We, the people of this planet Earth, have come to a nexus point between two futures, and depending on how we deal with the current issues and crises that face us, we will either give to our children’s children a world of catastrophic collapse or a brave new world beyond anyone’s imaginings today. There is no middle ground in these two options, and I will try explain why I think that this is the troubling truth. Pessimists and smart gambling types would bet that we will collectively fail, since the odds of a para-utopia occurring in the future are not very good. Even so, it is a race between the exponential forces of technological development versus the age old dilemmas of destruction, the veritable Four Horses of the Apocalypse. Although in a less mythical and more scientific perspective, these five horses would be succinctly labeled as the principle causes for the collapse of civilizations. It has happened before and it could very likely happen again. The outcome of this titanic struggle is in our collective hands today, to shape a future full of brilliant promise or to forsake our progeny and banish them to a world bereft of civilization altogether.
How I came to believe in such a stark differential between possible futures is that I happened to stumble onto a book recently written by an archaeologist named Ian Morris, and that book is entitled “Why the West Rules - For Now.” The subtitle, though, really caught my attention and drew me to purchase it, and I spent a couple of weeks reading it in the month of August. The subtitle is “The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future.” You have to admit that such a subtitle is quite compelling, if indeed the book delivers what it promises to the erstwhile reader. And, indeed, it does satisfy and amaze the reader, even those who are critical academics and reviewers. They had a fair amount of praise for this bold and visionary work, and there were very few detractors.
My current opinion about the stark differences between two futures has been stated quite clearly and adroitly by Professor Morris in his book, so I will direct you to the picture and the paragraph of text at the top of this article. It is, by the way, a quotation from his book. I happened to see that image posted on someone’s Face Book page, and I must declare that it really lured me in to check out that book. I thought that it might answer some questions that I have been puzzling over, and indeed it did and more. Therefore, I highly recommend this book, and you can find it here on Amazon dot com (or your local book store).
You see, I have been befuddled the last couple of years by all of the doomsayers who have been predicting the immanent fall of our civilization, such as the writings of John Michael Greer (see The Archdruid Report). I don’t take what he has written at all lightly, and neither should any of my readers. His hypothesis, drawn from the opinions of a body of scholars and scientists, that we had achieved peak oil production in 2005 is a fact, and since that time there will be less and less oil being extracted from the earth. As the reserves of the more easily extracted oil dwindle, it will make the search and the associated expense for extracting fossil fuels that much more desperate and dear. In time all reserves will eventually fail. Thus, we will run out of oil sooner rather than later.
Sustainable methods of energy collection (as they are now known) can never fill the void of the glut of oil, gas and coal that has fueled our industrial revolution, and at the end of that epoch, we will certainly experience some kind of profound change. Mr. Greer is discounting that there will be any kind of technological breakthrough that might save our world, so according to him and others of his persuasion, we are in fact already witnessing a long and slow collapse of our current civilization, based as it is on fossil fuels. That is a fact, unless something else happens, maybe even something wonderful, magical, or even more terrifying than a collapse. Alternatives to Mr. Greer’s vision of the collapse of our civilization are actually not just wishful thinking as he has maintained.
I believe that it is disproportionately blind to totally discount technology when prognosticating about the future. Even more troubling is the fact that most soothsayers of the future, both positive and negative, have been proven in error to a lesser or greater degree. The problem with all of this projecting into the future is that there are too many variables to account for, and even something inconsequential today could have a profound effect tomorrow. Additionally, if we were in some kind of slow overall decline of civilization wouldn’t our vaunted scientific and technological progress also be slowing down? That is the question that I have been thinking about, since it seems just too simple and easy to declare that our current civilization, like all previous ones, will fall at some point. That we have passed the apogee of our ascent back in the 20th century and are now in decline should be apparent, but it’s just not that simple.
If anything, what seems to be occurring in our world today is that technological change and new discoveries are occurring at an even faster pace then ever before. It isn’t hard to speculate that if that pace continues unaltered or unaffected that it will open new horizons undreamed of by modern man, that is, if we don’t implode or succumb to the diseases that have brought down previous civilizations. We, as a world civilization, are unique because modern technology has completely saturated nearly every corner of our world. Therefore, a collapse would have to be a world transforming catastrophe in order to reduce the world back to a pre-industrial stage.
So, this is what has bothered me about the Peak Oil doomsayers, and finally, I have found a scholar and an author who has given me what I believe is the complete and balanced answer. As a civilization, we are in deep trouble facing nearly insurmountable crises, but we are also at the threshold of something absolutely incredible. There are two possible future paths, and if we can collectively respond to the challenges of the near term, then the greater challenges can be met with a technology that would seem to be like magic to us today. We are only talking about the next 50 years as this potential becomes revealed, or not. Thinking about the possibilities really takes my breath away for a moment, knowing that we are all living in the most interesting times for the entire history of humankind. I may live to see only the barest dawn of this brave new world, but the next generation (the aptly named “millennials”) will plot the course that will lead humanity to either perdition or revelation. The only question is whether or not we will have enough fossil fuels to get us to the next stage. That is the big question, that and whether we will collectively commit suicide due to the inherent greed and stupidity that is humanity’s lot.
This brings me to Ian Morris’ book “Why the West Rules - For Now.” In his book, Professor Morris lays down his basic premise of how to quantitatively measure levels of development at various intervals, from just before the last ice age to the present time, a period of 14,000 years. He has taken four categories and has carefully graded them for this very long interval. Early estimates are admittedly pretty rough (he has compared them to “chainsaw” sculptures) compared to later periods where more information is available. His four categories are energy capture and consumption, organizational capacity (literally the population of the largest cities), the capacity to make war and information technology. In addition, he has effectively shown that through most of this long interval, the West was favored over the East merely due to geography, the biology of plants and animals, and to a lesser extent, sociology. His basic idea is that all of the data that he has collected unequivocally shows that large groups of human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. (There is no basis for genetic or cultural superiority for either the dominance of the West or the East.) He also believes that the fundamental human nature is greedy, lazy and fearful. That people are just looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things, even though they rarely know the impact of what it is that they are doing.
Agricultural based civilizations are limited in how far they can advance within the four areas of developmental measurement mainly because of the physical limitations of their ability to collect and consume energy. If the collective amount of energy is limited to fire, wind, manpower, and animal power, then there is a hard ceiling to the level of development that can be achieved. The early agricultural civilizations had a ceiling of around 24 points, and this was only broken when regional areas developed centralized city-states that could acquire and organize the land, animals and people of ever larger geographic areas. Then a new ceiling for such empire development was pushed to around 43 points, which the Roman empire and the Song Dynasty (in China) were unable to break.
Held to a stasis of development, these empires over time underwent a certain degree of collapse fostered by the age old calamity that kills off all empires - climate change, disease and mass migrations, to name three of them. Yet the collapse in Mediterranean Europe was far more severe and lasted far longer than the collapse in China. This is also the period when the East began to outstrip the West in development, and it maintained this dominance for over a thousand years. The West took many centuries to recover from the collapse of the Roman Empire, and even then the East reigned supreme until the advent of the industrial revolution. What spurred China on past the 43 point ceiling during this period was the creation of a great canal that connected the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, allowing for an even more direct connection uniting the southern and northern kingdoms. This advancement was absent in the West until later in the Renaissance, when sail-powered ships began to forge the great western trade routes that opened up the Americas to conquest. Marginal states that had previously existed near the Atlantic ocean instead of the Mediterranean were favored by this monumental event.
Even so, empires have ascended into prominence and then experienced a collapse. What usually caused these empires to fail was a combination of catastrophic events, and these Morris called the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, or actually, five. These five horsemen were the collective effects of climate change, famine, disease, mass migration, and the resultant collapse of state government. Obviously, an empire or civilization that is lower on the development scale tends to be less resilient than one that is higher, but that is not always the case. It was a combination of all five that felled the Roman empire, but the Song dynasty was able to recover faster because there wasn’t as much chaos associated with mass migration.
The West and East became evenly matched just before the industrial revolution occurred, and there was only a slightly better chance that the West would outstrip the East if things continued based on an agricultural type of technology. Yet once the industrial revolution occurred in the West, and the whole basis of energy shifted dramatically to fossil fuels, beginning with wood and steam power, then proceeding to coal and then petroleum based fuels, the pace of change made a complete mockery of everything that had preceded it for five millennia. Starting in the 100 - 200 points area of development just before the industrial revolution, the Western level of development in just 250 years achieved the daunting and mind blowing level of 1,000 points by the year 2000 CE.
Professor Morris has plotted this curve of development, beginning in 12,000 BCE to the year 2000 CE, and that diagram shows the astonishing level of development that occurred, particularly starting in the 19th century. It is, in fact, an exponential curve and the pace of development since 2000 CE has not in any way slowed down or diminished. It has, in fact, steadily and exponentially increased and continues to do so today. If that exponential curve continues as it has since the 1800's, then according to Morris’s calculations, our level of development by 2103 will achieve a score of 5,000 points. So we will have progressed 4,000 points in just a mere 103 years. In terms of energy capture and consumption, Morris’ calculations show that each member of the burgeoning human race will be consuming something in the area of 1.3 million kilocalories per day! The largest cities could have an excess of 140 million inhabitants each.
The difference between a civilization at the level of development of 100 points and one operating at 1,000 points is quite dramatic, but think how dramatic the differences would be between our civilization now and one operating at 5,000 points! It is staggering and almost unbelievable, but not impossible. Morris has pointed out that there isn’t enough oil, gas, coal and uranium in the whole world to supply the power consumption that such a colossus of a civilization would require. However, there might very well be other sources of power that we either don’t know about yet or have only begun to investigate now. Certainly, if we learned to harness the full power of the Sun’s energy cascading and buffeting our planet every day or the radioactive furnace of the Earth’s core, there might be more than enough energy to fuel a juggernaut civilization registering at 5,000 points. There are many possibilities to consider, and the only factor is that we are seeing a limitation of time to fully exploit them. However, the amazing thing to consider is that the amount of time it takes from scientific discovery to engineering marvel has become a much shorter period as well, and it is likely that it will take even less time in the future.
Can this amazing revelation actually be our future? Will we change the complete nature of what it is to be human exiting in a technological world in a scant 100 years? Even if the pace slackens somewhat, the momentum may very well carry us to that brave new world even if things are slowing down, or for that matter, breaking down. We may find ourselves at the very edge of collapse when just enough technological advances have occurred simultaneously to rapidly change the entire world equation and transform the crises that we were facing into minor adjustments.
Technological advances create nearly as many problems as they fix, but progress is something tangible that can be measured in a scientific manner. By taking the long view, as Morris has done, it allows us to view history in a more powerful manner, realizing that the exponential curve of development kicked in many decades ago, and we are now moving at an irrepressible speed. Is it a fast streak to our destiny or to a catastrophic failure? Few can really predict the future accurately by examining the past, because we are already well within completely undiscovered country. An exponential ascending curve of growth can be followed by an exponential curve of decay, but such a downward curve in our present world situation would likely cause a cataclysm and wipe out most of humanity on the entire planet. This, too, would happen in a short span of time. If we fall, it won’t be a slow decline, it will be more like a world apocalypse.
Morris talks about a science fiction story that he read as a kid written by Isaac Azimov. The story is called “Nightfall,” which is about a planet that circles four stars and where true darkness is only experienced once every 5,000 years. The human inhabitants of that planet have gathered enough archaeological evidence to realize that every time it becomes true night on that planet, the world civilizations, such as they are, completely collapse in that short stygian interval. Morris likens our present predicament as to having to deal with all of the issues that might produce a planet wide Nightfall type of catastrophe. He also talks about Ray Kurzweil’s theory of the Singularity, which is an event where progress becomes truly exponential. He quotes Kurzweil as saying that a Singularity is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep.. that technology appears to be expanding at infinite speed.” That would be a good representation of what Morris has shown as one of our possible futures if development continues at the present pace.
If you consider the implications that there are a large number of scientific research efforts going on today in areas that are just in their infancy, and that any of them or all of them could radically change the world that we live in, then this represents a counter balance to the doomsayers. The scientific areas of quantum computing and artificial intelligence, computer to human interfaces, nano-technology, robotics, genetic manipulation, fusion energy, and the constant breakthroughs in the areas of sustainable energy capture and use, and many others that I have absolutely no clue are taking place, could reasonably change the world as we know it, and do so rapidly and thoroughly. I won’t even mention that the more critical scientific examination of the world’s problems are vastly underfunded and under-staffed because human governments have not yet seen their critical importance. A Manhattan Project style of a government funded and organized project formed to solve the fusion energy dilemma or any other major issue would produce results even more quickly than what is now occurring. I believe that we shouldn’t write off either technology or human ingenuity when attempting to project the future. There are many tricks up humanity’s sleeve, and the final card in this game hasn’t even yet been dealt, let alone played.
As an occultist, I have always been interested in looking into the far future to try to see what might be the fate of the human race long after I am dead. In my early years I used a number of techniques to assist me in seeing far into the future, as if to test my psychic abilities to the maximum degree. What I saw was both a utopia and a dystopia, and that double vision was some cause of concern. Later on I rationalized it as the fear of what the future might hold, and that such extremes were less likely to actually occur. Now, in the beginning of my autumn years, I believe that what I saw so many years ago during my youth was the true fork in the road for humanity’s future. There are in reality two potential futures, but only one will be the final outcome. The odds are probably against a positive outcome, and it is more likely that the future world will be a quixotic place where the few scant surviving members of the human race will live in a primitive paleolithic world surrounded by the massive ruins of a profligate advanced civilization whose mountainous debris will hide constant dangers, horrors and death for those brave (or stupid) enough to scavenge through them. I, for one, don’t subscribe to this scenario, and I have a better science fiction story to propose as a possible outcome for our future, and that would be Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End.”
You see, I am afflicted with a boundless optimism, and I believe, perhaps foolishly, that humanity will manage to reach the Singularity of the exponential developmental curve at the last hour possible. Humanity will wait until dire necessity forces them to make radical changes and adjustments, and then they will do so with an alarming speed and purpose. The many promising arenas of scientific and technological discovery will all collectively deliver the final push that humanity needs to achieve a miraculous and profound transformation of itself, its work and the planet at large. Humanity itself will be redefined and reformulated in a fashion that we couldn’t even begin to understand. We might even, at that moment, receive ambassadorial visitors from the far flung stars and galaxies who might assist us in making this final change. Certainly, when we become ourselves a star-faring people, we will find those who also made it to the Singularity.
History as we know and understand it at that moment will end, and technology will appear to be more like invisible magic rather than encased in material gadgetry. When I saw my vision of the utopian future so many years ago, what I saw was that the human race would split into two groups: those who would leave the Earth and be a star-faring populace and those few who would stay behind and steward the planet. The planetary stewards would labor over the centuries to remove all traces of the scars of the ascent of the human race and repopulate the planet with the countless organisms and creatures that were made extinct by human neglect and waste. In that time, there would be only a few small cities on the planet, and the rest of the world would be restored back to its original state, some million years before humanity even existed. Once their work was done, they would await the return of the star-faring race to take them to their final destiny.
And what, do you ask, would be that final destiny? Humanity would become something else entirely, and not at all human as we would define it, since there would be a complete fusion between human, machine, artificial intelligence, all supported by massive biological and genetic alterations that would astonish and maybe even repel us today. Humanity would become one massive sentient being of energy, completely unified in its multiplicity, since the container of consciousness itself would have become a repository for all of the diversity of the human spirit. Such a brave new world it would be, indeed, perhaps as frightening to us today as it is astonishing. Even so, I end this article with a prayer for the future. May our future progeny inherit both the planet restored and the vast and distant stars and galaxies, and all of this in the most constructive and peaceful manner possible. May we also end once and for all the reign of the five horses of the apocalypse and discover our transcendent future.