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2010-10-17

Ensuring the long-term survival of our civilization

The most profound goal of science has always been to guarantee our survival and to protect us from the unpredictability of nature. Back in the middle ages, if a farmer had one bad harvest, it often meant his death. The goal of feeding and protecting us has more or less been achieved. The problem is that we now need to change our focus, because the current focus is becoming outdated and even threatens our survival. We need to switch from a focus on consumption, production and work to a focus on moderation, recycling and meaningful lives. A different kind of innovation becomes important that is often only partially technological. The following are a few of the most pressing topics. A frequent theme is robustness in crisis.
  • Production: Everything we produce must be recyclable. We should slowly begin to only allow new products if they meet this criterion. In a few decades, we will run out of precious metals. We can thus either recycle or develop purely organic products (in which case recycling should be trivial).
  • Energy consumption: In the area of renewable energy, much work remains to be done. Even partially eco-friendly technologies such as solar cells consume much resources during production and are difficult to recycle. Nuclear energy, which some argue is good for the environment comes with the responsibility of managing the waste. And I currently don’t trust us with this responsibility. A promising trend is the decentralization of energy sources which will make the infrastructure more robust when faced with global crises. Lastly, energy consumption for transportation could be reduced if we built our cities more modularly: work, leisure, and food (see below) should all be available locally. That is, if they are close to us, there is no need for transportation.
  • Food: The following quote is a perfect description of the issues we are currently faced with.
    But I do think we’re heading for a vastly different food experience, in our lifetimes. I think the conventional food system — which is based on lots of cheap energy, lots of cheap labor, lots of available water, lots of soil erosion — is going to be a dead man walking 20 years from now. And that’s because the things it relies upon are not going to be available. [Dan Barber]
    Producing food locally will become paramount in the future. Otherwise, cities will become death traps whenever there is some kind of crisis such as an oil shortage or a global food shortage. For example, after World War II, German city dwellers traveled to the countryside to get food from farms. Since then, cities have grown tremendously. The trend of growing food in cities is called urban agriculture (which includes vertical farming). One inspiring example is Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee, MI.
  • Disease prevention: Quickly curing diseases is still far off, but there is a way to prevent global disasters. It is called “early detection, rapid response”. First, modern technology is used to monitor disease outbreaks. Quite surprisingly, internet searches are very helpful and social networks can by analyzed to predict how a disease spreads. Second, one has to take quick and often drastic measures to contain the disease. These two steps worked well against Smallpox:
    More than 500 million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century. Thirty years ago, two million lives a year were still being claimed. Yet in 1980, the disease was completely eradicated from the face of the planet. [Edge]
  • Knowledge preservation: With the increasing specialization of our society, knowledge becomes more fragile. Can knowledge be recorded so that it enables a group of non-specialists to rebuild our civilization, from scratch?
  • Resilience of society: Richard Sennett predicts that soon about 30% of the work force will be able to run the economy. Note that this is actually good news, because “running” means that the economy provides everything we need. On the other hand, we will need to fill the void left by the jobs. For many people that means being occupied with something meaningful. Maybe there will be actual life-long schools or universities. Furthermore, society’s inertia must be overcome if we are to make all necessary changes. This is difficult, because things are often so connected, that it is not a matter of individuals changing their minds. Examples of conventional thinking (that is difficult to break out of) are the lifestyle of living in the suburbs and working in the city and a fixation on economic growth in terms of money (and not in terms of quality of life). Inequalities within and across societies have to be minimized and the resulting common standard of living has to be sustainable.
  • Avoiding human-made disasters: Some weapons (especially chemical and biological ones) should not be developed, some research should not be done. Looking at the harm caused in Australia (rabbits, cane toads, ...) with very conventional means, one has to wonder how much in control we are of more sophisticated technologies.
  • Colonizing other planets: A long-term measure to ensure our survival. Arguably, we should clean up our (earth) act first, before we spread.
Update 2010-10-19: The WWF 2010 Living Planet Report mentions that humanity will need 2 earths by 2030 if the current trend of resource usage continues.

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