FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Big Crash

Most futurists take progress for granted. Even when they warn about problems in the offing, they believe that solutions are available and feasible. However, some scholars and researchers warn us that innovation and prosperity are not inevitable, and that, in fact, we may be lurching toward a dark age.

A leading proponent of this theory, physicist Jonathan Huebner of the Naval Air Warfare Center, has attempted to chart progress based on the rate of innovation. Huebner figures that the current rate of innovation -- seven important technological breakthroughs per billion people per year -- is the same as it was in 1600, and that the rate of innovation has been declining ever since it peaked in 1873.

Needless to say, the work of Huebner, Northwestern University management professor Ben Jones and others is controversial, with noted futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and K. Eric Drexler dismissing it out of hand. But such concerns are exacerbated by worries over pollution, energy shortages, a growing gap between rich and poor, religious backlashes and the threat to democracy posed by terrorism:

If Huebner and Jones are right... if innovation is the engine of economic progress — and almost everybody agrees it is — growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order — interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets — is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.
Is it really happening? Will progress grind to a halt? The long view of history gives conflicting evidence. Paul Ormerod, a London-based economist and author of the book Why Most Things Fail, is unsure. "I am in two minds about this. Biologists have abandoned the idea of progress — we just are where we are. But humanity is so far in advance of anything that has gone before that it seems to be a qualitative leap."

Ormerod believes that progress may occur in 200-year waves... and the wave we've been riding since the 18th century Enlightenment may be coming to an end. Instead of the utopian playground that's been promised us, our future may resemble the situation faced by Cuba in the 1990s -- survivable, if not very pretty:

The American trade embargo, combined with the collapse of Cuba's communist allies in eastern Europe, suddenly deprived the island of imports. Without oil, public transport shut down and TV broadcasts finished early in the evening to save power. Industrial farms needed fuel and spare parts, pesticides and fertiliser — none of which were available. Consequently, the average Cuban diet dropped from about 3,000 calories per day in 1989 to 1,900 calories four years later. In effect, Cubans were skipping a meal a day, every day, week after month after year. Of necessity, the country converted to sustainable farming techniques, replacing artificial fertiliser with ecological alternatives, rotating crops to keep soil rich, and using teams of oxen instead of tractors. There are still problems supplying meat and milk, but over time Cubans regained the equivalent of that missing meal. And ecologists hailed their achievement in creating the world's largest working model of largely sustainable agriculture, largely independent of oil.

Using Cuba as a model is problematic, as its communist dictatorship lacks a self-correcting free market. But hypothetically speaking, could a capitalist consumer culture accustomed to plenty adjust to such a change? If we can't count on technology to come to our rescue, we might have to. The result, though, would be a global upheaval unlike anything we have ever seen. Revolutions and a return to now-discredited political ideas as communism and fascism could sweep the globe, with the greatest pain being felt by the most prosperous nations.

Assuming such a crash is inevitable, it is imminent? Although some researchers believe the earth may have as little as 10 years of crude oil in the ground, that figure is subject to much debate (geologist Kenneth Deffeyes predicts that world oil production could peak as early as this month!). Many other factors would be at work in determine when and how badly the world economy would crash. It's possible that we may stave off the worst effects for another couple of generations... or rise to the challenge and embrace alternatives that would help us break the cycle.

RELATED: For a more optimistic assessment of the world, read this essay by David Shribman.

Sources: Times Online, AiKnowledge