The Peristaltic Testator (peristaltor) wrote in talk_politics,
The Peristaltic Testator

Different Visions Of The Half-Full Glass

Quite by accident, I managed to hear two TED talks back to back that present two very different visions about what the future holds in store for us now. First, Ted Diamandis:

(The "Share" button wasn't being sharing, so here's a link instead.)

I do agree that our news media focuses on the bad news in order to grab our amygdalic attention; if you aren't sitting through the commercials, they aren't making money. And so, yes, we do have to focus on good news when possible. We need an uplifting occasional blink to clear the MEGO ("my eyes glaze over"). Kamen's water filter he mentions: a wonderful idea. Can't wait to see how they work.

But of all the improvements and lowered costs that he lists, only communications is still getting cheaper. The rest are all going back up in price and down in quality, some only as recently as a few years ago. Yes, we are at a cusp; but it's not going to be a kind cusp for many of us. We're on the way down.

Then again, we have Paul Gilding:

(Again with the link.)

The quote to take away from his talk is simple:

When we think about economic growth stopping, we go, "That's not possible," because economic growth is so essential to our society that is is rarely questioned. Although growth has certainly delivered many benefits, it is an idea so essential that we tend not to understand the possibility of it not being around.

Amidst psychologists, I believe, this would be called denial. Unbound optimism tinged with more than a little bit o' denial founded Diamandis's Singularity University where the future will only be brighter and we will probably never die. Only someone as deep in the grip of denial would expound over the terrawatts of power that hit the earth every 88 minutes, or the percentage of water on the planet, as if it were possible to harness or tap any of it in the near future and deliver either to where they are needed. Why? because moving either power or water require motive transport. You may have noticed that this is one area on which Mr. Diamandis was strangely silent. Without the motive transport infrastructure, it is pointless to dream about the things we'll move tomorrow.

There's a joke related to this from my former profession, operating boats: There's nothing more worthless than the depth of the water above the keel. In flying, the joke is similar: There's nothing more worthless than the runway behind you.

And here, perhaps Diamandis can offer some insight. Those Slingshot water filters will be needed (heck, they are now), but not to provide the abundance he sells like tract vacation homes in the swamplands. They will be needed to provide the bridge to our future. So will that cheap solar power and all the other shiny he says will soon greet us. Without these innovations, we will continue to consume our capital at an unsustainable rate.

Speaking of denial, more than a year ago Chris Martenson* noted that Egypt's political uprising was likely born of its resource dependence. Their population had risen just as their prime export, the one resource that fueled their expansion, was falling, causing stresses in the interdependent systems.

One day, a fruit and vegetable seller was arrested in Tunisia, sparking social unrest, and a few weeks later the government of Egypt was set to topple.

Such is the nature of complex, chaotic, and unpredictable systems. The stresses build for years and years, and nothing really seems to be happening, but then everything suddenly changes. Egypt is therefore emblematic of what we might expect in any complex system in which pressures are building, such as the US Treasury market.

Diamandis's most peaceful time to be alive would seem like a silly thing to mention to Egyptians during their political upheaval, or even today. It might have been worth noting a few years ago, though, simply because when times are good, times are good.

With abundant energy and food, we are treated to expansive and stable economies in which everyone stands a chance of gaining. Not that everyone will, mind you, but the possibility is there. In an energy-constrained world, what was formerly possible is no longer do-able, things don't work right, and there seem to be persistent shortages of everything from growth, to money, to food, to goodwill. What used to work doesn't. It is at these points that the prior stresses and imbalances are most likely to snap and suddenly change the world.

I like that he noted what should be obvious, that optimism is easy when expansion is possible. It is this past expansion that made Mr. Diamandis's philosophy possible, and the present and worsening future contraction that makes Mr. Gilder's pragmatism essential. We should also mark Mr. Gilder's point here:

You see, those people that have faith that humans can solve any problem, that technology is limitless, that markets can be a force for good, are in fact right. The only thing they're missing is that it takes a good crisis to get us going. When we feel fear and we fear loss we are capable of quite extraordinary things. . . .

We are smart, in fact, we really are quite amazing, but we do love a good crisis. And the good news, this one's a monster. (Laughter) Sure, if we get it wrong, we could face the end of this civilization, but if we get it right, it could be the beginning of civilization instead. And how cool would it be to tell your grandchildren that you were part of that?

*Martenson's Crash Course is essential viewing. Essential. No kidding. Sit down as soon as possible and take it in.
Tags: economy, energy
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