Category Archives: The Future

Rogue Species

“Nothing will regret us.  Nothing will remember us.  It will be a clean wipeout, and every single molecule that constitutes part of a human being today will be working somewhere else for something else.”

Farley Mowat, in The Green Interview

Author Farley Mowat has long considered human beings a rogue species.  According to Mowat, we’ve overrun the planet, decimating one species after another along the way for our own commercial gain, and in the process we’ve done lethal damage to the natural systems which sustain us.  We’re headed for collapse, disappearance, if Mowat is to be believed, and we won’t be missed.

Scott Schrantz photo
Scott Schrantz photo

In an oddly related bit of news, the people of the southeastern British Columbia District of Invermere voted last week in overwhelming support of a deer cull in their part of the planet.  Of the 994 people who voted, 749 approved the use of culls to reduce populations of “urban deer.”

Deer are one of those species, like Canada geese, raccoons and rats, which have learned to adapt to, and then thrive in a human-altered landscape.  Humans are adept at eliminating animals like wolves and cougars from their immediate environs, and so deer are able to happily move in and benefit from a total lack of predators and plenty of human-maintained greenery.

This is certainly the case on Galiano, where wolves and cougars have been completely eradicated from the island, and, as every Galiano gardener can tell you, deer populations are such that no bit of greenery can be safely cultivated except behind a high protective fence.  “Concentration camp gardening” I like to call it.

The island deer population seems to build up over the course of a number of years, until what are essentially ‘plague conditions’ arise, and a significant portion of the populace dies off from disease.  Then the cycle begins again.

Is Mr. Mowat correct?  Are we headed for the same fate, collapse if not disappearance?  Has the level of carbon pollution in the atmosphere already reached a level where civilization as we’ve known it is soon going to be thrown into chaos, with millions upon millions suffering?  Can technology save us?

The future is notoriously difficult to predict.  Just a few years ago, in 2008, the notion of ‘peak oil’ seemed to suggest that economic, if not ecological downfall was rushing pell mell toward us, as demand for oil fast outpaced supply and the price for a barrel of oil reached $145 U.S.  Today, with increasing efficiency in automobiles and the advent of ‘fracking’ technology, the price of oil is under $95 a barrel.  This week Encana Corp, an energy company with assets of more than $14 billion, announced layoffs for 20% of its workforce.  As the great sage Yogi Berra once observed, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Whatever the future of the species, acting locally, and thinking globally would still seem to be the prudent thing to do.  There should be more than enough evidence out there of dire economic and ecological possibilities to convince even the most obdurate of us of at least that much.  Do what you can in your own backyard, and try to make decisions based upon the longer term, your grandchildren’s future, as opposed to your own.

Perhaps the best specific political reform that might be enacted (don’t get excited; it’s not on) would be to see politician’s elected to a single, five-year term.  Once in office said politician does what they believe is right, what they promised to do when running for office, without any concern whatsoever for the prospect of getting re-elected.  Long term thinking is enabled.

We live in precarious times.  And if collapse comes it will not necessarily be precipitous.  The fall of Rome, the advent of ‘the dark ages’ didn’t happen overnight.  Rather it was a slow decline, noticeable only over a longer term.

Do what you can.  Work hard, respect the earth, and your neighbours, and, whenever you can, try to act for the greater good, as opposed to your own particular, short term interests.  It’s pretty simple really, but it takes a clear head, calm nerves, and a check on our emotions, those emotions, born of our own stressful conditions, that cause us to resent, lash out, or otherwise act selfishly.

It isn’t easy.  But if we can consistently, calmly think the greater good, and act upon it, you never know, we might just make it.

 

Future Imperfect

“You’re welcome to Le Carre—he hasn’t got any future.”

—A publisher who rejected John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which would go on to be described by Publishers Weekly as “the best spy novel of all-time.”

file000152304352 When it comes to predicting the future, we all make mistakes.  As we age, we hope to make them slightly less often, but, let me assure you, we never entirely escape the incidence.  Some of us, however, are in positions of authority which make the dimensions of our prognosticating blunders truly spectacular.  Infamous examples abound, especially in the cultural realm…

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

—Harry Warner of Warner Brothers, dismissing the idea of ‘talkies’ in 1925.

“Guitar groups are on the way out… The Beatles have no future in show business.”

—Dick Rowe, Decca Recording executive, snubbing The Beatles in 1962.

So too in the realm of technological future-telling.  Tim Wu, in his highly entertaining The Master Switch, recounts how in 1877 Western Union [Telegraph] was the most powerful information corporation on the planet, exclusive owners of the only continent-wide communications network.  The Bell [Telephone] Company was at the time a new and struggling tech firm with few customers and even fewer investors.  Such was the financial duress felt by Bell that the company’s President offered Western Union all of Bell’s patents for $100,000.  William Orton, Western Union’s President, declined the offer.  A company memo circulated a year earlier summed up Western Union’s take on the admittedly primitive Bell technology: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

Lest you think that the pace of technical innovation was invariably slower in the 19th century, it should be noted that, less than a year later, Western Union recognized the error of that take, and embarked upon a furious development effort of its own, commissioning a promising young inventor named Thomas Edison to come up with a better phone.  The effort would prove strangely inopportune (proving that luck too always plays a part in determining the future), when, just as Bell launched a patent-infringement lawsuit, it was discovered that Jay Gould, Robber Baron King mentioned elsewhere on this blogsite, was secretly buying up shares of Western Union, in preparation for a hostile takeover.  Western Union was suddenly obliged to view its telephone dust-up as a “lesser skirmish, one it no longer had the luxury of fighting.”  The company settled out of court with Bell on less than favorable terms, and Bell soon re-emerged as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which would become the most successful communications company of the 20th century.

file1251307481611In a ‘look back’ article published earlier this year, U.S. News revisited its own predictive report from 1967 entitled, “The Wondrous World of 1990.”  The predictions made in the 1967 piece range from wide misses—a manned Mars landing, a cure for the common cold—to the remarkably prescient—a “checkless, cashless” economy, an “automated” (Google?) car.  (A blithe addendum notes how, if the driver of the robotic car does not accelerate as instructed, “the [computerized] roadway takes over control.”)

More broadly, two prophecies stand out for me in the 1967 article, two points central to the themes of this blog.  One is a miss; the other a palpable hit.  The miss discusses how, “Production and wealth will rise faster than population, so that incomes will climb steadily.”  This in turn will mean that the typical 1967 worker, who was then putting in about 2000 hours a year on the job, would, by 1990, see those hours drop to 1700 or less.  “The four-day week will arrive,” trumpets the article.

If only they had gotten that right.

The hit relates to, “Underlying the transformation to come is a quickening in the tempo of development out of scientific discoveries already made.”  One Dr. Richard G. Folsom, then President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is quoted: “The magnitude of change will expand, even explode.”

That much they did get right.