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06 October 2014

Dystopia and Natural Resources Crisis or Technological Utopia?

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With a view to generating debate, in this article we shall briefly contrast two schools of thought that describe contrary scenarios for the middle of the century: the pessimistic one, based on the exhaustion of resources, and the positive one, based on technological advancement and on the confidence that we shall come up with innovative solutions to deal with each one of the risks identified in the pessimist view.

Thesis: an attraction to the Apocalypse?

Homo sapiens sapiens, ‘the man who knows that he knows’, the living being who, in contrast to the rest, is conscious of himself and his destiny as an individual–inevitable death–acquired starting in the 18th century, thanks to the birth of archeology as a scientific discipline, a consciousness also of the finite character of the different societies that had flourished in various historical eras and areas. Echos from disappeared civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, America, and Asia were added to existing knowledge of ancient Rome and its cycle of birth, rise, and decadence. The immediate question was, will the same happen to our world, product of Illustration and the Industrial Revolution? In the same manner as romanticism inspired images set in ruins, post-apocalyptic films with storylines based on more or less realistic threats have been around as a distinct genre for decades.

Following 200 years of exponential progress it seems surreal to think of scenes of civilization’s collapse yet, since the 1972 publication of  The Limits of Growth, the report commissioned by the Club of Rome to MIT, we became conscious that the greatest threat for our world was not so much a nuclear disaster, a pandemic, or a meteorite, but rather our own exhaustion of the resources of the small planet we inhabit.

Since then prestigious academics such as Jared Diamond or studies financed by institutions such as NASA warn us of threats on humanity and its creation. All of these factors are actually interrelated:

  • Exhaustion of resources, primarily of energy. Many studies indicate that the sweet crude oil production peak was reached in 2005. Is the current crisis a reflection of this change of cycle? With petroleum ubiquitous (we do not only use it for transport and ambient temperature control but also for the synthesis of fertilizers and pesticides, or the manufacturing of numerous industrial materials), slight discrepancies between supply and demand have dramatic consequences in the entire productive and economic system. Although we have only 40 or 50 years of supply guaranteed to us at the current rate, the problem is not only that we have reached a glass ceiling that puts the future of our system in suspense. The main question, from a global perspective, is whether these reserves are sufficient to guarantee a peaceful transition to an alternative economy, a transition that will cost a lot of energy in itself, and is not being carried out at the appropriate speed. Also, petroleum is not the only finite resource that this depends upon. Another example is the fact that there isn’t a sufficient quantity of lithium in the world to substitute the fleet of over one billion vehicles in operation by electrical vehicles. To guarantee current levels of well-being in the Western world, we have the equivalent of about forty “petrol slaves” working for each one of us, maintaining the productive and logistical chain in motion. To share the remaining reserves with new members of the developed countries club–who have better capacity to pay for them than the indebted western world–is only feasible if, among other measures, we lower our own motoring indices to the levels of the 1930’s, when only the most privileged families had their own vehicle. Yet military conflicts associated to oil and gas seem to indicate that no-one is willing to give up their share.
  • Climate change. It would seem that the exhaustion of fossil fuels is a good news for those preoccupied with global warming, but this “hope” is diluted if we take into consideration that we will continue to suffer the consequences of past and current emissions for a long time after their occurrence, given the various scenarios of their effect on climate and the sea level increase that are repeatedly identified by the IPCC.
  • Over-population and difficulties in accessing basic goods, especially water and food, with the well-known consequence of the increase in geopolitical instability.
  • The deterioration of ecosystems and the irreversible loss of biodiversity caused by human activity has led to the naming of our era “the Anthropocene”, a geological era defined by the sixth great extinction, this time caused by humans, and whose consequences will continue to be felt in five million years.

Obviously there are numerous versions of this overarching thesis, from those that predict an abrupt collapse (see the Olduvai theory) to those that describe a controlled decline based in negative growth maintaining our prosperity to the essential but with much lower per capita consumption standards than current ones. The latter scenario is that assumed for the solutions presented in the 2012 revision of The limits of growth, or in the proposals made by authors such as Serge Latouche or Tim Jackson.

Antithesis: science as new faith?

In contrast to all the previous factors, positive-minded thinkers are seen as new believers, whose main hopes are the following:

  • Resources and energy: in addition to a critical evaluation of the calculations and estimates on available reserves, such as that offered by Bjørn Lomborg in his book “The Skeptical Ecologist”, detractors from the pessimistic thesis conclude that for each finite source of prosperity we have found in the past more efficient substitutes in a series of evolutionary breakthroughs facilitated by the laws of the market and the best technologies that constantly boost scientific innovation. The historical succession in the use of fuels (wood -> coal -> oil -> gas) is an example. Fracking, renewable energies, the storing of energies in hydrogen cells, or investment in new nuclear installations are technologies that, combined, can make us get over the petroleum peak without traumas.
  • Climate change: leaving aside negationists, those who are merely skeptical argue that current models assume very disparate scenarios, and that a great degree of uncertainty exists in the real balance between areas that global warming prejudices and those that it benefits. It is a question of adapting human crops and settlements to each circumstance.
  • Overpopulation is palliated by education and prosperity, and it is true that many of the main indicators in the struggle against extreme poverty that are included in the objectives for the millennium have improved. If the tendencies of including an increasing amount of countries to the developed world continues, exponential population increase will slow by itself.
  • The loss of biodiversity can be reversed given the progressive abandonment of the rural environment in countries with strong urbanization processes, and if the means are mobilized to create reserves. In any case, emphasis must be placed on the preservation of those species that are vital to human life, of an agricultural or livestock nature, or those that support human activity, such as pollinating species. Genetic engineering is the instrument that will help create productive species that are resistant and guarantee our sustainment with a minimal use of resources.

But in any case, the really race that we are in the last yards of is that whose end is the transcending of our human nature: the Singularity proposed by Ray Kurzweil. One this is reached we will have at our service the answers to any of our concerns, as artificial intelligence will be capable to design itself as much as to resolve questions such as the possible control of nuclear editfusion, or the synthesis of new resources substituting any element necessary for our well-being.

In sum, a wide range of opportunities for both hope and despair exists in the current situation, and to finish motivating dialog, nothing better than the following debate held in 2012 between Paul Gilding and Peter Diamandis in TED 2012.

Juan Murillo Arias

Responsible for urban analysis at BBVA Data & Analytics, Madrid (Spain)

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