Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Through a Glass, Darkly

What will the world be like in the near future? (I take this as the next 20-40 years). I find myself thinking on this more and more, mainly out of concern for my son. My outlook is pretty gloomy and I have occasional  twinges of guilt. The present seems a pretty bad time to be born into and will he be thanking me for it ultimately? Or has this always been the case? The author Christopher Cokinos in "Hope is the thing with feathers" reveals that he and his partner decided to abstain/refrain (?) from having children because of their shared pessimism of the future. Coming at the end of a book on vanished North American birds (the chapter on the destruction of the passenger pigeon is heart-breaking) and relentless habitat encroachment, this seemed an apposite stance to adopt.

Anyway, huddle closer, and lets take a glimpse in the crystal ball..........

1) The environment is screwed
'Fraid so folks. In spite the of the worldwide decline in fertility, sheer momentum is going to carry us to the 8-10 billion mark (at least). This puts pressure on land usage for agriculture, industry, lebensraum, etc... which is going to come at the expense of previously unutilised areas (read forests and wildlife habitats). It makes me extremely sad to think that my son (and if he repeats our "mistake", his offspring) will live in a world that will be drastically impoverished in its biodiversity and that there will no longer be any truly wild places on earth. The beasts, such of them that survive, will pad and roam their carefully demarcated zones and at the edges, like a grey smog, looms the sprawl of urban civilization.

2) The good life is over
Peak oil has probably passed. Barring the invention of game changers like nuclear fusion or room temperature super-conductivity, we will run into an energy crunch. What this means is that it will be impossible to maintain living standards for the still burgeoning global population at current levels. The pie has stopped expanding and there are ever more mouths at the table and we will just have to get used to thinner slices. The party's over and there's a heckuva lot of washing up to be done.

3) Science will not save us
This may seem like a funny thing for a scientist to say but in a way, its working scientists who are more aware of the limitations of technological fixes rather than policy makers. Aside from the aforementioned developments, (if they are ever achieved), there is unlikely to be any spectacular breakthroughs that will lift millions of lives up into the sunlit plains. The greatest improvements in modern life have been the result of simple common sense and civic organisation such as better hygiene, sanitation, nutrition and comprehensive vaccination programs (OK, developed through medical science but it would not have had any impact without governmental will to push through compulsory vaccination programs). In other words, low-tech but cheap and cost effective measures that were based on pre-existing technology.
In other words, wishing for some unanticipated technological deus ex machina to lift us out of our present predicament is a forlorn hope. For those of us who can afford it, we will keep on getting the latest toys and gizmos, and medical science will prolong our lives beyond any reasonable point of enjoyment. Possibly the best we could achieve is if suddenly every individual of child-bearing age decided to behave responsibly and limit themselves to 2 children per couple. I wouldn't hold my breath.

4) The West will decline while the East is rising
Frankly the West appears to have lost the will to live. Once you take that thought onboard, its astonishing to see how much more sense a lot of things start to make. First off, they're not replacing themselves. This is bad but could still be reversed within a generation. However the deeper malaise is a loss of faith in the core values and strengths of Western civilization. The most glaring symptom is PC and the uncritical acceptance that anything hailing from a foreign, (preferably 3rd world, pre-industrial revolution) culture is 'authentic' and 'life affirming'. This manifests as a deliberate turning away from the high culture of the West towards a feel-good pabulum of fuzzy, pre-technological, illogically emotional, wishful thinking. To take the long-view, Asian and the Mediterranean basin civilizations were always ahead until the spectacular achievements of Northern Europe over the last millennium. IQ-wise this global view is supported by the similar population means for IQ (NE Asians have a slight edge over whites but as IQ is an ill-defined marker one may disregard minor differences), suggesting that both groups have roughly similar capabilities. However once Northern Europe got its act together, the synergism between application of the scientific method, organisation of industry and research, and the various cultural and political changes ushered in by the Enlightenment quickly led to global dominance. Nevertheless, as over-arching as this dominance is (was?), this looks increasingly to be an aberration due to the chance  conjunction of favourable, but unrelated factors. Sadly the zeitgeist of the West appears to be a turning away from science, logic, and core values such as thrift, hard work and independence (i.e. the Protestant work ethic). On the other hand, Asians are more than eager to snap up the fruits of Western civilization. Science and technology courses are asian-dominated in the US leading to an informal cap on asian enrolment at prestigious institutions (Asian parents emphasise on, and are willing to spend huge sums on education, and will certainly look askance if their children express a preference for sociology, gender-, media-, Queer(!)- studies and the whole liberal arts shebang).
As the blogger Spengler noted, Asians love sending their kids to piano lessons not just out of snob value but also from the knowledge that it provides excellent training in rigour and discipline to complement normal academic education (our son has private piano lessons so I have no idea of the ethnic background of the other students). The state subsidised music schools in Basel offer didgeridoo lessons out of some misguided multi-culti aspiration to be "relevant", I predict rapping courses will be up next. This underlines one big difference between Asians and contemporary western culture. Asians are aspirational and this implies acceptance of a higher standard (heavyweight academic disciplines, classical music) to aspire to, while Westerners (i.e. whites) have been so  pussy-whipped by the PC, multi-culti brigade that they dare not express any preferences which may be (horror!) non-inclusive.
Taken together, i.e. precipitous decline in fertility (also true for East Asia but there's momentum for anther generation yet), and the willful spurning of all the best of their heritage, it seems a no-brainer that in coming decades, far from remaining ahead, the West will struggle to keep up with Asia. There's a huge pool of intelligent young people with excellent work habits coming up like a tsunami from the East. The result follows.

5) Culture will become increasingly debased
Pretty obvious from the late 1980s onwards. The perfection of techniques for advertising and mass-marketing coupled with computer searchable databases allows hard-selling to a target demographic with practically guaranteed results. While this was initially used to promote consumer products and pop culture (as throw-away a product like nappies), the potential for political campaigning was evident and was quickly latched-on to produce the current crop of career politicians whose horizons are limited solely to winning the next election (we often laugh in wildlife documentaries at insects locked into pre-programmed instinctive behaviour. For example, wasps clearing away a pebble blocking the entrance to the nest no matter how many times it is replaced by the presenter. It just doesn't 'get' the bigger picture and fly up to sting the annoying asshole. But think about it, don't we elect people with just as constricted a tunnel-vision as these 'dumb' insects?). Since success in these terms is denoted by the greatest sales/popularity, this leads to a race to the bottom for the lowest common denominator.
The results are all around us. Popular culture (mainstream music, Hollywood) is infantile, pornographic and an insult to anyone with a 3-digit IQ. Democracy is reduced to a popularity contest pandering to mob appeal. Everyone, everywhere has the same manufactured tastes. Attention spans have shrunk below the threshold where it gets trumped by the demand for instant gratification.

                                                 Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere

The Palantir clouds over.....the session is ended. 

In truth, exercises of this sort end up by revealing more about the seer, who winds up projecting his innermost fears and desires into his vision of the future. Stare too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares back into you, as Nietzsche said. So its pretty obvious that I'm a gloomy, pessimistic, cup-is-half-empty, curmudgeon. Any reason why not?


  1. "The good life is over". We are a long ways from such dire straights. Oil is relatively inelastic in the short term. In the intermediate term, there is tar sand oil and natural gas which promises to open a whole new supply. In the longer term, there are other means like space based solar power that could take over.

    "Science will not save us". again, there are things in the horizon that seems to be able to make a huge difference. Just understanding the different alleles and how they relate to physical/mental traits will provide enormous boon in selecting the best from next generation humans. Imagine a nano tech based assembly line that produces food and clothing. A steak or cake could be made from scratch elements. This is vastly more efficient, not to mention the potential to drastically reduce the need for farm land!

    "The West will decline while the East is rising". Agreed on relative terms. The West will probably find a way to renew itself some time in the future.

    One observation I have is the following: The Industrial revolution occurred for a couple of hundred or more years now, yet with the exception of the West and North East Asia, much of the rest of the world have not even managed to get to the living standard of the U.S. or England 50 or 100 years ago if any manufacturing were done by them. It is really not that hard, capital freely flows to any country where money could be made. knowledge to produce is freely available even on line in many cases. Thinking about this dims one's hope on how much progress the lower 50% of humanity will make in the future.

  2. "The environment is screwed" Again, things are not as bad as you might think. For countries that are developed, the environment is actually better today than they were, say, 100 years ago. For the few countries that are actually on a development path to first world status, like China, urbanization will free up large swarth of land that could be returned to nature as the Chinese have already done in some parts of the country. While things are poluted now, they will be cleaned up as the Chinese gets wealthier.

    "Culture will become increasingly debased". agreed.

    My advice is to have a couple of more kids. It is good for them and good for the world.

    I have two kids. The companionship they provide to each other is not replaceable. your kid(s) will have a good future. Even though there is a surplus of people today, people with drive, ambition, talent and good training are still in high demand. They will also be the ones that will save the world tomorrow as the rest don't count much in making a difference in the world. So please, do your part to help your kid and the world.

  3. Ah first commenter!!! :-) Cheers and thanks for the feedback. You're obviously more optimistic than me.

    Just a few quibbles, I meant peak oil is over, i.e. cheaply extractable hydrocarbons. While we will almost definitely turn to tar sands etc in desperation, this would result in prices staying above USD100 and possibly spiking even higher. As a result life will almost certainly get worse :-(

    Nanotechnology has been just "around the corner" for decades now. Eugenics is a dirty word and will have a mountain of prejudice to overcome. Even then, gene targeting or replacement technology is in its infancy. To insert or replace an allele in an embryo and get it to "take" in the right tissues is so hit-and-miss at the moment even in model organisms that it will be decades before it will be efficient and safe enough to try out on humans. In addition it will most likely be used first on metabolic disorders or predisposing oncogenes (i.e. simple monogenic disorders) for which a clear need is present. Genes for intelligence are likely to be a combination of alleles at multiple loci (kind of like getting a row of cherries lining up in a fruit machine to hit the genius jackpot) and the challenge of inserting/replacing multiple alleles at different loci increase the difficulty exponentially.

    I neglected to mention what may be the worst handicap the West is labouring under, namely the mountain of debt which is mainly held by eastern central banks. Unless it is cut back pretty soon, at some not very distant point, the compound interest on the debt will be crushing. My fear is that the only way this can be resolved is by sovereign default, hyperinflation or a major war-all extremely bleak prospects.

    Will the West bounce back? Only if there is a "West" at the end of the tunnel. Under the present tyranny of liberals who control the debate on immigration, you could end up with a fractured polity of unassimilated groups each cleaving to their own ethnic bases with no shared ideals or consensus. Seeing as immigration is highest from low-IQ groups this is likely to worsen the situation even more.

    Should I care? After all I'm an Asian who plans on going back to Asia. Nevertheless it pains me to see the hard won fruits of western civilization being laid waste through self-cupidity and usurpation by inferior alien cultures.

    Now I think I'll have a drink!

  4. "this would result in prices staying above USD100 and possibly spiking even higher. As a result life will almost certainly get worse :-("

    We are today at $80 -90 range, so how is oil price at a $100 different from today? BTW, the Canadian tar sand oil is profitable at $40, so conceivably we can dip back to $40 for a short while, though I don't see that coming.

    "Nanotechnology has been just "around the corner" for decades now"
    Well, many such technologies require multiple break throughs. Progress is not linear with time, but that is the way science works. You should know better than me on this front.

    "To insert or replace an allele in an embryo and get it to "take" "

    Don't think about this so narrowly. Supposed we know every conceivable allele related to a mental trait like intelligence, Zygote selection and implantation will, over a few generations, dramatically shift the bell curve for those that want to participate. The cost of this procedure is manageable for rich countries and maybe even mid income countries. How much would you pay to ensure that your off-spring has the upper hand? For many people, quite a lot.

    "namely the mountain of debt which is mainly held by eastern central banks"

    I think that this is a erroneous assertion that the Chinese held the balance of the American debt. It sounds good and it makes sense, but it is wrong. The American public hold more than half of all the U.S. debts. the rest is held by entities outside the U.S. The Europeans held a sustantial portion of this. The Chinese held about 4% of the U.S. debt, and they can't just unload this in a hurry without dire repercussion to them. Of course, deficit spending is not a good thing in the long run, but I suspect that the public will find a way out of this. It is a matter of political will.