.

150:

Wow. I thought I was telling you about a lab device, and it turns out to already be for sale.

Powering a 23% efficient 10 KW laser would take, oh, 60 HP or so, not counting cooling. With Capstone's microturbines that almost goes in a backpack. The heck with the "tactical directed energy applications" that optoiq.com mentions, you could get into bank vaults ! Wear reflective clothing :-)

The Science article says "...makes coherent beam combination an extremely exciting possibility for extending the power further, perhaps to the megawatt regime.". Following the references on that into Optics Letters, i found:

http://www.opticsinfobase.org/ol/abstract.cfm?URI=ol-36-5-621

http://www.opticsinfobase.org/ol/abstract.cfm?uri=ol-36-14-2686

which means there really is some hope of ganging these together, both the continuous kind and the pulsed kind.

I repeat my question, though. What do we do with them that we aren't already planning to do with the older, less-exciting lasers ? "Just" get inertial fusion to work? Power fusion/fission hybrid plants?

151:

The Murdoch entertainment-propaganda complex, a major political nonstate actor operating globally for right-libertarian goals, appears to be in a state of crisis.

I would argue that its death would amount to a eucatastrophe.

152:

Apparently Murdoch is back to his normal self.

153:

Arrest etc of former NotW staff continue.

That said, with the organisation of News International, I'd not necessarily expect the NI board to know in detail the operating practices of every title the corporation publishes.

154:

Maybe every major corporation should issue a notice to its employees that breaking the law on behalf of the company will get you fired. I doubt whether NI every issued something like that.

155:

We in the UK have just had the experienced of watching our cities burn & be looted for 5 nights (6-10 August) there is plenty of media coverage & many theories, including the fact that 'Social' networking sites, therefore the internet, & mobile/cell phone IM systems can also be used to organise destruction as well as knowledge...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_England_riots

156:

San Francisco transit shut down wireless at some stations to stop demos and looting. It seemed to work. Larry Niven had flash mobs decades ago.

157:

That cuts both ways. We've had riots before (though not organised in this manner), but we haven't had a cleanup campaign organised on social networking sites.

Twitter and other public messaging systems were valuable for people trying to get out of the way of trouble - IIRC that the bad guys" were generally using less open systems such as BlackBerry Messenger and console-based IM systems, and acting under the false belief that such systems could not be monitored.

158:

There are are cell phone jammer for usE inside. If you use them out side the Feds will hate you. But if mobs are really useing wireless to set up, could the cops use them?

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